Albert Camus (1913-1960) and Absurdism

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“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”[1] The statement reveals one of the dilemmas of the philosophy of Absurd [also called as Absurdism] which Camus sought to answer. The Algerian-born French thinker Albert Camus was one of the leading thinkers of Absurdism. He was actually a writer and novelist with a strong philosophical bent. Absurdism is an off-shoot of Existentialism and shares many of its characteristics. Camus himself was labeled as an ‘Existentialist’ in his own life, but he rejected this title. He was not the first to present the concept of Absurd but it was owing to him that this idea gained popularity and influence, and it transformed into a proper philosophical movement of Absurdism. His famous novels include The Stranger [also translated as The Outsider] and The Fall, while The Myth of Sisyphus is his most important book with regard to his philosophy of the Absurd. He was one of the youngest people to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, when he became a Nobel Laureate in 1957. It is an ironic fact that he died in a car accident in 1960, as he had once remarked that the most absurd way to die would be in a car accident. Camus was a friend of Sartre and worked with him for quite some time, but the two got separated over the issue of communism, as Sartre was a Marxist while Camus opposed it believing that this would lead to totalitarianism.

The foundations of the concept of Absurd can be traced back to the deeply religious Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, also regarded as the fore-father of Existentialism. Kierkegaard describes the Absurd as a situation in life which all thee rational and thinking abilities of a person are unable to tell him which course of action to adopt in life, but in this very uncertainty he is forced to act or make a decision. He has to do something but his reason offers him no help. He writes in one of his journals: “What is the Absurd? It is, as may quite easily be seen, that I, a rational being, must act in a case where my reason, my powers of reflection, tell me: you can just as well do the one thing as the other, that is to say where my reason and reflection say: you cannot act and yet here is where I have to act...”[2]

Since the beginning, thinkers have strived to find out the meaning to life and have pondered over the purpose and objective of this universe. Either they have concluded that this life is meaningless and purposeless, or they have taken refuge in some faith and religious belief such as the existence of God to make-up for this apparent lack of meaning. Even in the latter case, the question arises: what is the purpose of God? And it is this question which a believer has no answer to, as Kierkegaard pointed out, rendering belief in God (or any other religious authority) as absurd. Hence there exists an absurdity which can not be eliminated.

Camus believed in the first scenario: a life intrinsically devoid of meaning and purpose. He refuses to accept any meaning that is beyond this existence. “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know the meaning… What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms.”[3]

But if life is absurd, what is the point of living on? Why shouldn’t we commit suicide and hasten our fate? Using the Greek myth of Sisyphus as a metaphor, Camus attempts to answer this question and present an alternative to suicide. How to live with the consciousness of this absurdity of life is the central question of Camus’s philosophy. “Does the absurd dictate death?”[4] Camus believes that the answer is no. The appropriate response to the experience of Absurd, Camus suggests, is to live in full consciousness of it. He rejects all those things which erase the consciousness of absurd, such as religious faith, suicide and Existentialism.

Camus begins with a criticism on Existentialism. He says that Existentialists recognize initially that this life is absurd and meaningless, but they then take an ‘existential leap’ or a ‘leap of faith’ and attribute a fabricated meaning to their existence, and often they deify the Absurd. Camus calls it a ‘philosophical suicide’. For example, about Chestov he writes: “[When] Chestov discovers the fundamental absurdity of all existence, he does not say ‘This is absurd’, but rather ‘This is God’”[5]. And he says about Kierkegaard “Kierkegaard likewise takes the leap. His childhood having been so frightened by Christianity, he ultimately returns to its harshest aspect. For him too, antinomy and paradox become the criteria of the religious.”[6] And in contrast, Camus believes that “The absurd… does not lead to God… the absurd is sin without God.”[7]

Sisyphus was a clever and devious character in Greek mythology, who had an excessive zeal for life. He managed to deceive Death as well as Hades but ultimately he was caught, and for his audacity, he was condemned forever to push a heavy boulder up a mountain slope, and only to see it roll back again to the valley each time it reached the top. “They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”[8]

Camus imagines Sisyphus laboriously rolling the heavy rock, exerting his full strength to the top of the hill. But then he watches the stone roll back, all his measureless effort wasted, and now he will have to push it up again. Sisyphus walks down the slope towards the rock. And it is in this descent that Camus’s interest in focused. “It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”[9]

Why does this account of Sisyphus arouse dreadfulness in us? Is it because the endless futility of Sisyphus’s toil evokes horror? But then, do we not realize that this myth is a metaphor for our very lives. Our lives too are spent in a useless working routine, whose end even we are not aware of. But it doesn’t shock us like Sisyphus’s punishment because we are not conscious of it. “If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd.”[10]

Yet, Sisyphus is superior to his fate because he has accepted. He will remain in torment and despair as long as he has hope or dream for something better. But once he has realized that this is what his life is, and what it will remain, and there is nothing better at all to look forward to, he will no longer be tormented by the absurdity of his existence. And this would be the key to his happiness. Camus ends his essay with the words, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” But why must we imagine Sisyphus to be happy? Is it some sort of a necessary conclusion? Let us consider the scenario: Sisyphus has fully accepted the reality of his life, the fact that it is absurd. Now if he is not happy, it would mean that life is not intrinsically happy; that happiness can only be found by some sort of an illusion, by means of an escape from reality. We have to believe Sisyphus to be happy if we wish to believe in genuine happiness, a happiness that is real because it is an outcome of the awareness of the reality of life itself.

We must note here that although Camus sees life as absurd and ultimately irrational, he does not advocate a stoic acceptance of the difficulties and problems of life. Camus believed life to be valuable and worth-defending, and all his life he did engage in different activities to help the poor and the oppressed.

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Footnotes:

[1] The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus, Page 11, Penguin Modern Classics
[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Journals, 1849
[3] The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus, Penguin Modern Classics, Page 51
[4] Ibid, Page 16
[5] Ibid, Page 37
[6] Ibid, Page 39-40
[7] Ibid, Page 42
[8] Ibid, Page 107
[9] Ibid, Page 108-109
[10] Ibid, Page 109