Camus, absurdity, and revolt

Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a French writer and existentialist philosopher. He was born in Algeria, then a colony of France, which gave him a unique perspective on life as an outsider. Camus is widely acknowledged as the greatest of the philosophers of ‘the absurd’. His idea is simple: Human beings are caught in a constant attempt to derive meaning from a meaningless world. This is the ‘paradox of the absurd’.

Camus’ novels The Outsider (1942), The Plague (1947), and The Fall (1956) are classics of existentialist fiction. His philosophical writings The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) and The Rebel (1951) are profound statements of position. Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. Unlike fellow existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre, he accepted it.

It is instructive to consider the differences between Sartre and Camus. The men were friends in the war years. Together, they edited the political journal Combat. But Sartre and Camus fell out on account of their views on Stalin and communism. In the 1950s, Sartre threw his support behind Stalin’s vision of the global communist struggle. Camus was unimpressed by the “ends justify the means” mentality of the communist revolutionaries, and would have no truck with Stalin’s mass production of a perfected humanity. In The Rebel, he made his criticisms plain. Sartre responded in anger and ended their friendship.

The break-up was a long time coming. Philosophically, Camus differed with Sartre on key issues including the definition of existential authenticity. Sartre argued that authenticity involves making a fundamental choice about how to live – as a philosopher, writer, communist, whatever. The caveat is that we acknowledge that this is only a choice, and there are other choices we can make in life. Camus argued for what is ultimately, I think, a more uncompromising position: that existential authenticity demands that we admit to ourselves that our plans and projects are for the most part hopeless and in vain – and struggle on regardless. This, for Camus, is existential revolt – to affirm the absurdity of life and continue.

‘Revolt … is a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity … [It] is certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation which out to accompany it’.

Camus crystallizes the attitude of revolt in the character of Sisyphus, a figure from Greek myth.

‘The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor’.

Struggle to get out of bed in the morning? Imagine being Sisyphus. Sisyphus is forced each day to roll a boulder to the top of a mountain to watch it roll down again. This is the human condition, Camus says. A backbreaking labour without purpose, payoff, or end. Then you die.

Yet Camus affirms Sisyphus as the absurd hero.

What makes Sisyphus heroic? Sisyphus endures his fate. But what makes him heroic is not just that he suffers his fate, it is because he is ‘superior’ to it. Sisyphus does not weep and lament his state and condition. Out of scorn for the gods who condemned him to this fate, he affirms his labor, and concludes that all is well. Fixing his eye on the stone at the bottom of the hill, he trudges down the slope to retrieve it. Camus ends: ‘One must imagine that Sisyphus is happy’.

To affirm the absurdity of existence and continue: this is revolt. Camus reflects:

‘It may be thought that suicide follows revolt – but wrongly. … [R]evolt gives value to life. … To a man devoid of blinders, there is no finer sight than that of the intelligence at grips with a reality that transcends it’ (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus).

Comments

  1. The first question remains suicide, nae?
    How are you Tim … glad to see you still have time to blog.

    I happened to read L’etranger when I was 13. Coincident with Stranger in a Strange Land;. (Did I use the title as a thread to follow? Dunno.) A decade later I had an exhaustive collection of Camus’ writing.

    In the end, for me, it comes down to what one does in the privacy / solitude / isolation of an unattended moment. And key, to me, is !suicide. Simply choosing to persist.

    I’ve pressed since September 1973 to dis-confirm the conclusion I reached when pondering the deep social roots of that moment … how we came to over-throw Chile’s democratically elected government. My conclusion stands. That gives me neither pleasure nor comfort. Enron, Katrian, BP/Gulf of Mexico, it’s always the same: people acting as though petty opportunism is the best that they can manage.
    Looks like it’s going to be game / set / match for the psychopaths.
    What bothers me most? I can’t play the mutal admiration game my cohort has honed to perfection, which means I’m doomed to carry on as an army of 1.

    HeyHo, and so it goes. And goes. And goes.

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Ben. The psychopaths may win the battles, and maybe even the war, but history has it’s judgment and cold monsters they remain. I like to think that it’s little people like you and me that give warmth to the world.

      But, yes, we have to deal with the fact of defeat. I’ve been mulling over Camus attitude of revolt recently because it seems like the most heroic attitude one can take to defeat. Perhaps it even redeems it. I’m not sure. Camus thought so.

      • It’s of course situation that puts philosophy to the test (You’ve read Sartre’s trilogy, I’m sure) so am kind of sad nobody on Camus’ team in the French underground had exposure to buddhadharma as we know it today. I would have like to see how it held up!

        Here’s the limit to my empricism: I can’t know the depth of others’ existential suffering. (Hell’s bells I can only barely get my arms around my own.) So … what are the consequences of what I will call “false consciousness”? Not subject to testing / verification / falsification … so from me a profound, “Dunno.”
        But this: when I apply diamond-cutter logic to my fuckups I come up with, most often, “I could have done no other”. That my life philosophy held up even under the strain of SEP73 (when my psyche blew a fusable link) says something about structural integrity. And that, I have to suggest, says something about validity.

        p.s. I sometimes joke that I hunt werewolves. It’s half a joke. As though a sniper behind enemy lines (i.e. I can count on my bourgeois yuppie cohort for no form of support) I am hunting psychopaths. see http://bentrem.sycks.net/fallen_angels.html … circa 1995, 3 years before I went to Dalhousie to study cog-psych/criminology.

  2. This is excellent – thanks so much – I’ve struggled for some time to articulate the differences between Sartre and Camus – and you’ve hit the nail on the head (so to speak). I’ve been so intrigued with these differences that (for an assignment in a creative writing program) I’ve been integrating them into a play. Quite possibly (due to time constraints and parameters of the assignment) probably only the first Act of my play will be written. I like to think that both Sartre and Camus would enjoy that however – of course – in their own ways!

  3. a good commentary

  4. What about the fact that these people come up with these ideas to justify their own ideas of life. Where is subjectivity left on the topic of existence?

    I believe we all chose to find a meaning that holds value, rather than being forced to. In a sense, we substitute existential ignorance with a mediocre truth that we objectively accept.

    Life is simply a flash of brilliance, where it goes after that, who knows? Does it have to go any where?

    • @Me – why the compulsion to disagree?
      It seems to me what you wrote is consonant with the post. It certainly doesn’t contradict.
      Does being oppositional give you a sense of existing?

  5. Alex Schiavo says:

    Does Camus idea of Revolt ever include trying to change or reform society-
    How does he feel bout much needed social and economic revolution!

    • Good question. Camus was definitely a leftist progressive, but he believed too much in personal liberty to side with the kind of social engineering that characterised the Russian and Chinese experiments of the time. He was also fond of political theatre – he wrote a number of politically themed avant guard plays. I suspect that, if he hadn’t died in 1960 (car accident), he would’ve become interested in the Situationism of Guy Debord, which would have aligned him with the student radicals of 68. Then again, given his distrust of parties and institutions, he might have wound up embracing neoliberalism! Somehow, though, I doubt it. He was too much an outsider for any political program.

      • Alex Schiavo says:

        Thank you. Confirmed what I thought- should we turn to Sartre for more ideological
        Position- then, Camus was “indifferent” to social/economic justice so absent in
        Our culture- was he indifferent to Algerian fight for freedom- and was he not an
        Activist against Nazism- hoe does this square w/ his non-ideological stance?

      • The Sartre vs Camus issue came up recently in something i read. I’ll see if I can find a link. Yes, Sartre was an ideologue from 50s on. Communism was his existential decision. Camus was not indifferent to the Algerian struggle, contributed to NGOs, campaign’s, etc. He refused to frame it as a contribution to a revolutionary struggle. More like eternal insurrection.

      • Alex Schiavo says:

        Would Algerian struggle and victory over imperialism ever comrade about,
        If individuality and personal liberty been subsumed in solidarity- maybe
        I’m way off, but with this insistence on total freedom and personal
        Liberty without guvment interference reminds me of crackpot Libertarianism!.,

      • And perhaps it is. Please don’t hold me to account for these views. Camus was a French-Algerian philosopher who died a decade before I was born. Like you, I am simply trying to understand him. :-)

      • Alex Schiavo says:

        In order “to live” in this culture – wondering whether to choose Philosoohy
        Of Sartre than Camus – need to know if I’m off base, if choosing Sartres
        Way better suits a life of Activism?

      • Yes. We’d have to have a talk about activism, but Sartre was more the revolutionary.

  6. Alex Schiavo says:

    Was society less absurd- when desired resulted in better outcomes-
    When at least small degree of social and economic justice, when
    There was less unfettered and unregulated hyper-capitalism, which attracted
    Fewer Psychopaths , then as under FDR and LBJ. Would I choose not to
    To react then with indifference or shrug of shoulders – would Camus still
    Consider New Deal and Sixties Revolution absurdities to be met with
    Indifference. These were ideologies or moments that had some measure
    Of success – all based on solidarity, rather than personal liberty!

    • Camus would say: do not react with indifference or a shrug of the shoulders. This doesn’t imply that you accept any specific political or economic programs and beliefs. What i like about Camus is that his attitude seems to the be beginning of the broadly independent trend of Leftist philosophy through the 20th century (Deleuze, Foucault, Zizek.. ), stuff I find interesting…

      • Alex Schiavo says:

        Insightful comments by ScottMclemee. : Fighting Words- Sartre and Camus
        Aronson suggests also that Sartre the Revolutionary – Camus, the Quietist.
        Wonderful and helpful point by Sartre- exploitation and oppression certainly
        Cripple human Freedom, thus need for active opposition to tyranny, corruption.

  7. Hi I’m in year 12 and am doing a theatre studies assignment about Absurdism. I’m still struggling to fully grasp the differences between the two. Could someone please just write few sentences stating their main differences in idealogies??
    It would be much appreciated thank you!

    • Hi Polly. I’m a bit confused by your question. What is the other ideology in addition to Absurdism? Existentialism?

    • Polly – Here … a bit of existentialism: “The perfect answer becomes a donkey’s hitching post.”
      If you want to be / become / remain a donkey, fish for easy answers to hard questions.
      If you want to develop your mind, I suggest you find a couple of key books on “Theatre of the Absurd”.
      Alternative: read dear Camus’ short stories.

      The correct reward for laziness is sudden death. Failing that, laziness leads to corruption.
      2+2 … some folk say the sum is relative. Go figure.

      –ben

      p.s. why did I do that “–ben” thing? it’s called a “communicative gesture” … which doesn’t answer why I did it. heh

  8. But who can be absolutely sure that there is death after suicide? What if the suicide is the shortcut to meeting God? Saying that suicide leads to no afterlife is just as uncertain as saying that tomorrow will be a better day, isn’t it?

    • True, we can’t be *absolutely* sure that suicide leads to death, though observation shows this is the case 100% of the time. Perhaps you are right and it’s the fast track to heaven. Or the fast track to hell, or Mars, or anywhere or anything. When we move in areas in which nothing is certain, anything is possible. My advice is: don’t do it.

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