Tag Archives: sisyphus

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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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:

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