Camus further develops the idea of the absurd, describing it as the disconnect between “an action and the world that transcends it.” For example, a swordsman trying to take on numerous men with guns commits “an absurd act.” The absurd element is not the swordsman himself, or the other men, but the confrontation between the two—the absurd is the tension between the two.
Camus’ example here is more of a metaphor for the absurd itself than a specifically absurd act—this is the only point in the book in which Camus tries to pinpoint specifically absurd occurrences. As with all examples in the book—and with his constant reference to “man” and “mankind”—Camus does not try to grapple with any examples more relevant to the female sex.
For Camus, the absurd is the only knowable fact of life. Any response to life, therefore, must not try to “conjure” the absurd away. This struggle implies three key consequences: “a total absence of hope…a continual rejection…and a conscious dissatisfaction.”
Camus isn’t necessarily saying that religion and philosophy have thus far been wrong, but that they depend specifically on things that they can’t possibly know for sure. The absurd is the only surety, and therefore, in keeping with a sense of extreme rationality, any response to life must hold on to this one fact.
Camus says that anyone who “becomes conscious of the absurd is for ever bound to it” and no longer belongs “to the future.” He states that he will analyze how, using “odd reasoning,” the philosophers mentioned in the previous chapter all tried to escape the absurd—instead of finding a way to accommodate it.
There is no going back from the absurd, once it has been acknowledged, without some kind of falsity or self-deception. Camus wants to see if there is a way to live in full view of the absurd—incorporating it into daily life without trying to “solve” it.
Camus starts with Karl Jaspers, who he says tries to solve the absurd by employing an illogical leap towards “transcendence”—he takes the absence of “explanation” to irrationally prove the existence of “the unthinkable unity of the general and the particular.” This, says Camus, creates a “false god” out of the absurd.
Jaspers, the German-Swiss philosopher, advocates a “pure consciousness of absolute Being.” Everything in the world is united by its mere fact of existence, which he in turn interprets as a transcendental quality. For Camus, this is not knowable and therefore represents an escape from the absurd.
Camus moves on to Lev Chestov. Chestov, claims Camus, equates the absurd with God; man is capable of dealing with everything rational, but needs God to help deal with the point at which “human judgment sees no solution.” This frustrates Camus, who does not feel that absurdity should become “eternity’s springboard”—this is irrational.
For Russian philosopher Lev Chestov (more commonly spelled Shestov), irrationality is an escape route from the absurd. The very fact that rationality can find no solution to the absurd dictates that something beyond human reason becomes mankind’s salvation. Camus vehemently disagrees with the absurd being a route to God.
Camus says that his criticism of Chestov is even more relevant to the work of Soren Kierkegaard. Kiekegaard does not seek to keep the absurd in full view, but wants to be “cured” of it by faith. Camus instead wants to find a way of “living in that state of the absurd.”
Moving on to phenomenologists like Husserl, Camus claims that this branch of philosophy initially chimes with the acknowledgment of the absurd because it tries to describe “experience” rather than the world itself. Consciousness becomes a kind of receiver of images, rather than understanding.
Description, rather than explanation, is one thing that Camus believes people can do in light of the absurd. He draws this out further in the “Absurd Creation” section of the book. Description, too, is the limitation of science when it comes to the natural world.
But Husserl treats these encounters with the world as being “essences,” leading to what Camus calls “an abstract polytheism.” Phenomenologists imply that “everything is privileged”; Camus feels this creates a false sense of divine presence in the world.
Every object in the world, goes Camus’ critique of Husserl, becomes a kind of god, a pure essence of itself. Camus sees this divinity as an extra step, beyond the knowledge of life’s absurdity, and thereby invalid as a response to the absurd.
All of the above philosophies fail, in Camus’ opinion, because they see the absurd as something that needs to be solved. Camus’ point is that the absurd needs to be lived with in an active and rational manner. He wants to know whether it’s possible to live with the absurd, or if “logic commands one to die of it.”
Here, Camus reiterates his overall point: he wants to find a way of living in full view of the absurd, not escaping it.