An objective definition of absurdism would be implicitly antithetic to absurdism. The absence of centralized authority, of absolute certainty, of static substance, of objective meaning is the state of absurdism. Therefore absurdism can only be defined in the negative, as the absence of. Pirandello is the forefather of the later ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ movement. Camus is an existentialist that confronts the absurd found in daily life. The following two works capture both decentralization and the process of becoming, although within this similarity are two different approaches to that problem; can being be defined and how performativity defines being.
In the work ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’, Pirandello succinctly portrays the absurdity of existence through a convolution of a play within a play. The title of the work is itself the heart of the work. There is no author. In this context the author represents central authority, that which defines facts and determines intention. This is an analogy for existence; whether the author be considered a divine authority or human reason, neither exist in certainty. Pirandello instead focuses upon subjectivism rather than objective fact. Much like the characters in the play which are interrupting the rehearsal of a play, humanity attempts to take itself seriously when it is really a bumbling of characters with no author. Each individual attempts to play their particular character role in life, which is theatrical folly. The subjective of each person cannot know the subjective of the next with total certainty. The Father in the play describes the subjectivism and how even in communication we cannot know that we know:
“But don’t you see that the whole trouble lies here? In words, words. Each one of us has within him a whole world of things, each man of us his own special world. And how can we ever come to an understanding if I put in the words I utter the sense and value of things as I see them; while you who listen to me must inevitably translate them according to the conception of things each one of you has within himself. We think we understand each other, but we never really do.”
There is always uncertainty, even in this statement about uncertainty. When there is no central author of existence then each of us become the author of our personal existence, although even that is not definitive. Pirandello stresses the power of words in such a way that it puts the realm of language above that of action. Language is our reality, reality is a discourse, and language is what determines physical action. Pirandello foreshadows the poststructuralist movement to come decades later, and his emphasis on language distinguishes him from other existentialists.
In contrast to Pirandello’s focus on language, ‘The Guest’ by Camus concludes that personal choices are what define since there is no central authority to objectively define. Common among existentialism and Marxist theorists is the key theme of alienation. The schoolteacher in ‘The Guest’ is in a foreign country, teaching irrelevant geography to foreign students, and due to conscription must transport an Arab prisoner. Man is alone, alienated from others, and is condemned to be alone even when in company. The schoolteacher does not favor the Algerian separatists nor the French military, and due to coercion he is placed at odds with both. The schoolteacher is nervous throughout the travel with thoughts of the prisoner harming or killing him. Two men are alienated from one another due to politics, ethnicity, and class. It is not only language and subjective meaning that alienates us from one another, it is the tangible situations and materialist divisions which alienate as well. The schoolteacher Daru leaves the prisoner at a crossroad in which he can either choose to go to prison or flee to a nomad camp. Surprisingly the Arab continues on to the prison, despite having the choice to do otherwise. This one choice defines the Arab in multiple ways and are largely open to interpretation. According to Camus a person defines their being by the choices they make, existence precedes essence. Either the Arab chose to continue to prison out of situational coercion, as in he accepted his supposed fate and followed the pre-structured process in defeat, or he accepted his supposed fate by owning it and affirming the tragic consequence of his actions. The emphasis is on tangible action rather than language in defining their personal existence.
The ontology of becoming dates back to Heraclitus and multiple philosophers since then have adopted the metaphysical position. In contrast to perceiving reality as containing permanent substance, the metaphysical reality is understood as constant flux and change. There is no essence, there is only flux, and only due to constant performance which gels is there an appearance of permanence. The ending of Pirandello’s work conveys the ontology of becoming through ironic and tragic events. The daughter has been drowned, the son commits suicide, and the father shouts the words ‘Pretense! Reality!’ A pretense is a something false which attempts to appear true, it is a false appearance. This is performativity indirectly defined by Pirandello. Acts are empty of essence, much like a play is only a performance without permanent stay. Pirandello purposely conflates pretense and reality in his attempt to show there is no difference between the two. A play within a play that ends with the death of a daughter and a son, in which some actors shout is make believe, and other actors shout it is real; existence is performance without permanent substance. The manager, whom is the naïve realist of the play, becomes frustrated and storms out. The ending represents the question itself and perhaps the damning irony of it. If existence is performance, a constant state of pretense, then such a conclusion may leave an individual in despair and futility. The drowning and the suicide are both nonsensical, both tragic, though is also the impermanent flux of existence that is without essence. The simultaneous presence of both is the dark witted irony of Pirandello; it is tragic, it is folly, it is both pretense and reality.
What Pirandello delivers with a laugh, Camus delivers with a heavy heart. The ontology of becoming is found throughout ‘The Guest’ in that Daru plays the expected role of a conscript, and the Arab plays the expected role of a prisoner. There is a distinct lack of identity, rather they perform according to their social role in the situation. The social structure is accepted as reality despite possible pretense. It is existence that precedes essence, or in the particular context, it is social expectation that precedes essence. Daru attempts to shrug the responsibility by leaving the Arab at the crossroad to make his own decision. Unlike the Arab whom accepts the consequences and continues to prison, Daru attempts to dodge the consequences for the sake of his own conscience. Afterwards written on the wall is a message for Daru from the Algerians, “You handed over our brother. You will pay for this.” In Daru’s attempt to dodge consequences he has taken on a worst consequence. In Daru’s attempt to remain neutral he has slighted both the French occupation and the Algerian separatists. The position would be best described as ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. Even attempts at remaining neutral carries consequences. The ontology of becoming is an underlying theme, and for Camus it is important to make clear that performing or refusing to perform both carry consequences. Ones choices determines ones identity. Pirandello delivers the message in humor, that pretense and reality could be synonymous, and existence could very well be a practice in futility and folly. Unlike Pirandello, Camus accepts this conclusion but makes haste to point out that despite the seemingly futile performance, there are still consequences. As Sartre states, “Man is condemned to be free”. Existence could be a sisyphean affair, nonetheless there is no escaping consequences. One can be like Daru, try to shrug responsibility, even conclude it is all nonsense, remain passive in life, but there is no escaping the consequence of that choice.
Performativity defines being. Performativity precedes essence. Through the realm of language or the realm of tangible choices, it is ones performance that determines existence. Both Pirandello and Camus address the subject, one placing emphasis on language and the other on choices. Being is not a static unchangeable substance, it is a constant state of flux and motion which gives a consistent appearance, otherwise known as performativity. Both discourse and choice constitute performativity in defining being.