Absurdity (Part 2 of 4): The Negative Leap

Camus was not the first to come to the conclusions thus far described – Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Sartre, and others less known, have also followed lucid reason to arrive at the ‘waterless deserts’ of the absurd…

… but how eager they were to get out of them! At that last crossroad where thought hesitates … They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt. The real effort is to stay there, rather, in so far as that is possible … Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope and death carry on their dialogue (Camus, p. 16).

Camus thus discerns two paths of attempted escape from the absurd: a ‘leap’ into hope without reason… or a ‘leap’ into despair and suicide. He first addresses nihilism and suicide, which can be thought as a kind of ‘negative leap.’ It is important to note that we are talking here about a certain kind of suicide, stripped of its emotional content, and related to the logical consequences of a mind conscious of the absurd. Let us re-state the problem. Lucid consciousness, following reason to its intellectual borders, begins to question the meaning systems upon which we base our lives. Upon close scrutiny we discover them to be nothing but illusions of human creation – given to us by our cultures, or invented by ourselves. Our lives can have no externally justifiable or a priori source of meaning or value. Our dilemma involves an irreparable divorce between the human need for meaning and a universe that has none to offer. These facts give rise to our absurd condition. We may then ask ourselves: is a life without ultimate meaning worth living? Is this kind of existence justifiable? Will this recognition of the absurd dictate a nihilistic indifference toward life? Will it sanction or even dictate suicide?

Camus argues that one must remain faithful to what lucid reasoning and logical thought has uncovered. We cannot deny the two conditions of the absurd or the human consciousness that discovered it. In this light, we can see that suicide can be viewed as a way of escaping the absurd by destroying one of its terms: the meaning-seeking human creature. In a sense, it is a denial of reality – an escape. One does not like the terms of the game, so decides they no longer want to play. Camus argues that we must not give into the temptation to make an absolute value of either hope or despair. We cannot pretend that we did not find what we have found, by wishing it away through unreasonable hope, or engaging in a negative leap into absolute despair or suicide.

The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. This must not be forgotten. This must be clung to because the whole consequence of a life can depend on it (Camus, p. 32).

Camus suggests that the temptation is always there… to always look for ways of escaping our absurd dilemma… but doing so always comes with a cost. We pacify our troubled minds with illusions and fantasies, or otherwise decide that the reality aroused by a lucid mind is too much to bear. But physical suicide is not arrived at by logical thought – it is a denial of reality. We destroy one of the terms that give rise to the absurd reality that emerges from the human condition. This is our burden – we must learn how to carry it. Camus suggests that even in the midst of the desert one can learn to live and create with full memory of our situation, while resisting the lure of absolutes. It will involve ‘entertaining’ the absurd, without looking for escape or succumbing to it. It entails…

… a total absence of hope (which has nothing to do with despair), a continual rejection (which must not be confused with renunciation), and a conscious dissatisfaction (which must not be compared to immature unrest). Everything that destroys, conjures away, or exorcises these requirements (and, to begin with, consent which overthrows divorce) ruins the absurd and devalues the attitude that may then be proposed (Camus, p. 34-35).

Continue to Absurdity (Part 3/4): The Positive Leap.


4 Responses to “Absurdity (Part 2 of 4): The Negative Leap”

  1. ronbc Says:

    Another very readable article. You have the enviable ability to express the complex clearly without oversimplifying. That may cost you mass market readers, but it makes your postings most enjoyable for people like me.

    I remember trying to introduce the idea of “the absurd” to high school seniors. We had read Camus’s The Guest and Sartre’s The Wall, so I gave them a few pages of Sisyphus. A few of them were so intrigued that they formed a group and took a stab at Beckett’s Endgame!

    Most of them, however, as usual, smiled tolerantly at their crazy old ex-hippie English teacher and went on with the meaningful stuff in their lives.

  2. Brad Says:

    I don’t think I have read Beckett, though judging by some online reviews there might be good reason to. Thanks for the kind words – and the reference.

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