What Happened to the Absurd? image

What Happened to the Absurd?

I was in Paris a few days ago, and as luck would have it, I was staying right by the Pompidou Centre on its 40th birthday, so admission was free. I browsed the massive modern art collection for a while—Duchamp, Dali, Picasso, Braques, Miro, Kandinsky, Pollock and so on—but modern art has never really been my thing, so I mainly ended up looking at the rooftop views across the city. I had seen enough, however, to be prompted again to consider something that has often made me curious: the relative decline of abstract, absurdist, surrealist and nihilist visual arts in the last half-century. Eric Hobsbawm wrote years ago about the death of the avant-garde, and the Pompidou Centre highlights it accidentally, simply by juxtaposing these great names from the first half of the 20th century with a group of more recent artists, clearly overshadowed by their illustrious predecessors, that no non-specialists have even heard of. (I am no expert on any of this, but it seems to me that the same thing is true of music since Stravinsky, drama since Beckett, novels since Joyce, and so on.) So the thing I am given to wonder is simply this: what happened to the absurd?

The next day, by coincidence, I was reading Terry Eagleton’s (quite superb) The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction, and to my astonishment he started talking about exactly this question. Here’s what he said:

Life seems absurd in contrast to a meaning which it used to have, or which you believe it used to have. One reason why modernists like Chekhov are so preoccupied with the possibility of meaninglessness is that modernism is old enough to remember a time when there was still meaning in plenty, or at least so the rumour has it. Meaning was around recently enough for Checkhov, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, and their colleagues to feel stunned and dispirited by its draining away. The typical modernist work of art is still haunted by the memory of an orderly universe, and so is nostalgic enough to feel the eclipse of meaning as an anguish, a scandal, an intolerable deprivation. This is why such works so often turn around a central absence, some cryptic gap or silence which marks the spot through which sense-making has leaked away. One thinks of Chekhov’s Moscow in Three Sisters, Conrad’s African heart of darkness, Virginia Woolf’s blankly enigmatic lighthouse, E. M Forster’s empty Marabar caves, T. S. Eliot’s still point of the turning world, the non-encounter at the heart of Joyce’s Ulysses, Beckett’s Godot, or the nameless crime of Kafka’s Joseph K. In this tension between the persisting need for meaning and the gnawing sense of its elusiveness, modernism can be genuinely tragic.

Postmodernism, by contrast, is not really old enough to recall a time when there was truth, meaning and reality, and treats such fond delusions with the brusque impatience of youth. There is no point pining for depths that never existed.

What happened to the absurd? Artists stopped remembering the meaning they had lost. If that’s not an opportunity to preach the gospel from Ecclesiastes, I don’t know what is.

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