A brief overview by Dr. Ryan Kemp, Philosophy
If you know anything about the work of Albert Camus, you are likely aware that “absurdity” is a central concept in his novels and essays. I am guessing you might also be a little turned off by this emphasis. A philosophical novelist who emphasizes life’s essential absurdity is not exactly someone you want to spend time with, much less learn from. In this brief essay, I want to complicate this presupposition. I am willing to bet that if you understand more about what Camus means by life’s “absurdity” you won’t find it nearly so ridiculous. Hopefully, this will also put you in a better position to engage critically with his novels in which we are introduced to absurd characters (Meursault) and situations (a plague).
But, we really have to turn to Camus’ early philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, to get a more explicit idea of what he means by the concept. There we find that Camus makes a helpful distinction between the mere feeling of absurdity and absurdity in general.
The Feeling of Absurdity
In the early pages of The Myth, Camus develops an account of human development that traces a person’s possible growth from (1) an early state of harmony with the world to (2) a moment of destabilization to, finally, (3) a state of clear-eyed honesty about one’s inability to make final sense of the world.
The first stage—naïve harmony—is the human default. People are born into narratives (or “myths”) that provide basic orientation. They explain things such as what the world is, how it came to be, and what a person’s basic relationship to it is. Insofar as these stories seem comprehensive and final, Camus also regards them as incredible.
While we live most of our lives safely within orienting myths, Camus thinks we undergo experiences that break down our reliance on them. He writes,
It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm—this is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. (Myth, 12-13)
Certain traumatic life events (e.g., the death of a child or reflection on the gratuity of evil), or even the experience of weariness in the face of life’s repetition, can awaken the philosopher in us. We begin to ask “why”; we begin to wonder, perhaps for the first time, if the story we have received about the world is really justified? The sense of uncertainty that these events cause is what Camus calls the feeling of the absurd. At this stage, it involves no larger claims about the nature of the world, just an uncanny premonition that our current descriptions may be inadequate.
In Camus’s later novel, The Plague, it is the disease itself that generates the feeling of absurdity. The plague does—for some of Oran’s more sensitive citizens—serve as a wakeup call.
Absurdity in General
For Camus, once a person has been jarred into honest philosophical interrogation—the process of asking “why”—he discovers in the second stage, destabilization, that no lasting answers are forthcoming. Camus is representative of a long line of skeptical thinkers who harbor deep doubts about the ability of reason to discern anything of great importance about the world. At best, the thinking goes, human reason can do modest local work, help us achieve certain practical ends in the world. At worst, absurdity holds that reason leads to certain irresolvable “antinomies” or incompatible conclusions.
Our inability to discern, through our best philosophical reasoning, the basic meaning of the world and our place in it, leads to Camus’s final stage, the honest acceptance of life’s absurdity. Importantly for Camus, though, this doesn’t mean that life has no meaning, only that its significance is always beyond us.
Absurdity, for Camus, does not refer to the world or to the human mind but rather to the mind’s inability to grasp the world. Camus puts it this way: “This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends on man as on the world” (Myth 21).
Implications of Life’s Absurdity
In The Myth, Camus argues that any and all value claims are invalid. To make claims about, say, a particular life’s “goodness” is to participate in the dishonest practice of myth making. It projects meaning where none can be deciphered. For the honest person, the true philosopher who lucidly and courageously confronts life’s ambiguity, then, “happiness” is the only credible end. Camus writes:
To two men living the same number of years, the world always provides the same sum of experiences. It is up to us to be conscious of them. Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum. Where lucidity dominates, the scale of values becomes useless…Let us say that the sole obstacle, the sole deficiency to be made good, is constituted by premature death. (Myth 62-3)
This rather anemic account of the absurd ideal goes some way toward explaining the disappointment many readers experience in The Stranger’s main character, Meursault. A life oriented toward nothing but more life seems empty at best.
However, in Camus’ later works, and especially The Plague, we see Camus developing his own position. While no less convinced of the world’s basic absurdity, the novel explores, through the characters, sermons, and conversations what other possibilities exist—beyond happiness. Conversations between Rambert and Rieux, for example, about whether to leave the quarantine for love and happiness or stay in it for common decency allow The Plague (and its readers) to work through ethical responses to the absurdity of life. And Camus by no means excludes religious approaches, which are explored through the figure of Father Paneloux. Though his first sermon expresses the comprehensive certainty that Camus never trusted, Father Paneloux’s experiences through plague-time jar him into the big questions. But in the end, a person who, like Father Paneloux, trusts in God’s providence while never claiming to discern its full sense, is a person who has a possible place in Camus’ list of heroes.
Back to Reading Guide Next: Nobel Prize Winning Author
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage Books, 1955.