In 1943, writer and philosopher, Albert Camus published his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he attempted to explain his philosophy of the Absurd. Absurdism, much like its sister Existentialism, is not often given serious thought by academics today. Perhaps it is seen as juvenile, not deep enough, not complex enough; but I believe that Absurdism is more relevant today than ever. Much of the following is taken from a graduate term paper of mine that is not published titled, “Understanding Existentialism and Absurdism Through Albert Camus’ The Stranger and Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts.”
Grasping the concept of Absurdism can be difficult. This oft-cited passage from The Myth of Sisyphus is a good place to start,
This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the time being it is their only link.
The Absurd arises from our search for meaning in a meaningless universe; it is only in this conflict that Absurdity exists. Now, to understand this, you have to go along with the idea that we live in a meaningless universe and I think this is where most people get tripped up. If you’re satisfied with your life, if you believe your life has purpose and meaning, all of this Absurdism stuff will sound silly. But there is another way of interacting with the Absurd.
Take senseless violence for example. Now, we have to take this description very literally. Senseless violence is violence that makes zero sense—There is no meaning behind the violence. There may be causes, but there is no meaning. Consider this passage from the 1970s American novel Cutter and Bone in which Cutter, a Vietnam veteran, describes his experience coming home and seeing the war photographed in Life magazine,
When I was in Nam, I guess I’ve told you, we did pretty much what all the outfits there did. Not exactly My Lais [sic], not that big anyway, but we did our part, everybody did his little part over there. To women and kids too, because we never knew, there was no way of knowing, all slants were VC far as we were concerned, and you just didn’t give a damn anyway. Not there, on the spot, not while you were doing it, it was nothing, you were a machine, nothing touched you, nothing mattered. But later—later, back here, when the My Lai thing broke—you remember those pictures in Life? The peasants? That one young woman with her old mother and her kid, and they’re all hugging each other and crying, waiting to be offed. And the next picture, there they all are in a ditch. Well back here, with time, you know, you had time to study them, those pictures. And that’s what I did. I studied them all right. I went to school at those pictures. And you know what I found out? I found out you have three reactions, Rich, only three. The first one is simple—I hate America. But then you study them some more, and you move up a notch. There is no God. But you know what you say finally, Rich, after you’ve studied them all you can? You say—I’m hungry.
While Cutter was in the war there was no thinking, no reflection, no conflict; just the struggle for survival. It wasn’t until he returned home and saw the war through new eyes that he came in conflict with the Absurd. Camus writes,
At certain moments of lucidity, the mechanical aspect of their gestures, their meaningless pantomime makes silly everything that surrounds them. A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive. This discomfort in the face of man’s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this “nausea,” as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd. Likewise the stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in a mirror, the familiar and yet alarming brother we encounter in our own photographs is also the absurd.
(The Myth of Sisyphus)
While an individual may believe that meaning exists in their own life and so, they never personally encounter this conflict out of which arises the Absurd, we should all be able to see the meaninglessness of, ‘That one young woman with her old mother and her kid, and they’re all hugging each other and crying, waiting to be offed. And the next picture, there they all are in a ditch’ (Cutter and Bone). The conflict that arises between us reading of these atrocities and searching for meaning within them is the Absurd. Whatever reasons that exist behind these atrocities are merely the cause of the atrocities; there is no proper meaning, there is no ethical value, meaning, or purpose.
When you struggle with this discrepancy, you encounter the Absurd—You are searching for meaning in an event or action that has no meaning. You watch the news, a child dies in Yemen from a drone strike because they were too close to a target whose crime had not yet been confirmed, only suspected. You ask yourself why? You are engaging with Absurdity—There is no reason, there is no Big Other, there is no final plan.
This is all quite bleak and sad and you might think to yourself, “Well, if there’s no point to any of it, then why carry on?” This is exactly where The Myth of Sisyphus starts off, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” This is the question of the Absurd. Camus goes on to defend living and asserts that we should go on to live in spite of the Absurd,
It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear, on the contrary, that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning. Living an experience, a particular fate, is accepting it fully. Now, no one will live this fate, knowing it to be absurd, unless he does everything to keep before him that absurd brought to light by consciousness. (55)
In other words, embrace your freedom; continue to strive and to live. The last question people typically have of the Absurd condition is in regard to ethics and essentially comes down to this famous line, ‘If God is dead, then everything is permitted.’ Camus responds to this,
The absurd does not liberate; it binds. It does not authorize all actions. “Everything is permitted” does not mean that nothing is forbidden. The absurd merely confers an equivalence on the consequences of those actions. It does not recommend crime, for this would be childish, but it restores to remorse its futility. Like-wise, if all experiences are indifferent, that of duty is as legitimate as any other.
But I would go even further and quote the philosopher Slavoj Žižek who, in his film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, responds that it is only when God exists that everything is permitted. We see this with extremists justifying the slaughter of innocent people in the name of their God, we see it with American forces droning small villages in the name of their country (another form of God), and we see it in the people watching the news and convincing themselves that it’s all, “part of God’s plan.” Part of what makes the Absurd empowering is that it robs us of these ideological lies and forces us to confront reality in a more genuine and honest manner.
It is not my intention to insult those who have faith. It is necessary to be blunt in order to clearly explain the concept of the Absurd. An important aspect of Absurdism is the explicit rejection of faith (particularly the type of faith described by Kierkegaard).
So today, as we complete this arduous year and contemplate what awaits us in 2021, what solace can we find in such a seemingly bleak philosophy? What we acquire when we accept the Absurdity of our existence, is the freedom to live fully. Many of my friends and classmates wonder what the point of carrying on with term papers and PhD applications is when it feels like the end of the world is around the corner. Between COVID, global warming, the rise of fascist movements, on and on and on—With all of this horror going on around us, why carry on? What’s the point?
We carry on in spite of the Absurdity of our condition. We rebel against it. I could be dead tomorrow, and yet today I live. I write. I plan for the future (however tentative it might be). I have a drink. I go on. While we may face many struggles, struggles are not new. Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus during the Second World War—There will always be struggles and there will never be meaning; and in this recognition of our Absurd condition, we are free,
Thus, I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide.
(The Myth of Sisyphus)