In Dostoevsky’s novels, Camus detects evidence of an absurd sensibility. The Russian author’s books argue that “existence is illusory or it is eternal.” But this inquiry is not enough for him, says Camus of Dostoevsky—if it were, he would have been a philosopher. Dostoevsky is interested in how such intellectual dilemmas actively affect people in their actual lives.
Camus firmly believes that most people’s existences are illusory. The reasoning behind the absurd is to do away with illusions and live in full awareness of life’s ultimate meaningless. In this section, Camus demonstrates the differing functions of novels as opposed to philosophy.
Camus examines one particular character from one of Dostoevsky’s novels, The Possessed. This man, Kirilov, feels that in order for existence to make sense, God “is necessary.” Despite this, he cannot shake the feeling that God doesn’t exist, and winds up committing “logical suicide.” He kills himself to “revolt” against the problem and to exert his “freedom.”
In Dostoevsky’s novel, Kirilov feels he will do mankind a service by killing himself and proving, firstly, that the supremacy of the human will (as opposed to God’s rule), and, secondly, that death is nothing to fear. This is the “logic” behind his suicide.
Camus believes that Kirilov’s suicide constitutes him taking on the role of God himself, a logic that he admits is “absurd.” Essentially, if God does not exist, then individuals are the God of their own lives. Jesus, believes Kirilov, lived in and died for “a falsehood,” personifying the “whole human drama.” He was not the “God-man but the man-god,” which is true to an extent of all people. Kirilov’s suicide, says Camus, is meant to educate people, borne of a “love of his neighbor” rather than “despair.” Kirilov’s last words are “all is well.”
Kirilov is, of course, narrowly defining religion as the Christian tradition. Jesus’ death, for Kirilov, only proved one fact: the absurdity of life. In this formula, Jesus dies for others’ sins not to redeem them, but more to bring awareness to the human condition. The “all is well” phrase is especially important for Camus—he feels that, if a person can say this to themselves no matter what comes, they are incorporating, rather than trying to resolve, the absurd.
Camus supposes that “probably no one so much as Dostoevsky has managed to give the absurd world such familiar and tormenting charms,” and that he brought to life the “passionate world of indifference” that people recognize in their “everyday anxieties.” But Camus then criticizes Dostoevsky for eventually turning back to God. Dostoevsky states elsewhere: “If faith in immortality is so necessary to the human being (that without it he comes to the point of killing himself) it must therefore be the normal state of humanity. Since this is the case, the immortality of the human soul exists with doubt.”
Dostoevsky, in Camus’ assessment, succeeds in rendering the absurd in his novels. That is, characters like Kirilov embody actual situations that people might find themselves in, and these situations are characterized by, and reflective of, the absurd. However, Dostoevsky as a man, rather than as a novelist, fails to keep the absurd in full view and falls back on what Camus considers to be an irrational belief in God. It’s worth remembering that Camus and Dostoevsky are writing from considerably different vantage points—Dostoevsky’s world was predominantly religious.
Camus concludes that Dostoevsky is more of an “existential novelist” than an absurd one. But the Russian novelist shows the absurd in function; even if he does eventually side against his characters, he at least “propounds the absurd problem.” A true absurd work, says Camus, would not “provide a reply” to the absurd, but simply show its existence. Dostoevsky answered Kirilov’s dilemma by behaving as if “existence is illusory and it is eternal.” For Camus, only the first proposition is true.
Perhaps, then, it is unfairly critical to say that Dostoevsky’s novel fails on the terms of the absurd. Camus seems to claim it to be “existential” based on the later actions of its author—but as a stand-alone work, The Possessed does show a “part” of the human experience in grappling with the absurd.