I have been thinking a lot about the Void. Often throughout the day I find myself staring into it, seeking and scanning for meaning. Nietzsche calls this the Abyss. Sartre calles it Nausea. Camus calls it the Absurd. Herman Hesse calles it Chaos. Christians often liken it to the personification of Death. Some would call it Oblivion. I’ve been dwelling on this a lot recently, and it has stayed my hand from writing. Frequently I have found myself gazing into the Void, contemplating what it is, and my relation to it.
Camus in particular caught my eye when I was scanning my bookshelf, debating on what to read next. I have read his work The Stranger (which is a great read), and some portions of his Myth of Sisyphus. I decided to revisit the latter. I wanted to see how Camus tackled the problem of the Absurd. He addresses directly the anxieties that I have, and lays down a solution.
So what is the Absurd, or as I call it, the Void? It is difficult to nail down one quote from Camus about what the Absurd actually is because his definition is through various descriptions. He begins his Myth of Sisyphus with the problem of suicide, and how the absurd is birthed in that problem:
But if it is hard to fix the precise instant, the subtle step when the mind opted for death, it is easier to deduce from the act itself the consequences it implies. In a sense, and as in melodrama, killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you and you do not understand it . . . It is merely confessing that ‘is not worth the trouble.’ Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason of living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering. (5-6)
Often we go through life on auto pilot. Get up, go to work/school, come home, perhaps watch tv or read, go to bed, repeat. We are creatures of habit. We establish biological schedules in order to survive. It is when a form of consciousness of this habit that the Absurd comes into the picture. A sort of anxiety arises when one contemplates, “Why am I doing all of this? What’s the point?”
Camus later states that: “The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need (happiness, meaning) and the unreasonable silence of the world” (28). When we come into consciousness of our habits and the appearances that there is no meaning to our habits, we automatically search for meaning. This action of searching for meaning is what I call “Staring into the Void.” And this is where we have conflict. We become anxious about our place in the world, we search for such meaning through logical arguments, and find nothing. And we are left with two common options. Suicide, or philosophical suicide (Nihilism), and hope (religion, spirituality) (9).
It is important to note that when Camus discusses the problem of suicide, he is not considering those who have mental illnesses. He is specifically focusing on the instance of when an individual is confronted with the Void, and why an individual chooses to live or not. Camus rejects both suicide or hope. He rejects suicide, because he believe freedom and meaning can still be attained. He does not see Nihilism or physical death as a the best solution. However, I would say he would deem it better than hope or religion.
The main critique that he has for great thinkers like Kierkegaard and Chestov because they begin to take “a leap” that avoids the problem of the Absurd by finding meaning in God, which is beyond logical boundaries:
Kierkegaard likewise takes the leap. . . For him too, antimony and paradox become criteria of the religious. Thus the very thing that leads to despair of the meaning and depth of this life now gives it its truth and its clarity. Christianity is the scandal, and what Kierkegaard calls for quite plainly is the third sacrifice . . . the one in which God most rejoices: “The sacrifice of the intellect.” (37).
Kierkegaard takes this leap in his work Fear and Trembling. His pseudonym Climacus contemplates the Void, the lack of meaning, and that logical argumentation and imperical data do not seem to provide meaning. Instead of despair, he decides to take the “Absurd Leap of Faith”, and continues with his expanded argument of the Christian Faith. Camus refers to this leap as a sort of Deus ex machina, which is not the way to solve the Absurd Problem. To be an Absurdist, one must be purely rational and rely on the human knowledge.
Camus provides his third solution to the problem. The Absurdist solution. It is not found in neither hope or despair, (31, 35) but in revolt and direct conflict with the Void.
That revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. To a man devoid of blinders, there is no finer sight than that of the intelligence at grips with a reality that transcends it. (55)
To be an Absurdist is to stare directly into the Void, the Abyss, Oblivion, Chaos, the Absurd, confront it, revolt, and transcend. This is how Camus lays out how to find actual meaning in this chaotic world: to do battle with the very thing that says that life has no meaning, and that death is inevitable. Absurd meaning is the simultaneous acceptance of one’s fate, but the Absurdist will still not go gentle into that good night.
The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself. The absurd is his extreme tension, which he maintains constantly by solitary effort, for he knows that in that consciousness and in that day-to-day revolt he gives proof of his only truth, which is defiance. This is a first consequence. (55)
Isn’t that just encouraging? This is the only truth that the human knowledge can attain within reason, this defiance. To briefly cover the other “positive” consequences of the Absurd philosophy is the Absurd Freedom–which is freedom from any moral code because there is no God. The last consequence is the Absurd Passion: “Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum” (63). Camus argues that when one accepts that there is no superimposed code of ethics, one can create his or her own, resulting in what makes he or she living the most fulfilled life.
After he defines the philosophical structure of the absurd in the first part of the essay, he then illustrates the Absurd man throughout several examples of literature. However, we will take a look at his third part of the essay with the clearest example of an Absurdist: Sisyphus.
The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back on its own weight . . . Sisyphus was the wisest and most prudent of mortals . . . he is accused of a certain levity in regard to the gods. He stole their secrets . . . He was punished for this in the underworld. Homer tells us also that Sisyphus had put Death in chains. It is said that Sisyphus, being near to death, rashly wanted to test his wifes love. . . He obtained from Pluto permission to return to earth in order to chastise his wife. But when he had seen again the face of this world, enjoyed water and sun, warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back to the infernal darkness. Many years more he lived. Mercury came and seized the impudent man by the collar and, snatching him from his joys, led him forcibly back to the underworld, where his rock was ready for him. (119-120)
Camus illustrates that Sisyphus is the absurd hero through his “passions and torture” (120). Because of his passion and love for life, rejection of the gods, hatred of death, he is punished by exerting energy on a fruitless labor. This Greek tale is originally tragic, but Camus spins the story on its head. He makes the argument that we should not see Sisyphus as a tragic character, but a happy one (123).
Camus argues that Sisyphus is actually a comic character because he embraces his fate, and accepts it with consciousness, and continues to push forward. “All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols” (123). It is through the revolt and endurance through the torment that is life is what provides the absurd meaning. The Absurd man doesn’t look to gods for redemption, nor does it go gently into that good night. Rather, he pushes on, encumbering the anxieties of this world. Rolling that stone every day. With a wide grin on his lips the Absurd Man says, “Rage. Rage.”
Camus, Albert. Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage International. 1955.