In the middle of the 19th century, Sydney Dobell wrote a poem that contained the following line: “Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!”  This excursion into the absurd c. 1850 is readily recognized by readers of American poems or novels c. 1950 as a cry of the soul in torment.  The sources of the putative torment, qualitatively speaking, were as multifarious as they are irrelevant to the present discussion, ranging from Capitalism to Autocracy, from Woman to Machine, from Vivisection to Sapphism.

The relevant reading, which perforce places Dobell’s decalogue of histrionic exclamation in an historical context, is the quantitative one.  The literary epoch that had made him a writer was the habitat of the periodic sentence, as illustrated by a classic passage, c. 1800, from Ann Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest:

While he was declaring the ardour of his passion in such terms, as but too often make vehemence pass for sincerity, Adeline, to whom this declaration, if honourable, was distressing, and if dishonourable, was shocking, interrupted him and thanked him for the offer of a distinction, which, with a modest, but determined air, she said she must refuse.


Against this background of ratiocination, Dobell’s bleating lapse into absurdity must be viewed as a rare event, roughly equivalent to an indecent misprint in a national newspaper or a midair collision in aviation.

Until very recently the absurd was a bedfellow of the irrational.  As the air controller’s unfaithful wife or the proofreader’s repossessed motorcycle were responsible for the ensuing tragedy or the preposterous headline, so, too, were the inarticulate cry of the poet’s broken heart and the playwright’s foul-mouthed diatribe against society at large the irrational products of profound emotional upheaval.  Yet for the generation now living and reading, the absurd is the mouthpiece of reason.

Evropa is a glossy arbiter of style for New Russians frequenting the spas and ski resorts of Old Europe.  I hasten to assure skeptics that my translation of the following passage is scrupulously accurate:

“Never stay in one place and be creative,” that is the credo of the young manufacturer of designer carpets KYMO whose collections bear the names of such music classics as Techno and House and whose products adorn the floors of HUGO BOSS and MONTBLANC boutiques.  A new hit is the rug from the fur of the Brazilian cow.


You see?  Evropa is a magazine for serious, worldly, rational people.  Conservatively dressed thugs, impeccably realistic politicians, authors of plausible pyramid schemes, mobsters’ abstemious spinster sisters, secret policemen’s privately educated daughters, and swindlers’ gold-digging wives are among its readers.  These people keep their money in small unmarked bills under designer mattresses and rob widows and orphans as if human misery were going out of style and Bernie Madoff were Secretary of the Treasury.

They are tough, ruthless, and supremely rational.  And yet the above passage, in a magazine fashioned expressly for them, like a bespoke pair of slippers, from the rarest cow fur that Brazil has to offer to the traders of Muscovy, would not be out of place in a futurist proclamation by Burlyuk c. 1920 or in an incomprehensible play by Beckett c. 1950.  It reads like an homogenized parody of all rational utterance from Aristotle to Darwin.

When Molière parodied the rationality of a physician, his audience understood that he was satirizing a rogue, a pompous impostor, an insult to the medical profession, but above all a concrete exception.  In Beckett, absurdity has been wed to mankind as a whole, with the result that for modern readers from the Adirondacks to the Urals, brought up on the dim echoes of what passes for high culture, any logic inherent in Radcliffe’s exemplary sentence is just as puzzling and obscure as any outright nonsense from the pen of an Evropa hack.

“Cows haven’t got fur?” exclaims the generic reader of Any Magazine, furious to be confronted with what is allegedly a fact of zoology.  Then, fixing her makeup in a Chanel compact: “Well, maybe in Brazil they do!  I mean, it’s just a matter of how soft the hair is.  Besides, this English lady, writing in that book of hers a hundred years before they had electricity, don’t get me wrong, I love all those old things, my husband and I went to Morocco on our honeymoon, but anyway, this Adeline says that whatever her boyfriend was telling her, his declaration could be dishonorable.

“Now, what the hell does that mean?  Because how can you say that some guy’s declaration is dishonorable?  I mean, he wasn’t stealing from her, was he?  And if this guy can say a thing that’s dishonorable, why can’t the other guy you’re talking about, the guy from the magazine, why can’t he be allowed to say that cows got fur?  That’s why I love America so much.  It’s a free country.  Not like Russia.”

Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!