It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world, but for Wales? – “A Man for All Seasons” by Robert Bolt
Last week, we traveled to Henry’s realm where laws were laid flat, a metaphor Bolt uses in his play about Thomas More, who valued principle above life. More poses that moral conflict to Richard Rich, whose name speaks to his values. For perjuring himself at More’s trial, Rich is appointed attorney general for Wales. The William Barr of King Henry’s court.
“The Trial” by Franz Kafka offers thought-provoking insight into absurdity in the corporate, totalitarian state, which Kafka anticipated. In it, the reader is struck by Josef K’s near nonchalant response to his arrest. Convinced he’s innocent of the unnamed charges, K reacts with compliance, assured in the delusion that it’s a silly mistake that will be rectified.
In his critique in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus draws a parallel between the story and that of the insane man fishing in a bathtub. A psychiatrist asks him if the fish are biting.
“Of course not, you fool,” replies the man. “This is a bathtub.”
Camus says Kafka’s story “can be grasped quite clearly to what a degree the absurd effect is linked to an excess of logic. Kafka’s world is in truth an indescribable universe in which man allows himself the tormenting luxury of fishing in a bathtub, knowing nothing will come of it.”
Merriam-Webster defines absurdity as “ridiculously unreasonable, unsound, or incongruous; extremely silly or ridiculous; having no rational or orderly relationship to human life; lacking order or value.” Add in Camus’s corollary, excess of logic, which K, oblivious to his inevitable doom, uses to rationalize his behavior.
Bolt and Kafka present insights into our current farce. As we try to make sense of its full-frontal inanity, we watch the Riches sell their souls for Wales.
Principle, for which More was beheaded, to the Republican Party is as honor is to Falstaff: It’ll none of it. Its shift from principles exemplified by two of its early titans, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, is stark. It festers in denial about its betrayal of those principles, preferring, in principle’s stead, to fish in a bathtub while its decidedly unprincipled Dear Leader continues to wreak havoc on our constitutional order and criminal justice system.
What price for selling one’s soul? Before Bolt, Christopher Marlowe explored it in “Doctor Faustus,” William Shakespeare in “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar,” and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in “Faust.” Desire. Ambition. Acclaim. Financial success. Fleeting glory gone down in flames.
While absurdity is an intellectual response to inanity, it implies an emotive reaction, a sense of helplessness, exasperation, or futility about a seemingly unsolvable conundrum. E.g., What to do with the bad-boy POTUS who believes and behaves as if he’s above the law? It’s a notion antithetical and repugnant to American ethos and jurisprudence given our system being predicated not on divine moral principle but, as More makes clear, “man’s law.”
Above the law. Only in a kakistocracy is one allowed to be.
Another way to define absurdity is irony gone amok. Trump and Trumpists wrapping themselves in the nobility of the just cause of defeating Nazism, the struggle led by the president they most revile: Franklin D. Roosevelt. They sing paeons to the D-Day heroes even as they make nice with those whom their Dear Leader calls “very fine people,” the progeny of those the Greatest Generation gave their “full measure of devotion” to destroy.
Fishing in a bathtub: Seeking nobility, integrity, and honor in Donald Trump and rectitude and intellectual honesty in the Trumpist.