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Updated on March 22, 2012

Absurd is a term used originally to describe a violation of the rules of logic.

It has acquired wide and diverse connotations in modern theology, philosophy, and the arts in which it expresses the failure of traditional values to fulfill man's spiritual and emotional needs.


The term "absurd" was first used with its modern implications in the work of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. He described Christianity as absurd because no man could comprehend or justify it according to rational principles. The concept of the absurd recurred in the work of the French and German existentialists. It was used by Martin Heidegger to describe Christian faith; by Jean-Paul Sartre to characterize the apparent pointlessness of life and the terrors of "nonbeing" by Albert Camus to express the disparity between 'man's intention and the reality he encounters"; by Karl Jaspe'rs as an indication of the manner in which reality repeatedly "checkmates" the individual; and by Gabriel Marcel as a symbol of the "fundamental mystery" of life.



In the "theater of the absurd", human experience is seen as fragmented and purposeless. The search for truth characteristic of romantic drama is rejected. The movement has affinities with the work of Nikolai Gogol and Bertolt Brecht and with the techniques and philosophies of Dadaism and surrealism in art. Alfred Jarry's grotesque Ubu Roi (1888) anticipated the movement in the French theater, and Jarry is credited with originating some of the concepts on which it rests. Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Jean Genet are among the foremost European adherents. In Beckett's plays, life itself seems to have come to a halt, and his characters typically engage in fruitless and repetitive actions that underscore the meaninglessness of their existence. The surface of Ionesco's plays is often more overtly comic, but he also emphasizes man's inability to control and order experience and repeatedly shows man as the victim of modern technology and bourgeois values. In Genet's work, illusion and reality are often violently and erotically fused to suggest the painful absurdity of contemporary life. In the English-language theater, John Osborne presents a similar vision of society, although in form his plays are more conventionally realistic. Both Harold Pinter and Edward Albee reveal the inversion and corruption of conventional patterns of friendship, love, and family allegiance and the terrifying process whereby language becomes a barrier rather than an aid to communication.


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