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ISSN: 0974-892X


Jul 2015 - Jan 2016



Transcendental Essence in Samuel Beckett's Notion of Absurd

Mohammad Motiee and Ebrahim Sheikhzadeh

English Department, Tehran Markazi Branch, Islamic Azad University, Tehran, Iran

Perhaps the most telling meaning of the word ‘absurd’, found in Chris Baldick’s The Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms (OUP, 1990), is “a term derived from the Existentialism of Albert Camus, and is often applied to the modern sense of human purposelessness in a universe without meaning or value”.
In the modern world of twentieth century, after a vast exploration of different schools in both philosophy and literature, man finally found no reliability to clarify the meaningful side of his being in the world he inhabited. Among all former schools concerning this significance, Absurdity could be distinguished from others in respect to its profound assertion of remaining strange and indifferent to all between the world and I.
Following any philosophy relating to human mundane existence one would find no confident approach for obtaining whatever one desires as an eternal truth, for it cannot be embraced in dimensions of the world. In all literary absurd works of the most prominent figures like Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett, the characters remain alien toward cosmic complexities and paradoxes, by a hope to approach their real accommodation having the possibility to display the essence of their truth.
Absurdity, which found its origin in Albert Camus and flourished in Samuel Beckett, represents to us its peculiar distinguished exploration of the world. Beckett displays the nature of life deliberately when he wonders: “Where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on” (The Unnamable, 1965); hence, in the darkness unknowing, there is no definite beginning and end in life and if it starts somewhere, it is only in the form of a meaningless loop. In his masterpiece, Waiting for Godot, we have the end of the play exactly as we had it in the beginning. In Endgame, another play by him, the play starts with the word ‘Finished’.
Absurdity, as a prominent worldview of the twentieth century consists of a permanent conflict between self and the world; it negates life as a general term. By the emergence of the Existentialism of Kierkegaard, and its nourishing by Sartre, one is led to find some responses for the proof of his own existence. One should live his or her individual life to the end and ultimately one can gain its temporal satisfaction. On the other hand, Absurd worldview denies life and everything that comes from it. It denies all integral rules and conventions, which make life to be social. In fact, in Absurd outlook, there is no meaningful existence deserving any satisfaction.
Wrongly taken, some believe that Absurdity is a movement that advocates the hopelessness of Pessimism since it has solely a negative view of Nihilism. The present writing aims both to compare Absurdity with some other relevant schools and as well to represent the fundamental reality of Absurd outlook.
Existentialism, pondered as a philosophy of existence, found its origin in the religious view of Kierkegaard (1813-1855), and later Sartre (1905-1980) celebrated its ongoing in its diffused form. As a philosophy of ‘being’ and as it is evident by its exploration in ontology, Existentialism decays man in the predicament of a life possessing no reliable truth or meaning. By its prominent representation of ‘existence precedes essence’ and ‘man is condemned to be free’, it asserts that the initial presence of a man in the world enjoys an existence bearing no essence but merely a bare existence with imperative freedom in it.
In an unknown and ‘insecure’ world from which man found his contingent presence, he can trust in nothing. The only mandatory approach to make integration in existence and remain alive is to make choices for proceeding. Human beings are compelled, for the necessity of existence, to create more choices and accept responsibility out of them. This is the only way by which humans can have access to the existential being of their existence. Along with this doctrine, Existentialism emphasizes that a man should live in his solitude in order to guarantee his freedom and remain safe. Everyone should make his own choice individually and as well should strive to have the fewest encounters with the border of other’s freedom. As it can be extracted, Existentialism is a philosophy of ‘response’ and clue for meaningless existence of humanity in a meaningless world. It renders a way to live life fully in an individually responsible way by making authentic choices.
Although both the Existentialism and Absurd movements embrace their commitment in the same viewpoints of regarding the universe futile and also both share their doctrine in the misery of humanity’s situation, when they both detect a man in an abandoned world and aliened to his situation, they represent to us two disparate pavements of their contemplation.
As aforesaid, the emptiness in Existentialism lays on a moment where one endures no choices for his being. Due to existential freedom, the individual can guarantee his own being when he finds responsibility in his solitude; consequently, this view is a didactic philosophy that relieves the pain and suffering coming from the miserable and meaningless situations. It brings a way to be harmonized with the world in order to live conveniently and make life meaningful. By its philosophy of what to do and how to live, Existentialism embodies reconciliation but discord to life. However, Absurdity, after the approval of life’s meaninglessness, makes its character indifferent when the absurd hero finds the paradoxes of the universe both numerous and impenetrable for understanding.
Unlike Existentialism, Absurdity does not foster a target of mundane satisfaction in favor of being. The absurd character is entrapped to a detested attitude in the moment he detects a bleak impossibility to gain his transcendence. It is not the trivial life by which if he set some choices and follows some codes he could ultimately enjoy a kind of satisfaction in life. In the Absurd view, man is stuck in an everlasting exile and can never find his freedom, since numerous obstacles block the irrational universe. The only considerable approach to lessen the pain and nostalgia is being indifferent to whatever belongs to the universe. 
While Existentialism advocates the primary existence, Absurdity appreciates a reliable being without any walls to limit. The absurd hero has no tendency to put himself in the barriers of time and language. Time expression imprisons one in the frame of days and nights; likewise, there is no way to communicate with others because language not only transmits a fake and superficial meaning in communication between two or more disparately different individuals, but also is too grotesque if we imagine the language as a means to extract the meaning from the virtual self which has an extension out of barriers of the secular world.
Finally, as a dedication of this world, the detection of the real self by which an absurd hero can gain his transcendence, remains solely approachable and is left merely as a desire to be pierced in the mundane world.   
In the same way, Nihilism, a movement of ultimate negation, is often considered wrongly as the origin of Absurdity. Absurdity in its representation may resemble Nihilism; however, in its origin, it is thoroughly distinguishable. Nihilism made a revolutionary conviction, with its advent in the nineteenth century, when Friedrich Jacobi negated transcendental idealism as did Ivan Turgenev, who used ‘Nihilism’ to renounce all faith and truth in his novel Fathers and Sons (1862).
In Russia, with revolution in 1860, Nihilism practically prevailed to repudiate the authority of church, state and family. Then it was popularized with a universal definition of disagreement and opposition to all values that humanities stuck in from theology to secular ideology.
Nihilism is now often associated with extreme negation and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. This movement is associated with Friedrich Nietzsche who argued that its corrosive effects would eventually destroy all moral, religious, and metaphysical convictions and precipitate the greatest crisis in human history.
Nihilism contemplation lies on its detest to life, full of unbearable fanciful quests coming from a final truth. A Nihilist attempts to repudiate truth and all that is accompanied with it by a hope to come to a realization of the meaningless of being. This being is considered worthy for a Nihilist, for it is void of all obsessions that merely handicap the mind of a man who is on the path to probe his freedom. In short, meaninglessness for Nihilism is prerequisite and vital, since this scope is void of all bulky mental barriers occupied in the mind and descried in the human’s life. All of these barriers originated in the mind from a relative truth, which was reinforced mostly from one’s ancestors and gradually prevailed in the mind as a belief. In Nihilism this belief in any form is not trustworthy and needs to be eliminated from the mind. This is a doctrine by which Nihilism strengthened and was known as a reliable philosophy for its exponents.
In a distinguishing focus to Absurdity, while truth in Nihilism is hostile for humans and should be demolished, in the Absurd view of the world it is pitifully meaningless, for there can not be a prevailing truth in a human’s life by a power stronger than human’s and if there is a truth, it can not be displayed in the world. Consequently, because the world, with its trivial and finite dimension, is not ready for transcendental truth, the problem between the self and the world will never result to an end.   
In view of its contradiction and paradox to whatever exists, nihilism strives to pursue an anti-belief, along with finding value in anti-value or nothingness. It tries to characterize a postmodern man, a dehumanized nonconformist, alienated angry man with a corrosive potentiality to destroy all foundations for the sake of an arrogant self’s freedom. In order to threaten the stable authority of everything in the world baseless, Nihilism frames an outlook to impute everything in the world meaningless, nothingness and non-deserving. Nihilism is a double-edged sword for an expanded triumph of a revolution in life. It advocates a destructive damage of everything by being ready to die and kill anyone who opposes.
Nihilism and Absurd viewpoints both share in their consensus ideas of meaninglessness and nothingness in the world, as well as their pervasive rejection of all values; in contrast, they have their discriminated integral ongoing in meaninglessness.
Due to the aforesaid, Nihilism believes in the lack of loyalties, a corrosive power to destroy, a temptation to expand a negative impulse to every value and make a value of freedom in a bare mind empty of any meaningless value. Yet, the Absurdity’s clinging to meaninglessness of the world doesn’t extract any revolutionary quarrel for imperative freedom. There is no prerequisite to explore either value or anti-value in favor of a convenient life. The Absurd worldview, instead, embodies the futility of the universe and its integral fragment of life in it. It also denotes that all values and anti-values are an indivisible part of life, which are represented solely in different forms, and therefore are equally meaningless.
Nihilism is a movement that necessitates destruction against this or that; it is about accepting what is working; and by relying on this framework in its peculiar manifestation, it strives to generate a life style of efficacy for its followers. While a nihilist annihilates external spirit and advocates materialism as well as rationalism, absurd character imputes both secular and useless conventions.
Moreover, in the matter of belief in God, a nihilist person denounces God, but the absurd person believes it as an unsolved mystery in the universe when his superficial explorations are left unanswered in the restrictions of the world. Nihilism has its roots in metaphysical collapse resulting in a profound hatred, destructive repudiation, calculable violence and finally suicide and slay (in the late 19th century, a nihilist was one who advocated terrorism and assassination); on the other hand, Absurdity’s metaphysical anguish has its advent in the impossibility of a confident reliability to represent such anguish. When suffering and pain vastly outnumber pleasure in life and ultimate happiness is merely fanciful, the nihilist advocates suicide; however in Absurdity, happiness and sadness comprise equally cosmic feelings in a stream of transient changes.
Pessimism is also a thought of an exclusively negative stance that inevitably leads to resignation or despair. Even when Pessimism looks like utter truth, we are told that it makes the worst of a bad situation. However, the goal of a true pessimist and the account of Pessimism are not to depress us but to enlighten us about our condition and as well to fortify us for life in a disordered and disappointed universe.
Perhaps the most telling symptom of Pessimism relates with an account for the presence of metaphysical evil causing the creation of finite existence. Suffering, pain and sin, which are driven from the deceptive evil, are inalienable in the existence of human beings.
Along with the idea of Schopenhauer, who rendered Pessimism as a system, evil is strongly pervasive in life. He contends that human existence is comprised of will objectification, which results in a representation of all efforts, desires and aspirations in life. Will objectification, with its result of desires, has its integral desolation of pain and suffering when the result remains unfulfilled. Following Plato’s outlook that believes in ‘pleasure as the absence of pain’, Pessimism imputes pleasure as an exception in a human’s life.
In the Pessimist movement, the unattainable happiness, which results from unfulfilled desires, compels one to a dominating delusion in life; consequently, in the anarchy of this delusion, they are stuck in the futility of cosmic hope and meaning. The Pessimist regards life as meaningless because one is pitifully unsatisfied in trivial happiness.
In the pessimistic philosophical system, the unconscious is considered as the foundation of reality. When one becomes conscious of the necessity of evil in life, in order to induce him to continue living, the unconscious leads him to pursue a reliable happiness. The delusion of this kind of desire presents itself in three stages: childhood, youth and manhood. Successfully, in the first stage, happiness is considered attainable in the present life; in the second it is transferred to a transcendental future beyond the grave, and in the third (the present day), it is looked forward to as the future result of human progress. Pessimism happens at the time of being conscious about all these three stages, as they are all delusive. A necessary consequence of suicide welcomes man in the discovery of the futility of all hopes. This is the moment one desires nothing but unconsciousness and so will cease to will. Only by this possibility can a pessimist secure his freedom and happiness and be confident in it. 
It seems that the evil and disillusionment of unfulfilled desires play a role of anti-value in pessimist view. However, in the Absurd view happiness rarely plays as a target. Pessimist doctrine contends that all unattainable pleasures, aspirations and efforts for satisfaction in life are driven from the enlightenment of the conscious mind for the construction of a better future life in the world. In contrast, Absurd doctrine never trusts in the enlightenment and consciousness since an absurd character regards them both cosmic and futile.
There is no happiness because, according to Absurdity, both happiness and sadness are made of a changeable mood in secular life; as well all are transient and not confident to be relied upon. There is no pleasure, not because of unfulfilled desires, which are solely ego-driven quests of affairs around us, but in vaster view because of life itself. In the restriction and dimension of the world, we can trust in neither consciousness nor enlightenment.
After all consideration to some revolutionary philosophies of thought, we can find the real concept of Beckett's notion of Absurd in different approach. Indian cognition of self is named ‘Atman’, that is ‘soul’ or transcendental self. Atman bears no change but an everlasting essence of transcendence. The prerequisite of this virtue is pervasive in trend of Indian Metaphysics. Buddhism, apart from some Indian philosophies, advocates the existence of a permanent changeability in all concepts of ‘substantial self’. It denotes that the eternal self is ulterior in the realm of human ignorance, for its cognition is accompanied with impermanence of all experiences derived from a constantly changing existence. Everything comes in being and nothing lasts as well. We are stuck in the cocoon of all permanent changing. It is like we see a mirage of a real life; then we proceed to attain it by pursuing elusive pleasures and cosmic satisfactions.
Like the Absurd worldview, that undertakes the meaninglessness of the world full of indivisible changes, mysticism, like Indian Buddhism, in its origin, highlights the absurdity of all satisfactions. A mystic believes that all satisfactions in different forms are not only earthy and transient but also handicap one at the time when the individual attempts to attain the 'spiritual essence', the 'authentic self' or Atman.
As it is evident in Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus as well as in other absurd works, the condition of Sisyphus represents to us a perpetual futility of human affairs to live in a desire to live. In The Outsider, the other absurd novel by Camus, we can see Meursault as an absurd hero who is represented to us as a mystic in the beginning of his behaves. He is simply unfamiliar with the rituals of life and merely dedicates his life to ponder on himself. He is a purged one who is affected by no desire of the world during his life. If we see he has a tendency to live at the end of the novel, it is because he finds a termination of his chance in the present situation.
Whatever after, death cannot assure him the ‘self recognition’, hence when he confronts the mysterious death he prefers living, since it has an opportunity for his privacy to gain his self-awareness.
Self-consciousness in Absurd characters brings them knowledge of finding themselves in the prison of the world with the crime of life, which in itself has an outcome of meaninglessness. As we find in The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus, some of us know about the tragedy of our life when we are conscious of the extent of our own misery; that is in fact the misery, which comes from the moment of decent. When Sisyphus is passionate to live his life, he is aware of losing the stone again and again.
Nothing can bring us everlasting happiness, but only transient one that bears no stability; the same is sadness and other feelings. This is the self-consciousness that has an outcome of nothingness as Beckett declares: “Nothing is more real that Nothing” (Malone Dies, 1965). The chance of being aware of nothingness in life opens a new intuition of one’s identity and situation that he/she lives in.
Some may think that the absurd individuals are secular since it seems they can do nothing worthy, but as it was said in the present writing, although they are doing and thinking absurd in the framework of mundane life, the origin of their views and thoughts is rooted in the transcendental era. This era is free from all conventions, dimensions and barriers of the world in which all absurd characters try to escape from and represents them to us ridiculous in their literary manifest. That is the reason why Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for a Godlike figure to carry them in the world different. That is why Meursault is motionless to all secular rituals like marriage, the death of his mother and even the killing of an Arab. Hamm and Clov, two absurd characters of Endgame, a play by Beckett, mock the secular relationship when they don’t show us their definite relationship. While Clov is Hamm’s servant, Hamm names himself his father. Hamm is a red man but his parents are white.
This dominating transcendental domain that prevails in a mystic’s pattern and is unattainable in the absurd world prompts one to discard life of this world and tempts us to read the absurd literary piece eagerly.
In the world with restriction and dimension there is no possibility to clarify the mysteries of the transcendental world. Due to this fact, absurd characters never talk about this world since it is meaningless to speak about it. Death is the only way to leap and get rid of this secular world but like other things, there can be no sentence to clarify death, whether we should be afraid of it or plead to it for satisfaction.
Even God or Gods are scorned in the Absurd worldview since if they can be defined in words or can be displayed in the meaninglessness of the world, they deserve nothing. That is why when we see God in absurd works, it has a vague representation. In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Godot who cannot be represented in the dimension of the world. Godot never comes but he is always present. He orders, has his message and so on but he never comes since the world has no opportunity for his presence.
As a short outcome of this present writing, it was not aimed to represent Absurd’s axiomatic truth equal to mysticism’s, but the point they share is their viewpoints to commence. The Absurd symptom of being indifferent to the world and its bleak renunciation of whatever comes from the world is because its hero, like a mystic, is cognizant of his mundane dwelling and also his deprivation from transcendence. However, unlike a mystic, although he desires to obtain his metaphysical essence of Atman; he never detects any way. Therefore, this transcendental realm remains only approachable but not attainable for him.
Consequently, we can say that in the Absurd viewpoint of Samuel Beckett, a life full of rituals is meaningless and purposeless. In the frame of time, everything has the form of repetition, which comes to us from our ancestors; likewise, there is no piece of hope that could trigger a person to have a forward step toward an optimist future.
Along with all these negations inherent in absurdity, some questions can be explored for better perception of this prominent worldview: Why life and its aspects are meaningless in the Absurd worldview? What does make the character of Absurd theatre or novel pessimistic and motionless toward life? Are the absurd characters looking for something worthy in a literary piece, which could make that literary piece worthy for reading or watching? 
One may learn nothing worthy and dynamic from an Absurd literary piece in the first glimpse, since it is about hopelessness and negative points in life. One may take it as a pessimistic or nihilistic outlook due to its negation. Yet, if we ponder in the Absurd works of Beckett, Camus and some others with the above mentioned questions, it is easily perceived that the absurd character is like a thrown prisoner in the area restricted by various strange rules he is not familiar with since everything looks odd and new to him. In fact, he is stuck in the world with numerous dimensions, obstacles and hindrances. Everything seems the same and useless for him. The Absurd character is a stranger in the universe without having any affinity to it.                                                  
Life turns to be absurd, the moment he finds himself among secular conventions. When an individual cannot get oneself out of unfamiliar conventions, it brings him the feeling of absurdity. It will get worse when a man finds that there is no language for communication since it results in nothing worthy but repetitions of all that has been said before. That is why whatever the absurd character utters is nonsense.
Being aware of all knowledge that brightens the situation of the self in the world is mandatory in order not to be involved with these rituals and conventions, even as fun. In other words, in Absurd thought there would be no chance for a joke in life since it is assumed illogical. Meursault, the absurd hero in The Outsider of Camus, narrates to us a story of a man who came back home after some years of getting fortune abroad. He preferred to come back to his family in his own way, which was not acceptable in the norms of life. Finally, it results in his death as well as his families’. 
When the absurd characters find themselves both in the secular realm and unfamiliar to conventions and rituals of life, they remain to be simple and naïve. Meursault is a simple man without any sin coming from wrong doing in life (if an absurd character like him kills a person, this is not a fault which could make him guilty). He is merely a stranger who has no idea of social rules and of course this ignorance brings him a serious conflict that ends in his death.                 
In fact, an absurd hero is a naïve person who cannot take any advantage of opportunities for promotion in life. All opportunities from the beginning of life are like rolling stone to the top of the mountain with or without the knowledge of rolling down. When the employer of Meursault offers him a promotion in his job, he easily refuses it since he finds no difference before and after the promotion because it is temporal and mundane. That is the reason why we can’t see an absurd scientist in any absurd work, but always an absurd character is shown as a naïve individual who was not affected by the changes of the world. Like Camus’ characters, Beckett’s heroes are bare of any mundane knowledge. They are simple characters that get mad by knowing. Lucky, a character in Waiting for Godot, is qualified in philosophy and, as his name ironically asserts, he enjoys the most chance of slavery in life by his knowledge.
In summing up, the Absurd notion distinguishes in its point from other relevant schools in respect to its remaining indifferent toward everything in the world. Nihilism and Pessimism as well as Existentialism, by their negating life and its outgoing, seek a way to respond the meaninglessness of life; however, absurdity probes and represents nothing and simply remains indifferent and astonished toward all that the world manifests to him.



Works Cited

Baldick, Chris. The Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York: OUP, 1990.
Beckett, Samuel. The Complete Dramatic Works. London: Faber and Faber, 1986.
………  The Unnamable, in Three Novels: Molloy, Malone dies, The Unnamable. New York: Grove P, 1965.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O'Brien.
New York: Vintage Books, 1961.