Reader's Encyclopedia


A philosophical term for a fundamental lack of reasonableness and coherence in human existence. The philosophical and theological roots of the term can be traced to Tertullian (160? - ?230), an early Father of the Church who argued that the surest sign of the truth of Christianity is its absurdity. He posited that the idea of an infinite deity incarnating himself and undergoing suffering for human beings is so irrational that no one would invent such a story; therefore it must be true. Tertullian's summary statement was Creo quia absurdum est (I believe because it is absurd). Centuries later, Søren Kierkegaard reemphasized the absurdity of Christianity. He suggested that rational "proofs, " however convincing, are blocks, not aids, to faith: A faith that requires proofs is no faith at all. One can only choose Christianity, with its manifest absurdities, or choose an alternative way of life, with its latent absurdities. The choice of Christianity is a " leap of faith " for which there are no strictly rational criteria.

With Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Jean-Paul Sartre, the concept of absurdity became almost completely secularized as the basis for existentialism. According to the existentialist concept, man is thrown into an alien, irrational world in which he must create his own identity through a series of choices for which there are no guides or criteria. Because man cannot avoid making choices -- to refrain from choosing is a choice -- man is condemned to be free. This absurdity is an inescapable part of the human situation. In his novel Nausea, Sartre regards it as the irresoluble paradox of human existence.

The concept of the absurd in modern literature originated with the early surrealists, in works such as Alfred Jarry's play Ubu Roi. The concept is used by Albert Camus in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus and in his novel The Stranger, where he emphasizes the psychological implications of the absurd.

Writers have also attempted to convey the concept of the absurd through deliberate distortions and violations of conventional forms, to undermine ordinary expectations of continuity and rationality. Among the most notable writers in the literature and theatre of the absurd are Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Jean Genet.