I recently read Caligula and Three Other Plays by Albert Camus. I limit myself to the play Caligula in this post. The plot is unique, though simple. Caligula is a young prince who becomes the all powerful emperor of Rome. Death of his cousin, who he was in love with, pushes him to the realisation that men die; and they are not happy. He says, “I suddenly felt a desire for the impossible…Things as they are, in my opinion, are far from satisfactory…this world of ours, this scheme of things as they call it, is quite intolerable…I want the moon, or happiness, or eternal life – something, in fact, that may sound crazy, but which is not of this world…All that’s needed is to be logical right through, at all costs.” Bottomline, he wants to be free, even from the gicen, from the scheme of things. If you note, he equates ‘happiness’ with ‘wanting the moon’, in effect implying that happiness is impossible in the ‘scheme of things’ or in the ‘world as it is’. This is one of the fundamental errors in his premises. Also note that this is not Camus’s view of life. In his The Stranger, Merasault when awaiting his death sentence realises that he was happy, that he had always been happy. Men are not not happy, they just fail to realise. An act of consciousness is required.
Camus introduces his concept of ‘the absurd’ in his The Myth of Sisyphus. However, he does not say human life is absurd as such (a common misunderstanding). This is not true. Absurdity contains in itself man’s rationality. The world, events, fate etc. are illogical and random, but it’s not absurd by itself. It’s the interaction, inevitable and imminent for any life, between this random world and human logic and it’s need for order that produces a result that is absurd – that result is the ecosystem (not in the environmental sense) we live in, which includes in itself us and the world.
Camus says that the solution lies in doing two things simultaneously – first, being conscious of the absurd as of day and night. Second, to maintain the absurd. This means, on an individual’s level one keeps the rationality, love for order, and need to be happy intact without letting the random events bother him, because he knows it’s nature. This kills almost all misplaced expectations one tends to have in life. Gradually, it may lead to the ability to scorn fate.
Caligula’s fault lies in his inability to accept the absurd, the given. He wanted to defeat it by his logic taken to its rational end. He confirmed to the absurd in the process, instead of maintaining it. He wanted the impossible, to change the ‘scheme of things’ in order to prove to himself that he was free. He did everything to feel that freedom, even momentary, including unpunished murder. In the end he fails. He gats trapped, knowing he would (it was mostly a fearless life experiment where he knew he should fail) but did it for that ounce of expextation that he might just be right. He might just get the moon. He is defeated in the end, not by the unknown but by the scheme of things itself. Camus himself said that Caligula’s mistake was that he negated what bound him to other humans – one could not destroy all without destroying oneself. Camus says one cannot be free at the expense of others. He rightly calls it ‘a tragedy of the intelligence’.