In writing my novel I wanted to ask some questions regarding our perception of reality, the nature of existence, suicide, and our relationship with the absurd. I wanted to find out more about this, and this lead me to Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. The title of this essay refers to the Greek myth of Sisyphus who was condemned to a futile eternity pushing a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down again. In it French-Algerian writer and philosopher, Camus examines the nature of the absurd, and asks the question: when faced with the absurd what reasons do we have for living?
‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.’
– Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
An Absurd Reasoning
‘In a man’s attachment to life there is something stronger than all the ills in the world… We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking.’
Our attachment to life is instinctive. We learn to survive physically before learning to reason. However, there may be times when life appears meaningless. We may see a man talking behind glass, we see only his silent gestures and wonder why he exists, or we may look in the mirror and witness a stranger. This is what Camus calls the absurd. At these times reason breaks down — we cannot explain it. Within this recognition of the ‘ridiculous character’ of habitual living — the senselessness of our daily grind, we question our reasons for living. Life becomes a mime — as if we are going through the motions. The great charade is revealed, the ‘stage-sets collapse’, and we ask ourselves: ‘what is the point?’
The first step in addressing this, says Camus, is to identify what is true. In this he states that: ‘this world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction.’ It must be noted that Camus’s approach is phenomenological here – he is only concerned with direct experience. Science can only describe the universe, it cannot explain it. The further one attempts to reduce an item – from table to atoms to electrons etc. — the more abstract that object becomes.
The absurd does not exist in the world or our consciousness alone, but in the divorce between ‘the human need [for meaning] and the unreasonable silence of the world’. To destroy one is to destroy the other. The absurd ends with death. To live with the absurd is to reject the notion of hope for a better tomorrow or something that transcends us. This feeling exiles us without a cure, states Camus. We become ‘deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land’. We feel a ‘nostalgia for unity’ — for things to make sense again. At this point, states Camus, our consciousness will awaken. And what follows is either ‘suicide or recovery’.
‘A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.’
Camus tells us that many philosophers have failed to live with this realisation of the absurd. Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) found meaning in God, Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969) found transcendence in the absurd, Leon Chestov (1866 – 1938) believed that the absurd was God, and phenomenologist Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938) moved from a belief in the truth of direct experience to the belief in ‘extra-temporal essences’ – in abstract Platonic universal truths that underlie all phenomena.
According to Camus, each of these thinkers commit ‘philosophical suicide’ by taking a ‘leap of faith’ and finding meaning in either God or the absurd itself. Camus states that he is only concerned with whether it is possible to live with what he knows and that alone – i.e. the certainty of the absurd, not the uncertainty of transcendence. Is it possible to live with the harrowing, lucid consciousness of the absurd or must one die because of it?
The Absurd Man
‘Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum.’
For Camus, suicide is also a leap — albeit an extreme kind — because it negates the absurd since there is no absurd without either the world or our consciousness of it. The absurd man instead needs to live knowing he is condemned to die and cannot hope. And through this lucidity of existence comes freedom.
The absurd man is ‘innocent’ states Camus because for him there is no heaven or hell, and therefore sin does not exist. The ‘hell of the present’ is the absurd man’s Kingdom – nothing transcends it. Realising this frees him from any obligation towards the eternal, and situates him firmly within time, not outside of it. And yet he must constantly revolt against this consciousness in order to avoid resigning to it.
‘Belief in the meaning of life always implies a scale of values’, says Camus, however belief in the absurd tells us that such values cannot exist. Living with the absurd is therefore about quantity not quality. It is about the accumulation of experience in the present, not the hope for a better one in the future. Once we realise this ‘everything resumes its place and the absurd world is reborn in all its splendor and diversity’.
Echoing Nietzsche, Camus tells us that, for the absurd man, everything is permitted. He is amoral. But Camus is careful to state that this does not mean nothing is forbidden. On this point he says that ‘it does not recommend crime’, and that assumption would be ‘childish’. He goes on to describe three types of characters that epitomise the absurd idea of revolt, passion, and freedom.
‘Melancholy people have two reasons for being so: they don’t know or they hope. Don Juan knows and does not hope.’
Don Juan lived only for his passions moment to moment. He understood his limit of intelligence and worked within in it. According to Camus he loved all women equally. Don Juan is not melancholy, states Camus, for it is hope for something better that infuses the present with sorrow. He has no hope of everlasting love and therefore is free. Here Don Juan is interested only in the quantity of experience not in a quality of life that will be exchanged for eternal happiness.
‘The actor’s realm is that of the fleeting.’
An actor is absurd because he knows his fame is ephemeral, and yet he plows his passions into his moment on stage. (It is important to note that Camus is referring to theatre actors, whose performances in his day would not have been preserved on film.)
The actor either succeeds or fails in this task, he either lives or dies. For the actor, to act is to live, and to not act is to die ‘a hundred times with all the creatures he would have brought to life or resuscitated’. He knows that in a few hours it will all end – that his part is already condemned to death. Most of our life, Camus says, is spent in silence, turning away from experience, but here the actor embraces it through his revolt of ‘shouts and cries’. He wants to experience the entire spectrum of human emotion — the love, the passion of many lives compressed into a short space of time — knowing nothing will last.
Camus highlights the heretical nature of acting. Acting embodies living many lives in the present, it deals with diversity. Whereas the Church advocates unity and maintaining a certain quality of life for a better future. This rejection by the Church amounts to ‘choosing Hell’, and yet the actor pursues his path of glory, embracing his fleeting moment on stage over hope of everlasting transcendence.
‘I have a liking for lost causes: they require an uncontaminated soul, equal to its defeat as to its temporary victories.’
By conqueror, Camus refers to the political rebel (he was a member of the French resistance movement during World War II). This person becomes conscious that he cannot be separated from time, and is forced to take his part in the world. But he remains conscious that victory is not guaranteed and therefore his efforts remain without hope. And yet he chooses action over contemplation, passion and revolt over hope and transcendence.
The absurd man is not restricted to the seducer, actor, or rebel. The civil servant, the post office clerk could equally embody the same sense of revolt, passion, and freedom by remaining conscious of the absurdity of their condition, the futile nature of their task, and yet experiencing it passionately within the present without hope of anything beyond it.
‘All existence for a man turned away from the eternal is but a vast mime under the mask of the absurd. Creation is the great mime.’
Philosophy and Fiction
The absurd cannot be negated, ‘one must live it or die of it’, states Camus. And, if life is a mime, then creation is ‘living doubly’. Writing is recreating the mime within the mime itself. The writer who becomes aware of this uses writing to explore and ‘enrich the ephemeral island on which they have landed’. They explore the absurd by recreating its nature without the urge to explain it. The writer must remain lucid of the absurd and indifferent to it. For Camus, the birth of absurd passions coincide with the death of reason.
But, Camus asks, is a truly absurd work of art possible? Or does the creator always, as with the existential philosophers seek transcendence within his own creation? An absurd work of art must reject reason; it is born of intelligence, but intelligence remains a mere framework — it must not interject and attempt to explain. For Camus, ‘expression begins where thought ends’.
He mentions that the great novelists are philosophical ones: Balzac, Sade, Melville, Stendal, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Malraux, Kafka – I would add to that list Beckett. But, as we shall see, fictional creation presents the same problems as those encountered by the likes of Kierkegaard, Husserl, et al.
Camus examines the characters of Dostoyevsky (1821 – 1881) who, he states, are ‘modern’ because they constantly question their place in the world without ‘fear of ridicule’. Kirilov in The Possessed (also translated as The Devils or The Demons) concedes that life is only worth living if there is a God, and yet he is convinced God does not exist. Camus makes the argument that if there is no God, then Kirilov is God. His ‘logical suicide’ therefore is an act of revolt against this very notion and his own sense of freedom. But not because he despairs, states Camus, but because he wishes to instruct his fellow-man that we may die freely. He is Prometheus who defied the gods so man could live.
However, Dostoyevsky was ultimately unable to accept this notion of the absurd. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan does not believe in God and goes insane as a consequence, whereas his brother Alyosha is redeemed by his very belief.
Although not mentioned by Camus, one must include a discussion of Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment here. The student wished to transcend God through an act of Nietzschean ‘will to power’ by murdering the old pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna; that if God does not exist then all is permitted. And if nothing transcends man then he is, as Camus stated earlier, free of sin. And yet Raskolnikov is unable to live with his guilt and seeks redemption in God.
Camus states that Dostoyevsky is not an absurd novelist but an existential one. He could not endure the silent void of the absurd and took a ‘leap of faith’ in seeking meaning in it through God. An absurd artist should not hope for anything everlasting. The story is the beginning and the end — there is nothing more. It should not seek to explain, but only describe. It should only deal with concrete certainty, not the uncertainty of the eternal. But Camus concedes, as Dostoyevsky illustrates that hope can be seductive. And yet one must constantly remain lucid of its absence through ‘daily effort’ and ‘self-mastery’. Like the seducer, the actor, and the rebel, the absurd artist must create passionately, lucidly for the present moment without hope that his creation will last.
The Myth of Sisyphus
There are several versions of the Sisyphus myth. In one he enchained Death so man could be free. When he was finally sent to the underworld, he tricked the gods in sending him back and refused to return. When he eventually returned he was condemned to a futile eternity pushing a boulder constantly up a hill. Because of all this, for Camus, Sisyphus is the ideal absurd hero.
He is the ‘absurd man’ before and after his death. In life Sisyphus lived a life full of passion, he scorned the gods and rejected death. In eternity he continued his task aware of its futility. Camus likens that moment when Sisyphus reaches the mountain top only for the boulder to go crashing to the bottom to a moment of lucid consciousness of the absurd. But Camus rejects that Sisyphus is tormented by this. If he is fully conscious that there is nothing more, that his task is everything, when he accepts his fate he becomes free. It can only be considered tragic if he hopes that his struggle will end. Camus concludes his essay by stating that ‘one must imagine Sisyphus happy’.
Camus argues that it is possible to live happily with the absurd. Taking a leap of faith into the unknown or suicide merely negates the absurd and admits that it is too much to comprehend. Instead one must revolt against the anguish of it knowing that there is nothing more to life. Once we realise there is no hope of transcendence then we will become free. And through this we will be able to live passionately, fully in the present moment.
It all seems very compelling and empowering — albeit through constant struggle. However, throughout this essay it is clear that Camus is less interested in the philosophy of the absurd than of its consequences. His thesis seems to rest on the assumption that truth originates from our own direct experience. He states that God does not exist and there are no eternal truths outside of our concrete consciousness of the world. And yet he offers no arguments to support any of this. Instead he relies on the findings of other existential thinkers who have faced the absurd, who he says have then taken unreasonable leaps of faith in negating it either by finding meaning in God or within the absurd itself.
Additionally, beyond saying that the innocent ‘absurd man’ is amoral, he does not attempt to support his reasoning why he must not commit crime and inflict harm. For if there are no eternal values what does he have to answer to? Would a serial killer not also embody the absurd man as much as Don Juan in doing passionately what he enjoys outside of sin?
And lastly, Camus advocates a lucidity of thinking and yet, at times — although beautifully written — his arguments are entrenched in metaphor it is difficult to decipher without entering the realm of poetry — the very abstract notion that he himself argues science reduces everything to.