Presidency of the absurd

Looking for insights into Bush’s torture policy? Try limericks, rhinoceroses, and a pistol-packing midget bicyclist
By JAMES PARKER  |  August 1, 2007


The owl and the pussycat went to jail, for something the piggy-wig
They sat for a while with no hope of a trial, and paper bags over
their heads,
Till a man with dark glasses belabored their asses. Puss went
where the Bong Tree grows,
And the owl was put in a stress position and water was poured up
his nose. . . .

That’s the Bush era remix of “The Owl and the Pussycat.” Not quite right, is it? But not wrong either. In the literature of absurdity, torture is never far away. The baked, rolled, and smashed protagonists of Edward Lear’s limericks; Père Ubu’s Debraining Machine; the nightmare apparatus of Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony; Lucky on his leash in Waiting for Godot. When the goblins of the absurd are let loose, it seems to follow with biological inevitability that a man will become his brother’s torturer. Who’s to stop him? Morals are arbitrary, God’s in his grave, and space rings us like an iron perimeter. Nothing matters. Why not have a bit of fun?

History will have trouble digesting the irony of it — that George W. Bush, a man who claims Jesus as his favorite political philosopher and the Lord as his warrant, has presided over the transformation of US foreign policy into a God-destroying juggernaut of absurdity. “If you want to study the social and political history of modern nations,” wrote Thomas Merton in 1961, “study hell.” Merton was a Trappist monk, but he knew the world. In its relentless, chaotic sponsorship of torture, the Bush Administration has created many little chambers of hell, many places where reason is overthrown and sanctity denied. In such places — in Abu Ghraib, or Guantánamo, or Camp Cropper, or Bagram Air Base — human rights evaporate: there are no rights, no principles or precedents. There is only the despotism of the present tense, whose sole limit is the fact that you might die before it has exhausted its capacity for torment. It doesn’t get more absurd than that.

Fruit loops and freedom
Edward Lear didn’t invent the limerick, but he might as well have. The form had existed for centuries before this shy Victorian landscape painter — tormented privately by epilepsy, which he called “my terrible demon” — made his name by turning it into a vehicle for violent irrationality:

There was a Young Person of Smyrna
Whose grandmother threatened to burn her;
But she seized on the cat, and said, “Granny, burn that!
You incongruous old woman of Smyrna!”

Lear was a post-Romantic who disliked getting carried away: he described his own mind as “concrete and abstemious,” and he knew that the key to successful nonsense (as he called his verse) lay in a crooked balancing of order and chaos. Without the punctilious containment of the limerick — its mirrored first and last lines creating a sense of psychotic circularity (literally, of loopiness) — his strange animalistic jokes would have had no punch line.

There was an old man who screamed out
Whenever they knocked him about;
So they took off his boots, and fed him with fruits,
And continued to knock him about.

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