The independent news organization of Duke University

Leaning into the absurd

A few weeks ago, around 9PM, a group of friends and I mingled in the courtyard area near the Bronze Bull statue, planning for a relatively mundane evening. We were surrounded by clusters of other groups also eating ice cream from The Parlour across the street, and most everyone seemed settled into the routine of, This is how our very predictable night will go. Right on cue, a large limo comes scooting down Parrish Street, aiming to make a right turn onto Market Street (an already narrow street made even more confined by the row of parallel-parked cars). The driver slowly begins to make the turn and it soon becomes clear that a successful right turn is not in the cards for this thirty-foot long stretch limo, but the driver makes this decision a bit too late. He begins to back up, hoping to correct the angle (or else abandon the turn altogether), but the light pole at the corner prohibits him from cutting across the curb and before long, he’s stuck.

Driving forward would cause him to hit the line of parked cars, and reversing any further would cause the light pole—which is one inch away from the body of the car—to scrape the rest of the vehicle all the way to the front. It’s a pretty busy night downtown, meaning that all the minglers stop their conversations and start to gather around the site. The thirty person line outside The Parlour is eye-to-eye with this massive limo that’s at a forty-five degree angle across the street, heading straight for them. Strangers start catching eyes with each other, and the driver opens his door to walk around the side to assess the situation. He pauses slightly, then with a completely shocking level of humor exclaims, “Huh….well this is certainly an ‘oh *insert expletive here* moment.’”  

From top to bottom, this whole scene was utterly absurd and there was no clear way out of it; it seemed that he’d end up sitting in this misfortune for the entire night. Unexpectedly, though, the limo driver faced this bizarre turn of events and created a whole new situation: he actually started a conversation with said absurdity. 

Albert Camus defines “the absurd” as the tension between the human inclination to find order and meaning in the world and the impossibility of doing so successfully. He asserts that at the core of life “there is only absurdity and more absurdity.”

I don’t completely align with the entirety of this definition and personally am keen to put faith in a wider, more mysterious purpose to life rather than signing it off as futile, but I’m going to place this aside for the time being. Where Camus goes next with this philosophy, where he assigns an action step, is an interesting prospect. He continues, “Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful.”

There’s an incredibly nuanced texture to the idea of finding joy in the absurd. It’s not the same as morbid humor nor is it an unwillingness to sit with grief; I think it’s actually a two-step acceptance of it. It’s first a recognition, then a conversation. The Venn diagram where Camus’s definition of absurdity overlaps with my own is this moment of looking at something, utterly dumbfounded, and thinking, This is just completely ridiculous, there’s absolutely no “everything happens for a reason” explanation for this one. In that moment, as though every explanation vanishes from the realm of possibility, the only option left is to cling to some bizarre acceptance of this absurdity. 

I spoke to a friend about this idea a few days ago and they pushed back, saying, “Doesn’t calling something absurd essentially mean giving up on it?” I couldn’t fully articulate it, but all I could express was a hearty “No, no, it’s actually the opposite. If anything, sometimes, for me, recognizing absurdity draws me closer to a thing.” In certain instances of grief or difficulty, as I’ve wrestled to make sense of something, I’ve found that recognizing the total absurdity of certain elements of a situation can endear me closer to it. The result isn’t giving up, denialism or avoidance; it’s an odd and totally bizarre acceptance. 

How we respond to this absurdity—whether we use Camus’s definition, my modified take on it or a totally new one altogether—is where we can kindle a spark of kinship and caretaking. 

As the crowd of Saturday night ice cream eaters stare dumbfounded at the limo that’s impossibly stuck in the street with no way out, everyone assumes a sort of reverence that says, This isn’t our situation to label as absurd yet, and instead defers to the driver. As soon as he signals that he’s accepting a shred of the obvious ridiculousness of the situation, though, the group follows suit and starts to buy into the absurdity of it all. The middle-aged dads in the group assemble like the Avengers and begin examining all sides of the limo, as though performing an informal state inspection. Others crouch down to analyze the angle he’s at and how he could avoid closing in the extra inch towards the light pole. Suddenly, everyone’s made themselves a part of this story and in a crescendo moment, somebody offers up, “What if we tried to lift it?”

Perhaps it’s the excitement of the moment or the suspended disbelief that we’ve all assumed in order to take part in this scene, but a critical mass of the crowd decides, Yes, absolutely, we will lift this limo. I, for one, readily flung my bag to the side, placed my ice cream bowl in a potted plant and confidently thought, Oh yes, I too could help lift this several ton bundle of metal and rubber. A large group of us gather behind the rear bumper and station ourselves around the sides as we find our grips and crouch down to prepare. Someone begins the countdown and in unison—with a very busy pedestrian area looking on—we shout “One, two, three…” and try to hoist this limo off the street. 

That we’re doing this right now doesn’t make any sense and—by all definitions—is absurd. Yet we’re suspending disbelief, leaning into the bizarre and trying to lift a limo. To take part in this moment is to shed all notions of pragmatism; to have a conversation with the absurd is to willingly shed all our cloaks of self-protective seriousness and decide to find joy in this utterly bizarre landscape. 

Now, I won’t mention that the limo didn’t budge at all and that the shock absorbers likely felt absolutely no displacement of the tires leaving the road as our motley crew tried to hoist it up. I will mention that after a long while, the driver miraculously found a way to 18-point-turn himself out of the intersection and ventured off into the night with a giddy crowd cheering him on. 

And this is what I think communal absurdity is: it’s not a resigned indifference or a despairing futility, it’s the opposite. Accepting the absurdity as it comes—and folding each other into it—opens up a level of kinship, a knee-jerk reaction to care for each other that seems to exist in another dimension. To get here, it seems we have to opt into a conversation with the absurd wherein acceptance and some form of odd joy are our priorities. 

When we’re living in pragmatism and self-protective seriousness, we don’t try to lift limos, I suspect. 

Sara Kate Baudhuin is a Trinity senior. Her column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.


Share and discuss “Leaning into the absurd” on social media.