It’s hard for any person to log into Twitter without seeing something that makes them do a double take—maybe it’s a puppy hiding in a thumbnail they open for a surprise, letters from the Second Civil War, or President Trump tweeting any of his usual shenanigans. Most recently the commander-in-chief repeated his sentiment that our immigration laws are the ‘dumbest anywhere in the world.’ I typically try to ignore tweets from his accounts in the name of self-care, but recently I started asking myself—where does this man think he is? Does he really know what’s going on? Trump’s behavior has been called many things—un-American, unstable, stupid—but more than anything, it’s frankly absurd.
Albert Camus and Martin Esslin have written extensively about about the absurd—the senseless, unnatural and irrational—and its functionality for describing our existence. Esslin wrote about theatre of the absurd, a genre of plays that pushes the limits of this idea, while Camus focused (mostly) on real life interpretation by exploring the human condition and the kind of emptiness of it all. The idea of absurdity is that we don’t know why we’re here, and we have to confront that in one of three ways—suicide, a leap of faith, or recognition. Camus sees suicide as the literal rejection of life, confessing that it is meaningless; a leap of faith as the rejection of the absurd, and a plan to extract meaning from life one way or another. Recognition is just that that—recognizing that there’s no way around the absurd life, but it’s all we have so we might as well keep living. Combined, their works are incredibly useful for examining our current situation and trying to figure out where to go from here.
Camus waxes poetic on the Greek Myth of Sisyphus, who is sentenced to eternally push a boulder up a mountain, after he tries to escape death from the gods. Every time he reaches the top of the mountain, the boulder rolls back down. Camus sees Sisyphus as the absurd hero because he embraces his fate. His leap of faith option is out, he refuses suicide, so he’s left to recognize that life was meaningless anyway so he might as well keep pushing this boulder.
Camus essentially says that we’re all Sisyphus for the time we spend on Earth. All our labor and action doesn’t really mean anything in the end because we’re going to die anyway. Whether or not you agree, the idea of the absurd provides an interesting framework for thinking through our current social climate particularly in the Trump era.
Depending on your political view, Trump and everything his administration stands for like restrictive immigration laws, American exceptionalism, subjugation of women, etc., is like Sisyphus pushing the boulder. There may be temporary legislative or policy victories but in the end the boulder, and the bigotry along with it, will roll back down. And so in recognizing their fate, those who oppose the actions of the administration keep pushing—marching, kneeling, writing, and voting. We’re all caught in this cycle that plays out in the news and in our own lives as the headlines hit close to home.
Absurdist plays are often classified as ‘tragicomedies’—funny because the action is so ridiculous, but tragic because it’s empty and holds up a mirror to our own lives. Which when you think about it, sounds much like America’s current state. This central theme lies in the dialogue which develops, or rather regresses, throughout the play into something indistinguishable. You understand what the characters are saying, but there is no meaning behind it.
In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a quintessential absurdist play, two characters are waiting—eternally it seems— for a divine-like being named Godot. They don’t know for sure who or what Godot is, only that he, she, or it is coming. As they wait, the characters often speak in disconnected conversations and frequently repeat themselves, a common linguistic device. Their dialogue lacks linear clarity and also points out a missing element of memory which gives way to unreliable information—“alternative facts,” if you will.
ESTRAGON: What did we do yesterday?
VLADIMIR: What did we do yesterday?
VLADIMIR: Why . . . (Angrily.) Nothing is certain when you're about.
ESTRAGON: In my opinion we were here.
VLADIMIR: (looking round) You recognize the place?
ESTRAGON: I didn't say that.
ESTRAGON: That makes no difference.
While this may seem extreme and perhaps it is, there are some parallels to today and how we talk around each other and arrive nowhere in our understanding of one another. As the political divide widens, it seeps into discourse we can’t escape whether it’s at the office water cooler or the family dinner table. Our conversations, if you can call them that, have increasingly become yelling matches, particularly online. We too often neglect the viewpoint of others and instead prepare our responses to be louder and more scathing.
The genre of plays also exploits the idea that isolated events happen in a nonlinear space but insist importance, leaving the audience to draw their own conclusion. Kim Kardashian gets an invitation to the Oval Office and the Philadelphia Eagles get uninvited—two isolated, nonlinear events that are completely interwoven. The president seems open to discussing prison reform with Kardashian but isn’t willing to do have a conversation with those kneeling during the national anthem over the police brutality and criminal justice system that makes prison reform necessary to begin with.
If I’m right and we’re all Sisyphus trudging up this mountain, in theory there’s nothing we can do. Roe v. Wade just might be overturned depending on Trump’s Supreme Court pick, or North Korea might end up nuking us after all. Still, we can’t afford to be Sisyphus accepting things as they are because in true absurdist theater fashion, everything will break down and then what?
And so we have options. We can keep pushing and remain optimistic that the boulder will get over the mountain by our continued repeated action. Or, we change our approach—a leap of faith. Perhaps we look for some tools to destroy the boulder. Some of us are doing that. Supporting businesses that reject bigotry, giving money or time to organization like the ACLU fighting the administration in court, or continuing to value facts and honesty despite attacks from the president himself. We’re doing the work that feels like little things but they are chipping away at this boulder because we know just pushing it isn’t working.