Presidency of the absurd

By JAMES PARKER  |  August 1, 2007

Nonetheless, within a few months he is a torturer. Transferred to Mosul, and frustrated at the intractability — the unbreakability — of a prisoner named Jafar, he confines him in a shipping container, bombards him with death metal and strobe lights, and puts dogs in his face until he wets himself. “These techniques,” writes Lagouranis, “were propagated throughout the Cold War, picked up again after 9/11, used by the CIA, filtered down to army interrogators at Guantánamo, filtered again through Abu Ghraib, and used, apparently, around the country by Special Forces. Probably someone in this chain was a real professional, and if torture works — which is debatable — maybe they had the training to make sure it worked. But at our end of the chain, we had no idea what we were doing.”

Days later, after a prisoner named Khalid has proved impervious to the dogs, the lights, the stress positions, and the sound — in this case, an audio version of Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofalo’s Feel This Book — Lagouranis is only mildly surprised to find himself with a single thought in his head: chop his fucking fingers off!

Ubu ghraib
Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi opened and closed, triumphantly, on the same night in Paris in 1896. Jarry, described by one biographer as a “pistol-packing midget bicyclist,” was a maestro of shock. Having lit the fuse of boredom in his audience with a long pre-show harangue, he blew them up with his play’s dynamite first syllable: Merdre! This was his little twist, his touch of reverb, on the word merde, which is, of course, French for “shit”: I have seen it translated as “shittr,” “pshit,” and (my favorite) “shitski!” In any event, it caused a riot, the performance was over, and Père Ubu, Jarry’s potty-mouthed and tyrannical anti-hero, passed immediately into legend.

Ubu is greedy, sloppy, querulous, power-mad, imbecilic, nonsensical: his governing urge is to be king of Poland (“that is to say, Nowhere,” as Jarry explained in his introduction), to which end he conspires and slaughters with Rabelaisian glee. “Into the trap!” he howls, tossing noblemen, financiers, and the chief of police through a trapdoor and into the “sub-cellars” of his Debraining Machine.

There is nothing symbolic about him — his ludicrous carnality defies all symbolism. And yet he contrives to represent both Nature and Man in an absurd world. Writing in the literary magazine Horizon, in 1945, Cyril Connolly hailed Ubu as “the Santa Claus of the Atomic Age”: we might better understand him as a sort of reviled grandfather to Raw Power–era Iggy Pop.

Ubu Roi, the play, has dated. Read today, it has the rude and jittery eccentricity of a vintage stag film. But Ubu himself is more with us than ever. The Abu Ghraib photos, with their obscene raptures, their drunken, sadistic pride, and above all their demented aesthetic sense, are a gallery of Ubu-isms. Tony Lagouranis was in the grip of Ubu when it occurred to him to amputate Khalid’s fingers, as were those torturers who, for the benefit of their Islamic captives, desecrated the Koran with a truly Surrealist gusto. (Newsweek was forced to retract its 2005 story about the use of this technique at Guantánamo Bay, but plenty of other credible accusations are outstanding.)

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