Facing the absurd
Vae Victus by Arthur Szyk (1894-1951) is licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0 International
With each passing day, the absurd harm to lives and livelihood worldwide from the Covid-19 pandemic continues with little check.
How leaders of countries, regions and localities protect citizens will be long remembered. Now is the time to face up to any added absurdity of any leader's behavior, and keep calling it out.
Ongoing events remind me of an intriguing discussion with the man credited to first describe the theater of the absurd. Decades ago, when I called Stanford University’s “communication group” to seek an appointment with an appropriate faculty member, I was directed to Martin Esslin.
The authority on the theater of the absurd, Esslin had just returned to serve as professor of drama. He graciously welcomed a visit, with the length of the visit stretching as he probed my interest in propaganda.
He shared insights on his work after 1943, when he had participated in counter-propaganda radio broadcasts. This was for the British propaganda broadcaster during World War II that pretended to be a radio station of the German military broadcasting network.
The Nazis required people in occupied countries to listen only to German radio broadcasts. After the broadcast of Hitler’s speeches, Esslin and others from the BBC, under the guise of Soldatensender Calais, would broadcast in German an immediate analysis of Hitler’s speeches that was unfavorable to the Germans.
Dealing with the Absurd
I have ever since wondered how much Esslin's time in this involvement impacted his later critical thinking to describe the theater of the absurd. He was keen that I shift my Master of Arts research to focus on the radio station’s files, which he believed were still untouched at the BBC archives. He was prepared to facilitate my access for a study that he felt could be groundbreaking.
It was intriguing and wonderful advice that I was too young in perspective or wisdom to follow. The project might have defined a different personal future. Instead, I returned to Australia to pursue other initiatives which were life-changing in other ways.
To Defeat a Bad Actor
An enduring lesson from this discussion with Esslin is the extraordinary effort needed to face and defeat an unfit leader.