Few understood the concept of the ‘absurd’ as intimately as Albert Camus, whose thoughts are most clearly outlined in his 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. For Camus, there is no question more crucial than that of life meaning:
“I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying)” (p. 12).
Human beings seem to demand meaning, purpose, and a rational order from the world in which they live. But the physical world cares not for the psychological needs of humans. The cold facts of existence are the same for all earth’s creatures. Eat, sleep, defecate, reproduce… and die. This is our reality and it will be our future, until even that ceases to be. Unlike other creatures, we know it to be true – at least intellectually. Yet we seldom bother, during the course of a lifetime let alone in our daily lives, to think about our mortality and its limits. In this we prefer to remain in denial. We likewise deceive ourselves about our ideas and beliefs about the world and our place in it. Our daily lives are filled with activities, attitudes, and values that claim to have purpose, order, and meaning. Humans are masters of self-deception. If we could create a secure foothold in something that appears meaningful and enduring, perhaps we can fool ourselves into thinking we have transcended our troublesome reality, and forfended the anxiety it often elicits. But to find an answer to the question of meaning is to invent one for ourselves – they can only offer a distraction… an illusion… a lie.
“… life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his “ideas” are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality” (Ortega Y Gasset as quoted in Becker, 1973, p. 47).
Our lives are for the most part monotonous. Every day… awake, breakfast, drive to work, lunch, work till late afternoon, busy ourselves until evening, sleep, then repeat, Monday through Friday, to repeat yet again. Our cultures give us long-term prescriptions for the lifetime routine – become educated, get a degree, get a job, buy a house, buy and own lots of things, have a family, get a pet, white picket fence, save for retirement, retire, and die. There is no repeat at this juncture. Yet at some point in one’s life, we might ask the question: ‘what is this for?’ Something stirs inside as we begin to see through the chimera that is our life. The stage sets collapse… the pointless show is revealed for what it is… devoid of justifiable meaning… ourselves mere actors – performing in step with a script we did not write. Consciousness awakens and becomes lucid. A terror grips us as we recognize that we were hitherto riding on future hopes and plans for tomorrow, while our very bones recoil at the thought of what it will ultimately bring.
Absurdity is both a feeling and a product of rational thought. Camus describes the latter as something that emerges out of an irreconcilable divorce between two terms: our being meaning seeking creatures and our existing in a world that has no a priori meaning or value. It involves our desire for transcendence, purpose, and meaning, against the unbearable silence of the world. Human existence and the natural world are not absurd in themselves – these two terms are the necessary conditions that give rise to the absurd. This is because the world is resistant to the kind of intelligibility that would satisfy us (Foley, 2008). We demand what the world cannot offer us – wanting a consolation that cannot be given.
The feeling of the absurd is something closely related. It arises in the pit of our stomachs, a chill in our bones, or a panicky rush of adrenaline, when we catch a glimpse of the meaningless pantomime of human action or when we ask ourselves: ‘why?’ This feeling of the absurd is Sartre’s nausea.
“… in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity” (Camus, 1943, p. 13)
From the perspective of the absurd, and in the tradition of Descartes’ methodological doubt, Camus begins to question the claims we can make about the world – what possible meaning could exist a priori. He is especially critical of thinkers who have discovered the absurd to only look for escape by creating some transcendental truth or value. For Camus, it is not so much the discovery that is interesting, but what one does with it. He wants to know if he can reject its complacencies while staying true to its exigencies. Camus wants to remain faithful to what lucid consciousness and reason has aroused. He wants to know if he can live with what he knows and nothing more. The absurd is a starting point, yet the path must remain true to its terms.
Continue to Absurdity (Part 2/4): The Negative Leap.