An embrace of the absurd

Braeden Sagehorn

4/30/20234 min read

Helplessness is a strong sedative. The feeling that nothing you do matters. That the overall movement of our lives, and the life of society, ceases to shift. It can often feel overwhelming to the point of immobilization. But sedation is merely one reaction of many. An unfortunate side effect can be immense apathy or even reactionary thinking. An unfortunate mode of thought where we blame each other for our problems instead of the institutions that facilitate them. A truly absurd notion. These forms of helplessness, of apathy, also goes by another name: nihilism.

So, what is nihilism? Well nihilism comes in many forms, from existential to optimistic. What we will be discussing here is related to a crude form of the existential kind. And simply put, it means that nothing we do, or that humanity will ever do, matters. We cannot create meaning, and life will forever be devoid of any. The existential nihilist finds it absurd that one could go through life attempting to create meaning. These absurd ideas were expanded on by such philosophers as Nietzsche, Sartre, Kierkegaard, and Camus. Each one presenting their own unique take on existence. First with Kierkegaard, who followed from a religious angle, and then moving into Camus and Sartre, who tackled it from an atheistic point of view. Nietzsche, however, feared for the nihilistic bend, and wrote extensively against it.

Unfortunately for him, a defining aspect of the early 21st century has been this dip into an apathetic nihilism. From the failure of Bernie’s two campaigns to the outcome of the George Floyd protests, nothing seems to be moving forward. Left wing activists, and progressives alike, face an uphill battle against Biden’s continuous conservative bends. Police reform remains muted with Cop City’s shadow looming over the disenfranchised. The aftermath of COVID highlighted the necessity of our economic behemoth to function at any cost. Then the Russo-Ukrainian war showcased the ease at which Congress could pass aid afar, but not domestically. Healthcare, social security, union support, and the environment all cast aside. At times it can feel as though there aren’t alternatives, or pathways, towards a change that seems viable. How absurd to go vote, be politically active, or speak your voice when progress just isn’t being made?

However, these sentiments have been noticed. In fact, the Oscar winning movie Everything Everywhere All at Once (EEAO) explores these very feelings in the context of intergenerational trauma. In it, Stephanie Hsu’s character, in a search for a universe where her mother loves her, succumbs to the conclusion that nothing matters. That at the end of the day, everything she did and everything she was, vanished along with her. Her journey continued without ever encountering the mother she always wanted, and in the end, she chose to destroy it all. If nothing mattered what point was there to the multiverse? The outcome was the same whether she destroyed or created. A reality of meaninglessness. The issue here was that of perspective.

A similar sentiment is seen in Brendan Gleeson’s character in The Banshees in Inisherin. In a pivotal scene at the pub, he gets into a shouting match with Colin Farrell’s character regarding legacy. Gleeson proudly proclaims that music, poetry, art—Great Works—are what people remember the most. Here we get a glimpse of Gleeson’s struggle with creating meaning. He truly believes that the only impact he can have on his neighbors, on the world, is through his material contributions in the form of art. Except Farrell’s character finds this absurd. Instead, he shouts proudly about remembering those who left positive impressions on his life. The ones who made him feel good. Here, the picture painted, we see ourselves laid bare. In a time where so many resign themselves, Farrell’s character asks, “Why not be kind?”, a similar sentiment espoused by Ke Huy Quan’s character in EEAO. No one will remember the townsfolk on the little island of Inisherin, or the owners of a laundry mat in a hundred years. If true, then what good is abject nihilism if not self-defeating? In fact, why not try to do both? Create art and create meaningful relationships.

This was the revelation of Michelle Yeoh’s character in EEAO. She asks herself, “What can I do?” and realizes that despite the meaningless of her existence there is meaning to be made anyway. This is because what we fight for, our actions, create ripples just as much as any Great Work does. Gleeson’s character refused to acknowledge that the actions we take between each other could be just as meaningful as any piece of art. In fact, his creation of art brings to life his own reality, while also building relationships with those around him. Action is the movement of the material, and within this motion, the creation of new ideas can gain form.

Several postmodern French philosophers discussed these very topics. Foucault, or Deleuze, skeptically argued against the absurd notion of a grand narrative for history. This lack of universal movement opened the door towards a liberatory, as opposed to resignatory, position. Mark Fisher touches on this briefly at the end of his seminal work Capitalist Realism. Here he ends the book explaining that “from a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.” Because it is us who create the world that we live in. We are ourselves products of this unique historical moment. Michelle Yeoh’s character decided that her googly eyes, her art, could reflect the reality that she saw, the reality that she desired. She created meaning despite the meaninglessness. This is why the destruction of the grand narrative was liberatory. If we are the creators, the movers of history, then why not act for the world we believe we need. A task that first begins with a question: “What can I do?

In the wake of the repeal of Roe v. Wade, the anti-transgender crusade of the Republican party, and the continual destruction of our environment action is required. Mark Fisher, the postmodernists, demand us to question the institutions that shape our lives. We must question why our current economic model relies on the destruction of our environment, and to what cost. Why education must be run like a business. Why a woman, why a person, must explain what they can and can’t do with their bodies. Here I encourage you to embrace the absurd, and ask, “What can I do?” It allows for creation; it opens the door to a thinking that invites action. Something dynamic. By giving into nihilism, surrendering to apathy, you deny your inherent potential and the potential of the world. Never forget that there is oppression to fight and futures to be created. So be realistic and demand the impossible!