Theatre of the Absurd

TheatreAbsurdOh, that it may please God to let me also expound the psychology of the habits of man in such fashion as I am describing his body.       Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo perhaps realized the difficulty of having those insights which would explain human behavior as clearly and eloquently as his brush had depicted human form. Centuries later God has not favored humanity with self-understanding despite our importuning. If endless orisons have proven ineffective, then we have nothing to lose by turning to those among us who have sought wisdom in beauty, the artists.

Seinfeld, the sitcom, achieved both hilarity and pathos in supposedly being about “nothing.” Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, a brilliant innovation in modern drama, has also been characterized as being about nothing. The human condition as revealed by P-B could also be described, with more accuracy than we would like, as being about “nothing

Had Leonardo da Vinci lived in modern times and paid very close attention to what contemporary playwrights were trying to say, he might have found the answer to his prayers. Frank Magill describes what has come to be considered the ultimate expression of what came to be called “the theatre of the absurd.” “In this comedy of the absurd, antic yet philosophically troubling, Beckett views the human condition through symbolism that has its roots in Freudian psychology, the Christian myth, and Existentialism. The two tramps vacillate between hope and despair; they are obsessed by uncertainty and dominated by the absurd.”

Since it was first presented in 1952, Godot, has been a controversial enigmatic play which is much easier to understand in the context of P-A. Vladimir and Estragon are two tramps waiting for Godot (who never comes), hoping for salvation but take no action other than gnawing on carrots and periodically considering suicide. Pozzo, a rich tyrant, drives his servant Lucky with a rope but reappears later, blind and being led by his servant (Lucky).

Beckett’s four characters “are psychically isolated from one another; despite physical proximity, they are alienated and lonely, as indicated by their failure to communicate meaningfully. And in that state of mind, each despairs, feeling helpless in the face of an immutable destiny. [For them] life is a meaningless and monotonous performance of endlessly repeated routine.”  Sounds like Groundhog Day; sounds like P-B; sounds like the four modern Americans we are about to meet who are also “waiting for Godot.”

We all seek affection and esteem. The behaviors associated with this integral part of our false-self survival strategy are universal in the human community and by definition, not healthy. In searching for the sensation of being “loved” some of us get carried away. We, to put it mildly, fail to use good judgment. To put it bluntly, some of us make some pretty boneheaded decisions. And in the most flagrant and public instances (remember a certain U.S. president) we seem to forget that we are in the public eye; in other words, we are being watched. And finally, some of us are naïve enough to think that our fellow false-self sufferers who are complicit in our “risky” and titillating behaviors can be trusted to keep the whole business a secret. Ha, ha, ha—you have got to be kidding!

Why do we create so much pain for ourselves? The only possible explanation is that we do not realize at the time the full implication of what we are doing. We are unconscious, we are lacking in awareness. On this planet, in the human community given the laws of the universe, awareness is everything! What are the laws of the universe as far a we humans are concerned? They are few and they are simple and most of us are clueless about what those laws are. Since they are the key to the good life, you might be interested in knowing what they are. This awareness would have saved the hero of the following story a lot of grief. The fundamental reality is this. You have a story largely given to you and you believe it. This story determines your identity, that is, who you think you are. Your identity drives your behavior. Now let’s go in search of the answers concerning our protagonist’s inexplicable behaviors. All will be revealed!

Do you remember Anthony Weiner? We can quickly refresh your memory by a capsule summary of his identity revealed by his behavior. Our story is encapsulated in the sub-heading of the article in The New York Times Magazine: “Taking the plunge back into public life after a marital (and political) catastrophe.” The catastrophe? “… the disgraced former congressman who sent out a lewd picture of himself via Twitter.”   “And for a man who was known, pre-scandal, for his overweening ambition [yon Anthony has a lean and hungry look], his constant presence on cable news, his hard-charging schedule that verged on lunacy, well, it has been quite a change.”  But has he changed? You can be the judge of that.

As term-limited Michael Bloomberg prepares to step down as mayor of New York, Anthony Weiner would probably have been his shoe-in successor if not for his “indiscretions.” Has that part of his identity cooled? Incidentally, this is the part of the false-self identity that craves the illusion of power. Very, very seductive sirens singing an almost irresistible melody; can Mr. Weiner avoid the rocks this time; doe he still identify with the old story?

The answer to those questions is that Weiner as of April 2013 had decided to run for mayor. But we are getting ahead of our story! We did mention a marriage a while back and we have to acknowledge Huma Abedin, Weiner’s wife for the past two years. They are what in Washington can sometimes be referred to as a “power couple.” Or at least they used to be. Before Hillary stepped down as secretary of state, Huma was her deputy chief of staff. Huma was in the Clinton White House and she may actually return to the White House before Weiner can entertain such a possibility.

Make no mistake, the power game in east coast politics is not for sissies. Weiner describes his beautiful wife as being like what we idealists might want to imagine but then gets to what her function really is as described in the Machiavellian handbook (The Prince), the dark reality of power politics. “She is the most competent, graceful person I’ve ever met in all my years in politics … and she’s the hatchet woman! The person at the side of the principal [Hillary in this case] is usually the bad guy.”

All the world’s a stage and the bloodletting by modern “hatchet” men and women may be less overt than in Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet but equally as tragic. We can all repress the reality of the current theatre production called the human condition or look the other way at the shocking bits but we are all complicit in the production. All of us walk the boards of The Great White Way.

In P-B we are all on a stage chosen for us by what we call “fate” and we have been handed a script at birth written by others. We can choose to write our own script as we enter adulthood but very few actors on the stage of the global village are aware of that choice. Looking at the program and the characters listed in one of our most recent theatrical productions in the Theatre of the Human Condition we find:

Anthony Weiner: U.S. representative from Queens
Hillary Clinton: U.S. Secretary of State
Huma Abedin: Aide to Hillary Clinton and wife of Anthony Weiner
Almond Zigman: Sister-in-law (wife of Anthony’s younger brother Jason)
Jonathan Van Meter: Staff reporter from The New York Times

The following soliloquy is only slightly less heart-rending than that of Hamlet—a desperate, confused young man, not indecisive, but making unconscious choices, choices that are unmindful of the ultimate tragic consequences connected to them. The kind of false-self choices that all of us make every day—but we are not politicians appearing on the Sunday morning talk shows—we are not a policy-maker in the nation’s Capital.

[Curtain rises with Anthony Weiner center-stage seated in the home office in his apartment answering questions from Jonathan Van Meter.]
Weiner: “I was in a world and a profession that had me wanting people’s approval. By definition, when you are a politician, you want people to like you, you want people to respond to what you’re doing, you want to learn what they want to hear so you can say it to them. Twitter and Facebook allowed for me—not only could I go to a town-hall meeting or a senior center or in front of the TV camera, but now I could sit and hear what people were saying all around. Search your name on Google, begat read comments on your Facebook page, begat looking at what people are saying about you on Twitter, to then trying to engage them. ‘Oh you should like me!’ ‘No, that’s wrong!’ or ‘Thank you very much!’ And it just started to blur into this desire to engage in it all the time. Someone stops me in the airport and says, ‘Wow, you’re amazing.’ Well, O.K., now, at 2 o’clock in the morning, I can come home from playing hockey and I can find someone saying, ‘Oh that was great’ or ‘You’re an idiot.’ So somewhere in there it got to a place where I was trying to engage people in nothing about being a politician. Or sometimes it would start out about politics and then, ‘You’re a great guy.’ ‘Oh, thanks, you’re great too.’ ‘I think you’re handsome.’ ‘Oh, that’s great.’ And there just wasn’t much of me who was smart enough, sensitive enough, in touch with my own things, understanding enough about the disrespect and how dishonorable it was to be doing that. It didn’t seem to occupy a real space in my feelings.”
[We hit the pause button in this sad attempt at self understanding, freeze our actor in mid-speech, for some behavioral analysis. Try as he might, Weiner will not be able to intellectually understand his own behavior, nor will his rationalization ever ring true. First, his intellect, and he is very intelligent, will look for a logical explanation and there is nothing logical in the “pleasure-seeking” of the false self. Secondly, he is looking for meaning and experience outside of himself in the world of form which is simply not there. And finally, he is about to re-enter the same unhealthy arena where most of his colleagues are focusing less on service to their constituents than on self-promotion in the seeking of power. Power and pleasure and then add a little greed and we have the formula for self-destruction.]
[Now the drama gets to the betrayal that is essential to any tragedy (ask Hillary).]
Van Meter: “Weren’t you worried that it was going to come out?”
Weiner: “Well, I would stop. And someone would get upset. And, I would then maybe play out, you know, if they told someone else that I was not paying attention to them anymore … But I would also think, well, they’re my friends. We got into this conversation with one another because they cared, they were my fans, they would never do anything.”
[Stage right in spotlight as Weiner and Van Meter fade into darkness. Almond Zigman appears in the spotlight and begins to give her explanation of Weiner’s behavior.]
Almond: “When you suppress something, it eventually starts to come out in weird ways. You look for outlets, and maybe it comes out distorted and sideways.”
[Almond fades to black as the spotlight reveals Huma stage right.]
Huma: “‘O.K., I understand and I forgive.’ It was the right choice for me. I didn’t make it lightly.”
[Huma fades to black and the spotlight returns back to center-stage revealing Weiner.]
Weiner: “But she’s, um …” [Here he pauses, takes a deep breath and starts to cry.] “She’s given me another chance. And I am very grateful for that. And I’m trying to make sure I get it right.”
[Pause as center-stage fades to black.]
Hillary: “Power, power, power …” [We never see Hillary on stage but hear her voice offstage reminiscent of a Greek chorus chanting a low-voiced dirge.]
[Spotlight reveals Huma again facing Anthony—both seated.]
Huma: “I think you should run.”
[Center-stage with Anthony eating a burger and sipping on a root-beer float as he faces Van Meter.]
Weiner: “I’m really trying hard to let things come to me a little bit more and be less about leaning in to every element of my life. And I think I’m a better person for that reason. It allows thoughts to breathe a little bit more.”       [Curtain]

Many of us know the importance of breathing and creating a little space to avoid reacting to the endless triggers that bedevil us each and every day. Weiner shows no sign of appreciating the almost enormous insight that he merely tasted between his burger and root-beer float.

Almond Zigman’s insight concerning the males in the Weiner family and their lack of emotion which leads to repression is a valuable clue to Weiner’s need for affection. His sometimes aggressive outbursts in his political career could well be related to projections of repressed shadow content spontaneously triggered by political opponents.

Weiner tried therapy which resulted in some insights that he could have (and should have) used for changes in his behavior. “He talked a bit about how he didn’t like being alone, had a hard time being “still,” didn’t like “being in empty spaces.”  Pascal’s observation that all of humanities troubles could be traced to our inability to sit in a quiet room alone is apropos here.

The false self can find an infinite number of excuses for its behavior, an infinite number of clever but unconvincing rationalizations. In refusing to find the courage to ask the challenging Three Great Questions, we can always say that we will do that tomorrow and in the meantime we will continue “waiting for Godot.” The technology that lured Anthony Weiner into perdition was a product of the human intellect, the same intellect that has empowered his success in politics. Humanity has also hitched itself to that showy star, the intellect; we are flying straight for the sun and we waxed-winged homo-sapiens are headed for a precipitous Fall—again.

As for Anthony Weiner, he is just getting started on the road to self-destruction. Tomorrow, Act II in this “theatre of the absurd” production.


References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry:
Who Am I? The Second Great Question Concerning the Nature of Reality
Where Am I?  The First Great Question Concerning the Nature of Reality
Simple Reality: The Key to Serenity and Survival

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