The discovery of the absurd will often lead to one of two reflexive responses. The first entails a kind of negative leap into suicide and despair. The second involves a more common and subtle positive leap, where an underlying anxiety about the human dilemma presumably causes one to ‘forget’ the starting point – the place where the absurd was first uncovered. There is a desperate, though likely unconscious desire to rectify the situation by somehow removing the absurdity from human existence. But the problem, conceived of in this way, can only be solved by distorting and twisting both reality and human reasoning to create some kind of meaning-system. Peace of mind can only be found through human denial and human invention – only under these desperate conditions and by sacrifice of intellect can the impossible appear possible.
Camus suggests that to arrange one’s life in a particular fashion is to presuppose its meaning. Swallowed up by self-made or culturally-prescribed illusions, we are pacified and shielded from the terror of a meaningless existence, but we are simultaneously caged inside an illusionary world of distractions and false hopes; they create barriers that can restrict thought, feeling, and action. Ideology, of whatever kind, can work in ways to justify life as well as the taking of life. We see evidence of this everywhere. In corporate greed and consumerism that seems to place a monetary value on everything, including the environment, species, and even human life; in National ideologies that ‘defend’ a particular way of life by destroying competing nations and cultures; in how science, philosophy, and politics, through the mythical belief in human ‘progress,’ can appear to rationalize and justify the attainment of certain ends through whatever means – including war and murder… the examples could go on. Tenaciously holding onto the memory of our human condition is perhaps the only way to guard against our seeking salvation through an invented system of meaning.
… I discern a leap and, though performed in the abstract, it nonetheless means for me forgetting just what I do not want to forget (Camus, p. 47)
Camus did a great service toward elucidating the absurd and pointing out false paths that can lead us toward self-destructive illusions. For this, he is frequently praised. But Camus is often misunderstood when it comes to what he considered to be the ‘exigencies’ of the absurd. Camus was careful not to offer us any kind of absolute truth, axiom, or belief-system; he would view that as an illogical leap and an escape from the absurd. But critics seem to misunderstand this point, often labeling him as a pacifist. What does a life consist of, if there can be no ultimate source of value or meaning to direct our lives?
The absurd is a starting point for Camus. He wants to know if he can live with what he knows, while being careful not to forget what has been discovered – lucidity is dependent on it. Camus suggests that we must hold steady our reasoning in the face of our existential anxieties, recognizing them for what they are, without trying to suppress them through a metaphysical leap or destroy them through physical suicide. We must remain true to the terms of the absurd, and so we must find ways of ‘entertaining’ it – thus keeping it alive. Living, while lucidly conscious of our human desire for meaning, the world that disappoints, and the awareness that it ends in death, is keeping it alive.
The important thing … is not to be cured, but to live with one’s ailments (Camus, p. 41).
In a sense, we are slaves to our uniquely human condition. The absurd binds us to its terms – and we can never be free from it, though if we can learn how to carry it, we protect ourselves from the temptation of treating sources of meaning or value as absolutes. If there is meaning, it is relative to the human beings who created it – we must not forget that. Camus suggests that to live and survive as a slave, one must not fully submit or fall into despair, but instead carry a fiery determination to rebel against our existential chains.
Absurdism, like methodical doubt, has wiped the slate clean. … I proclaim that I believe in nothing and that everything is absurd, but I cannot doubt the validity of my proclamation and I must at least believe in my protest. The first and only evidence that is supplied me, within the terms of the absurdist experience, is rebellion. … Rebellion is born in the spectacle of irrationality, confronted with an unjust and incomprehensible condition (Camus, p. 10)
Camus suggests that keeping the absurd alive, without submitting to its terms, is our revolt. It is devoid of absolute hope, as that would be illusion, but there is no resignation either, as that would involve acquiescing to the absurd and seeking an escape that cannot be found within the boundaries of reason.
Living the ‘absurd’ life would seem to be like walking a tightrope. Fall on one side into despair, on the other, into unreasonable hope through religion or ideology. It involves playing a game where one can only lose, being lucidly conscious of that fact, and deciding to play anyway. On the ‘outside’ a person living by an ‘absurd logic’ may look to be doing nothing different than one in the masses. Yet there is a great difference between an assumption of meaning that leads to particular action, and knowing that it is meaningless, yet perhaps acting the same nonetheless. One person is a slave to his meaning system. The other is free to question her meaning system and revise them as she sees fit; they are still slaves, but not to illusion… to the absurd; they are bound to its terms.
Camus argues that if keeping the absurd alive is conditional on this uniquely human condition, then the human life may take on the only indubitable value. And if we recognize that this existential isolation and absurd confrontation is common to all human beings, we can in this way begin to find a sense of solidarity with the rest of humanity. These are some of the ideas that Camus starts to build within the Rebel. It is an often misunderstood piece of Camus’ work, but I strongly recommend its careful reading within the context of his other writings. There is a definite continuum there.
Before I wrap up this last piece on absurdity, I would like to offer something on a personal note. In recent years I have been drawn to the classics. I believe we do younger generations a great disservice to suggest that there is nothing to be found there, due to ideas being outdated or argued irrelevant. On the contrary, I believe there is much to learn. And among the many great minds of history, I have yet to read the work of someone that can rival the clarity, passion, integrity, and humanity of Albert Camus. He has not only changed the way I look at life, but also how I feel about it. Few writers have the ability to do that – and in this day and age it seems in very short supply.
Update: Continue on to In Search of Meaning (Part 1/3): Absurdity and the Limits of Reason