Monday, September 14, 2015

The Absurd

A time when puny Roberta Vinci—bless her!—derails the elephantine Serena on her route to the Grand Slam, the moment is rife for a discussion of the Absurd, which I deliberately capitalize. What a presence it has in our lives, both for the good, as for Vinci, and the bad, as for Williams.

This is also the time when Brian Kellow’s biography of Sue Mengers, “Can I Go Now?” hits the bookstores, to mixed reviews: pretty good in the Sunday Times, pretty bad in the daily one. What absurd grandeur that woman had! I wish Brian had consulted me about the admittedly not very prime time story about my lunch with Sue Mengers. This was during her prime time—and perhaps also mine—during a brief visit to Tinseltown, when she invited me to lunch. The object was to bring the one critic who was a nonbeliever in her star client, Barbra, into the church—or should I say temple?

I wish I had a transcript of our conversation. Sue deployed all of her charms and hegemony among Hollywood agents to entice me into having lunch with Streisand, panegyricizing about her wit, her smartness, her charm as she strove to effectuate a conversion of Saul-into-Paul magnitude. This proved no more likely to succeed than to convince Barbra of the need for a medial A in her name. But it was all worthy enough of at least a footnote in the bio.

Ah, yes, the Absurd. How it dogs us at every other step—to fully catalogue it would have added another labor to Hercules, surely the hardest. I am barely up to it, but at least I can advert to a few salient examples, and some worthy quotations from others.

For instance, I have always loved the name of an African head of state: Good Luck Jonathan, the first part of which he did not evince when it came to recovering the 300 abducted girls from his country. Well, as the song has it, maybe some other time. Or, for a nearer example, take the coiffure of Donald Trump, which in itself would be enough to make his presidency absurd. It is easily the worst since that of Anthony Burgess and Moe of the Three Stooges.

There had to be a philosophy of Absurdism, of which Albert Camus—“the absurd is the essential concept and the first truth” plus all his other writings—is the finest proponent. And how appropriate for the stage to have spawned he Theater of the Absurd. Here the chief proponent—Samuel Beckett having, however absurdly, declined having anything to do with it—there remains Eugene Ionesco, who at a lunch argued with me that his “Macbet” was superior to Shakespeare’s similarly titled play. Actually, Ionesco did very well by the Theater of the Absurd, “Rhinoceros” and “The Bald Soprano” being his most popular successes, although I prefer “Jacques or the Submission” and “The Chairs.”

But to revert to philosophy. I. M. Bochenski, in his book “Europaeische Philosophie der Gegenwart” (European Philosophy of the Present) has, as one of several epigraphs (I translate), “Modern Man, i.e., human beings since the Renaissance, is ripe for burial.” This attributed to Count Paul Yorck von Wartenburg, about whom there is regrettably nothing further in the book. Yet that is perhaps a bit too strong from someone unexposed to the works of America’s younger dramatists, and thus spared (to borrow a title from Carlo Emilio Gadda) the acquaintance with grief, or, if you prefer, the depth of the absurd.

It occurred to me to look up the entry Absurdism in the American Heritage Dictionary, and find, to my surprise, the following: “A philosophy, often translated into art forms, holding that humans exist in a meaningless, irrational universe and that any search for order by them will bring them into direct conflict with the universe. “True absurdism is not less but more real than reality. (John Simon).”

What a remarkable quotation, if only I knew just where it came from and contextualize. Could this come under the heading of Jonathan Swift’s famous exclamation, “What genius I had then”?

Let me start with a humble but telling aspect of quotidian absurdity. Until fairly recently people had no problem with correctly pronouncing “groceries” as if it were spelled “grosseries.” Then along comes some idiot or bunch of idiots proudly mispronouncing it by false analogy as if it were spelled “grosheries.” This would be correct if the spelling were “grocieries,” with an I after the C softening it from an SS sound to an SH, as in word like “glacier,” where there is such an I. But not so in “groceries.” Yet so ubiquitous has this blooper become that people who know better don’t even notice it on television or elsewhere. But all it takes in our democratic society for one ignoramus to come up with such an absurdity and promptly the sheep will follow.

Or take the world of fashion. Almost anything you see on runways or in magazine and newspaper pictures is absurd: anorexic models wearing things that no woman in her right mind would want to touch with a ten-foot pole unless she was a six-foot pole herself. Some women realize how ridiculous and uncomfortable those gladrags would be on them; others know that they couldn’t afford them if they were foolish enough to want them. But on and on the parade goes, as long as there are gay men to design them and Anna Wintours to promote them.

And how about those absurd opera singers? Rabid opera fans or persons with underdeveloped sensibilities can tolerate an Isolde who could use a slimming potion more than a love one {“It is only the voice that matters,” they say) or a Lohengrin who could more suitably ride on an ox than be drawn by a swan--although there has lately been some improvement in the average avoirdupois, but still here are plenty of Stephanie Blythes unblythely around.

A rather different kind of absurdity are the wretches who keep buying lottery tickets hoping for the big prize, who, even if they win a pittance, will have spent much more for years on lottery tickets than their win amounts to.

Still, there is also the good, the positive absurd. Surrealism sometimes provides that. Take the piquant perversity of some of those clever Belgian painters, Magritte, Delvaux  and Ensor. Does it have something to do with the drama of a country and language split in two? So, too, perhaps with such rather less talented Spaniards, Miro and Dali, think Basques and Catalans. But then where are the Canadian equivalents?