Has life ever felt a little absurd to you? If so, you’re not the first person to think so because despite what the etymology of the word absurd suggests, the idea behind the word has been around since the very dawn of our existence…
Absurd as an adjective describes that which is illogical or without reason and derives from the classical Latin adjective absurdus meaning ridiculous or preposterous. Absurd appeared in English print in 1531 in The determinations of the moste famous and mooste excellent vniuersities of Italy and Fraunce (Edward Fox, et al). The noun absurdity, though, predates this in English print and was first used to describe musical dissonance in 1429 in the book The Mirour of Mans Saluacioune A Middle English Translation of Speculum Humanae Salvationis.
Although the word absurd has been around in English for several centuries now, absurdism as a philosophical concept has been around much longer. In 1942, Albert Camus, the French journalist and philosopher, propagated absurdism as a philosophical school of thought with his book The Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a king who was punished by the gods and sent to roll a huge rock up a mountain. Once he got to the top, the rock rolled down to the bottom and he had to begin his agonizing ascent with the rock again, over and over, for eternity. The punishment was not in the back-breaking work, but the futility of his existence. Absurdism examines the paradox that is human existence: although our day-to-day lives are filled with perceived meaning, they are actually meaningless.
Mark Rowlands takes the life of a cicada (a type of moth) to reiterate this story in his book The philosopher at the end of the universe (2003). The cicada grows in the ground for up to seventeen years until it breaks through the soil and flies into the world only to lay eggs and die a couple of days later. These larvae make their way back into the ground only to repeat the same process. We can look at the cicada’s existence and call it absurd (it’s on a twenty year mission to no real end) but, as humans, we are in no better position. We fill our lives with a lot more tasks than the cicada does but, ultimately, they have little significance.
Perhaps we are fortunate that, unlike the cicada, we are intelligent enough to understand the absurdity of our situation—laugh at it perhaps (this philosophical school of thought is the theme of many plays, novels and comedy). Or perhaps the real nightmare is in the knowing. Unlike humans, the cicada may well be perfectly at peace with the world.