Black & White Zebras in Lion-Colored Grass: The Absurd

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Skip the B.S.

By Skip Eisiminger

No more laughter today in our Theater of The Absurd.

No more laughter today in our Theater of The Absurd.

“In 2013, the visual absurd seems to be losing its impact since its origins in Europe during World War II. Perhaps the best known work by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte is his self-portrait with a Granny Smith apple suspended before his face. The Everyman of the cartoon universe typically greets ‘Grandpa Smith’ wherever he appears (and you’d be surprised how often he does) as if nothing were out of the ordinary.” Skip Eisiminger

“I tell you boys there ain’t any answer, just you believe me, there ain’t any answer, there ain’t going to be any answer, there never has been any answer, that’s the answer.”—Gertrude Stein

“The absurd is born of the confrontation between human longing and the silence of the world.”—Albert Camus

Sterling (Skip) EisimingerCLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—10/14/2013—My friend Siggi once explained the origins of existential absurdity with a personal anecdote.

When he was five, in February of 1945, he and his mother left their village and went to visit his grandparents in Dresden. On their first night in the eastern German city, it received its first and last fire bombing. Unknown to the two visitors, the air-raid shelters were filled with refugees from Poland and Ukraine. As random luck would have it, my friend and his mother then ran in unqualified terror to the middle of a soccer field and huddled there all night while the city and its treeful parks burned around them. Totally exposed, they were safe. Those who went to their basements died when the floors above collapsed. Those who sought shelter in The Church of Our Lady soon found every pew an incandescent filament. And those who jumped into the Elbe River discovered burning phosphorus floating toward the rocks where they had sought refuge.

Some think the “double bind” is a source of schizophrenia and, before the death of his grandparents, the worst quandary Siggi had been forced to deal with involved his mother saying in one breath, “No sweets, Siggi; they’ll rot your teeth,” and, in the next, “Oh, Siggi, you’ve been so good, have some sugar-beet syrup.” But raise the order of magnitude by means of merciless bombing raids on both sides, and you have a continent ripe for Theater of the Absurd.

My own theory about the origins of the absurd has biblical roots. In Micah 4:3 and Isaiah 2:4, Yahweh says that He will “settle disputes among great nations. They will hammer their swords into plows and their spears into pruning knives.” Yet a few pages over, in Joel 3:10, the Lord says, “Hammer the points of your plows into swords and your pruning knives into spears.” I won’t try to unhammer that twisted point, but the ironic truth of a “holy war” is that it’s often waged to prove which deity is the “god of peace.”

Regardless of the origin, it often seems as if Ab Snopes, Faulkner’s old barn burner, has been disinterred and elected fire marshal of Yoknapatawpha County. Think I’m kidding?

  • In 1991, an arsonist convicted on six counts and still on probation was elected chief of the Chesnee (SC) Volunteer Fire Department.
  • In 1995, the US Congress voted the Pentagon seven billion dollars more than it had requested.
  • In the same year, a Honolulu man, who was sentenced to an anger-management class, was killed by his court-appointed counselor.
  • In 2002, a candidate for sheriff in Pulaski County (KY) shot and killed the incumbent.
  • In 2005, convicted wife-killer OJ Simpson announced that he was angry with his spouse for forcing him to bring up their two children alone.
  • In 2008, New York’s ex-Governor, Eliot Spitzer, who had made a name for himself breaking up prostitution rings, was caught patronizing a prostitution ring.
  • In 2009, the US Postal Service announced plans to deliver the mail after a nuclear war.
  • And, in 2010, Somalis began dying faster as a result of the grain the UN was shipping them. Research showed that these starving people were expending more energy pounding the raw grain into flour than they obtained from the bread they baked.

Do slam-dancing lovers suddenly make more sense now? “If you’re not confused,” as my grandfather used to say, “you don’t understand.”

One response to the absurd, which solves little but relieves some of the pressure, is the “all-in” approach Steven Wright takes in his comedy-club routine. Imagine him walking onto a darkened stage into a pool of light and saying, “I like to turn on my humidifier and dehumidifier and watch them battle it out.” Often without cracking a smile, he pauses while the audience collects itself and says, “Scientists say protons have mass. I didn’t know they were Catholic.” While the audience convulses again, Wright clenches his jaw and says, “I can levitate birds, but no one cares.” An hour or so later, he exits, saying, “If you were going to shoot a mime, would you use a silencer?” Such is the coping mechanism of a “black belt in Yoga.”

Science’s answer to the absurdities of nature starts in the quantum petting zoo. On the subatomic level, physicists say with increasing certainty that Erwin Schrödinger’s cat is dead and alive until its box is opened and a veterinarian returns a verdict. Likewise, two quarks can occupy the same position at the same time. On the macro-level, time and space are curved, looking at or measuring something changes it, and the universe is tan, not turquoise as once thought.

Honestly, none of this Kafkaesque universe has ever made sense to me, but perhaps it helps to explain how Hitler could coolly order the extermination of eleven million innocents and weep over the death of his dog because, in some contexts, the absurd is not only real but rational.

Nevertheless, in 2013, the visual absurd seems to be losing its impact since its origins in Europe during World War II. Perhaps the best known work by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte is his self-portrait with a Granny Smith apple suspended before his face. The Everyman of the cartoon universe typically greets “Grandpa Smith” wherever he appears (and you’d be surprised how often he does) as if nothing were out of the ordinary.

Indeed, the absurd has become the status quo: a produce clerk inquires, “Sure I can’t pop that in a bag for you, Sir?” His doctor offers a no-frills diagnosis, “Looks like worms.” A customs agent asks, “Any other fruit or vegetables to declare?” Finally, a fellow with a banana in his ear opens his apartment door and says, “Oh, it’s you.”

It’s a bit like Halloween after the tenth loop of the zombie apocalypse. You just smile, drop some candy in the bag, and say, “Happy Halloween! Now go back to your grave.”

James Dickey used to warn poetry students that surrealism in any genre “invents without discovering.” If a clam were to play a harmonica, he wondered, what insights would we have we gained? But if there’s little left to discover except the knowledge that God is indisposed, and the planet is being sucked toward a black hole, I want to “live as if already dead,” as the Zen koan urges.

Like many of us, my wife and I carry a bit too much weight, yet only about 35 percent of American doctors admit that they’d advise us to lose any of it. That’s a sweet-and-sour pickle in and of itself.

Recently, however, my wife’s doctor did tell her that her blood sodium was a bit low, and to use the salt shaker.

A short while later, he informed her that her blood pressure was high and to cut back on the sodium.

When she summarized her medical reports for a friend, she concluded: “Wait a minute; let me put on my glasses, so I can hear you better.”

Musing on the incongruities of sodium and chlorine, two poisons, and sodium chloride, which a body needs to survive, my wife and I drove to The Definite Maybe for some German “liquid bread” and food for thought:

Once many went there ‘cause no one was there—

now no one goes there, so many are there.

I know—it’s beyond belief.

Note: The image used as an illustration here, “Stan Laurel: The Man Behind the Green Apple,” a send-up of the original Magritte, derives from

About Sterling Eisiminger

Dr. Sterling (“Skip”) Eisiminger was born in Washington DC in 1941. The son of an Army officer, he traveled widely but often reluctantly with his family in the United States and Europe. After finishing a master’s degree at Auburn and taking a job at Clemson University in 1968, he promised himself that he would put down some deep roots. These roots now reach back through fifty years of Carolina clay. In 1974, Eisiminger received a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina, where poet James Dickey “guided” his creative dissertation. His publications include Non-Prescription Medicine (poems), The Pleasures of Language: From Acropox to Word Clay (essays), Omi and the Christmas Candles (a children’s book), and Wordspinner (word games). He is married to the former Ingrid (“Omi”) Barmwater, a native of Germany, and is the proud father of a son, Shane, a daughter, Anja, and grandfather to four grandchildren, Edgar, Sterling, Spencer, and Lena.
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4 Responses to Black & White Zebras in Lion-Colored Grass: The Absurd

  1. Will Balk, Jr says:

    This is absurd!

  2. Skip says:

    Thank you, Will.
    I’d love to do a lunch with you some time–are you living in Central, SC?

  3. Will Balk, Jr says:

    Sorry, Skip. I’ve been gallivanting and avoiding all but the shortest visits to the internet.
    I can’t imagine anything nicer than a lunch with you. My brother Ted is there in Central, but I’m down in the Lowcountry – for the time being, a few days each week when I’m not in the midlands looking after our elderly mother. I’ve been known to visit Ted, notably at the time of Spittoono; so let’s say we’ll keep in touch, and if either is going to be in the other’s vicinity we should try to meet. A delight to read you!

  4. Skip says:

    I look forward to meeting with you and Ted–I’m sure we have some friends in common.

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