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In the wake of World War II, the Absurdist movement - particularly pronounced in French theatre - burst onto the arts scene. A reaction to a world whose norms made little sense, especially the intolerant politics of fascism which modern Europe, in its darkest hour had just narrowly escaped, Absurdists took to the stage to expose its folly. With roots in existentialism, it took but a small leap for the movement to arrive at its main philosophical tenet: the ridiculousness of everything. All bark and no bite, Absurdists avoid offering solutions. Rather, in the words of Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch (2004), they "lay it out for y'all to play it out." For, if they'd learned anything from a decade of fascism, it's that the easy answer is almost always wrong.

Four Plays By Eugene Ionesco
translated by Donald M. Allen
Grove Press, 1958
ISBN: 394-17209-4
$1.95, 160 pp

Four Plays By Eugene Ionesco brings together four of the Romanian-born playwright's best-known plays, including his Absurdist masterpiece, The Bald Soprano (1950). Written in the wake of Nazi-occupied Europe, Ionesco was a preeminent force in the nascent Absurdist movement. With roots in existentialism, his plays, like others in the Absurdist vein, question the existence of meaning. Billed as an anti-play, Soprano's characters are trapped in a world of mundanity which they're totally bored with. Theirs is a static existence, as reflected in the dialogue. Often, the same statement is made repeatedly, by different characters, usually in contradiction to themseves, in effect stripping them of individuality. The scenes become deserts in which anything of significance is hopeless to aspire to. In its whole, Soprano is an attack on conformity and societal norms, from the bourgeoise down. With a focus on the banality of relationships, Ionesco delivers a referendum on the entirety of Western civilization, without offering a solution. That - the absence of any meaningful plan forward - is a hallmark of the Absurd, for the mere suggestion of a solution would make the Absurdist part and parcel to that which he attacks.

Ivory Towers
Billed as a comic drama, The Lesson (1951) concerns itself with language and education. Set in the home of a professor (a sharp-tongued defender of the arts, math, sciences and all things status quo) the play takes place during a tutorial session. A Critique of higher education, Ionesco mocks it by praising institutional knowledge while slamming common sense. For his part, the Professor doesn't do education nor the educated any favors with his non-compromising approach. He doles out knowledge in pre-prescribed increments, determining in advance what his pupil should and shouldn't know, and when she should know it. For her part, the pupil is grateful to this system of education that places more merit on structure than on substance.

When it comes to language, Ionesco sees the same banality in it as he does education. Language is power, and in the Absurdist arena, that notion's ridiculous. Through word play, the playwright renders language useless by deconstruing, misconstruing and utterly obliterating its context. Language, where's your power now? (Of course, the correct response is Nowhere. Power is, and always has been, an absurd illusion.)

Irreconcilable Deferences
The third play in Four Plays is called Jack, or The Submission (1955). Subtitled "A Naturalistic Comedy", with it Ionesco applies the same treatment to marriage and domesticity as he does to education and language. Again, the playwright pushes back against societal norms, hammering the concept of conformity. The play centers around Jack and his recent engagement to a girl named Roberta. A girl with two noses no less, rather than just the one. His parents seem titilated by the prospect of Jack's marriage, to a point that begs the question, Who's occupying the wedding bed? The future in-laws also seem a bit overly excited about the prospect of consummation. As the play progresses, the characters treat the bride more and more like a commodity, subtly (and not-so-subtly) picking her apart like a side of ham under consideration for purchase. When Jack finally declares "She's not homely enough!", everyone's aghast, as the girl's own parents argue she is indeed homely; enough so as to sour milk.

By challenging his fiancee on her looks, Jack has ripped a hole in the fabric of social conformation. He's thinking, something which doesn't jive with his prescribed obligation. As his mother says:

    Son! Son! Listen to me. I beg you, do not reply to my brave mother's heart, but speak to me without reflecting on what you say. It is the best way to think correctly, as an intellectual and as a good son."
In an effort to appease Jack, his would-be in-laws reveal they have another daughter, even homelier than the first. One with three noses. And so it goes, Ionesco in his genius - turning not only beauty on its head, but too the eyes through which we behold it - questions everything. Did I mention the bride-to-be also has nine fingers on each hand? Nothing weird there.

While it would appear Jack achieves non-conformity by demanding a bride with physical abnormalities beyond the pale, the actual opposite is happening. Jack, in conforming to his parents' wish that he marry, has fallen into a conformist trap from which there is no escape. Individual choice is futile. In turn, self-determination is illusory at best, without which, conformity cannot be avoided, absurd though it may be.

Intolerable Cruelty
These themes continue in the final piece of Four Plays. Concluding with The Chairs (1952), a tragic farce, or rather a farce couched in tragedy, it makes the same futile joke of societal norms, but with a cruel twist. The production notes call for a stage filled with empty chairs. In turn, the lead character rises to address his admirers, only to learn in the process his life of public service is for naught. His greatness, it turns out, is all in his head; his audience, a ghost. It's as if he never existed. As if existence itself is but a myth, our self-regard mere make-believe. The cruelest of Ionesco's pieces, The Chairs is a bitter pill to swallow. What it says about our relationships - that they never were - in a world that turns on relationships, is its tragic, inescapable hard truth. So much for the easy answer.

Einstein's Moon: Bell's Theorem and the Curious Quest for Quantum Reality
by F. David Peat
Contemporary Books, 1990
ISBN: 0-8092-3965-5
$11.95, 170 pp

There is a scene from Eugene Ionesco's classic Absurdist piece The Bald Soprano (Grove Press, $1.95), that brings to mind Bell's Theorem. In the scene, the Fire Chief has come calling on the Smiths. The doorbell rings once, but there is no one there. It rings again; still no one. A third ring of the bell produces the same result. Then on the fourth ring, the Fire Chief is discovered on the step. He is welcomed by the Smiths, who are engaged in an argument:

    MRS. SMITH: We were arguing because my husband said that each time the doorbell rings there is always someone there . . . And I was saying each time the doorbell rings there is never anyone there . . . [which] has been proved, not by theoretical demonstrations, but by facts.
    MR. SMITH: That's false, since the Fire Chief is here. He rang the bell, I opened the door, and there he was.
Written in 1950, the above scene mirrors a debate raging in the physics community at the time. Centered around quantum particles, then a fairly new concept, the debate ultimately pitted Albert Einstein against Werner Heisenberg, the father of quantum theory. Author and physicist F. David Peat gives us a front row seat to that debate with Einstein's Moon: Bell's Theorem and the Curious Quest for Quantum Reality.

      "Does the moon exist only when you look at it?"

While Einstein's theory of relativity is mind-boggling, it nevertheless functions in an objective reality - a "local reality" - apart from our observations. This is the reality scientific laws are based on, a reality in which objects have no affect on each other except through interaction. The quantum world, however, as proposed by Heisenberg and supported by the great physicist Neils Bohr, is based in a "nonlocal reality," throwing everything we assumed about the nature of reality into question.

Theoretical Dice Game
In the 1920s, Bohr proposed a series of "theoretical" tests. These tests, in theory, would measure the spin and velocity of electrons. But there was one catch: at the time he came up with the experiments, there was no way to see them through. Quantum particles, being so small, could not be measured without adversely affecting their physical nature (the Heisenberg uncertainty principle). Any apparatus used to measure them would throw the results. Even mere observation would have a negative impact. The only pathway to support for Heisenberg's theory on quantum particles was through complicated mathematical formulas, casting doubt as to whether they even existed at all. Science had become philosophy, and vice versa.

Einstein, although finding Heisenberg and Bohr's school of thought interesting, couldn't support the idea of different realities for different objects. As science up to now was in the habit of applying scientific law universally, it was a hard sell for him to accept that the macro world played by different rules than the quantum world, stating, "God does not play dice with the universe." Enter Belfast-born physicist John Bell.

At the Speed of Thought
Like Bohr, Bell was a physics theorist. After years of pondering Heisenberg's equations, and studying concepts put forward by the Coppenhagen interpretation (comprised of physicists in support of non-local reality) he devised an experiment by which to measure the spin and location of electrons. Published in 1964, it would be another five years before his theoretical experiment was realized by experimental physicists, but with a twist; whereas Bell's theoretical experimentation applied to electrons, the physical experiment was applied to photons. Experiment after experiment throughout the seventies came down on the side of the Coppenhagen interpretation, and Bell's predictions. Though promising, these experiments were contained in laboratories, so although they made adjustments to eliminate false results - results influenced by the laboratory apparatus itself - skepticism remained, until a physicist at the University of Paris' Institute of Theoretical and Applied Optics came up with a game-changer.

Alain Aspect, an experimental physicist, in a flash of genuis devised an experiment in which he would measure photons from a distant star. The thinking was that a photon that began its journey millions of years ago will stay true to its original state. Surprisingly, the results proved otherwise, hinting that at the subatomic level there's a system of communication that travels beyond the speed of light. This would be like a computer predicting the answer to a question before it's asked. In experiment after experiment, the results were the same. The photons, appearing to be reading the minds of the scientists, and acting accordingly, presented themselves as waves when the testers predicted waves; particles when they predicted particles, displaying the ability even to occupy two places at once. It seemed, at the subatomic level, linear time was rendered meaningless. In short, the quantum world - as the Coppenhagen interpretation anticipated - appeared to lack objective reality.

Einstein's Moon
Aspect's tests, supporting Bell and the Coppenhagen interpretation, turned local reality on its head. Its implications have impacted not only physics, but philosophy and the language used to discuss subatomic matter. Just as local reality no longer has a place in quantum physics, neither does the language of that reality. Quantum objects can no longer be confined to "wave" or "particle" (or even "object"). Quantum physics requires an entirely new language without roots in local reality, as the old terms and concepts do not apply.

Einstein left this world before Bell's Theorem was tested. That he'd accept it as the final word on quantum reality is doubtful. Although in his lifetime he steadfastly rejected the concept of non-objective reality, he was foremost a scientist, and likely would have acquiesced to the Coppenhagen interpretation, using Aspect's results to build from. At the peak of the debate over quantum reality, Einstein is said to have asked, "Does the moon exist only when you look at it?" Or, put another way, When the doorbell rings, is there always someone there? Thanks to Bell's Theorem, physicists can now reply with a confident, "Maybe."

posted 12/26/21