The genre of absurdism and the absurdist theatre evolved after the two world wars: World War I and II. Characterized by disillusionment and the decimation of religious and social institutions, the survivors of the wars felt utterly shattered. The inability to find refuge anywhere, affected their physical and mental health. What boggled the minds of the individuals was the meaning of life, its significance, and the purpose of their existence.
This era of the twentieth century, thus, gave birth to philosophers and thinkers who mused over these questions, and came up with umpteen perspectives. Existentialist philosophers like Jean Paul Sartre and Pirandello questioned the absurdity of life and man’s existence in this world. Neitzsche reduced everything to ‘Nada’ i.e. nothingness and promulgated the death of the divinity.
It would not be wrong to say that these writers and philosophers portrayed aptly, the circumstances of the time period then. Sartre in his play ‘No Exit’ highlights how the world is like a cage; man is trapped in his life forever and ‘Hell is other people’. Beckett in ‘Waiting for Godot’ presents two people who are waiting for a person named Godot who never comes. Godot is said to be symbolic of either God or a Messiah, of whose arrival the devastated man is desperately waiting for. The ‘absurdity’ arises when man continues ‘to wait’ and does nothing constructive.
The literature truly captures its people, circumstances, and problems of its time. The post war period also gives one the glimpse of ‘history repeating itself’. One stands to visualize ‘The Lost Generation’ in the twentieth century again. War cruelly breathed into the souls of people, making their lives chaotic. Having lost their loved ones, they became a ‘lost generation’ themselves in the encroaching aura of pain. Jonathon Reed’s poem ‘Lost Generation’ truly sketches the prevailing situation:
I am a part of a lost generation
and I refuse to believe that
I can change the world
I realize this may be a shock but
“Happiness comes from within”
is a lie, and
“Money will make me happy”
So in 30 years I will tell my children
they are not the most important thing in my life
My employer will know that
I have my priorities straight because
Is more important than
I tell you this
Once upon a time
Families stayed together
But this will not be true in my era
This is a quick fix society
Experts tell me
30 years from now, I will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of my divorce
I do not concede that
I will live in a country of my own making
In the future
Environmental destruction will be the norm
No longer can it be said that
My peers and I care about this earth
It will be evident that
My generation is apathetic and lethargic
It is foolish to presume that
There is hope.
Hope will take its due course only when one chooses to reverse the poem. On a higher level, the poem implies how there are two sides and dimensions of everything. If read from the beginning, despair and chaos has its hold. If reversed, the poem offers a ray of hope, elucidating the fact that no matter how foolish, absurd, and meaningless life appears, it could be the other way round as well.
The deathly atmosphere of despair breeded philosophers, who portrayed, sketched, and preserved man’s feelings through the art of writing. It is interesting, and at the same time alarming to observe the modern man of the twenty first century today: he associates and identifies equally with the chaotic and crushed lives of the post war survivors back then, despite the fact that he has not yet experienced anything as traumatic as war. Why is that so? It is the ‘absurdity’ of life that enables man to relate to the past. Camus suggests in his essay titled ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ that man needs ‘to embrace the absurdity of life’ in order to make life meaningful. Once man has ‘accepted’ that life is ‘absurd,’ only then will he be able to make meaning out of it.
However, the question arises, how can one ‘embrace’ and ‘accept’ something that is ‘absurd’? It is hard for man to embrace something senseless. If life is incorrigible, preposterous and bizarre, then how come people excel, outshine and harbour happiness within? It is for the ‘lost generation’ that Reed exclaims: ‘There is hope’. Be the world an aporia, it still has a path to be revealed consciously. The solipsist attitude needs to die for life to have a rebirth.
The ceaseless debate about the absurdity of life comes down to the ‘existential void’ harboured by every individual. There is a certain feeling of emptiness in the heart which man tries to satiate through different things. It is ironic how this ‘existential angst’ is illuminated by various writers, yet they fail to offer a solution. The modern man of today identifies himself with this angst, gets more disillusioned and shattered. He finds a sense of relief in the idea that he is not the only one encountering the issue of who he is, the meaning of his life, and his ultimate culmination i.e. death. Just like ‘one must imagine Sisyphus happy,’ as Camus writes, one must also ‘imagine’ the modern man happy, let alone that he is not.
Sufism is a genre that provides an alternative solution, a third space, to counter the existential void. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the goal of every man occupying space in this world is none other than happiness, satisfaction, and peace of mind. It is interesting to note how each individual undertakes a different path in order to attain the same goal. Yet, one wavers and vacillates on this path, even digresses, unable to reach the end, for it is a path that demands consistency, patience, and constant struggle. In this respect, Sufism can be used as a yardstick to hammer all the proposed questions by the suffering individual, and offer a dimension.
Sufism focuses on spirituality, the world within. Spirituality is a highly subjective, personal and individualistic concept (Coyle, 2002). It is belief in a power operating in the universe greater than oneself. It is a sense of interconnectedness with all living creatures, and an awareness of the purpose and meaning of life (Walton, 1999). It can be considered as a basic human quality that transcends gender, race, colour, and national origin. According to Dossey (2000), spirituality is the essence of who we are and how we are in the world.
It is a universal concept, which is to say, that a soul, a spirit, exists in each one of us. The emptiness one feels within, is due to the obliviousness to the needs of the soul. It is one’s heart and soul that marks one’s existence. The existential angst overpowers the heart and mind when the soul is unsatisfied, and hence the void. This void continues to widen as one pays no heed to the inner world one inhabits. Hence, Camus’ suggestion of embracing the absurdity and meaninglessness of life stands marred, since this ideology in no way aids in filling the void.
However, Sufism counters this existential void by propagating the belief that one needs to pay attention to the spiritual realm rather than the physical realm. The physical is bound to corrode whereas the spiritual is subjected to eternity. Hence, what will remain forever holds greater magnitude and significance. The need of the soul and its magnitude, is aptly elucidated by Maulana Rumi in the first verse of his Mathnavi, where he writes:
Bishnawaz ne choon hikayat mee kunad
Waz dujai ha shikayat mee kunad
“Ask what the flute speaks of, what story does it tell of its separation”
Being an established Sufi, Maulana Rumi’s Mathnavi is of immense importance and a rich piece of Persian literature, brimming with the love of God. In the mentioned verse, he presents forth an analogy of a flute, made of wood, that is separated from its origin i.e. the tree. It is hollow from inside, and produces various sounds when it is blown. Maulana Rumi writes that as the flute will continue to shout till it gets united with the tree, likewise, man’s soul will continue to shriek and cry till it coalesces with its origin. This implies that the soul is a part of the divine, and will find true peace at the moment of unification i.e. death. Hence, death is a positive image of man returning to his beloved, his Creator.
Sufism gives importance to the very existence of man. Man harbours a whole universe within himself. Only if he delves into himself can he find the true meaning of his existence. Iqbal aptly puts it as:
Apnay man main doob kr paa jaa suraagh e zindagi
Does one not wonder why the Sufis and saints of earlier times abandoned their luxurious lifestyle? They embarked on a quest to find God. They had found the meaning of their life; something higher than themselves. The desire to know the higher existence kept them agile. This thorny path demanded patience and the ability to bear pain. The magnitude of this path can be realized from the fact that pain and suffering is a part and parcel of it. Only those who have a burning desire can go ahead in quest of God.
The post war survivors had their social and religious institutions crashed. They had no place to turn to. Having lost their loved ones, life appeared to them as absurd, and it took them years to recover. However, the modern man of the twenty first century has not gone through a war. He might have lost a loved one, or faced difficulties that would have left him hopeless and shattered; but, he has institutions to turn to. He is not alone and needs to realize that there is a being, greater than him, in whose control each and everything is. Sufism questions the Absurdists: How do you think that a Creator, a God who ‘created’ man as his ‘delegate’, as Shams says in ‘The Forty Rules of Love’, can abandon him, and leave him in this world without a purpose?
T. S. Eliot in his poem ‘The Wasteland’ draws from Hindu and Christian mythology. He highlights the destruction of the modern world, the fragmentation of the human self, despair, post war consequences, yet ends on a hopeful note i.e. ‘Shantih, Shantih, Shantih’. It will not be wrong to say that the essence of spirituality here is peace, upon which Eliot ends his poem. The message that is conveyed is to harbour a peaceful self despite the odds of life.
The ‘existential void’ that man thinks he harbours, and is unable to satisfy, needs to be transformed into a desire, a longing, to know the divine presence of God. He needs to embark on a quest that is selfless, knowledgable, and fulfilling. Life is a gift. The circumstances that one faces, no matter good or bad, are there to reform man, to make him a better person. However, nothing will happen on its own. It is a fact. Man himself, has to take a step forward. Once this little endeavor is made, one can see the path taking manifold turns, making one emerge from darkness to light.
Written by: Hamna Imran Chaudhary