Whether one is an atheist or a believer, all of us can agree that there is certainly something missing in our society. By entering into a dialogue with a variety of texts, the authors of “The Terror of Existence” wrestle with the idea of meaninglessness and absurdity with the seriousness and it deserves.
The Terror of Existence: From Ecclesiastes to Theatre of the Absurd, by Theodore Dalrymple and Kenneth Francis (158 pages, New English Review Press, 2018)
Is our current iteration of society entirely devoid of meaning? In the past, Nietzsche’s ‘Madman’ declared God dead. Today, this sentiment continues but reason too has disappeared from the stage in this absurdist mise-en-scène we are inhabiting. Is there a way out of this nihilism? What can we do to foster the culture of life, beauty, and order? These and similar questions are on the minds of two thinkers, Theodore Dalrymple and Kenneth Francis, in their new jointly written book, The Terror of Existence: From Ecclesiastes to Theatre of the Absurd.
Dr. Dalrymple and Mr. Francis take a rather creative approach in exploring the problem of absurdity and morality. The book is composed of various short essays that are partly literary analysis, partly philosophy, and partly theology, all the while maintaining its strength in easily understood delivery and style. Dr. Dalrymple, an atheist, and Mr. Francis, a believer, disagree on many issues, the most obvious being the existence of God. However, they both firmly agree that there is something empty and destructive about our current nihilistic culture, which is incapable of seeing the difference between good and evil.
One of the problems is that today, people lack rational judgment. Our globalist and milquetoast society calls on us to not make any judgments about realities that face us. There is no objective truth, only subjectivity and feelings which are, for the most part, not grounded in anything higher than ourselves and which rely on simplistic emotions to begin with.
This seems to be a post-modernist problem stemming from Nietzsche’s philosophical annihilation of God. As Kenneth Francis observes in the Introduction to the book, “To the post-modernist, history is objectively unknowable.” This means that we don’t know anything for certain and this inability to grasp the fact leads us to invent narratives that suit our ideologies.
Whether one is an atheist or a believer, all of us can agree that there is certainly something missing in the current society which we live in. The idea that “an unexamined life is not worth living” is not in man’s consciousness. Perhaps this was always so, and Ecclesiastes certainly tells us that “there is nothing new under the sun.” But what is missing today is an awareness that there is an existential alienation at all. Mr. Francis observes that if “all is in vain,” then “the legacy of the kindness and nurturing of a Mother Teresa is no different to the tyranny and cruelty of a Pol Pot or Joseph Stalin.”
One of the great aspects of this book is that both Dr. Dalrymple and Mr. Francis enter into a dialogue with various texts and even if those texts are not necessarily formally philosophical, both authors have an ability to tease out the already inherent philosophical meaning from them. By entering into dialogue with the selected texts, both authors are implicitly entering into an encounter and a dialogue with one another, and this aspect of the book creates a rather authentic flow. There are no awkward transitions between one chapter to the next, and it is clear that both authors have approached the idea of meaninglessness and absurdity with the seriousness and gravity it deserves.
Reflecting on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Mr. Francis delves deeply into the heart of Poe’s narrator, who is suffering from “disordered soul” and is experiencing a “descent into paranoia and despair.” It is precisely here that we see “the terror of existence”—the yearning to be free and yet being driven into the dark abyss of despair whether by accident or by our own contradictory choices.
What to do when we are faced with hopelessness? Examining Anton Chekhov’s short story, “A Dreary Story,” Dr. Dalrymple examines the inward nature many of us have, namely that we are separated from the world, disconnected from any possibility of transcendence. A similar exploration is undertaken by both Mr. Francis and Dr. Dalrymple on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Dr. Dalrymple writes that “at the beginning of the play we see him [Estragon] falling back exhausted as he tries unsuccessfully to remove a boot. This utterly banal act saps his will. ‘Nothing to be done,’ he says.”
This most certainly describes much of society today. There is a black hole that everyone seems to be entering into, and like wasps in the hive, we are going in and out, except, unlike wasps, we are not carrying out particular tasks. And the tasks that are attempted are quickly neglected, not because of physical but because of spiritual fatigue.
Dr. Dalrymple is correct to assert that Waiting for Godot is more than a meditation on a Godless world, or an extended argument against a teleological universe.” It is also, in many ways, about the unavoidable human condition. After all, waiting is part of human life, and as Dr. Dalrymple writes, “When one waits for Godot, one waits for someone, or something, who or that is never going to arrive.” This feeling and predicament alone is enough to make any human being slightly mad and frustrated but to feel life is to feel all of its dimensions, including the occasional foray into the abyss. But no matter how long we wait, “the void will never be filled.”
Mr. Francis, of course, takes a more theological approach to Beckett’s play. He writes that “what is tedious about this tragicomedy is its repetition: what’s intriguing about it is its absurdness; and what’s tragic about it is its absence of God, meaning, and a seemingly hopeless situation.” The biggest issue that Mr. Francis sees with the play is the very fact that the meaninglessness of the world takes center stage. Waiting for Godot is the ultimate example of the Theatre of the Absurd and Mr. Francis chooses the world of the playwright Eugene Ionesco to sum up his analysis of it: “the Theatre of the Absurd . . . is that which is devoid of purpose; ‘cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, Man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless’.” And yet, even this absurdity and overwhelming lack of metaphysics is “fascinating in its unresolved bleakness.”
Mr. Francis and Dr. Dalrymple also offer somewhat unusual interpretations of certain works. Dr. Dalrymple finds Albert Camus’ The Stranger to be a good book, and he certainly does not disparage Camus. However, he cannot accept the fact or at the very least take seriously Meursault as either a hero or an anti-hero. Dr. Dalrymple writes that he “cannot invest the murder with any philosophical significance beyond the simple and obvious judgment that it is a gratuitous act of evil.” This certainly is an interpretation of Camus’ major work that one does not find in most literary, philosophical, or academic circles.
Similarly, Mr. Francis offers a rather excellent interpretation of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, in which he writes that “for decades, the book was forced on innocent students by numerous public high-school Marxist teachers. Think about it: a story about a nihilist loser who flunks boarding school and messes up as much as he can on his way home. A rebel without a brain, if you will. But you won’t hear that from the leftist academia or media.” He is right about this, and the book not only embraces alienation but also celebrates it. Its hero, Holden Caulfield is a character utterly disconnected from his fellow human beings, and his judgment offers no compassion or suggestions of correction. Rather, he deems himself a moralist without morals, a “superman” of sorts, roaming around, mostly aimlessly.
There are many more essays (most notably on Sartre, Nietzsche, Swift, and Tolstoy) in this book that are impossible to mention but that reveal gems of wisdom and reflection from both Dr. Dalrymple and Mr. Francis. Both men enter authentically into dialogue not only with the works that they are discussing but also with the world that is before them. These are not empty academic pronouncements but careful reflections (both personal and intellectual) on the state of our current society. They serve as ways of further thought and elaboration as well as reminders of perennial wisdom that exists beyond the fragmented, disconnected, and dystopian society we currently face.
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The featured image is a photograph of Gordon Wilson and Karel Cremers (Vladimir and Estragon respectively) in Waiting for Godot. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, attributed to “Sundysunderland” and licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0. This photo has been slightly modified for color.