The Anxieties of Absurdity: Cross Purpose as ‘The Sauveur Manqué’

In his essay, “The myth of Sisyphus” (1942), Camus asserted that the human situation is essentially absurd, devoid of any purpose or clarity in the face of an unintelligible world. Although there was no formal Absurdist movement in history, the term ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ came to be loosely applied to those dramatists such as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, Harold Pinter, and a few others who shared a vision of humanity struggling vainly to find a purpose in a world that was free from any eternal truths. Absurdity believes that there is no purpose to life and a human control over fate is practically impossible. Humankind, then, is hopeless and so is the human condition.

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One of the essential factors that contributed to the growing attitude of indifference towards a quest for meaning was the post war disillusionment. Intellectuals and artists at the turn of the 20th century believed that a cultural dead end had been reached. They could foresee the events spiralling into an unknown territory. The postwar disillusionment and scepticism in humanity challenged our idea of the world as something that is knowable or predictable. Instead of progress and growth, the postwar intelligentsia saw decay and a growing alienation of the individual.

The ideas that inform the plays also dictate their structure in that most of the absurdist playwrights did away with the logical structure of traditional theatre. This emphasises the absurdity of human existence through meaningless dialogue, purposeless situations, lack of logical development and mindless repetition of lines and action. There is little dramatic action as conventionally understood; however frantically the characters perform, their busyness serves to underscore the fact that nothing happens to change their existence.

Language in an absurdist play is often dislocated, full of clichés, puns, repetitions, and non sequiturs. In plays of the Absurdist theatre, a ridiculous, purposeless behaviour gives the plays a sometimes dazzling comic surface, which of course, only works to underscore a rather serious message of metaphysical distress.

‘The Misunderstanding’, (French: Le Malentendu), sometimes published as ‘Cross Purpose’, is a 1943 play by Albert Camus which, according to a few interpretations, asserts Camus’ philosophy of the Absurd. Camus’s theme is “the sauveur manqué, a savior who fails because of his inability to speak a clear language to those he would save”. The play depicts the destruction of a family that reveals itself as fatally incapable of communicating with each other. The difficulties stem from Jan not paying heed to his wife Maria who advises him to introduce himself plainly. At the same time, his sister Martha refuses to engage in any personal communication while the mother is too weary to respond to Jan’s hints.

In the very first scene, Jan displays his inability to communicate effectively as his language is full of ambiguous overtones. He struggles to explain to his wife the reasons for not revealing his identity. When in conversation with his mother and sister, he admits to his incapability of finding “the right words”. He defers revealing his name until he has known them as an outsider, which is an opportunity he ends up never having. Jan’s attitude is suggestive of both mistrust, as well as an over confidence in the power of words. Unable and unwilling to use clear language, Jan’s consistent efforts at trying to involve his mother into a revelatory conversation while making a careful, selective choice of words not only fail at the supposed intent but also invite scorn from his sister.

Unaware of the trap that is being laid for him, what Jan is actually seeking is recognition through a language of mystification. He attempts to be recognized through a series of indirect, half- revelations about himself, at the same time hoping to elicit direct, personal revelations from his sister. It is the language of mystification that makes Jan believe that his identity is protected and thoroughly concealed, a fact which ironically, also ends his life. The conflict, thus, can be reduced to a pure conflict of language, in which the mother-daughter duo on one hand and Jan on the other, are fully conscious of the effect they wish to produce and simultaneously oblivious to the effect that is actually produced.

It is almost as though, the two use different languages that have nothing in common while both the parties throw clues at each other, in hope of being subtly understood. This inadequacy of language becomes evident when Martha enters Jan’s room to ask him to leave the hotel but much to her own disappointment ends up having him stay. It is again the verbal exchange between the two, a conflict that arises from the word “humanity” which makes her decide otherwise. The mother also only misses stopping Jan from drinking the tea by a margin of a few minutes. Even when she reveals her original intention and therefore drops a hint, like a pattern, it consistently keeps missing Jan. In this way, the characters become the victims of their own verbal strategies; their communication or the lack of it. It is like two languages coming dangerously close to each other, yet, by the lack of one mutual word, the two stand life and death apart.

Yet, the problem is not one of total lack of communication. It is rather that the characters choose to reveal too much and too little, all at the same time. By his innocent and naive use of a rather harmless and insignificant phrase, Jan has unwittingly aroused Martha’s hostility. His tendency to choose exactly the wrong words becomes progressively more dangerous. His unfortunate use of the affective term ‘humanity’ produces a violent counter-reaction: Martha’s humanity is not, as Jan would interpret it, her human sympathy, but her passion and her relentless desire to escape from the suffocation of her prison. As Patricia Hopkins argues, it is significant that the supreme misunderstanding arises from the characters’ diametrically opposite interpretations of a word that ordinarily serves to bring people together.

Besides being “the sauveur manqué”, the play also reveals certain other anxieties of absurdist theatre. In ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, Camus defines ‘The Absurd’ as “the feeling of being radically divorced from the world and thus a stranger to both others and oneself.” Camus further argues that the sense of constantly living in a state of exile produces a profound skepticism or distrust in the myths and universal systems of belief, which are alleged to give meaning and purpose to existence but in fact devalue and even negate it.

As an absurdist tragedy, the play also then advocates a revolt against death and the arbitrary, irrational nature of man’s fate that despite his best efforts, will shape his ends. Jan’s quest for recognition, for his identity to be seen and known by his family, is impossible and, thus, destined to bring disaster. Jan, on this account, su?ers from a sort of Hegelian hubris, believing he can be recognized and that his family’s recognition will bring him in?nite happiness, erasing the pain of their long estrangement. As an Absurdist interpretation, a “wild longing for clarity” is unful?llable, impossible, and bound to bring destruction. To chase after understanding and recognition seems, in some of Camus’ writing, to lead only to violence and death, whereas internalizing the inevitability of failure – as in our fundamental “absurdity” – permits us to survive.

Another important tenet of Absurdist theatre is the impossibility of attaining absolute happiness or contentment. In the play, despite the success of his marriage, Jan is chasing something impossible as his source of happiness which eventually only ends up bringing him death. But even as a reader, these definitions of happiness are only doubted in hindsight, never in the moment when Jan wishes to pursue it. The impossibility of knowing life in the moment doubles the absurdity of it. The core of this idea is that human desire is in perpetual conflict with a world that is arbitrary, illogical and unfair.

The misunderstandings and lack of comprehension that thwart these desires illustrate Camus’ philosophy of the Absurd. It is these difficulties that create the drama – Jan’s choice to conceal his identity, Martha’s insistence on impersonal conventions, her misinterpretation of his determination to stay, Maria’s bewildered response to her cold confession, and the Old Man’s indifference. The vision is bleak, with Camus’ absurdist creed summed up by one of his characters: “This world we live in doesn’t make sense”.

Critics have also argued that a central theme of this play is that life does not distinguish between those who pursue a ‘bad’ path and those who pursue a ‘good’ path. Life, as Camus sees it, is equally cruel to the innocent and the criminal; this is one of the many the absurdities of existence. In Martha’s words:

”We’ve all been fooled. We hear the summons, we obey the call. It might be love, it might be the sea. And all for what? What good does it do us? The whole thing’s ridiculous. Laughable.”

Martha is Sisyphus: aware of her fate and the impossibility of controlling it. Her brief moment of happiness is her realisation that she won’t allow the world to “kneel her down” to its beliefs because she has liberated herself from the conventional ideas of right and wrong. She also doesn’t hope for any “good end” or rescue and that is her ultimate liberation:

“I have no home. But I shan’t capitulate. I will leave this world the alien that I have always been.”

In “The myth of Sisyphus”, Camus says, “This is the truly tragic moment, when the hero becomes conscious of his wretched condition.” He does not have hope, but ‘there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.’ Acknowledging the truth will conquer it; Sisyphus (Martha) just like the absurd man, keeps pushing. Camus claims that when Sisyphus acknowledges the futility of his task and the certainty of his fate, he is freed to realize the absurdity of his situation and to reach a state of contented acceptance. In Camus’ philosophical understanding then, it is Martha who truly understands the absurdity that life is only a euphemism for:

“Reality has us all firmly in its grip. It’s time you understood that this waits for all of us. None of us, in life or in death, finds any peace. There is no land where we can feel at home.”

Camus did not regard Le Malentendu as pessimistic. He said: ‘When the tragedy is done, it would be incorrect to think that this play argues for submission to fate. On the contrary, it is a play of revolt, perhaps even containing a moral of sincerity’”. The family is destroyed through “failing to realise that values are not dreamed up in isolation but discovered communally”.

Bibliography

  1. Brombert, Victor. “Camus and the Novel of the ‘Absurd.’” Yale French Studies, no. 1, 1948, pp. 119–123. JSTOR.
  2. Hochberg, Herbert. “Albert Camus and the Ethic of Absurdity.” Ethics, vol. 75, no. 2, 1965, pp. 87–102. JSTOR.
  3. Hopkins, Patricia. “Camus’s Failed Savior: ‘Le Malentendu.’” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, vol. 39, no. 4, 1985, pp. 251–256. JSTOR.
  4. Rossi, Louis R. “Albert Camus: The Plague of Absurdity.” The Kenyon Review, vol. 20, no. 3, 1958, pp. 399–422. JSTOR.
  5. Thorson, Thomas Landon. “Albert Camus and the Rights of Man.” Ethics, vol. 74, no. 4, 1964, pp. 281–291. JSTOR.
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The Anxieties of Absurdity: Cross Purpose as ‘The Sauveur Manqué’. (2021, Dec 28). Retrieved July 2, 2022 , from
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