The Brilliance of the Theatre of the Absurd

September 22, 2012

Since reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, I’ve considered how fitting the absurdist metaphor of life as a play is. Particularly in terms of free will, confusion, and realization. It’s nothing new to Shakespeare and others who’ve made the comparison, but it wasn’t one I identified with until Tom Stoppard’s play. It’s the kind of metaphor that gives you a different perspective on reality and living. But after reading Kierkegaard–a writer with with works like none other before him–I saw another dimension to the brilliance of the metaphor of life as a play.

Kierkegaard articulates the relationship of the self that relates to itself , and the sudden self-awareness when a person realizes she is a self that relates to herself. The dual nature of the self, how it is a first-person experiencer and a third-person observer, can be seen whenever you reflect on a past action of yours and why you did what you did. The farther back the action and the more different that past self is from your present self, you can see how looking at yourself is like looking at another person with the additional access of knowledge of having been the experiencer. Even in emotion, you may notice the first-person experience of the emotion and the  third-person awareness of your emotional state. A degree of self-consciousness is therefore natural to us, but there are greater levels of awareness of ones self: of one’s own psychology, of his desires, of his true knowledge, of his inabilities, of the strength of his will, of his actions, of his true nature. If you ask Kierkegaard and I, the majority of people go with the flow of things without stepping outside themselves to examine themselves, to question themselves–much less to realize their selves as self-relating. For the one who has realized this, even then he may lapse back into absorption of his first-person self or lose himself in an external endeavor.* Says Kierkegaard:

“While one sort of despair plunges wildly into the infinite and loses itself, a second sort permits itself as it were to be defrauded by “the others.” By seeing the multitude of men about it, by getting engaged in all sorts of worldly affairs, by becoming wise about how things go in this world, such a man forgets himself, forgets what his name is (in the divine understanding of it)…finds it too venturesome a thing to be himself.”

And as he notes, such a person often does not realize he isn’t himself. It’s not a matter of seeming confidence, it’s a matter of how much third-person reflection takes place. A third-person reflection of the self and the world and one’s relationship to it.

In a play, the characters are immersed in the world they are in. The viewer and actor are separated by worlds, with actor caught up in his world, unaware he is in a play. And for some, perhaps this is some of the intrigue of the story: not just empathizing with the actor but being the one outside the action and in the know. The character is “caught up in things” while the audience watches on, seeing what he doesn’t see; namely, his life in the third perspective and the other goings-on in his world, much to his unawares. But when the character begins to wonder if he has any control in the course of the play,  as in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, he wants to step back and see what the whole thing looks like. He wants to see where he is in the scheme of things. Thus, as the self becomes a self-relating self, the play becomes a self-relating play when the play includes the actor given the opportunity to realize he is in a play. Depending on the flavor of absurdist theatre and your response to it you could see this as freedom or helplessness. When you realize your being in life is like  finding yourself on the stage for an unknown amount of time without directions, you may have no choice in the unfolding of the plot or what happens around or to you–but you do have a choice.

*I myself have lapsed into a dulled consciousness in the very midst of awareness. This can happen when a way of thinking becomes habit, or when one becomes so engrossed in one aspect of life that he forgets other aspects, becoming what many would call “self-absorbed”–excessively self-involved. But the term “self-absorption” is misleading because it implies one should not think of himself too much. This is why I say being absorbed in the first-person self. Such a person does not stop to consider himself, to look at himself from the outside, but just “does things”.The same way C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape turns his patient’s self-development into a self-defeating absorption. But this is part of the truth of selfishness common thinking has hijacked. The word “selfless” literally implies not having a self; “selfish”, having one. So if we shouldn’t be selfish, should we forget ourselves, should we not have a self?  The confusion lies in forgetting there are two selves: first and third person. It seems to me that being blindingly self-absorbed is the state of being caught up in your immediate experiencing self  without stepping out into the third person to examine yourself. This may not be true for everyone, but it is a possibility for some. Similarly, a person with a strong sense of self springing from their realization of being a self that relates to itself , of having a strong third person to keep themselves in line, overcomes being blindingly self-absorbed and at the same time, because of it, becomes more self-aware. Has a stable self. Observe this in Jesus. I mean the one you’ll find in the text, not the modern American blue-eyed brunette Jesus living the suburbs with a golden retriever, who listens to Chris Tomlin and Casting Crowns but appreciates your taste in hip-hop, who visits youth groups and goes on mission trips and votes Republican. The real Jesus raised hell outside a temple and was far from lacking a self as the word “selfless” implies. It was his self-knowledge that didn’t need affirmation in who it was, that could see things as they were, that had the ability to direct his energy at others. Language is to blame in forming a simplistic view on how you should relate to yourself, but it’s the culture creating that language which is all the more to blame.


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