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The Optimal Gauge of the Absurd

Published on February 28, 2010

Robert Fenhagen’s Beautiful People is a very short (I would say concise) story that is not concerned at all with beautiful people. Nor is it an essay on beauty, and what beauty may mean to different (beautiful) people, as seen (and perceived) from different (possibly beautiful) angles.

It is rather a minimalist piece of absurd literature that is about beautiful people as much as Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano (La cantatrice chauve) is about bald sopranos. Truth be told, both beautiful people and bald sopranos (and their equally juxtaposable positions) are only pretexts for the setting in of the absurd in a kind of literature that is absurd only inasmuch as its absurdness does not become an absurdity on its own merits. And the essential difference between the absurdness of a piece of absurd literature and the absurdity that it may fall prey to by all accounts is the optimal gauge of the absurd by which measure one is to know the proper length of a literary text that is edging on the absurd itself.

What is then the best length for any literary text to become literature of the absurd? Is there such a textual limit at which the absurd can penetrate literature and make its presence known in the form of the literature of the absurd?

The answer may seem nothing short of absurd itself. Yet, the answer is neither absurd nor possible. The answer is beyond the absurd of the situation that has made it plausible in the first place. In fact, the answer is utterly unknown to the asker except for a few historical hints that, on their own, cannot compose a fully articulate answer.

These hints are simple literary innuendos that should not be taken into consideration unless the asker is willing to do with them as if they were the stuff the optimal gauge of the absurd is made of.

However, these hints do exist and cannot be completely ignored. For what it’s worth, they at least give the asker (whoever it might be) a starting point from which to advance into the nature of something that simply cannot be advanced at all. The optimal gauge of the absurd may as well be a literary chimera, or a fanciful literary device by means of which the asker feigns the knowable by delving into the unknown, but it is also the fixedly known starting point for any (further) enquiry into the ever less known facts among which one is the optimal gauge of the absurd.

I will not prolong this concrete suspense by my theoretical incursions any more. These hints, vague as they may be, are all the asker is left with from studying all the possible answers for the proper length a literary text should have in order to become absurd. Moreover, these hints, historical as they might indeed be, are nevertheless still fresh in the memory of the absurdness’ seeker, or the absurdity’s eschewer. But how can they be otherwise, when they’re almost within reach of our own times? Surely, such literary hints as the plays of Ionesco, or Beckett’s, or even the more recent (and recently late) Pinter’s, not to mention the whole of Kafka’s writings,  are indicative, at least in theory (the one by which means I have been able to prolong this concrete suspense so far), of the proper length a piece of absurd literature should have. What these examples of the optimal gauge of the absurd teaches us (or merely shows us indirectly, by means of exemplification) is that no piece of absurd literature should be shorter than a few dozen pages. What they also point us to is that, apparently, any literary text with a pretence to the absurdness of the literature of the absurd needs space to develop all the absurd qualities and traits that will eventually qualify it as literature of the absurd. By space, I mean enough fictional width and imaginary breadth within which the primal absurdness of the literature of the absurd can grow to the most mature phases of the fully developed absurd of the literature of the absurd.

However, it should seem obvious that Robert Fenhagen, in his most succinct Beautiful People, begs to differ. To him, the optimal gauge of the absurd, which gives us the universal law of the literature of the absurd, is not important enough to be sufficiently optimal or universal. To him, the optimal gauge of the absurd, which states almost absurdly that the shorter, more concise a text is, the less likely absurd it can be, is no law at all. For how can it be so, and how can he abide by it, when his Beautiful People, who are quite absent from their title-supposed presence, are the living proof that the absurd of the literature of the absurd is gauge-proof and, most of all, immeasurable? After all, would gauging up the absurd not lead to the very absurdity to which the absurdness of any piece of absurd literature is striving not to fall prey? Obviously, Robert Fenhagen would not (could not) be in disagreement with his own writing. By its very nature, the absurd is as limitless as the hawk’s gaze gauging up the limitlessness of the process of enumeration of all the things standing between the two (equally absurd) ends of its food’s coming into being and in classic prey shape:

“He kicked an empty can of Brown’s Baked Beans, and it ricocheted off a blackened, dirty red brick wall, eventually rolling  back, and coming to rest against a rotten stalk of celery that was providing nutrition for a healthy white grub worm, which was being watched by a hawk flying overhead.”

Addendum: A Literary Re-Writing for a Critical Writing

(by Robert Fenhagen)

Thinking back and remembering a Beatles song was a way that he spent endless hours – playing the song over and over again in his mind as he wandered the uglier streets of Philadelphia – the song escaping his memory; his mind singing in falsetto:

“How does it feel to be one of the buu-tee-full pee-pull? What did you see when you were there? Nothing that doesn’t show…” One of his filthy sneaker slipped off of the curb, soaking his foot in rusty water and almost falling off. He bent and yanked the gray laces tighter; one breaking off. “Shoot” he said, not angry, not frustrated, just resigned. Nothing went easily.

Passing by a deserted ally, he wandered in – passing three fetid trashcans, one dead cat, and one dead rat. He felt dead himself, and pulled at the frayed black belt that barely held up his dirty jeans. He wasn’t one of the beautiful people; he couldn’t be, could he?

He kicked an empty can of Brown’s Baked Beans, and it ricocheted off a blackened red brick wall and eventually rolled back, and came to rest against a rotten stalk of celery that was providing nutrition for a healthy white grub worm, which was being watched by a hawk flying overhead.

The grub contracted violently at the clanging can, but after a moment stretched out and continued, never realizing that it was doomed. A maggot ran out and scurried away.

“Good riddance.” No one noticed who spoke.

As he watched, the white worm contract, but soon relax, he fully understood that reaction – he understood being a worm. Leaning down, he plucked it up and brought it to his face to look closer, and then put it back on the ground; the hawk noticed.

“I know how you feel, buddy. I know how you feel” he said softly.

Smiling at the grub he said softly, his yellowed dentures clicking: “All I do is catch some sleep, get some chow, and all I get is disturbed, too.” He had another thought and said:

“I like your style, little cousin. Roll up in a ball, and wait it out. Good manoeuvre.”

He smiled, showing his gold tooth. It was a spark of color; that, the white grub, and, less so, his sun-cooked, leathery skin. That used to be white, but not anymore.

“I think I’ll call you Angel. That’s it. Angel.” For the moment, Angel, my man, it’s us against the world.”

He smiled, and moisture collected in his one eye, threatening to run out.

He hadn’t cried in years, the last time was when his Papa belted him after he cried after his pet fish died. “That wasn’t a man, no sir. That wasn’t a man” his old man said.

“It was a dammed fish, that’s all, just a God-damned fish!” screamed his old man, tired out from hitting. Hitting someone and trying to gulp a beer at the same time was tough.

“But it was my fish, my friend, my buddy.” He had blubbered for a second.

Now, he walked to the end of the alley, where a chain-linked fence prohibited someone from getting out, which seemed crazy because “no one in their right mind would want to get into there.”

He smiled again, his gold front tooth the only expensive object between Malvern and Stonehenge Streets – both city streets, both scarred by ugliness.

White, with dark veins running through its body – veins that contracted and expanded as it moved and squirmed. Veins that gushed green blood.

“Do you have green blood, little buddy?” he whispered, imagining that he was talking to the grub.

Green blood.

He thought of that white boy who he went to rehab with years ago. The white boy who cried about getting raped by the minister. What was it that he used to say?

Oh yeah. The priest used to take him out into these green fields of grass, and bend him over… He used to make me bleed. That was it.

He put one torn sneaker in front of the other, then looking through the inch and a half spaces of the chain linked fence, his remaining eye settled on the small pond, which was designed to make that particular Philadelphia city park look nice, and it did. The water was clean, and the cement around it had been swept recently.

His eyes blinking in the noon-day sun, he gazed at the pond and watched a single green leaf lazily glided from the sky and settled on the water’s surface, where soon it was bumped by the snout of a tiny fish.

He imagined for a moment that he was a green leaf, swirling and free upon the wind, just going and going, not running, but being carried and  settling on calm water.  Floating peacefully.

Then his Daddy would hit him, and bump him around a lot, after coming in drunk.

He looked at that leaf being worried by the fish, and then looked down at his worm, who had curled up into a ball in his palm, but looked as if he were sleeping, rather than scared.

Leaning down, he let the grub worm roll off of his hand, where it rested against a piece of discarded bread.

“When you wake up, little friend, you enjoy some breakfast, and then go on out into the world and live. You live, young man. You live. Go on out there and find yourself a pretty lady worm. Have some grublettes. Find yourself some love.”

He smiled, his gold tooth glistening, turned and walked out to the end of the alley that led out onto Stonehenge. He turned right and decided to walk down by the pond.

The hawk began to dive. 

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