Albert Camus’ views contributed to the rise of the philosophy known as Absurdism, he defines the Absurd “as the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life, and the human inability to find any meaning in a purposeless, meaningless, and irrational universe, with the ‘unreasonable silence’ of the universe in response.” However, this world in itself is not absurd, what is absurd is our relationship with the universe, which is irrational.
Camus is considered to be an existentialist, even though he firmly rejected the term throughout his lifetime. He is properly categorised as an atheist existentialist. However, he would also disagree with this label. In his notebooks, he presents the following contradictory statement:
“I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist.”
This reflects the notion of the Absurd. The search of the possibility of the existence of God is humanly impossible, but this also entails that the proof that God does not exist is impossible too. He writes in The Myth of Sisyphus:
“In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.”
The Myth of Sisyphus is a fierce expression of the Absurd. It starts off with a powerful and thought-provoking statement:
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
Apart from the physical act of suicide, he talks about “philosophical suicide”, where we accept something as true that isn’t convincing but is convenient and easy for us to believe in. Such as believing in some ready-made belief system, which is practically all of the world’s religion.
This is the complete opposite of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s leap of faith. Kierkegaard described himself as a Christian, although he despised the established church, which in his view, made individuals lazy in their religion, many of the citizens were officially “Christians” without having any idea what it meant to be a Christian.
The world is absurd, and we must live in it. He says: “As I grew up, I opened my eyes and saw the real world, I began to laugh and I haven’t stopped since”.
Kierkegaard states that “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”. We enjoy a freedom that is both appealing and terrifying.
In The Sickness Unto Death, he writes: “For the self is a synthesis in which the finite is the limiting factor, and the infinite the expanding factor.”
In other words, we are made of two opposites: the finite and the infinite. He considers the finite as actuality, as one’s reality, while the infinite corresponds to possibility, to be able to choose.
We lose ourselves in the infinite when considering the infinite possibilities in our life and our limited power of choice over them. We have an infinite number of possibilities and when we have to choose one, we become overwhelmed at the sheer amount of them. One may possess the ability to freely act, but if one never uses it and gets lost in the infinite, daydreaming about an endless sea of possibilities, one is effectively not capable of freely acting. In essence, we are obsessed with what we can potentially become, but in reality, never become anything.
On the other hand, we lose ourselves in the finite when we don’t consider enough possibilities and just mindlessly go around the demands of culture and social expectations, because we feel imprisoned in an inescapable environment where no alternatives exist, “one becomes an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.”
The scary part is that most people are less aware of this, they see everything they do as their own choice. However, some people live a complete lie. They live because of what their family, friends and society tell them that’s what one does.
Kierkegaard suggests that the only way out of this is to take a leap of faith towards Christianity, the ultimate irrational experience, which is the most rational thing to do. This is the quintessential subjective experience.
Although Camus states that he cannot know that God does not exist, he is determined to believe that God cannot exist, he opposes religious faith. His work can be seen as a reply to Kierkegaard and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the paradox whereby those two writers acknowledge the absurdity of the universe only to embrace more strongly the scandal of belief in God.
Camus was very influenced Dostoevsky. He discovered a powerful and vital source of inspiration in two novels in particular, Demons and The Brothers Karamazov.
The atheistic spirit of Ivan Karamazov proved for Camus the most attractive of all of his characters. His statement that “If God is dead, then all is permitted” resonated with him.
However, he criticises both Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky for their leap into irrational faith. Dostoevsky ultimately turned away from the absurd by embracing Christianity, which Camus sees an invalid response to the absurd.
In Demons, Dostoevsky explores the idea that either there is a God, a life after death and life has a meaning, or life has no meaning and everything we do is pointless, it is little more than a cruel joke.
Kirillov is a character from Demons who commits a sort of “logical suicide”. He feels that God is necessary and that he must exist. But he knows that he does not and cannot exist. He exclaims: “why do you not realise that this is sufficient reason for killing oneself?” And finally, he prepares his deed with a mixed feeling of revolt and freedom. “I shall kill myself in order to assert my insubordination, my new and dreadful liberty.” Kirillov is consequently an absurd character: he kills himself.
He kills himself to become god. His reasoning being that: if God does not exist, he becomes god, and if God does not exist, he must kill himself. He must therefore kill himself to become god. Thus, for Kirillov, as for Nietzsche: to kill God is to become god oneself.
However, if God does not exist, one is free, why kill oneself and leave this world after having won freedom? Isn’t this contradictory? Kirillov is well aware of this, he kills himself out of love of humanity, he shows his brothers a difficult path on which he will be the first, it is a pedagogical suicide. Kirillov’s pistol-shot will be the signal for the last revolution. Thus, it is not despair that urges him to death but love of his neighbour for his own sake. His last words: “All is well”.
While Dostoevsky proposes suicide as the only logical response to an awareness that God does not exist, Camus proposes that the man without God must not kill himself, but realise instead that he is condemned to death, and live his life embracing the absurdity of that knowledge.
The ultimate Absurd Man for Camus is best expressed in the mythological character of Sisyphus, a man condemned by the gods to a lifetime of rolling a boulder up a hill, only to reach the top of the hill and have the boulder inevitably roll back down to the bottom for him to start all over again, condemned to a lifetime of pain and anguish and working hard only to have his efforts be completely futile in the end.
What really makes our human existence absurd is our consciousness of our Sisyphean condemnation when we avoid the trap of philosophical suicide. In perhaps one of his most celebrated quotes, Camus states that:
“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Camus later adds that there may be a moment when Sisyphus is walking back down the hill when he is briefly free, when he is “superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock”. Sisyphus then, is both a prisoner and a rebel.
Thus, we all live in an absurd freedom, and to become lucidly aware and conscious of it is to revolt, to affirm life and continue, which is the only coherent philosophical position:
“It is a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity. It is an insistence upon an impossible transparency. It challenges the world anew every second. Just as danger provided man with the unique opportunity of seizing awareness, so metaphysical revolt extends awareness to the whole of experience.”
To revolt is to say no to one’s own absurd existence and say yes to some other more desirable existence. Thus: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
Suicide is never an option for the Absurd Man, much like the leap of faith, it is acceptance at its extreme, it would be a way of going along with our absurd condemnation, by implicitly affirming that life is really intolerably absurd and that suicide is our only option.
The contrary of suicide is man condemned to death, in constant lucidity of his own absurd nature with the passionate flames of human revolt. This recognition gives life meaning, as we are truly free, we are to “live without appeal“ as he puts it, defining absolutes and universals subjectively, rather than objectively.
Camus writes with great delicacy. What moves us is not that Camus’ emblem of the absurd is so entirely metaphorical, but the spectacle of his belief; that he believes in it so fiercely, and so sympathetically describes his fate and revolt, that Sisyphus appears to be real to Camus, and becomes almost actual for us. This is the quality of Camus’ thought, and it is why he is such a powerful novelist: he takes religious terms, turns them into secular metaphor, and then, appears to reconvert them back into a usable reality. What he does, in fact, is act as if they were real while using them metaphorically.
Christianity extends life in an eternal heaven. Camus wants to extend life on earth. He writes that “the present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man”. This is Camus’ eternity: an endless repetition of presents.
However, is Camus’ rebellion only metaphorical? Perhaps not.
In The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi writes about his time spend in a concentration camp, where he was faced with a temptation to pray, instinct with Camus’ language of lucidity and absurdity, it is an extraordinarily “rebellious” passage of secular writing:
“I too entered the Lager as a non-believer, and as a non-believer I was liberated and have lived to this day; actually, the experience of the Lager with its frightful iniquity has confirmed me in my laity. It has prevented me, and still prevents me, from conceiving of any form of providence of transcendent justice… I must nevertheless admit that I experienced (and again only once) the temptation to yield, to seek refuge in prayer. This happened in the October of 1944, in the one moment in which I lucidly perceived the imminence of death. Naked and compressed among my naked companions with my index card in hand, I was waiting to file past the ‘commission’ that with one glance would decide whether I should immediately go into the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working. For one instant I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed: you do not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, with the greatest impiety of which a non-believer is capable. I rejected the temptation: I knew that otherwise were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it.”