by John Holbo on September 8, 2018

As Sparknotes writes,

Endgame‘s opening lines repeat the word “finished,” and the rest of the play hammers away at the idea that beginnings and endings are intertwined, that existence is cyclical. Whether it is the story about the tailor, which juxtaposes its conceit of creation with never-ending delays, Hamm and Clov’s killing the flea from which humanity may be reborn, or the numerous references to Christ, whose death gave birth to a new religion, death-related endings in the play are one and the same with beginnings.

I cannot help but think of this passage as I read Jonah Goldberg’s erudite musings in the pages of National Review.

In the classic absurdist dramas of the 1950s and 1960s, Brittanica.com explains, European playwrights “did away with most of the logical structures of traditional theatre. There is little dramatic action as conventionally understood; however frantically the characters perform, their busyness serves to underscore the fact that nothing happens to change their existence.”

That’s a pretty good description of the sound and fury signifying nothing on display this week from Democrats and protesters alike.

In this blog post I would like to argue that, as in the classic absurdist dramas of the 1950’s and 1960’s, in Goldberg’s essay, “Theater of the Absurd Has Taken Over The Senate,” what we see is a conservative intellectual tradition that is ‘finished’, and yet at the same time intertwined with its own beginnings. The life of the conservative mind is cyclical, juxtaposing attempts to kill the stubborn flea of liberalism with lofty dreams of the rebirth – ever-promised, never fulfilled – of the conservative mind.

To put it another way, as Shmoop writes:

Waiting for Godot is hailed as a classic example of “Theater of the Absurd,” dramatic works that promote the philosophy of its name. This particular play presents a world in which daily actions are without meaning, language fails to effectively communicate, and the characters at times reflect a sense of artifice, even wondering aloud whether perhaps they are on a stage.

In conclusion I would like to argue that, just as the ‘theater of the absurd’ is about dramatic works that promote the philosophy of its name, so ‘conservatism’ is about works that promote the philosophy of its name: namely, conservatism. And, just as this particular play presents a world in which language fails to effectively communicate, so Goldberg’s essay fails, effectively, to communicate. It seems like “a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets [its] hour upon the” front page of National Review, then is heard of no more.



nnyhav 09.08.18 at 12:34 am

no, not theatre of the absurd, a really bad movie


Collin Street 09.08.18 at 2:42 am

So the purpose of a metaphor is to tie new knowledge to old knowledge, so that only the new bits of the new knowledge have to be learned.

If your audience doesn’t have the background knowledge your metaphor depends on, then it doesn’t help you: a metaphor that has to be explained (via a lengthy quote from basically-the-wikipedia, no less) means you’ve increased rather than reduced your communication requirements.

If you’re dubious about whether your metaphor will be understood, you don’t explain it, you cut the whole thing out and use the word count to explain your actual point rather than a digression in lit theory.

There’s systemic patterns of communication deficits here.


Alan White 09.08.18 at 3:26 am

Well I guess Goldberg is paid by work count. Otherwise his thesis is “Democrats ‘ actions are futile.” And “Republicans love futility if well-funded.” Which would compensate him in proportion to his authorial worth.


phenomenal cat 09.08.18 at 7:39 am

The shmoop excerpt is almost Heideggerian when you think about it.

I don’t believe I have ever read a word written by Jonah Goldberg, but freely admit to being intrigued by the Brittanica.com citation, and so followed the link. I think I did not read a word of the linked article, but scrolling downward saw a link to another recent piece by Goldberg. The link has 2 or 3 sentences from the piece, an enticement as it were. In these I came upon the following:
“This New York Times op-ed by a senior administration official is literally extraordinary– and also astounding and fascinating.”

I understand now that some lights do shine too brightly. All one can do is simply look away.


Nigel 09.08.18 at 9:32 am

‘I can’t go on the Supreme Court. I’ll go on the Supreme Court.’


Greg Koos 09.08.18 at 10:15 am

Emulating Buckley only works when you use baseball metaphors.


Benjamin C Kirkup 09.08.18 at 11:13 am

And so, we can see how the theater of the absurd fails miserably, because it tries to communicate meaninglessness. It is self-refuting at that level, just like a centralization of power for the purpose of empowering everyone. Real exercises in meaninglessness, like the massive archives of state economic data which would never feed any planning, or bureaucracies to distribute non-existent food, are not entertaining to anyone nor do they invite outside scrutiny.


Antonin 09.08.18 at 1:18 pm

Hilarious Jordan Peterson impression, Ben.


Bill Benzon 09.08.18 at 1:24 pm

It seems that Tyler Cowen is on the same wavelength, John, but writing about Knausgaard:

Maybe a third of this book is an intellectual biography of Hitler and an analysis of how the proper readings of Mein Kampf change over the years and decades. “Mein Kampf received terrible reviews,” writes K., and then we learn why they matter. I found that segment to be a masterful take on liberalism and its potential for decline, as Knausgaard tries harder than most to make us understand how Hitler got anywhere at all. Underneath it all is a Vico-esque message of all eras converging, and the past not being so far away from the present as it might seem.



arcseconds 09.08.18 at 3:31 pm


I think you might mistake the communicative strategy here.

The function here, I suspect, is not to explain the less known by the more known, but to reassure the reader that their gut reaction is correct, because it has been confirmed by a smart person.

how to seem smart

Although I suspect that many of the readers of National Review have indeed heard of ‘absurdist dramas’ at least to the point of vaugely knowing that there are plays which don’t have plots in a traditional sense, and may have even seen Waiting for Godot.

I imagine (here I admit I speculate) that they don’t like these works (they’d prefer something with a proper plot, thanks, like Twelve Angry Men or Star Trek), so Goldberg’s statement has the added bonus of associating something they dislike and think is a lot of hot air, with another thing they dislike and think is a lot of hot air.


anonymousse 09.08.18 at 4:56 pm

I don’t get your complaint. Goldberg suggests that democratic opposition to Kavanaugh is both absurd and ineffective. Democratic opposition to Kavanaugh was, in fact, absurd (just google pictures of the screeching harpies in the Senate room-they’re on YOUR side….), and, in fact, ineffective (Kavanaugh is getting in).

Erudite, well, absurdity, isn’t going to change it, any more than crotch-bleeding maniac biddies on the Senate floor are going to change it. This very post probably qualifies as the same absurdist nihilist theatre that Goldberg is talking about.



John Holbo 09.08.18 at 10:28 pm

“I don’t get your complaint.”



J-D 09.09.18 at 1:45 am

The piece concludes as follows:

Sasse eloquently expanded on a point I’ve been banging my spoon on my highchair about for a while now: The legislative branch is becoming a parliament of pundits, in which both parties teem with people desperate to emote, preen, and shriek for voters and donors who follow politics like it’s a form of entertainment, and, in this case, a theater of the absurd.

Now, that does seem as if the author feels that it’s a bad thing when people emote, preen, and shriek for an audience who follow politics like a form of entertainment; but it’s a little hard to be sure, because he tells us he’s banging his spoon on his highchair about it. If he’s telling us that the legislative branch is full of people like him, does he think that’s a good thing or a bad thing?


c u n d gulag 09.09.18 at 2:09 am

“Dada” issues, anyone?


Alan White 09.09.18 at 3:16 am

J-D @ 13

I have suggested here in other threads that Trumpism is a first (unintentionally but effectively as such) embrace of metaethical emotivism in politics, turning any concerns of whether “that’s a good thing or a bad thing” aside. Goldberg kinda gets it, but finally doesn’t. Trump is all about feelings–his own primarily–and getting his base to “agree with him in attitude” as CL Stevenson set out. Of course Trump couldn’t even begin to fathom what I’m talking about, child-mind that he is. But that is what he’s doing, assessed in a metaethical way.


Dr. Hilarius 09.09.18 at 5:47 am

anonymousse@11: “crotch-bleeding maniac biddies” Thank you for outing yourself for who you really are. Men who have issues with female biology are pathetic.


nastywoman 09.09.18 at 6:34 am

BE-cause most people don’t like themselves and their lives to be considered ”absurd” they really don’t like the theatre of the absurd.
Like Beckett-pieces are known for a major parts of the audience leaving the theatre already after the first intermission and any Dada plays on teh Internet might never see the light of posting? –
but the plays of US conservatives are non of it.


Fake Dave 09.09.18 at 8:45 am

So his thesis is basically that everyone knows how the senate will vote on Kavanaugh, so pretending there is still a decision to be made is an absurd theatrical conceit. If you assume the first part — that the future is known — then his article is right on the money. It is ridiculous when politicians pretend to be having a debate when the decision is already made. Of course, there’s something about glass houses and black pots in all this fatalism.

If the senate has failed to actually serve as a deliberative body, then the blame necessarily has to fall on both parties. After all, this “sturm and drang” of Democrats arguing against Kavanaugh only looks like a sham if you assume that everyone on the Republican side has permanently committed to nominating Kavanaugh and cannot be swayed by the words of Democratic colleagues, public opinion, or their own consciences. Truly, it is a proud conservative who accuses his opponents of arguing in bad faith on the grounds that no one on his side would ever listen to them.

That isn’t absurdism. It’s tragedy.


Anon 09.09.18 at 1:40 pm

Or Didi, always blaming on his boots the faults of his feet.


William Berry 09.09.18 at 5:29 pm

[“screeching harpies” . . . “crotch-bleeding maniac biddies”]

If your comments are blatantly racist, sexist or homophobic we will delete them and ban you from the site.

John: If you don’t ban someone who posts such vile crap as the above then you don’t really have a “Comment Policy”. At least one that means anything at all.


John Holbo 09.09.18 at 10:05 pm

“If you don’t ban someone who posts such vile crap as the above then you don’t really have a “Comment Policy”. At least one that means anything at all.”

Honestly, I didn’t even read to anonymousse’s second paragraph. He demonstrated poor reading comprehension with the first paragraph and I stopped and noted the failing. If I had bothered to read to the second I would have not approved the comment. Since the error was made I’ll let it stand.


J-D 09.10.18 at 12:10 am

Alan White
I think I understand the point you’re making, and if I understand it correctly then I have no particular quarrel with it but it’s not a response to my point, although you’ve framed it as one. So I’m concerned I didn’t make my point clear. Here’s another way of making my point:

Jonah Goldberg: It’s awful how people are just emoting and preening and shrieking for an audience that treats politics as a form of entertainment.
J-D: (with heavy sarcasm) Well, it’s a good thing then that what you are doing in response is so different from that description; I mean, with you banging your spoon on your highchair and so on.


Alan White 09.10.18 at 2:20 am

Oh no JD–I quite got your point. I was just taking it in a different explanatory direction, and Goldberg is just as unwitting as Trump in this regard. We’re on the same page I’d reckon.


LFC 09.10.18 at 3:06 am

For me one notable aspect of the hearings, and one that distinguished it from hearings in the recent past, was Kavanaugh’s fairly frequent refs to The Federalist Papers. I’m not completely sure why liberals seem to have let conservatives take ownership, so to speak, of the Federalist Papers. Presumably, just like key provisions of the Constitution, key numbers of The Federalist are open to more than one interpretation.

I say “presumably” b/c the Federalist Papers, though on my shelf, are one of the gaps in my education. (I did read Tocqueville, also beloved by many conservatives, in college, but not The Federalist.) I dogeared the numbers that Kavanaugh mentioned and maybe I’ll bestir myself to read them sometime.

p.s. I would vote against Kavanaugh, just to remove any doubts on that score. He’s qualified (in a narrow sense of the word) to be on the Ct, but would dangerously push it even further to the right by solidifying the reactionary majority. (There’s a small chance he will surprise in this respect, but I’d rate it no higher than five or ten percent.)


casmilus 09.10.18 at 9:36 am


“If your audience doesn’t have the background knowledge your metaphor depends on, then it doesn’t help you: a metaphor that has to be explained (via a lengthy quote from basically-the-wikipedia, no less) means you’ve increased rather than reduced your communication requirements.”

You can still communicate that you are the sort of person who understands the metaphor, to people who don’t.

In American conservative culture this effect is usually achieved with classical references and scraps of Latin, which add nothing to the argument on display but are intended to communicate the author’s self-image. Just browse to any amconmag piece written by someone with 3 names and a spiel about cultural decline.


arcseconds 09.10.18 at 10:58 am

Fake Dave @18:

“So his thesis is basically that everyone knows how the senate will vote on Kavanaugh, so pretending there is still a decision to be made is an absurd theatrical conceit. If you assume the first part — that the future is known — then his article is right on the money. ”

I don’t think so. If your committee is hell bent on making a stupid and bigoted decision, you don’t just go “Oh well, I can’t change the outcome, so I’ll just meekly vote against but not cause a ruckus”. You cause a ruckus! Make it very clear to them what they’re doing, if they can’t learn from this now, they might learn later, and if not them, maybe their successors, and if not them either, at least you can tell your grandchildren you stood up for what was right.

This goes double for the Opposition, as the purpose of the Opposition is to oppose, whether or not they can make a difference to the vote, not to kick their heels back until the next election.

Sure, there’s a large theatrical element in this particular case, but theatre is hardly unusual in politics. And it’s not at all ‘signifiying nothing’, at minimum the Democrats are communicating something to their base, something that Goldberg shows himself to understand in the final paragraph.


CJColucci 09.10.18 at 3:47 pm

The Federalist Papers are one of many polemical tracts written during the debate over ratifying the Constitution, and the only one any significant number of lawyers ever read. They are interesting in their own right, and a modest data point on what some people who favored the proposed Constitution thought it would do. (What its opponents feared it would do doesn’t excite much interest, though one could create a solid argument that some of those fears were correct.) A broad and deep immersion in these dueling pamphlets would be useful for honest scholarship, legal and historical alike. In actual practice, however, the Federalist Papers generally serve lawyers and judges as fake erudition — much like Goldberg’s references to theater of the absurd — or a source for quote-mining in the disreputable discipline known as “law office history.”


PatinIowa 09.10.18 at 8:54 pm

Based on what I could glean from Goldberg’s column, everything he knows about the theatre of the absurd comes from the Brittanica.com article. Certainly, he hasn’t noticed the rhinoceros horns sprouting from the noses of the National Review’s writers over the years.

As for Beckett, well, his service in the (real) Resistance and the suggestions throughout his work that language should be rigourously examined, whatever cost, suggest to me that Goldberg should always and everywhere keep his fecking name out of his mouth.

Especially since these Philistines never quite notice how funny Beckett can be.

Ever notice how nobody quotes the parts of the Federalist Papers that suggest that a standing army is a terrible idea?


LFC 09.11.18 at 12:25 am

Just to congrat Holbo on parodying/imitating/mirroring/needling Goldberg so cleverly. (Not going to bother reading Goldberg’s piece, btw, but I can appreciate the OP without that. The “I would like to argue that” is a nice touch.)

As PatinIowa @28 notes, Beckett is funny (Endgame, for instance, is both funny and sad). Can’t say that the Sparknotes take on the play in the first quoted passage in the OP ever really occurred to me, but who am I to argue w Sparknotes.


Dave 09.11.18 at 2:58 am

Look man, slag Jonah Goldberg all you want, but leave Beckett out of it.


Chetan Murthy 09.11.18 at 3:38 am

Isn’t the explanation for Goldberg’s “sound and fury, signifying nothing” remark simpler than you’re making out?

It’s fruitless wasted noise, when the Dems do it in 2018; it’s a fundamental exercise in democracy when the Tea Party does it in 2009, surely? He’s just trying to shut up his ideological enemies, full stop. And PatinIowa@28 is 100% right that theatre is part of politics, and always has been; that the opposition has to oppose, not merely to register their disapproval and sit quietly. But Goldberg would NEVER allow that that’s what GrOPers should do, in opposition. Even that old racist toad Buckley said the goal was to “stand athwart history, yelling STOP”; I’m sure he’d be pretty pissed at being told he should limit himself to a few well-mannered letters to the editor, and that’s it

It’s a fundamental exercise in democracy when they do it; it’s fruitless noise, a distraction, maybe even a dangerous breaking norms, when we do. More gaslighting.


bekabot 09.11.18 at 7:03 pm

Brittanica.com explains

Says it all.


bad Jim 09.12.18 at 5:28 am

When I put my aged mother to bed one night, she asked me, “And tomorrow?” So of course I had to reply with Macbeth’s soliloquy. It became a routine, in effect a lullaby. Sometimes I’d chew the scenery, sometimes I’d perform it as philosophical reflection. I doubt there’s a best way to do it.


Orange Watch 09.12.18 at 1:08 pm

As CJColucci eloquently states, the biggest problem with conservatives staking “ownership” of the Federalist Papers is not what that would actually imply, but what it is unreasonably taken to imply. A core conceit in the ridiculous interpretive methodology of Originalism is that there is a single, definitive understanding to be had of documents drafted by committees and ratified by majority opinion rather than consensus. This is of a piece with that.


PatinIowa 09.12.18 at 9:25 pm

It’s also good to remember that the character who utters, “sound and fury, signifying nothing,” is willfully, knowingly and utterly damned, as well as quite wrong in the world fo the play.

Jonah’s like a contemporary reader who spouts “Neither a borrower, nor a lender be,” without realizing that Polonius is a laughable, clueless, old toady.

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