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Albert Camus And His Theory Of Absurdism

  • 29 Oct 2022

What is the purpose of human existence? What is the meaning of life? Why does suffering exist? Why does death exist? These fundamental questions have intrigued human minds since they began to think and have led to the propounding of some remarkable, wonderful and absurd ideas. These were the ideas which took the form of philosophies over time. A not so conventional answer to these questions was given by French thinker, novelist and writer Albert Camus. Let’s understand why he formed the opinions that he formed.

Questions on the existence of God

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the world of philosophy saw many modern philosophers who refused to find the purpose of their existence in God and started to look for it in their own selves. Some even dared to make the “absurd” claim that such a purpose does not even exist. The existence of suffering is the reason God does not exist, and even if He does exist, He is not Kind and Loving as most believers claim him to be. Therefore, His existence makes reality even more absurd.

A person should reject the quest for a higher purpose and meaning in order to be content- this form of thought led to the creation of the Existentialist concept of philosophy. Many thinkers propounded this existentialist philosophy and the second half of the 20th century saw a form of it which was referred to as Absurdism, a term coined by the famous French Algerian philosopher Albert Camus.

Camus being a French thinker, novelist and writer, possessed expertise in examining the alienation inherent in modern life and is best known for his philosophical concept of absurdism. He defined the absurd as the futility of a search for meaning in an incomprehensible universe devoid of God or meaning. Absurdism arises from the tension between our desire for order, purpose and happiness and, on the other hand, the indifferent natural universe’s refusal to provide that. He explored these ideas in his famous novels, The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1947), and The Fall (1956). His philosophical essays The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) and The Rebel (1951) also deal with the absurd. Let's look at his early life and education as it illuminates the factors that made Camus delve deep into his mind and shape his existentialist absurdist philosophy!

How Camus’ early life moulded his thinking?

Camus was born to a poor family in war-torn French Algeria. His father, a farmer, was killed in the First World War less than a year after Camus was born, leaving his deaf and illiterate mother to raise Camus and his elder brother. He spent his adolescent years in Algiers, where his family lived with his maternal grandmother and paralysed uncle. Despite witnessing a childhood deprived of childhood, he won a scholarship to a prestigious Lycée in Algiers and studied philosophy at the University of Algiers. His exposure to a wide array of philosophical works here was one of the chief reasons for his intellectual awakening. It seems worth mentioning that he acquired his scholarship through the help of his teacher at school, Loius Germain. Thirty-four years later, when he won the Nobel Prize for literature (in 1957), he dedicated it to Germain in his speech.

At University, Camus was also profoundly influenced by Jean Grenier, one of his teachers, who played a key role in cultivating and furnishing Camus’ literary and philosophical ideas while sharing his passion for sports. Camus suffered from a tuberculosis attack in 1930, rendering all his aspirations for a sports career futile and also interrupting his studies. He eventually left his home of 15 years and supported himself with odd jobs while continuing his studies as a philosophy student at the University. Another tuberculosis attack resulted in the cancellation of his candidature for aggregation (qualification for a university career). In 1936, he eventually earned Adiplôme d’études supérieures for a thesis on the relationship between Greek and Christian thought in the philosophical writings of Plotinus and St. Augustine.

He began his writing career as a journalist for the Alger Républicain newspaper. After moving to Paris, he became involved in the Resistance movement, editing its clandestine paper, Combat, and was sought by the Gestapo. His memories of wars and experiences under the Nazi occupation permeated his philosophy and novels. His debut novel, The Stranger, and the essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, catapulted him to fame and brought him to the attention of Jean-Paul Sartre. After the liberation of France, Camus played a major role in post-war French intellectual life.

Looking at Camus’ life as a child and a student, it is no wonder that the hardships and obstacles he faced forced him to question the meaning of his life, the definition of happiness, the purpose and existence and the point of living and surviving in a world full of suffering and misery. A world where man has a heart that will always desire and crave what he can never attain. Camus lived a life of toil, and making sense of that toil probably inspired him to author novels like The Stranger and essays like The Myth of Sisyphus.

Absurdism in his works

In his widely accredited novel The Stranger, Camus highlights the magnitude of indifference absurdism brings to the life of his protagonist in the famous lines,

“Mother died today. Or perhaps it was yesterday, I don’t know.”

Camus’ protagonist is an individual who has to accept the absurdity of life, “opening up his heart to the benign indifference of the universe.” The novel conveys this notion of the absurdity of human existence. It explores the alienation of Mersault, his anti-hero protagonist, who murders an Arab and is condemned to death for his refusal to conform to the bourgeois society’s expectation of him and not for the murder itself. His lack of expression of any sorrow at his mother’s funeral compounds his guilt in the eyes of society and the juror who convicts him.

This notion of the absurd can also be found in his other masterpiece, The Plague, in which human aspirations and happiness are undermined by the plague. Set in the town of Oran, which is overcome by the deadly epidemic, the novel is an allegory of the German occupation of France. Camus uses the plague as a metaphor for fascism and a totalitarian regime, Nazism. He analyses human responses to random evil and human solidarity in the face of an indifferent universe.

Another work which deals with a sympathetic analysis of contemporary nihilism and the human condition is his philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. Published in the same year as The Stranger, Camus uses the Greek legend of Sisyphus as a metaphor for the human being’s constant struggle against the absurdities of life. Sisyphus was condemned for eternity to repeatedly roll a boulder uphill, only to see it roll down in a never-ending cycle of physical and mental labour. Sisyphus’ tragic fate is seen as one to rejoice at by Camus since his theory of absurdism advocates the acceptance of human absurdity and seeking contentment in that acceptance. Camus publishes his essay with one of the best known existentialist questions of the 20th century. Here are a few lines from the essay-

“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that”.

Contemplating Camus’ definition of the absurd, his question of suicide appears to be a natural response to the underlying premise that life is absurd in a variety of ways. He considers tools of reasoning and gaining rational knowledge as futile attempts at knowing, understanding or explaining the world. He dismisses all forms of rational analysis in a rather brave remark, “That universal reason, practical or ethical, that determinism, those categories that explain everything are enough to make a decent man laugh”.

Differing from Nietzsche’s “illusion embracing” approach, Camus refuses to take refuge in any illusionistic comfort. He uses Sisyphus’ psychology of pushing the boulder uphill despite realising its futility and absurdity to indicate that man should embrace and accept the absurdity of his existence. We must “imagine Sisyphus happy”.

Ironically, it can be argued that the theory of absurd in Camus’ approach is paradoxical and absurd. Even though Camus argues that man cannot escape seeking the meaning of his existence, he denies that there exists any scientific, logical or metaphysical answer to this existential dilemma. Since the natural world, universe and human enterprise are silent on this question, existence is void of meaning and we must learn to bear an irresolvable emptiness. The impulse to seek answers to such grand questions in the absence of answers resulted in the sense of accepting purposelessness is the premise of Camus’ notion of the absurd.

This claim is intrinsically ironic since it states that human life has no purpose, but it also attempts to narrow down the purpose of man to accept and cherish this absence of a purpose and also designates it as their sole purpose in life. It is impossible for humans to quit seeking a purpose because they witness everything that exists - the universe, flora and fauna, celestial bodies and ecosystems - fulfilling its assigned purpose. This gives humans a greater sense of alienation and invokes a dilemma in their psyche.

Conclusion

If life were so meaningless and full of suffering, then most of humanity would’ve succumbed to suicide. On the contrary, humans do indeed seek a purpose and also find it in their life. The greatest evidence of that lies in the fact that in spite of pondering and expounding intensely, as well as over suicide, Camus himself left this world in a car accident at the age of 46. Man’s fear of death and desire to survive and live has always overwhelmed his desire to end ‘meaningless’ existence. The history of humankind bears witness to this fact. And so has the inner voice of mankind. 

 Sarmad Shakeel 
Sarmad is a Post Graduate of English Lit. from Aligarh Muslim University. He is fluent in English, Hindi, Urdu and Arabic. He has previously worked as a teacher and is currently looking forward to exploring his writing potential in the best possible way.

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