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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: September 2009

7 - Greek laughter and the problem of the absurd


ἔστι δὴ τοίνυν τὰ τῶν ἀνθρώπων πϱάγματα μεγάλης μὲν σπουδῆς οὐκ ἄξια, ἀναγκαῖόν γε μὴν σπουδάζειν.

(Human affairs are really not worth much seriousness, yet all the same we can't escape taking them seriously.)

Plato Laws

Nostre propre et peculiere condition est autant ridicule que risible.


Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;

The worlds revolve like ancient women

Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

T. S. Eliot


The eponymous protagonist of Samuel Beckett's early novel Murphy spends most of his time in search of an escape from the burden of mundane consciousness, or from what the novel calls his ‘unredeemed split self’. Murphy survives by cultivating a sort of impassivity: in Beckett's words, a ‘self-immersed indifference to the contingencies of the contingent world which he had chosen for himself as the only felicity’. Such impassivity is a version of Greek ataraxia, and the novel itself invites us to think of Murphy's mental life as a whole in the terms of Greek philosophy. We learn, for one thing, how Murphy had studied with the eccentrically Pythagorean Neary, whose attempt to inculcate an ‘attunement’ and blending of ‘the opposites in Murphy's heart’ had proved fruitless. An entire chapter, moreover, is devoted to the depiction of Murphy's mind as both markedly tripartite and as a kind of private Platonic Cave, divided into zones of light, half light and darkness.