Making the Connection: Symbolist Poetry and the Theatre of the Absurd

May 29, 2019 by Essay Writer

GUILDENSTERN: All your life you live so close to truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque. ~ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard,(Pg. 39) Paul Valery’s Asides is a poem about the loss of faith, desire, knowledge, communication, and the ability to comprehend the world and one’s place in it. The narrator displays a haunting acceptance of his uncertain fate as he freefalls into unknown places. Thematically, Asides bares a striking resemblance to the Theatre of the Absurd, a theatrical movement that emerged primarily in the fifties and sixties. The futility of contemporary life, death, the breakdown of language, and the protagonists’ failure to understand their place in the universe are principal themes in Absurdist drama. Perhaps Paul Valery’s poetry was a prelude to the Absurdist movement. The idea of man perceiving life as an incomprehensible game and being struck by the realization of his inability to forge a meaningful existence is the dominant theme in both Asides and Absurdist drama. Throughout Asides, the narrator conveys a sense of dreary hopelessness. He has abandoned faith in himself, the universe, and God. The narrator is suspended in a state of uncertainty, which is highlighted by incessant questioning. The third stanza emphasizes the narrator’s desolation: “What must you do? Learn. Learn and master and foresee, All, of course, to no good……… Who are you? Nothing, nothing at all.” (pg. 1487) The narrator is expressing his frustration with the futility of life by saying knowledge and mastery will do him no good in the end. Even if he aquires the tools, he still won’t be able to utilize them. The narrator is trapped by his own limitations. The following exchange between the two protagonists in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the most celebrated Absurdist play, demonstrates a similar abandonment of hope. “VLADIMIR: I get used to the muck as I go along. ESTRAGON: (after prolonged reflection). Is that the opposite? VLADIMIR: Question of temperament. ESTRAGON: Of character. VLADIMIR: Nothing you can do about it. ESTRAGON: No use struggling. VLADIMIR: One is what one is. ESTRAGON: No use wriggling. VLADIMIR: The essential doesn’t change. ESTRAGON: Nothing to be done.” (pg. 17) In an excerpt from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a later Absurdist play partially inspired by Waiting for Godot, one of the central characters laments their bleak existence and the uncertainty of the universe. “GUILDENSTERN (broken): We’ve travelled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we move idly towards eternity, without the possibility of reprieve or the hope of explanation.” (pg.121) It should be noted that another prevalent theme in Absurdist drama is the distrust of language as an effective means of communication. The seemingly pointless exchanges and word games commonly found in Absurdist plays are not arbitrary at all. The meaning is buried in the language and it’s up to the reader to unearth the writer’s intended message. Valery takes a similar approach in Asides. The poem is, in some capacity, a linguistic jigsaw puzzle. Valery dispenses questions and answers, all hazy and ambiguous. The answers are in the text but the reader must hunt for them. Another theme shared by Absurdist drama and Asides is the relentless presence of mortality and the idea of death as an escape. Towards the end of Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir become overwhelmed by desperation and contemplate suicide in a startlingly casual manner. “VLADIMIR: We’ll hang ourselves to-morrow. (Pause.) Unless Godot comes. ESTRAGON: And if he comes? VLADIMIR: Then we’ll be saved.” (pg. 109) In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Guildenstern address the idea of death being a welcome relief. “GUILDENSTERN: As Socrates so philosophically put it, since we don’t know what death is, it is illogical to fear it. It might be…very nice. Certainly it is a release from the burden of life….” (pg. 110) The final stanza of Asides illustrates the narrator’s perception of death. “Where are you going? To death. What will you do there? Die. Nor ever return to this rotten game, For ever and ever and ever the same.” (pg. 1487) For the narrator, life is a game with unintelligible rules, a game he won’t ever win. In step with the protagonists of Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the narrator of Asides doesn’t appear frightened by the idea of death but rather considers it to be a reprieve from his unbearable existence on earth. The themes present in Paul Valery’s Asides are themes found at the heart of Absurdist drama. Valery already holds a place in literary history as a notable Symbolist poet, making him somewhat of a revolutionary. Perhaps Valery’s ideas and concepts were not only innovative in his time but also inspired another groundbreaking literary movement: The Theatre of the Absurd. PLAYER: Uncertainty is the normal state. You’re nobody special. ~ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard. (Pg. 66)

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