Absurdity in the eyes of Albert Camus

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Image courtesy of Envato Elements

Shubha Gautam, News Editor

He strains under the stubborn boulder’s weight, gnashing his teeth in a grimace as he grips its mossy surface, pushing the rock a few inches closer to the top of the mountain with each grunt. With each impassioned step, the scars on Sisyphus’ feet grow thicker, layering on top of each other until the slashes of the jagged obsidian resemble simple pinches. The days become months, and the months become years: the passage of time means just as much as the transition from black to white in Sisyphus’ beard, and the difference between life and death is irrelevant. When finally his grip loosens and feeling returns to his calloused feet, the sight of the sky in place of stone invigorates the fatigued limbs of the king of Corinth, and even a glimmer of hope may appear in his weatherbeaten eyes as he gives one last push to the boulder. But instead of plunging over the crest of the mountain, the tragic nature of Sisyphus’ fate becomes lucid once again, and the pitiless rock reverts upon its weight, slumping down the same path as its ascent in a cloud of dust. Resigned to his fate, Sisyphus returns to the bottom of the mountain and grips the stone once again, cursing himself for hoping in the first place. 

Albert Camus, a French-Algerian philosopher, journalist, playwright and author, is known best for his contributions to non-metropolitan French literature. He explored absurdist thought through his books “L’Étranger” (“The Stranger) and “La Peste” (“The Plague”), along with his essay “Le Mythe de Sisyphe” (“The Myth of Sisyphus”), in which he first introduced his personal perceptions of both the absurd and the notion of revolt. “L’Étranger” (1942), his most famous novel, follows the journey of a young man by the name of Meursault in Algiers, Algeria. A man outwardly devoid of emotion and indifferent to the world around him, Meursault kills a man for no apparent reason. The shooting and subsequent events are veiled in a layer of haze as Meursault moves through interspersed stages full of despair and hope as his execution date comes closer. 

While living in occupied France during World War II, Camus became the editor-in-chief of the pro-Resistance newspaper “Combat,” only later elaborating upon what he considered the “defining characteristic of the modern human condition” — the absurd — and the perpetual struggle against the irrationality of human existence. In 1957, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature for his efforts to “illuminate the problem of the human conscience in our time.” Camus explores Søren Kierkegaard’s idea of absurdism amply through “Le Mythe de Sisyphe,” quantifying the mythical tale with his own interpretations of reason, religion, consciousness, revolt and freedom. These all help dissect the myth’s importance little by little.

Absurdism is a rigid adherence to rationalism, which cannot and will not elaborate on the various unpredicted events that individuals experience.”

Reason is imperative

In anyone’s life, there is only one definitive aspect to their fate: death — “It is a substitute, an illusion, and it never quite convinces us” (The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus, 1942). Absurdism is a rigid adherence to rationalism, which cannot and will not elaborate on the various unpredicted events that individuals experience. The feeling of absurdity, or a lack of familiarity, arises when the distance between simple fact and certain reality is too wide to justify; this divorce of intention and the subsequent related event is a product of confrontation. Often, this manifests itself as a conflict between willpower and reality: if someone puts all of their efforts into growing a tulip in the spring, giving it adequate amounts of water, sunlight and nutrients, but the flower never blooms, why does this occur? When one is put on trial for a crime they did not commit and assured they will not be found guilty for, but receive a differing verdict, how can this be predicted ? The ‘leap’ in reasoning between what we wish for and what actually occurs is irrational since there is no sensible reason for this breach in the first place. Thus, absurdism addresses the struggle of countering the unpredictable nature of existence with lucid truth. The certainty of one’s surroundings is assured through the five senses: they can see the walls of the room surrounding them, touch the backside of the chair they sit on, smell the aroma of dinner cooking in the kitchen, taste warm coffee and listen to the murmur of chatting voices. But what else can one vindicate? One can judge what they experience, but all else is a mere construction that we attempt to rationalize through science, art and religion. Humans break objects down to the atom, but any further dissection leads to pure illustrations that we try to conceptualize. Individuals walk on the ground, see certain colors and act in specific ways because of laws created in the past, but the ‘why’ will never be known. Concepts unravel until they become a jumble of abstract poetry, and, in the end, the absurdist will understand that the gap between belief and practice will never close without a ‘leap.’ To Camus, because one cannot rationalize every single one of their actions, they will always be a stranger to themselves. Whatever ‘will’ one digs up comes with its own series of paradoxes, and whatever ‘truth’ one finds comes with its own related truths. To the absurdist, the lack of reason can only indicate that the world is unreasonable. 

Religion harbors a leap in understanding

In the philosophies of existentialists such as Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Kierkegaard and Edmund Husserl, Camus notices a diversion from reason to eternal justifications for human existence. In regard to their philosophies, he states, “[…] they deify what crushes them and find a reason to hope in what impoverishes them. That forced hope is religious in all of them” (Camus). However demonizing this statement seems toward religion, he acknowledges the place of religion in existential philosophies, just not in absurdism because it relies entirely on reason. Lev Shestov claims that humankind suffices for the possible, while a shift to God is evident when discussing topics where human judgment sees no solution; replacing ‘God’ in this statement with ‘absurdism,’ the statement changes to a perspective Camus would likely believe in. The switch to an eternal plane in which a higher being is present goes against the purely human nature of absurdist thought. Absurdism relies on the power of the mind, the ability to make lucid connections with undeniable evidence, so connecting any single aspect of humankind’s sphere to something we cannot directly experience brings the individual out of the picture. In Camus’ words, “The absurd is no longer that evidence that man ascertains without consenting to it” (Camus). The inherent conflict between rationality and irrationality in absurdism is eluded, as irrationality is replaced with a belief in God and the struggle for reason is evaded through an adherence to an inexplicable power. The gap closes through a leap of faith. The absurdist recognizes the human need for clarity and the everyday nostalgia for familiarity, but by sacrificing the unreasonable through religion in hopes of achieving quicker comfort, they give up half of the struggle for discretion. God represents all that humanity does not know and is intrinsically all-knowing in many belief systems, but it provides too much hope for the absurdist. The absurdist relies on human experience for interpreting the world around them, and religion alludes to a presence the absurdist knows is not reasonable to accept. Religion is too desirable and dependent upon conjecture for Camus to believe in it. As such, the absurdist has to give up consolation for rationale. 

The absurdist recognizes the human need for clarity and the everyday nostalgia for familiarity, but by sacrificing the unreasonable through religion in hopes of achieving quicker comfort, they give up half of the struggle for discretion.”

Consciousness is awakening

Consciousness is the act of focusing. It intentionally isolates objects of interest, contextualizing them and extracting information without forming a concrete resolution. Like experimental data is to science, consciousness is to thought, illuminating struggles and unraveling them through newfound epiphanies. It is unique to the individual and provides a meaning they only have the experience to understand, making it a purely human facet. Consciousness sets the stage for emotion and recollection. Waking up, going to school or work, eating lunch, coming home, cooking dinner, going to sleep and repeating the process the next day — one starts wondering why they entertain this mechanical life. Camus believes the weariness and subsequent amazement that comes with this revelation inaugurates consciousness; it provokes a step back, a reevaluation of past events and, often, some kind of yearning for more. With each pause, each disassociating event appears with a tinge of clarity. The ‘why’ clears up, and illustrations become more realistic as we continue to squint our vision, causing infinite explanations for the same occurrences to pile up. There comes the point, though, where these various experiences start to contradict each other. The rational basis for a person’s attempts for lucidity crumbles as they try to restore depth to the universe. They face paradoxes, and the irrational aspects of life once again become incomprehensible. One reverts to where they began, trying to clear their perceptions through conscious efforts, and the absurd struggle continues. Absurdity is rejuvenated, and revolt is the only option to escape obscurity.

Revolt gives life its value

When the very ground one stands on shifts and foundations, comes tumbling down, the perpetual struggle for truth seems devoid of hope. Absurdism does not allow for escapism. Premature termination of life or nostalgia found through restoration of belief in an eternal plane cannot bring comfort to the absurdist; these practices search for meaning in a world beyond the human one, which is a world individuals cannot experience and, thus, is irrational to find solace in. The erratic events in life do not follow some set, predictable pattern that relies entirely on reason. In order to combat this unpredictability, the individual must revolt. For Camus, revolt is “[…] a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity,” and it challenges the fabric of human existence every second (Camus). Revolt encompasses the knowledge of “[…] a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it” (Camus). Revolt is what gives life its value. Reliance upon principles or any set code of conduct sets oneself up for failure, as their validity is fickle. On the other hand, revolt is a rejection of accepting irrationality and provides proof of the individual’s truth. Constant defiance is a purely human trait that questions gaps between intent and reality. Its very presence magnifies our freedom of action. 

Freedom is limited but present in actions

The life before us resembles the shimmering heat waves emanating from freshly tarred roads on sunny days: we acknowledge them but are never confident in their existence. A simple shift in position or the blink of an eye can lead to their disappearance, similar to the future pervading us.”

Every day humans act as if they are autonomous. One may seek an education in order to secure a stable living, establish aims to justify a series of actions or attempt to make enough money to live comfortably after retirement. These perceptions, though, take for granted a certain level of assurance: are the results of their efforts ever truly guaranteed? Persons act as if they are free, and their lives can be directed by the determination of their own will, but “[…] all the facts make a point of contradicting that liberty” (Camus). How can one continue to believe in their freedom when, at random moments, they do not feel it? Individuals try to control their outcomes and defend them through some arbitrary higher purpose, but without a belief in eternity, this reach for autonomy falls folly to their own rationale and hampers the little freedom of action they do have. Religious individuals feel liberated by giving themselves up to their God, but absurdists do not have the ability to measure their liberation through a scale of virtues or preferences as they do. The only reasonable freedom in Camus’ perspective is “[…] that which a human heart can experience and live” (Camus). Though it is impossible to assume the results of one’s actions, the intentions that precede them are controlled solely by the beholder of the action. One cannot predict a car crash, but they can make the decision of stepping into the driver’s seat in the first place. There is not enough evidence to illustrate a strange future; thus, it does not exist. The life before us resembles the shimmering heat waves emanating from freshly tarred roads on sunny days: we acknowledge them but are never confident in their existence. A simple shift in position or the blink of an eye can lead to their disappearance, similar to the future pervading us. The future never quite convinces the individual and is too related to the unreasonable eternity for the absurdist to ever wholeheartedly believe in it. The present is justifiable, and one’s limited understanding of fate creates a staunch hyperfixation on living. Camus claims that “Being aware of one’s life, one’s  revolt, one’s freedom and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum” (Camus).

Connection to Sisyphus

In the “Iliad,” Homer describes Sisyphus, the first king of Corinth and two-time escapee of death, as “the most cunning of men.” The first time he died, he tied up Thanatos, the personification of death in Greek mythology, thereby making it so that no humans could die. The crisis resolved when Ares intervened, and Sisyphus became mortal once again. Later, as a way of testing his wife’s love, he told her to cast his unburied body in the public square. When he woke up in the underworld, he convinced Hades, through the help of Persephone, to send him back to Earth in order to instruct his wife to conduct the proper rituals for his death, but instead stayed in the human realm and cheated death once again. The next time Sisyphus died was due to old age, and Zeus cursed him: he would have to push a rock up a mountain and watch it descend back to the foot of the mountain, only for him to push it up again. This cycle of pushing and descending continues for eternity, serving as an example for all others who considered evading death like Sisyphus.

No God can save him, his conscience keeps him lucid, revolt embeds itself into the very knowledge of his destiny, and the irrational is missing.”

Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He detests gods, belittles death and always seeks life. Each time he reaches the peak of the wretched mountain and watches as years of slow, tedious labor evaporates in a quick descent. He is superior to his fate. Death no longer defines the end of his life, and he is conscious of his destiny. Not once does he harbor any hope for his task to end — he knows that it will not and thus conquers his circumstances through simple acknowledgment. The walls of his fate are close, and his actions are defined, but his mind is rebellious. No God can save him, his conscience keeps him lucid, revolt ingrains into the very knowledge of his destiny, and the irrational is missing. His and only his actions led to this punishment, and Camus states, “[…] he knows himself to be the master of his days” (Camus). In the end, he notices “all is well” (Camus). Sisyphus is in a constant state of struggle against the human and inhuman nature of his tragedy, but he is aware. Finally conquering his future, Sisyphus is happy. 

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