Camus' Myth of Sisyphus and the Meaning of Life
Camus' Myth of Sisyphus and the Meaning of Life
Abstract and Keywords
Camus’ essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, is a study of what Camus calls “the Absurd”. This chapter explores the various interpretations of that idea, including human mortality and the absurdity of repetition.
I have always found Camus' youthful essay The Myth of Sisyphus to be alternatively profound and whimsical, a puckish expression of despair. When I first composed this response (at about the same age as Camus was when he wrote Myth), I tried to approximate the same dark but playful spirit. Since then, after thirty‐five years of teaching and thinking about the book, I have not found a more appropriate sort of rejoinder. The very idea of treating the essay analytically is—absurd.
“Life is absurd.”
“No, it is not.”
But our retort is unconvincing. It lacks intellectual conviction. Once raised, the complaint that “life is absurd” seems to be supported by the whole of human reason. Just look at the grotesque amount of injustice in the world and the delusional incompetents who are running some of the world's great powers. Consider the many good people who suffer without reason and the thousands of children who die every day. Many people turn to religion, but religion doesn't deny the absurdity of life. Quite the contrary, most religions affirm it and use that to sell their particular version of hope and rationalization. And contemporary philosophy surely doesn't help us out here. Analytic philosophers scoff at the very question of the meaning of life as meaningless. Existentialists take “the Absurd” as a mantra, beginning with Kierkegaard, Camus most famously. Sartre is well known for his bleak view that “man is a useless passion.” And one shudders to think what response one would get from most of the postmodernists.
Indeed, the absence of values in “a world of facts” continues to block not only the idea that life is meaningful but also the reality of ideals and values of all kinds. If there are only facts, then the universe is “indifferent” to our needs and hopes. Our logic stays stuck on Hume's insistence that there is no deriving an “ought” from an “is,” and therefore there is no rational (p.35) justification for values. And beyond all logic, there is that ultimate personal offense: we are all going to die, and our projects, our good deeds, and our reputations will die with us, or soon after. All of our efforts, no matter how noble, come to naught. From the point of view of the universe, from an “objective” point of view, who cares? Life is indeed absurd. Our protest, “No, it is not,” is but a momentary reaction, a false hope, perhaps the expression of a temporary good mood, or of stubbornness, a refusal to admit the obvious. The truth is that life is not fair, it has no ultimate meaning, and in the end we are unable to give any good reason for living, except, perhaps, that we have gotten used to it, sometimes enjoy it, and have a project or two in process that we would like to see through.
Nevertheless, despite persuasive philosophical arguments we have the sense that something is very wrong, not with life or its meanings but with the life and that sense of meaning that allows life to be meaningless or absurd. The intellectual integrity of the complaint itself, all but the epigram of our contemporary sensitivities, often goes unchallenged. Philosophers claim they have better things to do. They leave the field to religion and the gurus. But though the question of the meaning of life may be confused, there is no doubt that those who ask it—including most of our students—have genuine concerns. It is up to us philosophers—who else?—to appreciate and properly identify those concerns.
Many people would argue, then as now, that underlying the very notion of the Absurd is the widespread unbelief, “the death of God,” the rejection of that which alone can give life meaning. But to those who would appeal to God for meaning (what Camus calls “philosophical suicide”), we should remind ourselves that it was Kierkegaard, a devout Christian, who first introduced “the Absurd” into existentialism. And as I said, religion doesn't deny the absurdity of life but rather uses it to sell its products. The weight falls on existentialism, and on Camus and Sartre in particular, to make some sense of the question and suggest something by way of an answer. We want to say that “life is meaningless” is itself meaningless. But what is it for life to have a meaning? What is the answer to the question Camus poses with his notion of “the Absurd”?
There's not even a film.
There's nothing … just nothing.
What the hell's “sincerity” anyway?
—Fellini, 8½ (1963)
Is life worth living? A familiar mistranslation of Socrates says that the unexamined life is not. But is the examined life worth living? What could it mean to answer no? What would it be to answer yes? Once we have begun examining our lives, once the philosophical question of “meaning” has been (p.36) raised, we must be prepared for an unwelcome answer. One might be shouting into an abyss, neither expecting nor getting an intelligible reply. Yet we once seemed to know the answer—that is, until we asked the question. It seemed that we were sure: “Of course life has meaning—there is happiness, and one's friends, there is the laughter of little children, there is love, and there are life's little pleasures, there is art and entertainment, there are occasional examples of justice triumphant, and there is a promising party downtown this weekend.” But when we ask about the meaning of life, we step back from living, just as one might step back from love to ask about love. It is often said that to ask “Do I really love her?” is already a setup for an unpleasant realization, an indication that one really might not love. Otherwise, why ask? And there is that quiet, ominous sound, like the ripping at the seams of a tightly fitting garment. We immediately recognize what we have done. Our step back has severed the intimacy that once served to answer our question, before it had been asked. Looking at love from a distance, it is easy to be skeptical, even cynical, about love. Kierkegaard makes much of the absurdity of watching other people make love (by which phrase he had a quainter and more innocent meaning than we do). Looking at life from a distance, it is easy to be skeptical, even cynical, about life. But the damage is done. We cannot mend the garment or recapture that innocent intimacy. We are like Jean‐Luc Godard's Pierre le Fou, changing his mind after he has tightly strapped and ignited the explosives around his head.
Too late. From our now irremediable cynical, or at least skeptical, distance both life and love have lost their meaning. We thought that we would understand by asking “why?” but that “why?” has undermined everything. The price of our understanding is the loss of what we would understand. Now, our intimacies and affections seem like childish games; our struggles, nothing more than vain gestures. Everything remains as before, but deadened, emptied of meaning. The world is no longer ours: We observe it, alienated, the fading hues of vitality overshadowed by a cloud of our own creation. The old habits and ambitions keep us moving, even frenetically, through the paces of life, but we are no longer wholly engaged. The “why” has no answer, and that is the singular fact that now defines our existence. This “fact” is what Camus called “the Absurd.” I believe that it is still the dominant philosophical conception of our time, at least among our students (who are by no means all cynical).
Indeed, modern philosophy has only made the problem more respectable. My former student and now colleague David Sherman traces the origins of the Absurd not just to Kierkegaard but also to, before him, Hume and Kant. Hume showed that truths about the world could not have the necessity of the truths of mathematics and logic, and Kant argued that knowledge had to make room for faith. Both together, following Descartes, were responsible for the heightened emphasis on “subjectivity,” from which Kierkegaard took his cue, insisting that our belief in God and so, too, all our important life choices are absurd because they are inescapably subjective and nothing more than “leaps of faith.”1
(p.37) Why not just accept the Absurd as a fact of life? Or else dismiss it as no more than a philosophical perspective, one among many? But the idea that life is without meaning is intolerable. Our discomfort, however, is in the intellect, and because it is undeniable that thinking created the Absurd, a common reaction to the Absurd becomes a hostility to thought, perhaps along with a nostalgic appeal to innocence or a retreat to the passions of everyday life. That is certainly what gives Camus' The Stranger its enormous appeal. Routinely, philosophical questions are dismissed as jokes or indefinitely postponed. The problem of life is replaced by life's little problems. Bureaucratic absurdities eclipse the Absurd, and legal formalities take on newly motivated “seriousness.” In Texas, another rise in the price of gasoline spurs much more moral indignation than a criminal's execution. Several of the most popular ads on television depict chimps in business suits playing the roles of business executives and political leaders. We do have a sense of humor about the absurdity of it all. But there is an air of desperation about us, as if we are trying too hard both to take ourselves seriously and not to take ourselves so seriously. Meanwhile, the intellect distracts itself by refocusing its attention on faux‐cosmic questions—how to explain certain emanations from space, whether life requires an “intelligent design” for its explanation, how to resolve certain inconsistencies in Leibniz's logic. If the Absurd cannot be answered, it can always be avoided. Or so we would like to think (that is, by refusing to think about it).
But the Absurd is not a philosopher's invention. If “the Absurd” were only a philosopher's extravagance, a mere idea, it would be no more worthy of our attention than any number of other impressive but ultimately nonsensical concepts and conundrums that have intrigued thinkers from Plato to Wittgenstein and Derrida. But the Absurd, though created in thought, will not contain itself as “an idea.” It poisons our everydayness and gives our every experience a tinge of futility—“nausea,” Sartre calls it. In the shadow of the Absurd, our jokes take on the cast of gallows humor, a distracting playfulness, or a welcome viciousness. We find ourselves desperately trying to move more quickly, to nowhere; or we try to “entertain ourselves.” Camus said that he was describing a “widespread sensitivity” during the early years of World War II. We can all sympathize with the ghastly plight of Europeans during those bad old days. Hayden Carruth introduces Nausea by calling existentialism “a great shift in human attitudes that has altered every aspect of life in our civilization.”2 It has been “independently invented by millions and millions of people simply responding to the emergency of life in the modern world.” Listening to my nineteen‐year‐old students—our philosophical canaries in the increasingly cavelike atmosphere of the current zeitgeist—it is evident that it remains a widespread sensitivity in our own time, too. The Absurd permeates my students' perceptions of themselves, their future, their world. Their material and social aspirations only make the Absurd more obvious, and it does not seem at all diminished by the religious or spiritual veneer that many of them embrace as cover.
(p.38) The Absurd follows with merciless logic from the most everyday thinking. Our frustrated expectations of fairness, the hope for global justice, our demands for deep understanding, the cold irresponsibility of global capitalism, our ruthless pragmatism, and our insistence on purposefulness and efficiency—all lead us more or less directly to the Absurd. Whether by that dramatic name or not, the Absurd is well known to us all. It is the horizon of meaninglessness that lies just beyond our immediate projects, compromising our successes as well as our failures, undermining our pride as well as underlining our humiliations. Yet it has not been understood. Camus' attempts to describe it are so varied and sometimes so incoherent that the Absurd remains an abstraction, even despite his sometimes poignant concrete examples. That is why, perhaps, readers have been so quick to identify the many varied themes of the Myth of Sisyphus with just the title character and his simple repetitive story. They also identify at least one theme of the Myth with the title character if not also with the plot of The Stranger, where the concept of the Absurd seems to get a concrete incarnation. Meursault is, on this reading, the “Absurd hero.” But it is not as if Camus' aim in either book is to get us beyond the Absurd or cure us of its oppressiveness. He even insists, in the name of a curious mix of philosophical integrity, obstinacy, mock heroism, and defiance, that we “keep the Absurd alive.” Nevertheless, the point is to go beyond it, which Meursault surely does not do. Can philosophical thinking, which has brought us to the Absurd, help us through it as well?
Camus' Absurd Reasoning
There is but one serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.
—Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
Camus begins The Myth of Sisyphus with what is arguably the most striking sentence in the history of philosophy, “There is but one serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Wow! What college sophomore, perhaps having recently struggled through a course in symbolic logic or epistemology, not to mention having entertained some personal thoughts of making a desperate exit, would not get hooked? Of course, the tremendous momentum of such dramatic beginnings is difficult to sustain. (After one of the great openings in modern classical music, Richard Strauss quickly allows his Thus Spake Zarathustra to slip into romantic kitsch, although one could meanly argue that Nietzsche does the same soon after his rousing Prologue to the same text.) Camus' essay begins to flounder (again, perhaps like Zarathustra) soon after insisting “These are facts the heart can feel, yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.”
(p.39) In attempting to give us a careful study of the facts, Camus gives us instead an “absurd reasoning,” a supposedly ruthless pursuit of the truth through logic. (This is not a pretension unknown in French philosophy—flamboyant rhetoric, memorable lyricism, dramatic gestures, melodramatic examples, and many appeals to, but little actual use of, la logique.) In Camus' clumsy Cartesianism, in particular, the logic often gets lost and confused even though the arguments are familiar enough. In fact, we probably rehearsed them in high school. But I want to suggest that they are ultimately incoherent. Nevertheless, as I said of the “meaning of life” question, it is not enough to ridicule and dismiss this very real concern. It is up to us to understand it. I think that Camus' book is best understood as giving us a phenomenology, not a way of reasoning, and the power of the book is due to his seductive success in doing this. After all, he described the Absurd as “an absurd sensitivity.” What remains after we have dismissed the bad logic is the phenomenology, a powerful appeal to our prephilosophical feelings.
But first, the arguments. There are quite a lot of arguments or suggestions of arguments in the Myth, few of which are pursued in any depth or detail. Several of them play on the dichotomy between “subjectivity” and “objectivity.” For instance, right after his striking opening, Camus shifts to talking about objectivity in science and how ultimately irrelevant it is (that is, irrelevant to the One Serious Philosophical Problem). Galileo judged that the truth was not worth dying for, and, Camus says, he was right. Here is the opening salvo of Camus' anti‐intellectualism. However, some of Camus' suggested arguments are fully philosophical and suitably abstract, and turn on the philosophically mind‐blowing notion of infinity. From what Husserl called “the natural standpoint,” namely, the approach of the natural sciences, it makes perfectly good sense to talk about the infinite universe and the age of our solar system or our galaxy, even the universe as such. But from the phenomenological standpoint, what are we to say? What becomes of our sense of ourselves and the significance of our lives from this cosmic viewpoint, the one Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere”? It is, of course, a familiar phenomenological experience, the shock and rupture as one gets the sense of his or her own insignificance. Compare puny man with the infinity of the universe. Or compare our brief lifetimes with the span of eternity. Or think of our meager actions within the context of intergalactic collisions. Or compare our infinitesimal finitude to the Divine Infinity of God. The upshot of every such contrast is that we are virtually nothing, our actions and subjective feelings wholly insignificant.
This image of our own insignificance serves as an argument for the Absurd that is taken very seriously, for example, by Nagel in his reconsideration of Camus' problem (in “The Absurd,” in his book Mortal Questions). Camus suggests this argument in The Stranger when he has Meursault momentarily look at his life through the wrong end of the telescope, diminishing all details but gaining that lethal sense of distance from which it appears that any details of his life are all but irrelevant. Meursault also ruminates on the scope (p.40) and scale of the universe and its “benign indifference.” (More on this in a moment.) In Myth, Camus also questions the relevance of “reality,” whether as postulated by metaphysics or discovered by science. He suggests that metaphysics is merely a “game,” and that “whether the earth or the sun revolves around the other is a matter of profound indifference.” This is, perhaps, not an expression of hostility to science as such, but just another dramatic salvo in the service of holding up the suicide (meaning of life) question as the matter of first importance in philosophy. But it suggests a picture that is at the very heart of Camus' philosophy, namely, that what is lauded as “objectivity” in scientific and philosophical circles is a mixed blessing. As an ideal of getting beyond our limited viewpoints and experience in our search for the truth, it is disputed only by dogmatists with their own weirdo worldview to defend. But there may be such a thing as too much objectivity. If our cosmic or “God's eye” point of view is to transcend all perspectives, it may also lead us down the road of discounting all of our personal experiences, values, and concerns.
What is particularly modern about the widespread sensitivity of the Absurd that Camus finds in the present age is of a piece with the revolution in science, which began in the seventeenth century and culminated in the twentieth, that stripped the universe of its values in the name of science and then stripped it even of predictability and measure, thinking instead in terms of “chance” and “relativity.” As our knowledge of the universe increased, one might argue, our sense of our own significance has diminished. As Freud famously said, Copernicus inflicted the first great blow, Darwin the second, and he himself had delivered the third. But that was before Einstein's work was well known, not to mention the mysteries of quantum mechanics. But, again, I do not think that this works as much of an argument. It is, rather, a powerful piece of phenomenology regarding the suprapersonal perspectives of which we have become capable.
Predictably, several of Camus' arguments in the Myth are shared with The Stranger. For instance, “that dark wind blowing from my future” that Meursault describes in the final pages is one that we all feel at some time or other, whether or not we are condemned to death in the straightforward and imminent manner that he was. Meursault follows this by thinking, “I had passed my life in a certain way, and I might have passed in a different way, if I'd felt like it. … And what did that mean?” The implication is that the dark wind obliterates the meaning of all choices. But this argument that death is the basis of the Absurd and makes our choices meaningless deserves a lot more scrutiny than Meursault or Camus gives it, for at least one of Camus' mentors, Martin Heidegger, thought that that same dark wind was instrumental and instructive regarding the meaning of one's life. Closer to home, the title character of Camus' own book, Sisyphus, is exemplary of the Absurd even though he is immortal.3 Whatever the Absurd is, therefore, it does not depend on death and mortality. If life is meaningless, it would surely be no less meaningless if it were to go on forever.4
(p.41) A second shared set of arguments also turns on the “did this, but could have done that” idea but has little to do with death. In its most outrageous formulation, it has to do with Camus' much‐quoted comment (in the Myth) that it is only quantity of life that counts, not quality. This makes sense only in a minimal way, which Camus spells out by saying “there is no substitute for twenty years of life.” True, perhaps, and this is something we have all thought from time to time—for instance, when some young and promising scholar, actor, or athlete dies a tragically early death. We might catch ourselves thinking, “better alive than talented but dead.” But what does Camus mean by “no substitute”? The idea of compensation for a short life goes back to the Hebrew Bible—Solomon's stated preference of a short and wise life to a long one, and to Alexander (the Great), who asked the gods for a glorious life instead of a long life. Achilles, according to Homer in the Iliad, was given a similar choice. And more recently, there was the 1960s rock group the Who. They sang, in then‐familiar postadolescent arrogance, “hope to die before I get old,” and Jerry Rubin was going around telling everyone “not to trust anyone over thirty.” The surviving members of the Who are now in their sixties, and Jerry Rubin (who has now passed on) moved to Wall Street soon after he reached thirty and was indeed no longer to be trusted. But what looks like a statement of the obvious, “there is no substitute for twenty years of life,” turns out to be rather problematic, depending, perhaps, on the age of the person who utters it. I think back over my last thirty years, and I certainly wouldn't want to give them up. But at thirty my future was just a blur of possibilities, and while I wasn't ready to throw it away, I wouldn't have felt that it would have been much of a loss either. But Camus was under thirty when he wrote that, so I really wonder what he had in mind. (He writes, “Yet a day comes when a man notices or says that he is thirty. He belongs to time, and by the horror that seizes him, he recognizes his worst enemy. Tomorrow, he was longing for Tomorrow, whereas everything in him ought to reject it. That revolt of the flesh is the Absurd.”) The Absurd, so considered, is a young man's game.
The most cosmologically ambitious argument for the Absurd also appears in The Stranger, although as much by way of what is not argued as by what is stated as such. The point is the one that Meursault blurts out in his epiphany of anger at the prison chaplain, where he rejects the promise of Heaven and the chaplain's “certainties” in favor of even just one day of this life or “one strand of a woman's hair.” The premise of Camus' objection (and then of his rage) is a Nietzschean premise, God is dead. With that cosmic absence, according to the shocked and shaken priest, life would indeed be absurd. But Camus' stance, like Nietzsche's, is unapologetically “this‐worldly.” And from such a stance, the absence of God is an irrelevancy, not a loss, certainly not a tragedy. But here we see a confusion of feelings in Camus (as we will discern in Sartre, too). Raised in a pious household, he had gotten Christianity “under his skin.” He suffers under what Nietzsche called “the shadow of God.” And so his rage at the chaplain is not just irritation with the man's (p.42) philosophy or his pious presence. Meursault (and Camus) seem to understand the chaplain's dread: that if there is no God, life would be absurd. So here we meet up with Kierkegaard as well as Nietzsche. Their shared argument is that life is absurd not because of God's absence but because of the futility of human existence. Without God, Kierkegaard would say, there is no hope in this futility. In Nietzsche's harsh diagnosis, the problem is not God's nonexistence but the shadows [He] casts: “we are weary of man,” even “weary of life.” In the light of God's grace, human beings are taught to feel that their lives are worth something. Without it, nothing.
I do not want to weigh into the theological questions raised here, but as I read Camus, it is not a matter of argument, “if there is no God, then… .” It is, rather, an insight into religious phenomenology, and the derivative phenomenology of late‐blooming nonbelievers. (Nietzsche, too, was once devout, his father a Lutheran minister. He was raised by a family of pious women and as an adolescent intended to be a minister.) The perspective described, in both The Stranger and the Myth, is not theo‐ontology but the horror of an infinite yet meaningless world. It is the perspective described by Kierkegaard, but Camus, like Nietzsche, refuses to make the “leap of faith.” And Nietzsche, like Camus, tries to put a happy face on this horror. Both of them are caught up in “the shadows of God,” their atheism at odds with their upbringing, their exuberant passion for life haunted by the memory of a vision of life that was much more innocent and once seemingly secure.
Finally, Camus offers us a more mundane set of arguments that are familiar to every student of philosophy: For every human desire, there is the “why?” of explanation or justification. “Why should you want that?” and “What will that get you?” and so on. And to every answer, there is a further “why?” and then another, ad infinitum, ad absurdum. That is why, to Meursault, it makes no difference what one does. That is how Camus can say that there is no meaningful “quality” to life. The ultimate “ ‘why?’ has no answer,” Nietzsche warns us (Will to Power #2). But of course not, if there is no ultimate “why?” the chain of justification is never completed, never anchored, and so all of our desires and our values remain unaccounted for, unjustified, mere vanities, and therefore absurd. Nevertheless, the absence of an anchor (in God or anywhere else) does not make our values absurd or our lives meaningless. The anchor, as Camus shows quite clearly in his lyrical essays, lies in our desires and satisfactions, in the passions of this life. Sartre, accordingly, is wrong when he says, melodramatically, “man is a useless passion.” Our human passions need not have an ultimate “use,” unless one takes on the eudaemonistic notion that their “use” is nothing other than a flourishing and meaningful life. But that, of course, is a value internal to this life as well as a suitable aim and measure of all that we do and desire. Sometimes, “because I enjoy it” or the bratty “because I want to” is all the “anchor” (or reason) that one needs. Camus' argument has a point: Once we start talking the language of explanation or justification, we feel compelled to finish the job. But the end of explanation (p.43) and justification like the meaning of life, need not be found, and should not be sought beyond the joys, satisfactions, ultimate desires, and virtues of life.
The Meaning of Meaning
Insofar as the Absurd is the problem of the meaning of life, we need to ask, What is “meaning”? For Camus and in the above arguments, as well as for many philosophers, “meaning” means “reference beyond itself,” external “appeal” (in Camus' terms). Thus Morris Raphael Cohen, an American logician and a contemporary of Camus, defined “meaning” as “anything [that] acquires meaning if it is connected with or indicates or refers to something beyond itself, so that its full nature points to and is revealed in that connection.”5 It is sometimes clear that this is the sense of “meaning” that Camus has in mind for “the meaning of life,” whether or not it is God that we find beyond. (It is not clear what or who the other candidates might be.) This is the phenomenological picture that seems to be at stake in Camus' descriptions. If Meursault really remained an unreflective unbeliever (as he would seem to be throughout the novel), the thought of something outside of life would not occur to him at all. (It is the prison chaplain who raises the possibility of this Unthinkable, and Meursault responds with rage.) But it is Camus who asks, “Is it possible to live without appeal?”—that is, appeal to something or someone outside of life. That seems to me to be some kind of admission of an incomplete atheism. Or, thinking instead of Camus' occasional sense of fatalism, it could be interpreted as a less than convincing conception of fate, a sense that matters are preordained or serve some transcendent purpose. But is living without appeal living without meaning? This would again seem to assume that the meaning of life could be found only outside of life rather than in it.
But the demand is incoherent: In the name of his ruthless “logic,” Camus insists that only meanings within our experience are allowed us—no unwarranted “leaps,” no mystical “insights,” no external “appeal.” He tells us (reminiscent of Descartes), “My rule is to get along with the immediate evidence.” But coupled with his externalist notion of meaning, namely, meaning as reference to some meaning‐endowing source outside of our lives, it follows that our lives cannot have a meaning. Therefore Camus says that life is absurd. But, again, is living without meaning living the Absurd? Or is some sense of meaning necessary even to experience (and certainly to formulate and express) the Absurd? That would certainly seem to be the case for Camus' most convincing formulation of it (still to come).
It is worth noting, by way of analogy rather than argument, that the above notion of meaning has been discarded by a great many philosophers, linguists, critics, and poets, particularly since the later work of Wittgenstein. It has been increasingly evident, if not conclusively so, that the attempt to characterize meaning as “reference beyond itself” is applicable—if at all— (p.44) only to very small units within a semantic system. But the system itself does not “have a meaning,” nor, however, is it meaningless. The word “loquacity” has a meaning in English, but what sense would it make to say that the English language has a meaning—or that it does not have one, apart from the fact that people do or once did speak it? Does life as such have to have a meaning in order for our lives to be meaningful? Does one's life have to have a meaning for things in life to have meaning? And does one's life have to have a meaning for it to be “worth living”? Perhaps one's life might not have meaning but yet not be absurd and still be worthwhile.
This fog of questions is due in no small part to Camus' rather varied and fanciful characterizations of the Absurd and his rather casual treatment of questions about meaning, meaningfulness, and meaninglessness. But Camus' self‐stultifying quest for the meaning of life can be helped along in his own terms by taking seriously his suggestion that meaning can be found only in life and not outside of it. The meaning of our lives can be found in what we love, in what we take pride in. One can even find meaning in what we hate and oppose, in resentment, in “scorn and defiance” (although in Camus' telling of the myth, this is directed at the Greek gods, but they are clearly “in” Sisyphus's life). The meaning of our lives, in other words, resides in our passions, in our desires and affections. Thus Meursault's life is quite meaningful in The Stranger, even though he does not (until the end) reflect on it. Sisyphus's existence is meaningful, because he has his ongoing project. He also has his scorn for the gods. Camus in his lyrical essays celebrates the simple joys of young Arab boys playing on the beach. Their lives have meaning—as opposed, perhaps, to the life of a French philosopher who watches them with alienation and envy. The seductive message of The Stranger, too, is that the meaning of our lives is in our sensuous pleasures, our routine satisfactions, and (by the end of the novel) the passions of this life. Thus Pascal and Kierkegaard both make it clear that what gives meaning to life is not the actual existence of God beyond our lives but the passion that pervades our lives because of our belief. Even if one does believe that life is meaningful only because of “appeal,” it is the meaning of our lives, not the being appealed to, that matters.
One can indeed “get along with the immediate evidence,” but life, then, is not without meaning and, insofar as this is the same thing, it is not absurd. The Absurd creeps in only with reflection. It distances itself from our immediate experience and in so doing, loses its grip on the everyday meanings that give our lives meaning. It is in reflection, not in our experience, that the Absurd becomes a problem. But even in experience, some lives may be both without meaning and absurd. We will see one such life in the person of Roquentin, Sartre's curious protagonist in Nausea. And we will meet another in Camus' last novel, The Fall. There, Jean‐Baptiste Clamence will give us a grim tour of a life lived in reflection, which has become (with some significant qualifications) devoid of meaning. A man robbed of his life and all of its pleasures, allowed now only reflection, like Meursault in prison, (p.45) may find his life meaningless and absurd. But that is not what our lives are like, and that is not Meursault's conclusion. He concludes that he has always been happy, and so long as he is still alive, he continues to be. (So, too, the monster Caligula, in Camus' play, screams in something like hysterical delight [just before he dies], “I'm alive!”) By contrast, Meursault's casual efforts to generalize his situation, however moving and even thought‐provoking, are not very convincing. One's submersion in his or her life cannot be generalized.
The meaning of life may be found in our passions, but life itself is not, contrary to both Sartre and Camus, a passion. That “passion for life” that Camus and Nietzsche make so much of, may make good sense in contrast to a life‐negating fascination with the “other‐worldly,” but it makes little sense as a meaningful emotion. Having a “passion for life,” where it is not just an odd way of referring to someone's indiscriminate enthusiasm, sounds more like the desperation of someone who is about to lose his or her life. Where else in life does one get the chance to stand at the exit door of one's life and love it? At the exit door of life, facing imminent death, one might for a moment occupy such a peculiar position and have such an emotion. But the passions in life are not, except by extension (referring to generic enthusiasm), the passion for life. So long as we are passionate, not about life but about the things in our lives, our lives will be meaningful. I am for the moment glossing over what I have called the “demeaning” passions, those that make one's life pathetic—envy and resentment, for example. This, we can anticipate, is an argument against Camus' Sisyphus, as well as against his Clamence. But my unexamined thesis here, and Camus' as well, is that such passions nevertheless give life meaning, albeit a demeaning one. And so we need to turn to Camus' phenomenology, to see how it is that the meanings of our lives are constituted by us through our passions. It is these meanings that make or fail to make our lives worth living.
Most of Camus' arguments, many commentators have pointed out, are no good. But the same has been argued of Plato, perhaps the greatest Western philosopher of all, so this should give us pause. Could it be, we should ask, that great philosophers do not always give arguments, at least not good arguments? They may be trying to do something else: to make us think, to give us a vision, to inspire us to change our lives by way of many different devices, only one of which is argument. Plato does this through dramatic dialogue, myth, and allegory. Camus does it by way of appeal to our “sensitivities.” Thus virtually all of the arguments discussed above, few of which are very impressive as arguments, can be reinterpreted as provocative in a different way, especially when flowing one to another in the stream‐of‐consciousness essay form that is Camus' style. Thus I want to read most of (p.46) Camus' bad “arguments” as appeals to ordinary experiences of absurdity, in other words, as everyday phenomenology. Thus the observation that we are all going to die, that we are all “condemned to death,” is not intended as the premise of an argument but as an awakening to the preciousness and urgency of life.6 The argument that we are objectively insignificant in the eyes of the universe is a prompting to subjectivity, to make us appreciate the importance, if only “to me,” of the pleasures and passions and values that make up my life. The overall “argument,” that life is absurd, does not depend on the premise that there is no God or that we can't ultimately justify our desires. And there is no “therefore.” Camus, rather, tries to impress on us, with image after image, that our lives, from various perspectives, don't seem to make sense. That provocation of a sense of profound disorientation, disillusionment, and dissatisfaction is what The Myth of Sisyphus is all about.
The idea that Camus is describing and appealing to our ordinary experiences of absurdity in everyday phenomenology brings into the foreground many of his examples that cannot possibly be construed as arguments or as “absurd reasoning.” For example, he tells us, “A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive.” This is by no means intelligible as an argument. But it has its perverse appeal as an appeal to our experience of meaninglessness. Again, we think of Kierkegaard's rather nasty voyeuristic comment about the absurdity of watching others expressing their affections, and we think of those many experiences, when we are in a grumpy or cynical mood, perhaps, when we uncomprehendingly or unappreciatively observe the gestures of people we do not know. Meursault, in a more or less continuous mood that we would call neither grumpy nor cynical, watches others without empathy and so without understanding—or trying to understand. If one puts his mind to it, or if one has something seriously lacking in her character, or if one finds other people truly alienating and impossible to understand, the world might well seem absurd. But this is either a very temporary or a dangerously pathological condition.
A bit later in the Myth, Camus suggests, “Likewise the stranger who at a certain second comes to meet us in a mirror, the familiar and yet alarming brother we encounter in our own photographs is also the Absurd.” Again, here is a bit of the absurdity in everyday phenomenology. Who among us has not had this reaction, at least once in a while if not often, of catching a glimpse of ourselves in a mirror and finding the image alien. (For instance, many people do not smile when they look at themselves in a mirror even though they might smile quite freely with other people and correctly think of themselves as cheerful. Thus they find their reflection strange. Or they force a smile, but forced smiles are not genuine [“Duchenne”] smiles, and so they look false.) So, too, we take a glance at a loved one's reflection in the mirror and her asymmetries are reversed. That, too, gives us a shiver of the Absurd, (p.47) even when we are long used to it (given that most of the time we do not see our beloved in a mirror). We expect a mirror to give us a faithful as well as familiar reflection, but it may not. Such reflections or our appearance in a photograph may well momentarily jolt our sensibilities, at least raising the question whether we know ourselves or our loved ones as well as we think that we do, even on the most superficial level.
Colin Wilson, in his Anti‐Sartre (in fact on both Sartre and Camus), objects that Camus (like Sartre) has cheated here and given us a piece of bad phenomenology. Wilson notes that “if you turn down the sound of the television set at a moment of high drama, the faces of the characters look ‘absurd,’ with their mouths opening and closing, their expressions tense or horrified. But this is because you have deliberately robbed them of a dimension of reality—a dimension necessary to grasp fully what is going on.”7 He goes on to suggest that the same argument applies to Camus' man in the phone booth. “He has been stripped of certain essential ‘clues’ that would enable you to complete the picture.”8 This is a deep argument that applies to a great deal of Camus' work. By abstracting away from the intimacy and values that animate people—Meursault is the bizarre embodiment of this mode of abstraction—Camus “robs” them (and us) of meaning or the “clues” that are necessary to appreciate what is going on.
When we look at other people and at the same time remove ourselves from their world to the extent that we cannot understand them, this is not good evidence for the Absurd or the absurdity of life. It is only good reason not to so remove oneself. But this, Camus seems to think, is what reflection does. It removes us from our own experience, takes a step out of our world as well as the intimate world of other people, and so we cannot understand them—or ourselves. The result is the seeming absurdity of life. The alternative is to remain engaged and compassionate, and not allow oneself that distance; and as a human being, that was Camus. But as a philosopher, he cheated at phenomenology by insisting on descriptions of the world that were far less than adequate and a conception of reflection that was not so much part of experience as antithetical to lived and engaged experience. The Absurd, on this account, is something cultivated, even manufactured, and hardly a natural sensitivity. “What you are seeing,” Wilson says, “is less than your normal view.” I think that Wilson is right, but this, I would argue, is not all there is to Camus' well‐known concept.
Camus' suggestion that we experience the Absurd when we see ourselves in a mirror or in our own photographs is interesting phenomenology. It is not so much that we lose the context but rather that we experience ourselves in an unfamiliar way. Looking at a photograph of ourselves, we are often shocked (that is, unless we have mastered the art of posing and gotten used to the results) because pictures capture us in gestures and expressions that are surprisingly revealing. Candid “snapshots” are especially disconcerting, often because they involve “unnatural” gestures and expressions. (p.48) But, of course, those gestures and expressions are perfectly natural. We are just not used to seeing ourselves in the midst of unself‐conscious activity, or we are surprised and embarrassed that our supposedly hidden contempt or nervousness or lust has been so well documented. Wilson notes, “You might see a thousand snapshots of a man and still know less of him than would be revealed in ten seconds of actually talking to him.” Well, perhaps. But sometimes you might learn more about a person in a single timely snapshot (say, in one of those momentary “looks”) than would be revealed in a lifetime of polite conversation.
But more to the point, a photograph of oneself yields a very different experience than photographs of anyone else, insofar as it makes you (more or less) self‐conscious. Looking at oneself in a mirror, too, provokes self‐consciousness. The mirror gives us an experience not simply of oneself but a reflection of oneself, and this is or can be extremely alienating. (Meursault, tellingly, does not notice himself in the mirror, suggesting his striking lack of self‐consciousness.) Indeed, a good deal of Camus' phenomenology of the Absurd has to do with making us self‐conscious in various ways. This, of course, makes perfectly good sense if he thinks that the Absurd, and our sense of meaninglessness, emerges only in reflection, not in experience itself. Self‐consciousness, after all, is a species of reflection, or, at least, it is a step into reflection.9 On reflection, even in the reflection in the mirror, we rarely appear to ourselves as “natural.” We “catch” ourselves in the mirror. And we reflect on our reflection. Meursault notes, when he does see his reflection (in part II of The Stranger), that he seems grim. But don't we all? If one is trying to ascertain the meaning of life, unless one is blessedly superficial and totally enamored with his or her looks, looking in the mirror is not a good way to proceed. It is hard not to be confronted with that sense of “contingency” that haunted Sartre, or that sense of the Absurd that so fascinated Camus. Totally engaged in our experience, we do not wonder what we are doing, much less why we are here at all. Looking at ourselves in the mirror, even admiringly, it is difficult not to ask such questions. (Again, special considerations apply to those, like Sartre's Estelle in No Exit, who have their identity in the mirror, and actors and models who find their identity in their film or photographic images—or wholly in the reflections of their admirers.) It is reflection, possibly even in a mirror or a photograph, that triggers the experience of the Absurd.
But the mirror image and the photograph are momentary, often static. Indeed, that is what makes them so strange. (Acting or exercising in front of a mirror, or seeing a video or moving picture of oneself, alters this.) But a moving picture of oneself (or a series of gestures in front of the mirror) may well display something else, something even more absurd. It is not just one's contingency that becomes evident on reflection. It is the overall pointlessness of one's behavior. And this is nowhere more evident than in the repetition that is so routinely part of our lives.
Boredom is the root of all evil. Strange that boredom, in itself so staid and solid, should have such power to set in motion. The influence it exerts is altogether magical, except that it is not the cause of attraction, but of repulsion.
—Kierkegaard, “The Rotation Method” (Either/Or)
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. You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth. If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.
—Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus” (in The Myth of Sisyphus)
Robert Meagher, in his misleadingly titled Albert Camus: The Essential Writings,10 defends the too clever thesis that Camus' philosophy is tied progressively to three Greek myths—Sisyphus, Prometheus, and Nemesis. I have doubts about the centrality or even the relevance of the latter two, but there is no doubt about the centrality of Sisyphus. That is a myth Camus grasps with both hands, the story of Sisyphus as a story of futile labor as punishment and of the absurdity of infinite repetition. This is nowhere more obvious than in his choice of Sisyphus to play the “absurd hero,” the mythical representative of the Absurd. Repetition, of course, plays an odd role in nineteenth‐century European philosophy. Fichte and Hegel both discuss it with the possibility of cosmic repetition in mind, the idea that history does not progress but simply repeats itself, over and over again. Both Fichte and Hegel found this suggestion repulsive, and in recoil celebrated escalating fantasies of human and cosmic progress, culminating in Absolute Spirit. Kierkegaard, reacting against Hegel, celebrated repetition instead, inventing a “rotation method” that depends on “change in its boundless infinity.” He notes that “a prisoner in solitary confinement for life becomes very inventive, and a spider may furnish him with much entertainment.” Immediately we should think of Camus' character Meursault, who is, of course, in solitary confinement for what little remains of his much‐curtailed life. And he does indeed adopt Kierkegaard's method, finding on the walls of his cell considerable, if something less than infinite, variation.
(p.50) Schopenhauer shared the thoughts of Fichte and Hegel (a “charlatan” and a “fraud,” respectively, in his opinion), but he, unlike Fichte and Hegel, refused to evade what he deemed obvious: that life was repetitive and therefore meaningless. But his pessimism was a metaphysical expression of his also finding repetition repulsive. In biology, for example, he found plenty of examples of birth–life–reproduction–death cycles that are nothing but repetitive. Nietzsche, too, insisted that life was repetitive, but (reacting against Schopenhauer) he celebrated this in one of his proudest ideas, “the eternal recurrence of the same.” It is worth quoting that famous passage (from The Gay Science) in full:
The greatest stress. What if some day or night a demon were to sneak after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you, “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything immeasurably small or great in your life must return to you—all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over, and you with it, a grain of dust.” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or did you once experience a tremendous moment when you would have answered him, “You are a god, and never have I heard anything more godly.” If this thought were to gain possession of you, it would change you, as you are, or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you want this once more and innumerable times more?” would weigh upon your actions as the greatest stress. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?11
But Camus will have none of this. He does not believe in progress, but he also does not think that repetition can be rationalized or made tolerable (that is, on reflection). Meursault's refusal to reflect makes him more or less immune to the absurdity of repetition (although he still suffers from boredom). But a self‐conscious Sisyphus, reflecting on his situation, recognizes the absurdity of his repetitive task and so discovers the Absurd. Therefore, Camus suggests, it is reflection on repetition that reveals the Absurd. That is why it is Sisyphus, of all of the mythological martyrs that Camus might have chosen (Tantalus, Prometheus, Philoctetes), who represents the Absurd in human life. The others might be eternally tormented, but sheer repetition is distinctively absurd. Camus easily extends this absurdity, though not immortality, to all of us.
Sisyphus turns out to be the representative of a fate that faces all of us. “At any street corner,” Camus writes, “the feeling of absurdity can hit a man in the face.” A momentary break in our chain of daily gestures and adventures—“rising, streetcar, four hours of work in the office or factory, (p.51) meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday according to the same rhythm—…But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins with that weariness tinged with amazement.” Once the “why” has arisen, in that “moment of lucidity” that marks all of philosophy, we wrench ourselves away from our everyday tasks and successes, our duties and our failures, our embarrassments and achievements alike, and we watch ourselves, as if from another room or from a distant nebula. We detachedly observe another couple making love; it is an absurd performance. Imagining ourselves from the same distance, our own lovemaking then seems absurd. We find ourselves in a political argument, view ourselves from a similar distance, still talking; we hear our words, but they now lack conviction. The performance is pure vanity, and we wonder, without breaking the flow of our argument, why we are doing this, perhaps even (just a passing thought) why we are alive. We similarly distance ourselves from every human performance, including our own, from our feelings and our thoughts and even from our thoughts about our thoughts. The world becomes a screen of meaningless movements and sounds. Every act becomes a Marcel Marceau mime, a comedy whose only significance lies in the artful familiarity of its senseless gestures.
The alienation captured in such experiences, brought on by various modes of reflection, permeates Camus' phenomenology. Camus' last novel, The Fall, introduces “John the Baptist” Clamence, a highly respected and successful lawyer and lecher, blessed with every advantage of health, wealth, achievement, and social position, who from his distance in exile (in Amsterdam, thinking about his former life in Paris) sees through it all as so much pretense and fraud, amounting to nothing. Similarly, Schopenhauer, a kindred spirit, despite a long life of fine dinners, good wines, sporadic if not wholly satisfactory affairs, and eventual literary success, complained as well that it all “amounts to nothing.” So, too, of course, Ecclesiastes, “all is vanity.” Any self‐conscious creature, whether Sisyphus, “the Proletarian of the gods,” or the gods themselves, whether the eminent Clamence or the axle‐man proletarian of the Renault assembly plant in Lyons, is subject to this all‐encompassing sense of absurdity. From moment to moment, we cannot imagine a greater difference than that which separates the toil of Sisyphus and the equally repetitive labors of another “absurd hero,” Don Juan (“1003 in Spain alone”). But from that reflective philosophical perspective in which we demand that our lives have meaning, the erotic affairs of Don Juan amount to no more than the daily toils of Sisyphus, that is, they amount to nothing. (One can imagine Don Juan's mother complaining to him in just this fashion.)
What is essential to Camus' concept of the Absurd, I keep suggesting, is reflection, or what Camus somewhat misleadingly calls “being conscious.” Repetition alone is not absurd. We can watch a machine, say, a jackhammer, doing what it does time after time after time, until someone turns it off (p.52) or it runs out of fuel. We might, in a particularly giddy mood, be amused. But there is nothing absurd about it, unless, of course, we imaginatively endow the machine with self‐consciousness. (“If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious.”) Or consider the Texas roach racing across my floor in its usual aimless panic as it scurries to the molding. Its life could not lack meaning: it seems to do so through my eyes only. I try to imagine myself as a roach (but necessarily a self‐conscious roach), and my imagined roach life seems meaningless—by human standards. But it is my life that I am judging, contrasting my own scurrying with that of a roach. Underlying the contrast are the too‐obvious comparisons, and they do not escape my awareness.
What if at every step there was the hope of success? What if I thought that my life, unlike the roach's, would “add up to something”? But, of course, it does not, at least in the long “objective” view of the universe. In the much‐abused words of Lord Keynes, “in the end we'll all be dead.” Even the sought‐after immortality of the Greek heroes of The Iliad is now no more than a story (most recently a Brad Pitt movie, make of that what you will). There is no hope of ultimate success, and so, Camus would argue, there is no ultimate hope. Thus the sense of the Absurd is well captured in the ancient myth of Sisyphus, especially as restated by Camus. For Sisyphus, there is no hope, not because in the end he will be dead but because he is immortal and so there will be no end. His futile task will go on forever, and his tragic consciousness, painfully aware of this repetition, provokes our own recognition of repetition and meaninglessness of our lives.
This is not to say that we cannot submerge ourselves in our experience and get “into the moment,” ignoring the repetition. Sisyphus does this. He makes his rock “his thing,” and therein lies one possible source of his alleged happiness, avoiding reflection and just appreciating the momentary experience and the challenge anew. We all know that, sometimes, if we just allow ourselves to fully engage our repetitive tasks without dwelling on the idea that they are repetitive, the tasks seem so much less oppressive. Imagine those medieval monks, copying bible after bible. Or the modern‐day mechanic doing brake jobs all day. Engaged experience without reflection is not meaningless. It lends itself to Kierkegaard's “rotation method.” It is reflection, reflection on the repetition as such, that makes repetition meaningless, so better not to reflect. Simone de Beauvoir has a character in one of her novels contemplate suicide as he thinks about how many times he has brushed his teeth in his life, and how many times he has to do so again in the future. But there is another way to think about this sort of repetitive engagement, one that is not without reflection but nevertheless sustains the meaningfulness of activity.
In a word, it is ritual. Rituals by their very nature tend to be repetitious. Ritual actions, also by their nature, tend to have little meaning just on their own, without some larger context or set of beliefs. Lighting a candle or saying a prayer in a language you may not even know may be meaningful (p.53) just because these are actions repeated for a cause, say, a religion or a relationship that you believe in. Even repeated drudgery, say, hauling the stones for a cathedral, may be fully meaningful just because one has faith. (The ancient Hebrews hauling stones for their captors' pyramids probably felt their tasks were meaningful, not because they had any love for the pharaohs but because they saw their humiliating tasks as punishments from their God.) That is why Confucius, defending ritual (li) as one of the most important virtues, insists that ritual cannot be “just going through the motions” but must be fully engaged in and “heartfelt.” It is the passion that gives the act its meaning. But this is to suggest, à la Colin Wilson's argument, that Camus has once again stripped the story of something that would make it meaningful. But at least Sisyphus “getting into” his task makes it something of a ritual and therefore makes it meaningful.
Camus does not stop the story there. He goes on to suggest something very different and supposedly nobler. Sisyphus can refuse to submerge himself in his task, insist on staying conscious of the absurdity of what he is doing, and thus deprive himself of the happiness of submersion. He can “keep the Absurd alive,” in Camus' curious locution. Thus considered, Sisyphus's scorn and defiance, Camus suggests, are our only authentic hope, our only source of genuine human happiness, our only honest passions. This would seem to mean, however, that our best (most heroic?) way of coping with the Absurd is through resentment. We should be bitterly scornful about a fate that we cannot change. Whether or not Sisyphus could change or somehow alter his fate is a tough question, of course. Those Greeks took the concept of fate very seriously: they were no existentialists. But their fatalism makes the idea of defiance rather hard to swallow. Sisyphus defies the gods but he does not refuse to go on. He does not drop his rock. He does not attack or challenge the gods. He only curses them, and cursing is not defiance. I suggested earlier, when I argued that the meaning of life was to be found in our passions, that some passions are demeaning. They may give life meaning (as resentment surely does), but there is something pathetic and hardly heroic about such passions. Resentment renders Camus' self‐consciously heroic stance less admirable, and it lends itself to all sorts of ad hominem suggestions about Camus' later confrontation with Sartre and his fellow revolutionaries. In the end, when we are told that we must “consider Sisyphus happy,” we wonder whether he is supposedly so because he heroically made the best of an awful situation or because he expressed that same resentment that Nietzsche harshly chastised as “slave morality.”
If our experiences are repetitive, there need be nothing absurd about them. Indeed, it is the repetition of routines and habits that gives us comfort and familiarity. It is the repeated visits to old friends and cherished places that give us our sense of meaning. Our daily and weekly rituals have meaning just because of their repetitiveness. But reflection can subvert those pleasures as well as enhance them. Camus thinks that stepping back and looking at the repetition as such, as opposed to the pleasures of the (p.54) experiences themselves, makes the whole thing absurd. Whether one is working in an assembly plant or saving lives in a hospital, the abstract idea of mere repetition (and won't all of those patients eventually die anyway?) poisons one's engagement. Camus' Absurd thus requires a certain leisure in life, a luxury of distance made possible by reflective consciousness. It is thus true that the Absurd must be judged a bourgeois malady; it is a malaise that does not affect the hungry, the threatened, or the desperate. Life is not absurd to a Mexican peasant; it is only cruel, punctuated by moments of relief. It is not absurd to a refugee, only terrifying. It was not during the invasions of Napoleon that the Absurd was born in Europe, but after, during the tedium of “the reaction,” when lives were safe but life was pervaded by ennui. (It was during this time that Kierkegaard wrote The Present Age, complaining that modern life had become all reflection and devoid of passion.) It was not during the enthusiasm and ambitious hopes of the 1960s that the Absurd was reborn. It was after the enthusiasm and hopes died down. The Absurd is not turbulence but an awkward silence. It appears in moments of reflection when we discover that empty translucency that Camus describes in both The Stranger and the Myth as the seeming “indifference of the universe.”
The Metaphysics of the Absurd
Gentlemen, you must excuse me for philosophizing.
—Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground
In addition to these many arguments and images, Camus gives us one spectacular knock‐'em‐dead analysis of the Absurd, again not an argument nor a mere image but a vision that is hard to ignore. According to Camus, the Absurd is “the confrontation of man and universe”: our expectations and our “reason” against the infinite “indifference” and “inhuman silence” of Reality. Here is the breathtaking conclusion of The Stranger, as Meursault looks to the “brotherly” universe while awaiting his last morning. Here is the cashing out of the mythological Sisyphus shaking his fist at the bemused gods watching him. Here is the real existential problem lurking behind all of those poor arguments about the infinite and impending death and those disturbing images of momentarily absurd human features and behavior. We are rational creatures, not just in the Russellian sense that we are capable of abstract symbol‐mongering (“we can do sums”) but also in the much broader sense that we impose our categories on the world. But these are not just the categories of the understanding, as Kant taught us, but, more important, our values, our expectations of how things should turn out, our demands concerning what should be. We expect justice, not because we were taught about justice (what Hume therefore called “an artificial virtue”) but because certain expectations are in our very bones: “The good should prosper, the evil should suffer,” no matter what we might mean by “good and evil.”12
(p.55) One might conclude from this that Camus is a modern Manichaean, a dogmatic moralist (as Sartre depicted him in his touching obituary). But the confrontation presented here is not between good and evil, or even between good and bad, but between rationality on the one hand and indifference on the other. We are not, contra Meursault, capable of true indifference. That is what makes Meursault so “strange.” Camus was anything but indifferent. He was a passionate moralist. But he was also—as Voltaire once declared himself, unconvincingly—morally confused. Camus frequently admitted as much, and his most impassioned moral essays, against the death penalty and against terrorism, for example, are riddled with that sniff of apologetics and inconsistency that Sartre and his friends came to so despise.
Perhaps calling the image of Camus' confrontation of rational man and indifferent universe his “metaphysics” is a bit overdone. After all, few philosophers (though again mentioning Voltaire) have been less interested in metaphysics and the epistemological problems that normally go along with it than Camus. But the source of the model here is obvious enough. It is that same “rational mind/physical universe” dichotomy that stands at the base of so much French philosophy (including Sartre's), a dichotomy that is inherited (and taught in grade schools) from René Descartes. What is missing, of course, is the third “substance,” God, who, in Descartes and in Jesuit philosophy holds the “created” substances, mind and world, together. But in Camus, they are in opposition. The rational expectations of our minds are not met by the supposed rationality of the universe. Here is why that rationality, the discovery of rational laws operating in the universe (or, à la Kant, its receptivity to our Categories) is so irrelevant to Camus. So, too, Hegel assures us, in his philosophy of history, that looking rationally into something evokes a rational response. But it is this that Camus is directly challenging. We look at the universe as rational, but the universe laughs rudely back in our faces. Our expectations are not met. And though Camus is willing to extend this analysis (rather casually) to science, it is clear that what he has most in mind are the moral aspirations of men and women (though the latter receive little voice in his works). We expect the universe to be just and fair, what Kant and Hegel refer to as “the moral order of the universe.” But it is not. The universe is indifferent (even if “benignly”) to our demands. Thus Meursault, who is without empathy, finds it so “brotherly.”
“The inhuman silence of the universe”: Is that our experience? Sartre points out (in Being and Nothingness) that the world imposes on us every second, issues commands and orders, gives us duties and warnings, arouses us with dangers and desires. What is Camus listening for, that he hears only silence? What is his conception of the universe, as if reality were forced upon us value‐free, investment‐free, ego‐free? (The contrast with Sartre's Nausea could not be more evident.) Sisyphus alone, with his rock and his endless chore: Is that what our lives are like? Sometimes, perhaps. But it is surely not the lot of most mortals, for whom tragedy and surprise are at least as significant as unvarying repetition. So where does it come from, this (p.56) metaphysics of rational consciousness versus the cold, not cruel but indifferent, world? Here, I think, we come back to Nietzsche's “shadow of God,” and to Camus' incomplete atheism.
Sisyphus's world is not, as it first appears, his rock, the mountain, and his futile labors. His salvation, Camus tells us, is his “scorn for the gods.” Similarly, Camus celebrates the virtue of defiance; but defiance against what? As an atheist, he would have no gods to scorn. Compare Clamence, in The Fall, who had committed no major crime (except, perhaps, receiving stolen property); yet he, too, like everyone, is said to be “condemned.” But for what? What makes him guilty, “as all men are guilty,” the theme of both The Fall and The Stranger? Camus tells us that we should live “without hope, without appeal”; but why? Hope for what? Appeal to what or whom? Camus (like Clamence) would seem to have every reason to hope—for peace in Algeria and Europe, a mild or sunny day, a new friend, some justice in postcolonial Algeria or in the post–German occupation trials in France. Yet Camus clearly thinks of himself as hopeless, as condemned, as a tragic (“absurd”) hero in a meaningless world.
But here the diagnosis emerges, a metaphysician's diagnosis. Whether or not Camus would have had much interest in rationalist metaphysics, he retained his Jesuit education in the subject. It is a metaphysics not only of dualism of the psychical and the physical; it is, more important, the traditional Christian metaphysics of guilt and redemption. Camus, in other words, is still stuck under “the shadow of God.” The “appeal” to which Camus refers is the Christian sense of “appeal”; the object of his scorn is indeed a god—or the shadow of a god—who has abandoned us. Or, rather, Camus has abandoned God, but he has retained the whole of the Christian order of the passions, sin and guilt, condemnation and redemption. But now, while guilt and condemnation remain, redemption becomes impossible. Thus “John the Baptist” Clamence guzzles but does not taste Dutch gin in the seedy bars of Amsterdam, having given up a once eminently successful life in justice with the realization that “no one is innocent.” He has rejected the judge, but he has taken the judgment upon himself, as a “judge–penitent,” defensively projecting his own sense of guilt and resentment upon mankind as a whole. “We all want to appeal against something! Each of us insists on being innocent at all cost, even if he has to accuse the whole human race and Heaven itself.” Ecce Homo!
Camus (and not only Camus) is a traumatized atheist, taking on his own quixotic shoulders the weight of Divine judgment. We now expect from the “indifferent” universe what we formerly hoped for from God. And given the indifference of the universe, we then demand justice of ourselves. But still there is no justice (or at any rate too little of it), and the testimony of our senses—as opposed to our blind faith in the hereafter—tells us that there is no hope and no appeal to the possibility of justice elsewhere. Camus' absurd hero is a very Christian hero who seeks absolution for unspecified but in some sense “original” sins, much like Kafka's Joseph K, in a world where (p.57) there is no longer absolution. Christianity, whatever else it has done, has taught us the meaning of objectless and self‐demeaning guilt, guilt by virtue of our very existence. Hitherto, it also offered us the hope of salvation. But the basis of the guilt and the hope were one and the same. Having given up the latter, we should give up the former as well. (Meursault somehow manages to do so, and this is the hint of spirituality that becomes so palpable at the very end of The Stranger.)
But we have taken the sin upon ourselves and kept the guilt as well. Underlying the metaphysics of the Absurd lies the ghost of a much older metaphysics, and underlying that is a familiar but often undiagnosed malady of passion, a bitter and defensive view of the world in which the passions of self‐demeaning guilt and despair play a leading role. The Absurd is but the rationalized façade of resentment, the “passions of Sisyphus” that constitute the Absurd. Camus took this passion, which he ennobled as “defiance,” to be a “consequence” of the Absurd. This sleight of hand is not infrequent in philosophy; one “rationalizes” his prejudices, arguing “objectively” and persuasively on neutral ground, drawing the distortions of his biases from this incontrovertible base. But the “objective” arguments presuppose and do not entail the passions of the Absurd that form their support. The absurd hero begins with a victimized and resentful view of himself as inferior, as impotent, as persecuted and unfairly treated by the universe. He then finds an “objective” viewpoint from which to develop and formulate his resentment in a philosophically convincing manner.
It is not that I think that Camus has gotten his phenomenology completely wrong. On the contrary I think that he does capture an important sense of a widespread sensitivity in our (and many other) times. It remains to be said that the new religiosity that has gripped some of the more “advanced” societies in the world neither denies nor overcomes this victimized and resentful view of ourselves. It feeds on it but then holds out some hope, the appeal that Camus denies us. This sense of the enormity of our guilt and the indifference of our world and the sense of our own smallness is as at home in Christianity as in Camus. Kierkegaard, for example, whose piety is beyond doubt, retained a sense of the Absurd at least as keen as Camus', and his wholehearted devotion to God did nothing to reduce, but only made more palpable, that extreme sense of personal absurdity. But Camus' own sense of the heroic must have suggested to him a very different possibility, not so much “keeping the Absurd alive” as overcoming it, rejecting that sense of victimization and, like Nietzsche, endorsing the love of fate, accepting things just as they are. Or, perhaps better, but also like Nietzsche, to give up that victimized and resentful view of ourselves and that metaphysics in favor of a more holistic and Hegelian view of the world. It is not us against the universe. We are one with the universe, whether one then concludes, with the Buddhists, that both we and the universe are “empty” or, more in sympathy with Nietzsche and Meursault, that the universe is indeed benign.
Why does Camus' myth strike such a responsive chord in so many readers? The arguments are not very good. The phenomenology is impressive but dubious. Such mock‐heroic notions as “the Absurd” and “without appeal,” “defiance,” “rebellion,” and “condemnation” won't stand even sympathetic scrutiny (much less the harsh examination of a Sartre or a Jeanson). What is it, in Camus and in ourselves, that renders us so receptive to his seduction, where his appeal to “reason” is no more than a forged stamp of authority, and his phenomenology smacks more of the quick appeal of a ten‐second television ad than deep analysis?
I think that we are impressed, first of all, by Camus' impassioned worldview. His is not merely a metaphysics—a cold construction of concepts just as well retained in the original Latin or Greek—but the expression of passions that we, too, are likely to share. Sisyphus is ultimately characterized in terms of his passions: “His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life.” He is without hope, without power, “wretched” but “rebellious.” Yet he feels a “silent joy,” Camus tells us, and “one must consider Sisyphus happy.”
But Sisyphus also perversely appeals (as “the absurd hero”) because of a defensive syndrome that is all too familiar. It is precisely that syndrome that projects our world in an absurd perspective, a syndrome of great expectations and consequent bitterness, helplessness and consequent resentment, hopelessness and consequent scorn, silent defiance and that consequent “sour grapes” self‐satisfaction that tries to pass as “happiness,” the spiteful joy of “negating the gods,” that desperate last‐ditch strategy of accepting and even celebrating a hopeless and futile life. Only one ingredient is missing from this degrading portrait of human existence: the passion of guilt, later supplied by Clamence from his barroom pulpit. Sisyphus has the emotional advantage of being “condemned” by the gods. We, on the other hand, condemn ourselves. Camus' literary genius enables him to paint this ghastly scenario in heroic colors; but we must see it for what it is. It is a degrading, spiteful, and hopeless version of the Christian denigration of man, as petty and helpless, as virtually crushed by the weight of his guilt and his self‐punishment, as salvaging his last crumb of self‐respect through resentment, scorn, silent defiance. This is humanity at its low ebb, man at his worst, casting himself as an inferior being in a universe that has already defeated him. But we seem to like that vision of ourselves. As a counterweight to the existentialist emphasis on responsibility, it lets us off the hook. We can get away with mere attitude.
Camus admits: “I know, to be sure, the dull resonance that vibrates through these days. Yet I have but a word to say: that it is necessary.” But I do not think so. Having learned to see through that degrading metaphysics (p.59) that has defined humanity for so many centuries, we can now learn to see through the more secular self‐imposed degradations that get rationalized as “the Absurd.” “The point is to live,” Camus tells us. But it is not enough to live out of stubborn defiance, like an unwelcome guest in life. Our self‐image should not be Camus' scornful Sisyphus but, rather, Camus' Sisyphus engaged, a strictly this‐worldly Sisyphus who may, indeed, earn the right to be happy.
(1.) David Sherman, “The Absurd,” in The Blackwell Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism, edited by Hubert Dreyfus and Mark Wrathall (London: Blackwell, 2006).
(2.) Hayden Carruth, “Introduction,” in Jean Paul Sartre, Nausea (New York: New Directions, 1964), vii.
(3.) This is actually rather confusing. Sisyphus (according to one tradition), snatched death away from the gods and thus rendered all men immortal. He was thwarted in this attempt, obviously, and in punishment for his crime he was condemned. So, in a sense, Sisyphus was already dead. He carried out his punishment in the afterlife, in what we would consider Hell. But in Hell, he is immortal, in the sense that he will never die and his punishment will never cease.
(4.) An excellent meditation on the agony of living forever is Bernard Williams's now classic essay, “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality,” in his Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers 1956–1972 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 82–100.
(5.) Morris Raphael Cohen, Preface to Logic (New York: Meridian Books, 1956).
(6.) Thus Heidegger, following Kierkegaard, sharply distinguishes those “syllogisms” that merely give us the impersonal conclusion that we are going to die from the profound realization, “Being‐unto‐Death,” that we are indeed going to die. The difference here, one might argue, is also the difference between sound argument and objective truth versus the intense subjectivity of the actual experience of confronting death.
(7.) Colin Wilson, Anti‐Sartre (London: Borgos Press, 1981).
(8.) Ibid., 10.
(9.) I will make much of this distinction later on, when I discuss Sartre, who too willingly conflates the two. Sartre further confuses matters by insisting both that (1) the self appears only with reflection and (2) there is a kind of self‐consciousness (“the pre‐reflective cogito,” “Being‐for‐Itself”) on the prereflective level of consciousness. But Camus was not worried about any such distinctions.
(10.) Robert Meagher, ed., Albert Camus: The Essential Writings (New York: Harper Colophon, 1979).
(11.) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1968).
(12.) Plato, of course, was already way ahead of the game in his understanding of the myriad options that were available in the understanding of “justice.” But whether the concept of good and evil is as crass as “good for me, evil if not,” or as enlightened as Socrates' high‐flown defense of spiritual virtue, the “naturalness” of the demand for justice is not questioned, even by Thrasymachus, who puts forward the crassest and most cynical interpretation of it.