Category Archives: Absurd

Dealing with Reality

Human race is addicted to illusions. I guess, at a very early stage of the evolution of human society, it became clear to man that what they termed as reality was too painful to accept as it was. Therefore, man created a pseudo ‘reality’ in the name of god, eternity, afterlife, heaven, hell and what not – this was man’s survival instincts at its creative best. When society needed order, man created god as an eternal punisher; when time became his existential limit, eternity of the soul was discovered. And probably boredom combined the two and created mythologies.

Despite all the attempts, none of this could prevent glimpses of reality in human society. Even the blind-by-choice could catch these glimpses, whether acknowledged or not. Eventually it became clear that belief in Krishna or Jesus could be desirable but disbelief in Hitler and the two world wars, however desirable, was difficult to attain. Illusions are impermanent shield and there remains no choice but to deal with reality.

The search for ‘truth’, a poetic synonym of reality, has apparently been on since the Greek ages. However, the most relevant of such inquiries have only taken place in the last couple of centuries[1]. It started when man finally decided to question his abilities and acknowledge his limitations. The first undeniable truth that came to be known by this process was that even if there is an absolute truth (or reality), man can never know it. Man is only capable of knowing what is within the limits of his five senses. Beyond that, all knowledge at best are calculated guesses. It took over three centuries and an Einstein to figure out that Newton was wrong. It was only after his theory of relativity that the idea that time need not always be a constant was brought from the realm of science fiction to a scientific theory. As absurd as it may sound, there is a very thin line of distinction between fact and fiction – the line of human capacity to see.

Therefore, in order to ensure that we live our lives true to our reality, it is necessary first to acknowledge that our reality itself is limited. Man must accept man as man – with all his failings, with all his limitations. Any attempt to surpass the limitations of the reality knowable to us is an attempt to deny the limitations of human existence. A warning for the romantics – do not misread deny as defy. Living in denial is shameful, living in defiance of reality is quixotically impossible.

It is this limited and undeniable reality of human life that Sartre[2] calls ‘human condition’. Like all existentialists, Sartre paints a dismal picture of human condition[3]. But then, is not most reality dismal? Which is more real – the happy picture of Jesus turning water to wine or Hitler turning Jews to ashes, methodically?

Franz Kafka wrote that man lives like man but dies like a dog. Sartre said that man is a useless passion. Camus said that man is condemned to a Sisyphean pointless labour. Are you shouting, “Stop it! Do you have a point?” Well, this precisely is my point. Time and again the reality of man’s futility hits him in the face. All the illusions that he has comfortably wrapped himself in, can not protect but only suffocate him in the face of reality. His situation is like someone who has sewn himself in a permanent warm overcoat in winter completely negating the fact that summer inevitably shall follow. And once summer arrives – then what? Two choices – suffocate in the coat until death or tear it open.

One may ask why paint such a dismal picture of human limitations and tragedies? Isn’t it life negating? If calling apple an apple is negating apple, then it is. Otherwise, it is a simple acknowledgement of the reality that is. And why is it necessary? Because a man living in denial of his disease always fails to take medication. A gory picture of human condition is precisely what the doctor prescribed for the human race – a race wrapped in illusions. How does this prescription help? By eliminating unfounded fears, liberating man to uninhibited and innumerable choices that had been kept away from him in the fake promise of the possibility of attaining heroic ends.

If we acknowledge human condition as it is, with all the disturbing details, what then? It is only on the acknowledgement and consciousness of the true human condition that we can truly venture into attainment of any value. When Camus talks of being aware of the absurd[4], in simple terms, he asks man to accept all the givens and not struggle into despair trying to change it. It is only when we identify the given can we concentrate our efforts on constructing the rest of our ‘conditions’ by choice. Unfortunately, most of our efforts are wasted in defying the given. A very crude example could be the time, energy, and money spent in the name of religion and prediction of the future (astrology, numerology, etc.) when every man knows within, the futility of it.

It has been said repeatedly and with an irritating conviction that desire is the root of all human miseries. I beg to differ. Desire is a given human condition and any theory that labels it as evil labels our very being as evil. And because it is not possible to change this given, it leads to false frustrations and miseries. Result – in the attempt of killing all desires, we now have added frustrations and miseries of failure alongwith the desires which, obviously, cannot be eliminated.

To see one’s life beyond the futility of daily chores – beyond aspirations, beyond achievements, beyond ‘success’ – that should be the purpose of any human inquiry. For, what are success, achievement, and aspiration beyond life? We trouble ourselves to no end in an attempt to define us, to find a purpose. We fail to see the obvious – that our existence comes predefined; the definition being ‘life’. However, our purpose on the other hand is not pre-destined. We need to realize that our purpose exists not in a pre-defined fate but only retrospectively authored by us by our choices, our actions. For, as Camus says, “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Consciousness and rejection of the comfort of illusions are the only tools one needs to acquire the ability to scorn fate. The choice is simple and clear – either we deal with our reality or die within the life of illusions. As Albert Camus says:

If it (human mind) must encounter a night, let it be rather that of despair, which remains lucid – polar light, vigil of the mind, whence will arise perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object in the light of the intelligence. At that degree, equivalence encounters passionate understanding.


[1] This article is based on my personal understanding of what is commonly known as existentialism. I owe the development of these thoughts to the ideas I have read amongst the works of Albert Camus, Sartre, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Kafka, and others. Without justification to the theory, I can best explain existentialism as a philosophy which asserts that man exists first, without any meaning. He dies without any purpose. The realm of man is only that small part between his being and nothingness. Man is free to fill that void entirely at his discretion with complete freedom; whether he recognizes that freedom or not. Existentialism rejects all moral foundations and philosophies built on presumptions of tradition or after-life.

[2] Jean Paul Sartre was a 20th century philosopher, most notably known as the chief exponent of the philosophy of existentialism. His epic work, where he expounds his philosophy in great detail is Being and Nothingness. One of his most popular work of fiction is Nausea

[3] However, it may be noted that Sartre’s philosophy itself is not gloomy. Like Camus and many other ‘existentialists’, Sartre believes that man is the author of himself. In his work Nausea he shoes that glimpse of possible human victory at the conclusion, despite the entire book being set in a tone of despair and anguish.

[4] ‘Absurd’ is central to Camus’s philosophy. What Camus calls absurd is the existence of two irreconcilable eternal truths – the randomness and unreasonable world on one hand and the insatiable desire for order, logic, and happiness in man on the other hand. Camus discusses this in his work The Myth of Sisyphus and shows how it is essential for man to maintain the absurd and not defy it.

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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.

Albert Camus – The Absurd Hero

I have found Camus’s philosophy to be the most easy to live with, without trying to escape anything. It also allows me ‘intellectual honesty’ in Dostoevskian terms. Anyone who allows himself the luxury to think about the basic questions of life, comes to a point where he asks himself – “What the hell am I doing in life? What is the meaning of all this and what is my purpose? I am a XYZ, is that what I should be? Maybe I am meant to be a writer? Or maybe a philosopher, professor, blah, blah…” I have, like many, faced a similar crisis at one point in my life and (probably) salvaged myself from it. It took some time and the understanding of existentialism to recover from that crisis. And Albert Camus happened to be one of the most important of all authors that I read. His The Myth of Sisyphus gave me the essential understanding to view this world as it is and let go all inhibitions, speculation, and illusions.

In the last one year, I have read too often that Camus was a good author but not much of a philosopher. I have also at times read the comparison where more people agree than differ that Sartre was a better philosopher than Camus. I do not intend to counter that as I think it is naive and irrelevant to compare thinkers like this. All a thinker deserves is a little contemplation from our side on ideas propounded by them. I write this post, therefore, to charter out as an introduction, my understanding of Camus’s thoughts which I have found to be a rare clan as it requires no leaps to understand.

Camus is known as the propounder of the theory of absurd. Absurdism is a often repeated theme in existentialism, however, Camus’s proposition is distinct from all of them. In the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus undertakes an inquiry into whether this life is worth the trouble if we accept our experiences as the limit of reality for our purposes. He says that man knows two things as certain – first, the fact that man desires order, logic, and happiness; second, the fact that this world is random, illogical, and indifferent. This constant tension or divorce between the actor (man) and his setting (the world) is the absurd. What is essential to know is that irrationality of the world is not the absurd. Absurdity contains man’s rationality in itself. It is precisely the constant co-existence of these two irrefutable realities that create the absurd.

Camus concludes that it is essential for man to maintain the absurd. To attain that man needs to keep intact his contribution to the absurd, i.e. his desire for rationality, order, and happiness. This is the only choice, as changing the given world, man’s setting, is quixotically impossible. Only in light of this can we understand the true import of Camus’s words the end of his famous novel, The Stranger

It was as if the great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.

The indifference of this world is indeed benign for that is what makes man free. For, what freedom lies in living out a fate that is pre-determined by some unknowable force? It is a mere consciousness of our reality, of the absurd, that gives man all the understanding needed to scorn fate.

Links to some interesting discussion on Camus I entered elsewhere:

‘Beginner’s Hangover’ of an Existential Mind

Existentialism, I maintain, is a dangerous philosophy for the lazy mind. The most vocal of its proponents cannot deny that it has a definitive nihilistic overtones in the beginning and only with a complete understanding can that ‘beginner’s hangover’ be overcome.

One must take care to distinguish between ‘existential angst’ and this ‘beginner’s hangover’ that I am talking about. Angst is neither positive nor negative. It just is. Angst is being painfully aware of one’s own existence together with its limitations. On the contrary, this beginner’s hangover that I am talking about is a completely negative idea that clouds a mind which has been able to only partially comprehend the philosophy of existentialism. Anyone who lives by or around the existentialist life has gone through angst at some point or another, that’s a pre-requisite. However, beginner’s hangover is not everyone’s bad luck but is present quite often.

Albert CamusExistentialist’s job is to strip human condition naked. It is only after the realisation and acceptance of human limitations and its inherent tragedies that an existentialist can move on. Like they say, destruction of traditions is sometimes essential to building new values. It is at this point that the beginner’s hangover starts. Anyone who is convinced by the underlying existential values is first convinced about all the failings and limitations of the human condition. The truth of the tragedy of human condition establishes itself as undeniable by its repetition in the real world. To a mind that has been made aware of this condition I as naked a manner as existentialism does, the real world manifests the tragedy too often and too painfully. That’s when a young or half cooked existential understanding breeds the ‘beginner’s hangover’ where all the tragedies of life become too evident to let any life affirming value close to it.

However, if one moves past this initial dilemma, and studies the existenSartretialists theories beyond their exposition of the human condition one can see a clear ray of light that makes life worth living. I term that ray of light as ‘passion as value’. I have seen that light at the end of Nausea , at the end of The Myth of Sisyphus, and hidden here and there at a lot other existential texts and literature. I have been through the Beginner’s Hangover and have finally moved beyond it. Believe me when I say that all the trouble is worth crossing over to this side of understanding. This post is a reassurance and a pat to those who are facing the existential beginner’s hangover – put a little more effort and you will be on this side. Going back is not an option because you are too aware of the human condition now, therefore keep moving – you have nothing to lose.

Caligula by Camus – Absurdity’s Illogical End

I recently read Caligula and Three Other Plays by Albert Camus. I limit myself to the play Caligula in this post. TheCaligula 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’.

In the meantime…

Unfortunately, due to the inevitable exams (and I am sure many would empathise), my aim of a post each day will not be possible for the next few weeks. After that, it would be books as usual. Till then, happy reading to one and all!

Also, a link to an interesting discussion I entered on another blog:

Albert Camus, KSR, and the Myth of Sisyphus

Faith, Forgiveness & love by Kierkegaard