Finding Freedom in the Absurd: Jesse Ball’s Autoportrait

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Jesse Ball’s Autoportrait is 140 brisk pages of loosely connected musings and vignettes. Some of the work is concisely autobiographical: “I went to graduate school and was horrified by how little the other students loved books.” Some of it is philosophical: “There is no more preparing for me to do, other than preparing for death, and I do that by laughing.” Some of it reads like a collection of strange, first-person aphorisms: “I don’t believe anyone really is who they are, or at least not for long.” These snippets probably make little sense out of context, but that is precisely the point, since the entirety of Autoportrait is presented without context. The book consists of one long, rambling paragraph that could be read back-to-front as easily as front-to-back, an approach that Ball plainly states is an homage to one experimental memoir in particular, Édouard Levé’s book of the same name. “[Levé’s] is an approach that does not raise one fact above another,” Ball writes in his book’s brief preface, “but lets the facts stand together in a fruitless clump.” Such an approach lends Ball’s book a meandering, surreal, spasmodic quality. He occasionally teases at narrative cohesion right before an abrupt non-sequitur invariably shifts gears. “One must stop prior to the point of total explanation,” Ball writes. “My career has been a long skirmish about this one point. What is ambiguous is closer to the real than what is realistic.”

Jesse Ball is an absurdist. He wears the designation proudly—his book jacket bio refers to him as such—and he is commonly held as a contemporary torchbearer for absurdist fiction icons: Kafka (The Trial), Camus (The Myth of Sisyphus), Daniil Kharms (The Old Woman). It’s nearly impossible to pin down a single agreed-upon definition of absurdism, but its central tenet revolves around the idea that existence is, inherently, meaningless, and resistance to that fact is futile. Perhaps it’s obvious, but there is an unavoidable bleakness to the absurdist perspective. I think one could be forgiven for confusing it with the more transparently pessimistic nihilism. But in Autoportrait, by providing a sort of template for his absurdist worldview, Ball slowly unravels what lies beyond resistance to the world’s complete incomprehensibility: freedom.

The absurd is “seldom admired,” says Ball, “because it is the bedfellow not of death but of annihilation.” The words “death” and “annihilation” might appear synonymous in certain circumstances, but here, as in many theological and philosophical contexts, they connote profoundly different destinies. Death implies an afterlife, some sort of continuation of consciousness on the other side of mortality. Annihilation guarantees no such thing. From Ball’s absurdist perspective, leaning into the world’s inherent purposelessness isn’t about embracing mortality. It’s about embracing complete obliteration.

To say there is a liberating quality to embracing such a worldview isn’t immediately intuitive, which is precisely why, according to Ball, “only gross generalizations of the absurd” are “popular.” Picking and choosing convenient moments to embrace meaninglessness is one thing; living in a state of constant purposelessness is another. But once the futility of any traditionally-held wisdom is fully acknowledged—“knowing is useless,” writes Ball—life can be enjoyed by a whole new set of rules that doesn’t require so much careful intent and justification. “Please,” Ball implores his students as a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), “please please please contradict yourself. Who do you think you are?” The appeal to the “you,” or the student, here is especially illuminating since Ball doesn’t seem to be asking his students which successful artist they are attempting to emulate, but rather questioning their conception of their own existence altogether. They are not working from, or against, any established knowledge or preconceived facts, since the absurdist would likely argue that such things hardly exist. “I don’t believe books are about anything,” says Ball. “A frog is also not about anything.”

While Ball doesn’t present concrete evidence for his views—concrete evidence for a world entirely bereft of concreteness is conveniently impossible anyway—the autobiographical portions of his book do hint at the genesis of his absurdist perspective. “It seemed, especially in my teens,” Ball writes, “that not a day would go by without massive data contradicting something I had been officially told.” Here, again, we see his fixation on the idea of “contradiction,” which seems to be at the center of an artistic disposition that was in part molded by growing up in a home of staunch anarchists. “[My father] admired [Peter] Kropotkin,” says Ball, who also finds “much to admire in many of the anarchists.” The correlation between Ball’s adopting his father’s anarchist views and developing his own absurdist writing style is inexact, but his political upbringing does shed light on why there is something of an iconoclast in Ball, a yearning to question the legitimacy of modes of living and being rather than find a way to exist within them.

Quite honestly, these iconoclastic tendencies often grow tiresome. Ball’s book is full of contrarianism-for-contrarianism’s-sake as, for one example, he loves to sanctimoniously dismantle the merit of much canonical literature: “I have a read a great deal of Western philosophy and find much of it beside the point,” Ball writes. “The tradition went the wrong way with Plato, who is wrong about a horrifying number of things, and whose wrongness is perhaps exceeded only by Aristotle and those that follow him.” Similar impromptu preaching is certainly part of the Autoportrait experience, as are Ball’s occasional flights of narcissism, such as his assertion that, even as a child, others thought of him as “having a special purpose.”

I’d argue that Ball can largely be forgiven for his more self-important flourishes. In totality he is a charming—and often very funny—narrator. “I have often fled from things,” he says of his approach to leaving social engagements. “I tend not to tell anyone if I am leaving. It seems to me the thing is pretty clear: if I’m not there, I left.” Ball’s deadpan also creates some of the more memorably absurd transitions in Autoportrait. My favorite such moment comes at the tail end of a passage detailing the random fact that many of Ball’s friends are either pianists or mathematicians: “One friend was even going to be a mathematician but became a pianist instead. I can be coaxed into buying an unreasonable amount of cheese. This has happened several times.”

There’s a dream logic at work in Ball’s writing. He does, unsurprisingly, teach a course on lucid dreaming at SAIC (in addition to having a book on the subject: Sleep, Death’s Brother), and the experience of reading Autoportrait at times feels like a lucid dream. Anything is possible, the next sentence could quite literally be about anything, and there is no logical progression to the narrative, if it can be said there is a narrative at all. Here, then, we seem to be straying into surrealist territory, as dream logic was a staple of the work of surrealist icons such as André Breton and Luis Buñuel. But surrealism often distorts reality in some form, whereas Autoportrait explores the incomprehensibility of the world as it actually is. The world doesn’t need distortion, the absurdist might argue: Our everyday lived reality is plenty confounding in itself. Autoportrait, whether Ball intends it or not, encourages others to embrace this inherent confusion, since any resistance would be counterproductive. “My students at the school where I teach,” says Ball, “believe people understand them deeply, and write with great confidence in that understanding. This leads to work that cannot be understood by anyone.”

Ball returns to his students throughout Autoportrait. This recurrence of the narrator-as-professor seems intentional, or at the very least fitting, when Autoportrait is read as a kind of template for Ball’s singular worldview. We, like Ball’s students, are learning to see the world through an absurdist’s perspective. And we, also probably like Ball’s students, are left completely baffled by this perspective. What, exactly, should we take away from Autoportrait? What, exactly, is the book trying to do? Who knows. It’s completely ambiguous. Autoportrait ends long before Ball has the chance to explain himself in detail. I’m sure that is wholly intentional.

Michael Knapp’s writing has appeared in The Cleveland Review of Books, Necessary Fiction, The Bookends Review, and Bridge Eight, among other places. He’s an MFA candidate at The Writer’s Foundry. More from this author →