At this point of his effort man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.
(MS: 31–2; E: 117–18)
Written in 1940 amidst the French and European disaster, this book declares that even within the limits of nihilism it is possible to proceed beyond nihilism. In all the books I have written since, I have attempted to pursue this direction. Although Le Mythe de Sisyphe poses moral problems, it sums itself up for me as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert.
(MS: 7; E: 97)
Not without reason, the term “absurd” rarely now makes an appearance in academic discourse, even academic discourse on existentialist philosophy, with which the term is usually associated. However, the importance of the concept to Camus’s intellectual trajectory cannot be overstated, and a detailed account of what he means by the absurd would be necessary for any serious discussion of his ideas. A convenient way of introducing this analysis is to contrast Camus’s concept of the absurd with those versions articulated by the existentialists Kierkegaard and Sartre. Such a contrast will further serve to highlight the extent to which Camus was not an existentialist. For Sartre, with whom the idea is perhaps most usually associated, the term “absurd” denoted the contingent nature of human existence, the realization of which brings what he called nausea
. In Hazel Barnes’s translation of Being and Nothingness
, the Sartrean absurd is defined as “That which is meaningless. Thus man’s existence is absurd because his contingency finds no external justification” (Sartre 1956: 628). In marked contrast, for Kierkegaard, the absurd refers to that quality of Christian faith that runs counter to all mundane human experience or, in
Kierkegaard’s terms, “The absurd, precisely by reason of its objective repulsion, is the dynamometer of the inwardness of faith” (Lowrie 1938: 336; cf. Kierkegaard 1941: 189). In his Journals
, Kierkegaard asserts that “The absurd, or to act by virtue of the absurd, is to act upon faith, trusting in God” (Kierkegaard 1938: 291). As we shall see, in The Myth of Sisyphus
Camus explicitly rejects this faith proposed by Kierkegaard, calling it “philosophical suicide”. Furthermore, while Camus’s conception of the absurd can be said to correspond to a significant extent with that of Sartre, it should also be noted that Camus was inclined to criticize Sartre for the implications he construed from the absurd. Reviewing Sartre’s Nausea
in 1938, as we have seen, Camus criticizes the author for “thinking that life is tragic because it is wretched”, and argues that “the realisation that life is absurd cannot be an end in itself but only a beginning”. “It is not the discovery which is interesting,” argues Camus, “but the consequences and rules for actions which can be drawn from it.”1
For reasons such as these, it is important to examine Camus’s ideas regarding the absurd carefully, and in order to understand his conception of the absurd accurately it is necessary to examine his essay The Myth of Sisyphus
(1942). Here Camus claims that the absurd arises out of the “confrontation between human need and the unreasonable silence of the world” (MS
: 32; E
: 117–18). Human beings are naturally inclined to want and expect the world to be intelligible “in the full and familiar ways that religious and philosophical systems have portrayed it”. This kind of intelligibility purports to be comprehensive, to explain the world as a whole, and crucially, it purports to explain the world “in terms that human beings care about”, in ways that make sense “with respect to human values”. In Camus’s view, neither human existence nor the world are themselves absurd. Instead the absurd arises because the world is resistant to this kind of intelligibility: “we want the world to make sense, but it does not make sense. To see this conflict is to see the absurd” (Kamber 2002: 52). “If there is an absurd,” Camus says at one point, “it is in man’s universe” (MS
: 38; E
: 124). What normally brings the individual into confrontation with his absurd condition, suggests Camus, is the awareness not of human mortality per se, but of his own personal mortality.2
In the case of Camus himself, this awareness came with his first attack of tuberculosis, in 1930 or 1931, at the age of seventeen. For someone whose juvenile writing displayed a profound bond with the natural world, the sudden visceral awareness of his own mortality, the imperviousness of nature to the private traumas of humankind, the feeling of dying slowly from the inside
, the painfully asphyxiating experience of the pneumothorax treatments that denied him even the pantheistic prayer of uninhibited respiration, left clear fissures in the latent pantheism of his earliest, mainly lyrical, writing.3
However, this is not to say that the absurd is born of an irrational response to the realization of human mortality. While feelings of the absurd may thus be awoken, awareness of the absurd, Camus insists, is specifically a rational, intellectual discovery, deduced from the recognition of the division between our expectations of the world and the world itself, unresponsive to those expectations (MS
: 26; E
: 112). Camus finds the strongest evidence for this concept of the absurd in what seems the unimpeachably empirical domain of the
physical sciences. He argues that science ultimately relies on poetry, metaphor or art to explain itself. To illustrate, he mentions atomic theory, and its description of the building blocks of physical reality:
At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multicoloured [bariolé] universe can be reduced to the atom....But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realise then that you have been reduced to poetry...that science that was to teach me everything ends up in hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art.
(MS: 25; E: 112)
In a review of The Myth of Sisyphus
in 1946, the logical-positivist A. J. Ayer characterizes Camus’s assertions as “what modern Cambridge philosophers would call a ‘pointless lament’”, and argued that the kind of intelligibility demanded by Camus is impossible. Of course, this is precisely the point being made by Camus.4
In his estimation, then, even the so-called hard sciences ultimately rely on the language of poetry to explain the physical make-up of the world. Camus is here not simply concerned by the fact that the world remains unintelligible, but more importantly he in concerned by the fact that it remains unintelligible in ways meaningful to humankind. “The mind’s deepest desire”, he says, “is an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity. Understanding the world for a man is reducing it to the human, stamping it with his seal” (MS
: 22–3; E
: 110). It is Camus’s contention that ordinary human existence tends to take this level of perfect coherence for granted, but that occasionally, or perhaps inevitably, “the stage-sets collapse”, and one is wrenched from one’s ontological complacency and forced to confront the radical incoherence perceived to be at the heart of the relation between the self and the world, that sense of absurdity which a recent critic has characterized as “the feeling
of radical divorce, of living in a once familiar but now suddenly radically alien homeland, of being adrift between past and future and unable to rely on either to give meaning to the present, of being a stranger to the world and to oneself” (Carroll 2007b: 56–7).
While Camus is convinced of the world’s unintelligibility in the sense described, he nevertheless believes that there are certain claims about which one can be reasonably confident: my existence as a conscious being and the existence of the world I can touch. “This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge and the rest is construction” (MS
: 25; E
: 111). Camus insists that no other knowledge is available to him, that beyond these claims regarding his own existence and the existence of an external reality, all is invention and speculation, in logic and science as much as in psychology and philosophy. Despite this view, Camus’s absurd is not a prelude to nihilism, to a rejection of all value-claims, and he himself compares it (with a due sense of proportion) to Descartes’s systematic doubt, in so far as it is a sceptical deconstruction of ingrained assumptions about our knowledge of the world, designed to identify what grounds, if any, can be found on which to construct
a positive ethics. He asserts repeatedly that it is the implications of the absurd that interest him: “I was looking for a method and not a doctrine. I was practicing methodical doubt. I was trying to make a tabula rasa
, on the basis of which it would be possible to construct something.”5
The absurd, then, as conceived by Camus is fundamentally an epistemological claim addressing an ontological need; that is, a claim regarding the knowledge we can have of the world. From this premise, Camus progressively extends the absurd perspective to a critique of all transcendental truths or values: “No code of ethics and no effort are justifiable a priori
in the face of the cruel mathematics that command our condition.”6
Within the context of this critique and without in any way “overcoming” its ontological implications, Camus begins to investigate ways in which, he argues, it may be possible to respond positively to the absurd. This creative capacity eventually becomes the core of his theory of revolt, which I will discuss in detail in later chapters.
The Myth of Sisyphus
itself is concerned primarily with an examination of other responses to the absurd, and in the essay Camus argues that hitherto philosophers concerned with the absurd have sought ultimately to overcome or transcend it. For example, he accuses Kierkegaard of reducing the problem of the absurd to the hubris of the human desire to reduce the world to clarity and coherence. For Kierkegaard this desire for truth and clarity “is a sin against a creature’s finitude”.7
The absurd, the “very thing that led to despair of the meaning and depth of this life”, becomes for Kierkegaard “its truth and its clarity”. He calls, says Camus, quite plainly for “the third sacrifice required by St Ignatius Loyola, the one in which God most rejoices: ‘The sacrifice of the intellect’.” In doing this Kierkegaard makes of the absurd “the criterion of the other world”, whereas for Camus the absurd “is simply the residue of the experience of this world”. Substituting “for his cry of revolt a frantic adherence”, Kierkegaard is led at once “to blind himself to the absurd which hitherto enlightened him” and “to deify the only certainty he henceforth possesses, the irrational”. Kierkegaard, put simply, advocates a “leap” of faith which expressed the individual’s nothingness without God, but for Camus this leap constitutes a suppression of the very tension that is at the heart of the human condition, the absurd, “the metaphysical state of the conscious man” (MS
: 40, 42; E
: 125–6, 128).
Similarly, although he considers Husserl’s concept of intentionality (the idea that consciousness was always consciousness of something) entirely consistent with the absurd, since intentionality made no claims regarding the object beyond the perception of it, Camus is less convinced by the introduction of the concept of eidetic intuition, which allows Husserl to claim that the universal can be seen in the individual, and which permits him to speak of “extra-temporal essences”. To discover “the point where thought leaves the path of evidence”, says Camus, one needs only to consider Husserl’s
reasoning...regarding the mind: “If our insight extended to the exact laws of mental process, these too would be eternal and unchangeable, as are the laws of theoretical natural science; they would therefore hold even if there were no mental processes at all.” Even if the mind were not, its laws would be! I see
then that of a psychological truth Husserl aims to make a rational rule: after having denied the integrating power of human reason, he leaps by this expedient to eternal Reason.8
Husserl’s effort to import a quasi-scientific discourse into talk of basic human experience would inevitably fall out of favour with Camus, for we have already seen his caustic attitude to the pretensions of the hard sciences, accusing them of sophistry in their resort to poetic language in order to describe physical reality.9
Camus somewhat hastily concludes that what lies at the heart of these ideas in Husserl and Kierkegaard (and in existentialism generally) is in fact what he calls “philosophical suicide”.10
This occurs when, starting from the premise that nothing in the world has meaning or depth, they proceed to find meaning and depth in it. He thus criticizes the existentialists for “deify[ing] what crushes them”.11
Camus insists that his reasoning will not permit “such an abdication”, and must begin and end with the absurd:
My reasoning wants to be faithful to the evidence that aroused it. That evidence is the absurd. It is that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together. Kierkegaard suppresses my nostalgia and Husserl gathers together that universe. That is not what I was expecting. It was a matter of living and thinking with those dislocations, of knowing whether one had to accept or refuse. There can be no question of masking the evidence, of suppressing the absurd by denying one of the terms of its equation. It is essential to know whether one can live with it or whether, on the other hand, logic commands one to die from it.12
(MS: 50; E: 134–5)
Having posited and accepted the absurd as an epistemic principle, Camus quickly poses what he considers to be the most important and urgent philosophical question to emerge from it: is life worth living? Or more accurately, if human existence is governed by the absurd, does the absurd dictate that we respond in one way or in another? Although it might seem that the absurdity of life is sufficient reason to deem it unworthy of effort, on the other hand, assuming that there is as little perfect coherence in death as there is in life, there is no clear choice between the two. Camus argues that we should keep the absurd alive rather than ...