Albert Camus and the Absurd

Many of the searches that lead to my blog are about Albert Camus and specifically his writing on the absurd. I recently wrote a short essay on Camus’s essay The Myth of Sisyphus and wanted to share it with all of those who inqure into the question as to why “one must imagine Sisyphus happy?” Enjoy.

Albert Camus has an eloquent style of writing, and often brings out a primordial longing which had been lying dormant in the reader for quite some time. Camus builds an explanation of the intense longing that humans have for wanting to know what our place is in the world in his book The Myth of Sisyphus. The feeling of being a stranger in one’s own skin arises when the futility of the human experience seeps through the cracks of our tragic situation, the situation in which we are alone in a world wherein we struggle, suffer, and die, without finding so much of an ounce of meaning to our being and without someone to explain this condition to us. We are fundamentally alone. Camus is not interested in the discovery of the chasm between man and world, but in the consequences of this split. Through a discussion of the strange entwinement of man and world, Camus’s ideas are not of bleak and shadowy nihilism but a quest to find answers in a life which longs for meaning in the significant insignificance of human life.

What does it mean when we say that the world is indifferent to us? For Camus, the indifference of the world arises from the problem that although I can learn many things about the world, “all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine” (Camus 19). The world may exist for me, the subjective ‘I’ but what I know of this world is not the world itself. Epistemologically, the world ‘as such’ always remains out of reach. Yet, I long for an understanding of this world, for clarity of what my life means through the world; nevertheless it remains out of reach. I am alone, and this world does not care. This, for Camus, is the ‘absurd’. The absurd is this relation man has between his subjective nature in the world and objective distancing from the world. This inhuman, objective relation that the ‘absurd man’ has to the world is the most authentic relation that humans will have. The world for man is not a subject, it is an object, and it doesn’t care because it is not capable of it.

The absurd is best explained through Camus’s retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus. Camus begins by recanting the main portions of the myth. Sisyphus, banished to the underworld by the gods for his avarice, is damned to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down to the foot of the hill for all of eternity. “Nothing is told about Sisyphus in the underworld,” Camus says, as myths leave this open for the imagination to design. This is what Camus seeks to create as we find Sisyphus in his absurd state. Camus finds Sisyphus important because his life “is, as much through his passions as through his torture” (120). Sisyphus submits to his payment for his passions that he enjoyed in his mortal life in his immortal struggle; he therefore exerts himself in this penalty, his rock to bear. This rock has two movements. First, Sisyphus ascends to the top, hand to clumped mass of earth, struggling against the gravity that weighs him down. He reaches the top, and this then the rock rolls back to its starting point. “It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me,” Camus says (121). This is also where Camus interests us as well. Is this not the conscious detached return that the everyday human being finds when they have separated themselves from their object (their metaphorical rock as ‘world’) and can thus watch it roll away, somewhat superior to their situation in a transcendent perspective? It is here that we find the rebellious character in common, both alive in both Sisyphus and ourselves.

Camus idea of absurdity seems to arise out of the Cartesian problem of existence. Descartes based his argument of the cogito through the existence of God. However, the post Enlightenment break from theology has brought Cartesian skepticism back to the fore. If god does not exist then how am I to receive external validation? This recapitulated perspective would not have been possible had it not been for the work of Frederich Nietzsche, whose philosophy seeps through in Camus’ writing. An existential concern arises in Camus through the problem of how we are to cope with this absurd world we find ourselves in that has absolutely no concern for our existence. Understanding this non-relation allows us to reassert the world as one’s own, a mortal understanding. Camus explains,

It echoes in the wild and unlimited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile sufferings. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men” (122).

The life of man is reclaimed as human, as being fated by us and us alone. In contrast to Descartes who resolved the sum of man through God, Camus says no. It is through Sisyphus that this is exemplified. Sisyphus’s fate “belongs to him” and him alone, he does this though self torment, Camus states, “his rock is his thing.” This metaphorically is what is taught through Sisyphus and what needs to be accomplished by the conscious man, who in his own descent observes his absurdity. Like Sisyphus, we too can be those who “negate the gods and raises rocks” (123).

Here we are in this world, isolated, alone, and conscious of this predicament. Through this recognition arises the ridiculous occurrence that is life itself. What is the reason for living through the daily monotony of aggravation and suffering? To deal with this we must source out the kernel of this aggravation and deal with it directly. We are not absurd, and neither is the world itself. The absurd is that which binds man to the world as two creatures that are fastened together by their mutual hatred. By setting this strife in motion Camus has outlined a choice for humans to make. This choice is between suicide and revolt.

If life is so insignificant, then why do we not end it immediately once we become conscious of our absurd situation? For Camus, suicide is the supreme negation of the world by taking oneself out of it. Ending one’s own life is the supreme negation of the absurd through the ultimate consequence and finitude of death. Camus states,

“Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering” (Oaklander 362).

For Camus, this is the ‘truly serious’ philosophical question. Why even bother living? The question of suicide also brings with it logical reflection on death. While this may seem like a psychological illness rather than a fundamental condition of living it is an essential question nonetheless. The consequence of this condition is more essential than its discovery. With my insignificant, singular, tragic life in tow what am I to do aside from end my life. To this Camus raises a fist high and asserts a world through revolt.

It is here where we again encounter our absurd teacher, Sisyphus, at the base of his hill, exemplifying what we are to do in face of our absurd relation to the world. Camus asserts, “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn,” Camus tells us in relation to Sisyphus’s struggle (Camus 121). It is the willful disdain of our Sisyphus, which is likewise our position as we are conscious of the absurd world, which exalts the individual above his lot. The moments where we, as Sisyphus, grasp our torture we are stronger than our suffering as legislators of our own destiny, owing nothing to this wretched world.

Camus’s attitude in the face of an absurd and indifferent world is to take a stand against it and to make this world one’s own, instead of measuring oneself against it. It is better to exclaim with passion the consciousness of the absurd, of our burden, and to become stronger because of this in the face of our obstacles. This world is absurd, but there is no reason to be fated by it. This is what Camus teaches us through his discussion of an indifferent world and the tragic hero of Sisyphus, that the “universe is henceforth without master” and in this is our world to form however we shall please.


Works Cited

Camus, A., (1991). The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books.

Oaklander, L., (1996). Existentialist Philosophy. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

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Philips Daylight Window Concept

I just came across this awesome video. I have been dreaming of a window like this ever since I watched Back to the Future II. It is an awesome idea. I wish that it could also create ambient light for false windows. Imagine a small apartment with few real windows with one of these installed, as well as creating a natural light which mimics the light occurring outside at the same time. Ahhh…The Future.

Published in: on March 4, 2009 at 3:04 am  Leave a Comment  
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