The Myth of Absurdity – In Defence of Albert Camus

At the risk of sounding repetitive and hero-worshiping, this post is in response to the discussion on Camus and his primary work The Myth of Sisyphus (used as “The Myth” from here on) in my previous post. It serves two purposes – firstly, a self-centric purpose of making me understand better what I have already come to believe of Camus’s theory and secondly, if possible, to explain Camus in a positive light. For, it has been my experience that this understanding can let one see life in a very different way. And in my experience – in a very real and positive way.

‘Absurd’ is a theme running through most of the thinkers who have been branded as ‘existentialists’. Now, it is well known that the tag of an existentialist has been a bit controversial and many thinker in their lifetime had not liked it, as I had touched upon in a previous post. The one man who was most comfortable with the tag and made the use of this term with great passion was Sartre. However, it does not sound sensible to therefore exclude any thinker from the categorization if he differs in certain methods and conclusions from Sartre. In any case, these are matters of definition and as Juliet says, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name, would smell as sweet.

What we are essentially concerned here with is Camus’s thoughts. What Kierkegaard may have considered absurd is definitely different from what Camus defines it as in The Myth. Camus, though briefly, discusses Kierkegaard and rejects his leap of faith. I say he rejects ‘leap’ and not ‘faith’ in itself. Faith is a collateral damage, rejected purely because it makes one leap. In the absolute, whether Camus successfully rejects Kierkegaard’s leap or not is a question that can only be mooted. But it is clear from the very beginning that the path with Camus treads has rejected all leaps, whether it be faith or ‘the absolute reason’. The very purpose of The Myth is to inquire whether man can cross the path that is ‘life’ without any leap whatsoever. I say he answers in the positive – emphatically and convincingly. Before analyzing the various leaps that thinkers have chosen time and again, Camus writes:

Now, to limit myself to existential philosophies, I see that all of them without exception suggest escape. Through an odd reasoning starting out from the absurd over the ruins of reason, in a closed universe limited to the human, they deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them. That forced hope is religious in all of them. It deserves attention.

It has been argued that the ‘presumption’ by Camus that this world is random and without order is his “leap of faith”. It has been argued that it is not an empirical truth. I say it is, if we go by our experiences. However, if we go by experimental proof, there is none. By nature, it cannot be experimented upon. Do I deny the possibility that the world might have a meaning? No. Like a missing chapter from a very logical text can make it nonsensical, this world might be so. However, empirically, i.e. whatever I know of my experiences, I do not require a leap to conclude that the world lacks any unifying principles and at best is random.

His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.” This passage has been quoted to suggest that Camus considers passion as opposed to reality. This is what he writes just before the quoted passage – “You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much trough his passions as through his torture.” Therefore, Camus suggests on the contrary that passion is worth any torture – even the possibility of an after-life underworld, hell, or whatever – passion is worth it. There is no suggestion that passion is opposed to reality. On the contrary, a sum total of Camus’s theory has made me conclude that passion is the only value available to man. Even Sartre’s Nausea has confirmed this for me. There is no guilt in the philosophy of either of them, maintaining it is not an option.

There is objection to the ‘dropping of God’ on the assertion that the idea is so deep rooted that in any analysis, we can not ‘just drop it’. I agree but differ that Camus has ‘just dropped it’. He has mostly chosen to stay away from the debate. In the analysis in The Myth he drops it for the simple reason that The Myth is an inquiry based entirely on experiences and possibilities of life within the limits of those experiences; and in that light there is no choice but to drop it. I understand Camus’s position on God as this – I have not experienced it. I do not deny the possibility. In all probability, my choices in this lifetime will not depend on which way the answer goes. Therefore, I chose to live life without seeking to answer that question in black or white.

The randomness of the world is painful and torturous has never been Camus’s conclusion. He asserts that it is human nature to unceasingly desire a unifying principle and order in his setting. That is unavailable. This interaction of the two contradictions is painful only in the absence of its consciousness. “The random nature of the world and universe as best we can describe it or measure it also gives it its perceived smoothness, like the strands of sand that fall in a random nature and appear smooth in our hands”, by the very consciousness of the absurd. Man is in constant wonderment of life, in the consciousness of the absurd and in his passion for life itself. The one contradiction that threatened to change that wonderment into futility, Camus solves it by the seemingly paradoxical theory of the absurd.

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9 responses to “The Myth of Absurdity – In Defence of Albert Camus

  1. You probably are arguing against general arguments and not mine in specific. Otherwise, I think it is very possible you don’t really understand what it is I have tried to argue because you frequently argue against things that I haven’t at all argued for. (And, of course, I have such a difficult time trying to make myself understood.)

    Let me be clear about this – I have never argued that the universe is meaningful in and of itself. I fully agree with the existentialists as far as this goes. We give it all the meaning it has and there is no meaning beyond what it is we give it. In that sense it is meaningless.

    But, why is it we view ourselves as separate from the world? Do we not experience interconnectedness? Has science not acknowledged that the outcome of much our empirical data is influenced by the observer? Is it truly the reality of our humanity that we are isolated individuals living in a meaningless world if we are likewise interconnected creative beings? This is where I get tripped up on Camus.

    Nietzsche’s ideas have been described in this way: “If given the opportunity to live your life over and over again ad infinitum, forced to go through all of the pain and the grief of existence, would you be overcome with despair? Or would you fall to your knees in gratitude?”

    This sort of gratitude is not the stuff of self-centered happiness. It’s something much deeper – the recognition of our interconnectedness and interdependence in the universe. It seems to me Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and possibly even Sartre would say “yes” – they’d fall to their knees in gratitude. But I’m not so sure about Camus and I’m even less certain about Sisyphus.

    If Sisyphus can likewise say “yes”, then I can agree that he is an absurd hero. But if all he manages to do is be happy despite his humanity, then I think he’s pathetic rather than heroic.

    Two examples:

    “In the universe suddenly restored to silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. there is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.”

    “Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world.”

    Is this a recognition of interconnectedness? In a sense, I think it is. But is it the sort that could make Sisyphus fall to his knees in gratitude? Or is it nothing more than a self-interested happiness? Perhaps it is. I keep going back to this because I’m not sure whether to understand it as pre-Christian tribal animism or a post-Christian global interconnectedness.

    All of the existentialists I have read so far seem to me to get us over our despair when we encounter the meaningless nature of the world by showing that meaning exists in our interconnectedness. All we can be certain of is existence because all consciousness is a consciousness of something. We are aware of ourselves through our encounters with “other”.

    What exactly is it that Camus is saying we need to overcome? I realize it is the Absurd and I seriously do think I fully understand what this is. (I don’t contradict your understanding.) But what I’m asking is more general. Is this an actual human condition we must all face, no matter our cultural background, etc.? (Is the Absurd something that exists by mere fact of being humanity?) Or is it a condition that arises based on culturally self-imposed ideas? If he is saying that it is something experienced by all of humanity, I think he is in bad faith. If he recognizes the Absurd as a culturally created condition, then I may have to rethink what it is he has written.

    “His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.” Right there that seems to me to be the stuff of Original Sin in a nutshell which says that human beings are not an interconnected part of the world but are the separated/the Fallen. The Protestants call this a conundrum that can only be solved through our faith which will give us everlasting life in an “other worldly place”. The Catholics says it is a conundrum that can only be solved by obedience in community to the Church. Camus changes the name of the game slightly by saying there is no God to solve this situation for us and calls it the Absurd. But does he help us overcome the idea altogether by doing this? Or does he simply maintain it in a different form?

    This idea that man is fallen, separate, etc. doesn’t exist in Judaism or Eastern thought – and it didn’t even exist in Eastern Christianity until around 17th Century when Western Christianity started infiltrating it. We are so heavily defined by that sort of thinking that we don’t even realize it. It shows up everywhere in Western thought – especially in the sciences (although that’s starting to change with research in quantum physics – old ideas have had to be busted to make sense of what is going on).

    Clearly, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky realize how heavily defined we are by such ideas. But did Camus? (Original Sin originated from the misunderstanding of a poorly translated text. It’s not an idea worth maintaining – in any form. It’s not enough just to drop the God part.)

    Perhaps passion is the only value available to man. I don’t disagree with that. But in a meaningless world, there is nothing to overcome except our own self-imposed meaning. To think otherwise is to be in bad faith. You can’t just drop an idea you have been defined by for thousands of years. You have to be vigilant and notice it when it sneaks in through the back door.

  2. Camus was one of the few philosophers who embraced the paradox in this thinking.

    “If nothing had any meaning, you would be right. But there is something that still has a meaning.” Second Letter to a German Friend, December 1943.

    This quote confirms his view humans as subjects in an absurd universe, where meaning cannot be found in the natural order but will be created by human actions, which was reflected in his passion for life.

    Best wiashes

  3. Totally agree with you Lindsay. I guess, the whole point of Camus’s inquiry in The Myth was to find out whether, in the absence of speculation, life could be worth living. Now, there are two ways of looking at this. First, to reject the whole inquiry of Camus as life negating on the grounds that “If you have to ask, you will never find anything ‘worth living'”. A more mature reaction however, in the light of conclusions that he draws from the inquiry, would be to contemplate his assertions. In my contemplation the crux of his solutions is the same as Gita – ‘Nishkaam Karma’, i.e. desire-less action. However, to make it clear, there is a major difference from Gita – Camus makes us responsible for our actions. He says we are free to choose whereas the Gita says that responsibility of the action will lie on the Lord. [I don’t know, but I have not been able to get Gita on that point. In everything else it sounds supremely logical].

  4. Arulba,
    The interconnectedness that you are talking about, what doe it mean? If it means the kind that James Reidfield has written about in his book The Celestine Prophecy then I do not understand it. People do say they have felt it and I appreciate. Is my life meaningless if I have not? I don’t think so. Am I ready to spend whatever time it takes to meditate in order to feel that interconnectedness? I don’t feel the need to.

    Empirical data is subjective, no doubt. But does that mean there are no objective truths? A is A – Ayn Rand wrote brilliant literature with this in mind. I agree she may not be as true as she sounds, but objectivism has its place in logic. I think there is enough data to comfortably conclude that man and his setting (the world) are as united and as distinct as any subject is to its setting. And they do not fit like a custom made suit. Therefore, the need to inquire what is the best way to make most of the world as it is.

    If there is any character which bends in more gratitude to thank the Nietzsche’s devil of eternal recurrence than Sisyphus, I am not aware of it. Sisyphus loved life so much so that he had captured death in chains in order to live longer. When death was freed from his capture, he was taken to the underworld. He fooled the Gods to come back and ignored all their threats and warnings to enjoy life, just for a bit more. Who says he does not bend in gratitude? Who does then?

    I may be wrong, but I think your approach to Camus (and existentialism in general) is first rooted to the acknowledged truths of the spiritual philosophy. You have, in your understanding, reconciled them as far as you can. But when it comes to a conflict between the two, you hold on to spiritualism and reject every contradiction as ‘bad faith’. This is not criticism, but an attempt to understanding the root of our difference of opinion.

  5. We are all Sisyphus of our time, we may roll our stones with happiness or sadness – it is all a question of realizing how the mind handles absurdity.

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  7. Well, it feels nice to read something about Camus after such a long time. To be true all my interest in , or rather love for Literature and philosophy started all because of Camus’s The Stranger. Read almost all of Camus, a lot of Sartre, Dostoevsky and other usual suspects some two years back..
    I know the debate’s now cold, and I myself didn’t get that satisfied by The Myth, though i feel Camus in other works of his, illuminates and illustrates the human condition far more convincingly than any other author, but his solution to all this i.e the Myth wasn’t that influencing..
    Won’t say much, heck I don’t even remember much of The Myth now, but one point, as Camus says that Man always tries to find logic, unity and meaning in all the world around and the world in turn is meaningless, but isn’t after complying to Camus’s treatise, one eventually leaves the existence if a man in search of logic, unity and meaning….i don’t know how much the statement that, all existential philosophies suggest escape, rings true. I haven’t read Kiergrard, but Sartre never suggested escape. Rather he to his credit he was able to expound his understanding on a practical, living level..

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