An Overview of Camus on the Absurd

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The Absurd (at least on Camus’s view) emphasizes “a fundamental disharmony” or “tragic incompatibility” in our finite existence. Camus ultimately argues that the Absurd is the product of a head-on collision between our seemingly universal human desire for objective order, meaning, and purpose in life and the bleak, indifferent, perhaps even soul-crushing “silence of the universe.” “The absurd is not in man nor in the world,” Camus writes, “but in their presence together…it is the only bond uniting them.”

Camus thus depicts us as wretched creatures desperately seeking hope and meaning in a world that is entirely hopeless and meaningless. Sartre, in his essay-review of one of Camus’s exemplary works, The Stranger, provides an additional comment: “The absurd, to be sure, resides neither in man nor in the world, if you consider each separately. But since man’s dominant characteristic is ‘being in the world,’ the absurd is, in the end, an inseparable part of the human condition.” The Absurd organically arises from the human demand/desire for clarity, as well as the human seeking of transcendence, on one hand and, on the other, a cosmos that offers nothing of the kind. Such is our collective fate: we inhabit a world that is completely indifferent to our sufferings in all of their expressions and that is deaf to even our most vehement protests. The Absurd, then, is made known to us in the form of a blind force of existential opposition. Think of the force of gravity, but more sinister and aimed at bringing down the human psyche.

In Camus’s view there are three possible responses to this predicament. Two of these he condemns as evasions. The first choice is as simple as it is blunt: physical suicide. If we decide that a life without some objective purpose or meaning is not worth living, we can simply choose to terminate our own existence. Camus rejects this choice as cowardly and unbecoming. In his terms, it is a ‘repudiation’ or ‘renunciation’ of life, not a true revolt. [Notice the reverberation from Nietzsche and his Will to Power.]

The second choice: the religious solution of positing a transcendent world of solace and meaning beyond that of the Absurd. Camus calls this solution “philosophical suicide” and rejects it as being straightforwardly evasive, divisive, and fraudulent. To adopt a supernatural solution to the problem of the Absurd (for example, through some type of religious mysticism or a Kierkegaardian ‘leap of faith’) is to annihilate reason (or, at the very least, to relegate it to a subservient role to that of the passions and emotions), which, in Camus’s view, is as fatal and self-destructive as physical suicide itself. In effect, instead of removing one’s self from the absurd confrontation of self and world, like in the case of physical suicide, the religious believer simply removes the offending world and replaces it, via a kind of metaphysical abracadabra, with a more agreeable alternative. It is thus most commonly associated with (and denigrated as) psychological denial, purposeful ignorance, and/or unrealistic delusions/hallucinations.

Though Camus may not use these terms, or use them in an antagonistic manner like Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and others may, it is safe to say with functional certainty that Camus finds metaphysical religion, in almost all forms, abhorrent and detrimental to the overall well-being of society, but especially to the individual.

The third choice, and in Camus’s view, the only authentic and valid solution, is simply to accept/tolerate absurdity (weak form), or better yet to embrace it (strong form), and to continue living your life. Since the Absurd, in his view, is an unavoidable and defining characteristic of the human condition, the only proper response to its existence is full, unflinching, and courageous acceptance. Life, Camus says, can “be lived all the better if it has no meaning.” Thus, life need not have an objective meaning in order to be fully appreciated or enjoyed (insofar as is possible) or, at the very least, accepted.

The example par excellence of Camus’s third option is that of the mythical Sisyphus. Condemned to eternal and arduous labor while fully conscious of the essential hopelessness of his own plight, Sisyphus nevertheless pushes on to complete his task of rolling a boulder up the side of a mountain. In doing so, he becomes, for Camus, a superb icon of the spirit of revolt and of a worthy exemplar of the human condition. To rise each day in order to fight a battle that you know you cannot win, and to do this with wit, grace, compassion for others, and even a sense of driven mission, is to face the Absurd properly and directly.

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