What is reality? And who are we, the people populating it? Both fiction and philosophy are engaged in unraveling this questions, and their answers uncover the absurd nature of our existence, writes Joanna Kavenna.
Albert Camus wrote: 'A novel is never anything but a philosophy expressed in images. And in a good novel the philosophy has disappeared into the images.’ As soon as you create a character you ask philosophical questions about the nature of the self; as soon as you create a world you ask philosophical questions about the nature of reality.
In an absurdist novel, as in an absurdist philosophical argument, the universe is fundamentally meaningless and any attempt to find a sane and coherent interpretation of events is doomed by the insane and incoherent nature of reality.
In a sense, all fiction is quite absurd, because it is concerned with the inner lives of unreal people. Then again, reality can seem quite absurd as well, because we are told there are rules and indelible facts and then - as we’ve recently seen - everything abruptly changes.
Indeed these sudden, at times painful shifts of reality, are the fundamental concern of the absurdist novel. But philosophy, too, is preoccupied with the question of reality - how we might distinguish reality from unreality, and who ‘we’ are anyway when ‘we’ seek to do this.
As soon as you create a character you ask philosophical questions about the nature of the self; as soon as you create a world you ask philosophical questions about the nature of reality.
Philosopher and fiction writer Georges Bataille, writes: ‘We are discontinuous beings who perish in isolation in the midst of an incomprehensible adventure.’ Fiction writer and philosopher, Jorge Luis Borges wonders how we even know if the universe is in a realist or fantastical genre? To Borges, reality has an oneiric quality. Yet this dreamlike reality is all we have; there is no possibility of escape into somewhere more tangible and reasonable. So this is quite absurd and furthermore the feeling that the world is absurd is itself absurd as well!
Reality feels quite unreal, and yet there is nowhere more real than reality, there is no other realm where everything makes perfect sense. People die and vanish forever. This is insane, yet we are told we must accept it as quite normal. Philosophy and absurdist fiction both seek to capture what cannot be captured, to answer questions that cannot be answered such as:
What is this reality that I’m in, that feels so unreal, though it is the only reality I have, and what are the rules of this game?
Who am ‘I’ anyway, living in this reality/playing this game - at least for a while?
Further philosophical consideration only yields more questions. Who are these people around me? Are they authentic? What do they want? How does this reality feel to them? Are they compelled/afflicted by these same weird questions or are they thinking about something else entirely? We might continue, but the first two questions are immeasurable enough.
They are profound philosophical questions, and also of great practical importance. After all, if we are to play a game, then it is nice to know the rules. Maybe they are nonsensical, like Mornington Crescent or the Caucus Race in Alice in Wonderland, but it would surely help, at least, to be aware of this. If we act without any idea of the overarching meaning of our actions then we might end up acting on behalf of something we don’t agree with at all.
Yet, we must pose these questions in a human-made language, the ultimate origins of which are mysterious as well. We were inducted into this all-encompassing language without our prior permission, conveyed as infants from a non-linguistic to a linguistic realm. Furthermore, if we were to definitively answer these questions of ‘what is reality?’ and ‘who am I?’- and to know we’d achieved the absolutely ‘right’ answers - we’d need to be omniscient and eternal ourselves. And a game you can only win if you become something completely other than your-self, something beyond human and beyond time, is a very peculiar game indeed.
Another fictionalising philosopher Roberto Bolano wrote: 'In some lost fold of the past, we wanted to be lions and we're no more than castrated cats.’ (Even as I type this it reminds me of Wittgenstein’s remark about ‘If a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand him.’) There is a tragicomic quality to the linguistic taxonomies we invent and impose; whether we classify things as fact or fiction, or philosophy, or absurdism, or all - or none - of the above.
There is a tragicomic quality to the linguistic taxonomies we invent and impose; whether we classify things as fact or fiction, or philosophy, or absurdism.
In The Golden Ass, or the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, by Lucius Apuleius, from the late second century AD, an eponymous hero is afflicted by absurd events. He believes at one point that he has murdered three men, but this turns out to be a twisted practical joke. Then, possibly worse, he has an accident with some magic and is turned into an ass. For the rest of the novel he tries, very hard, not to be an ass anymore. Again, which is more peculiar - that people suddenly metamorphose into animals, or that they disappear altogether?
In another absurdist classic, Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat,’ Akaky Akakievich has one small desire: to buy a new overcoat. But his cruel, ridiculous society thwarts this modest aim, and eventually poor Akaky’s ghost haunts all those with overcoats - a reasonable revenge on an unreasonable world.
In The Goose of Hermogenes by Ithell Colquhoun, a narrator tries to escape from the monologic obsessions of her uncle, who quests avidly for the secret of eternal life. In this book the grail quest with its fixed certainties becomes absurdly demonic. In The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington the narrator quests to escape from drab interpellation, from being told she is old and therefore irrelevant. We experience this incongruity in real life; the calls and cries that are imposed on us, the masks we are invited to assume. In The Third Detective by Flann O’Brien or Ubik by Philip K Dick, the characters are uncertain at times if they are alive or dead.
There’s a danger we become discouraged by all of this indeterminacy and absurdity. We may end up like Melville’s Bartleby, who can’t act at all. Or, like Kafka’s Hunger Artist, who finds reality is too painful to be nourishing. Then there is the yet more doleful example of Mersault in, L’Etranger, who finds everything is meaningless, including morality, and kills a man for no reason.
Absurdist novels are fixed on the paradoxical chaos of mortals trying to discern logic where there may only be illogic, or rules where there may be none. All expression is afflicted by these questions, all human knowledge, whether it is categorised as philosophy or science or theology or anything else. Yet fiction - and especially absurdist fiction - offers one significant caveat. It makes no claims to precision or fact or even to realism or reality. Each novel is the sui generis creation of one discontinuous being, their single subjective version of the incomprehensible adventure. The novelist is the god or goddess of their creation - we might say they are omniscient over unreality. Yet, they do not fully understand the origins of their language, the metaphors and associations it sustains, the depths of their own self. So even this old Flaubertian dream is - absurdly - qualified.
The novelist is the god or goddess of their creation - we might say they are omniscient over unreality. Yet, they do not fully understand the origins of their language.
Meanwhile, words create worlds and - borrowing a bit from Iris Murdoch, who borrowed a bit from Wittgenstein - philosophy is a kind of art. So here, perhaps, is another connection between philosophy and absurdist fiction. Philosophers, like novelists, create worlds in language. Whether they call them real or unreal depends on the type of philosopher they are. Meanwhile fictionalising philosophers such as Borges, Woolf, Carrington, Colquhoun, Dick, Pynchon, Chan Koonchung, Vila-Matas, understand that as soon as you ask: ‘what is this reality and who am I within it?’ you have embarked on a paradoxical philosophical enquiry. You’ll never answer these questions for certain! But if you don’t even ask them then whose reality are you accepting without question?
All is not lost, perhaps. Five years after L’Etranger, Camus pub-lished another novel - La Peste (1947). It’s highly relevant to our current circumstances, and has been much cited in recent weeks. Camus gives his most interesting character - Rieux - an answer to both the questions I mentioned above. What is this reality? Well, it’s a plague, says Camus, in which many people are suffering and dying. Who am I? Well, says Camus - you’re a doctor. And you need to save as many lives as you can.
Rieux hasn’t entirely answered the deeper questions of who he is when he isn’t being a doctor, or what is this reality when there is no plague. He is in a certain amount of existential mayhem whatever he does, because of the strange and uncertain conditions of his existence. But in a contingent sense, for now, he has answers enough to act meaningfully, to alleviate the suffering of those around him. Although Rieux is in a tragedy, a catastrophe, at a philosophical level he is fortunate, in a sense: he knows enough to act meaningfully. He understands that everyone else is in the same absurd reality, which feels like a dream but is the only reality available. They are all in this absurd universe, struggling to survive, to protect their loved ones, to endure. And paradoxically, this collective experience of absurdity becomes a form of tenuous meaning. It is roughly akin to the idea that we are all in it together. Whatever ‘it’ is!
Meanwhile inventive philosophers and philosophising novelists send themselves and their readers into one labyrinth after another, one more quest that spirals into dead ends and dark corners; labyrinths of words and memories, of echoes and associations. At times the trail goes cold. We’ve lost the ball of twine! Some days the Minotaur is Plato. Or Aristotle. Depending on your perspective. Then we fumble towards the twine again, and we continue with the incomprehensible adventure; we continue to play the game with the rules we can never entirely know.