Camus begins this section by talking about feelings. “Great feelings,” he says, constitute “their own universe” and govern those that feel them. The feeling of absurdity can “strike any man in the face.” Though feelings are not easy to analyze, it is possible to discuss their practical effects and consequences.
People usually first encounter the absurd as a feeling, telling them that what they value is actually meaningless. Camus does not seek to explain that feeling exactly, but to examine the way it practically affects people.
Camus outlines how the feeling of absurdity can crop up at any time in life, “when the stage-sets collapse.” Most people live their lives according to rhythm and habit—waking, working (Camus’ example is factory work), eating, and sleeping—and this weariness sometimes brings about a sense of the absurd.
Life, for Camus, is mostly an illusion lived out habitually and without thinking. People find a rhythm to life and stick with it. Camus’ example here is distinctly male—a pattern that will continue throughout the book—as he fails to consider the type of unseen labor done by women in the home.
Furthermore, says Camus, most people’s lives are “unillustrious” and carried onward by a sense of the future—people use the promise of “tomorrow” to silence the absurdity of today. But people reach a certain stage when they can sense their “relation to time,” and that longing for tomorrow is a falsehood.
At some point as people age, reasons Camus, the promise of tomorrow begins to ring hollow. This is a distinctly temporal (time-related) sensation, as individuals feel themselves too far along the arc of their own lives for whatever comes to make up for whatever has already been.
For Camus, nature only serves to make the problem of the absurd worse. Its “beauty” contains something “inhuman,” especially in the way that the natural world works on different timeframes to humankind. This results in a “denseness’ and “strangeness” that “rises up to face us across millennia.”
Nature intensifies the temporal aspect of the absurd. Its timescales—that of a cliff face, for example—make human life seem pitifully short, and in turn make human cares seem small and insignificant. Camus likens this to a kind of “density”—a density of existence in relation to time, perhaps.
Even people’s gestures, says Camus, can bring about an awareness of the absurd, their “mechanical aspect” creating a “meaningless pantomime.”
People perform the absurd, just as they perform their daily lives. The “pantomime” image suggests a staged performance of heightened gesture, but with frivolous meaning.
Camus states that “there is no experience of death,” because people can only experience what comes through consciousness. Other people’s deaths are just a substitute that don’t really teach much. With these “facts” in mind, asks Camus, should people “die voluntarily” or “hope in spite of everything?”
Camus sees death as the key factor behind the meaninglessness of life, but he never asks why, in order for something to be meaningful, it would need to last forever. This reliance on a kind of temporal eternity—which, by Camus’ logic, is the only route to “meaningfulness”—is curiously similar to the position held by those he criticizes: people who live in hope of the future, or those with a religious devotion to an eternal afterlife.
These previous encounters with absurd occur on the plane of “experience,” says Camus. He turns his attention to the “plane of the intelligence.” The mind, he says, has “a nostalgia for unity”—“to understand is to unify.” But the world is plural and made out of differences, refusing to conform to the human desire for unity.
Nostalgia (“nostalgie” in French) is an interesting word choice on Camus’ part. It has distinct connotations of longing for home or the past. Perhaps childhood represents a time without an awareness of the absurd, and thereby the kind of “nostalgia for unity” that Camus refer to—a time and place when things in which things make unified sense.
Camus takes the view that people can only truly know their immediate sensory world: the rest is a “construction.” “There are truths,” he says, “but no truth.” Science tries to explain the world, but it can only ever describe it—it can answer the question of how, but not of why.
Camus’ distinction between “truths” and “truth” equates to a division between the ability to describe how things work in the world versus the inability to answer why the world exists in the first place.
For Camus, then, the intellect can only confirm that “this world is absurd.” The many attempts of humankind to “explain everything are enough to make a decent man laugh.” Camus defines the absurd as being specifically the confrontation between man’s “wild longing for clarity” and “the irrational” nature of the world.
Camus does not exactly seek to do away with rationalism (a philosophical movement spearheaded by thinkers like René Descartes, who believed the intellect could make sense of the world). Instead, he wants to practice a more extreme rationalism, one in which individuals understand that the only certainty in life is that it has no meaning. The absurd is defined very specifically as the clash between mankind’s desire for meaning and reason with the world’s refusal to satisfy it.
Camus touches on previous thinkers who have tried to acknowledge the irrationality of life. Writers like Jaspers, Heidegger, Kierkegaard and Chestov managed to correctly identify the absurdity of life, such as Heidegger’s “anxiety” or what Jaspers sees as the “flaw” in spiritual and religious ways of life: “everlasting nothingness.”
The thinkers Camus cites are generally considered to be existentialists, who aim to confront the fact that life seems to have no inherent meaning in and of itself. Camus praises their ability to describe the meaninglessness of life, though considers them to all to have a fatal flaw.
Camus says Chestov noted that “the most universal rationalism always stumbles on the irrational of human thought.” Kierkegaard, for his part, was able to “live” in the absurd for part of his life. This allowed him to dive into the “spiritual adventure” of his “beloved scandals.”
To a degree, Kierkegaard mirrors the later example that Camus uses of the “absurd man”—Don Juan, a serial seducer. As with all the philosophers mentioned in this section, in the next chapter Camus will explain why they fail in the face of the absurd.
The phenomenologist, Husserl, tried to “reinstate the world in its diversity and deny the transcendent power of the reason.” This, says Camus, made thinking about “learning all over again” to experience sensory input. Camus in part admires the above thinkers for their acknowledgment of the absurd. He offers another succinct definition: “the absurd is born[e] of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”
Phenomenology is the study of experience and consciousness, a movement spearheaded by Edmund Husserl in the early twentieth century. The absurd is again defined as a kind of antagonism—not merely the idea that life is meaningless.