Absurdism is often mischaracterized as solely the idea that life is inherently meaningless—and while that is undoubtedly an important aspect of absurdism, it isn’t the whole story. Camus specifically defines absurdism as the confrontation between two key elements: on the one hand, there is humankind’s “wild longing for clarity,” meaning, and “order.” On the other hand, people find nothing in the world that gives evidence of answering this search for meaning—life’s biggest questions are answered only by the “unreasonable silence of the world.” From the beginning of the book, Camus suggests that the fact of death robs life of meaning. He characterizes this as “the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation and the uselessness of suffering.” For Camus, figuring out whether it’s possible to live with full knowledge of life’s absence of meaning is the most important philosophical question of all (or if suicide is the only viable option). Camus debates various responses to the “absurd” before deciding that all are inadequate and that, ultimately, the only response is to accept meaninglessness as part of life and to simply live “as much” as possible.
Camus believes that the absurd is often suppressed by habit. That is, people live their lives habitually and use the noise of day-to-day existence to drown out the difficult question of why they live in the first place: “Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.” The Myth of Sisyphus, then, argues that absurdism is a fact of life. Camus’ project, once this fact is established, is to figure out if there is a way of embracing—rather than suppressing—the absurd.
Before Camus offers his idea of the best responses, he strives to show the other most common strategies for “eluding” the absurd. All of these, for him, fall short—they seek to deny the absurd, to falsely characterize it, or ignore it all together. One possible response to the absurd is suicide; Camus believes that answering whether acknowledgement of the absurdity of life necessitates suicide is a question that precedes all others. He argues that suicides can happen because of an individual’s conviction that life has no meaning—but paradoxically, that there are other times when people commit suicide precisely to defend the meaning that life has for them. For instance, this kind of suicide could be the result of an individual’s commitment to a political cause, or the intensity of their love for someone that has left them. With absurdity, reasons Camus, comes ultimate freedom—life’s actions are meaningless, and so the character of these actions is entirely up to an individual to decide. Suicide, then, is not a true solution to the absurd because it does not embrace this freedom. Neither, claims Camus, do the other common strategies. Hope, for example, only hides the absurd in promises of a better future. Likewise, people use the promise of an afterlife to deny the absurd, but religion depends upon a false leap of faith that is not rational—and in not being rational, it constitutes a kind of trick. For Camus, then, the usual responses to absurdity—the conflict between the desire for meaning and reason with the world’s inability to satisfy it—are wholly inadequate.
Camus doesn’t offer a definite “answer” to the absurd—it’s not a dilemma that people should try to solve because it is inherently unsolvable. For Camus, any possible accommodation of the absurd thus depends upon incorporating it into an individual’s existence without either reducing or oversimplifying its function. He sees the acknowledgement of the absurd as an understanding that humankind cannot get any genuine answers that solve the question of the meaning of life. In this case, reasons Camus, no experience of life is inherently more meaningful than any other—people should strive for “as much” living as possible. They should revolt against the absurd by, paradoxically, always admitting its presence.
This, in theory, plays out in giving as much value to one experience as another, and not deferring any aspect of life for some promise of a better future: “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.” Camus thus argues for a switch in mindset from qualitative—in which man assesses his life according to the quality of his experiences—to a quantitative outlook: a question of more or less experience. Camus’ shift towards a quantitative outlook is undoubtedly problematic because it smuggles within it a qualitative judgment, presupposing what counts as “more” living and what counts as “less.” There is no definitive, rational way to prove whether, for example, going outside is “more experience” than sitting inside and staring at every fraction of the walls. The reader might well ask whether doing “more” in a day equates to more experience, and question whether quantity works as a response to the absurd.
Absurdism and Meaning ThemeTracker
Absurdism and Meaning Quotes in The Myth of Sisyphus
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards.
Does the Absurd dictate death? This problem must be given priority over others, outside all methods of thought and all exercises of the disinterested mind. Shades of meaning, contradictions, the psychology that an "objective" mind can always introduce into all problems have no place in this pursuit and this passion. It calls simply for an unjust—in other words, logical—thought. That is not easy. It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end.
It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, street-car, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, street-car, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the "why" arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.
A step lower and strangeness creeps in: perceiving that the world is "dense," sensing to what a degree a stone is foreign and irreducible to us, with what intensity nature or a landscape can negate us. At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise. The primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia.
This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together. It binds them one to the other as only hatred can weld two creatures together.
Kierkegaard wants to be cured. To be cured is his frenzied wish, and it runs throughout his whole journal. The entire effort of his intelligence is to escape the antinomy of the human condition. An all the more desperate effort since he intermittently perceives its vanity when he speaks of himself, as if neither fear of God nor piety were capable of bringing him to peace. Thus it is that, through a strained subterfuge, he gives the irrational the appearance and God the attributes of the absurd: unjust, incoherent, and incomprehensible. Intelligence alone in him strives to stifle the underlying demands of the human heart. Since nothing is proved, everything can he proved.
But at the same time the absurd man realizes that hitherto he was bound to that postulate of freedom on the illusion of which he was living. In a certain sense, that hampered him. To the extent to which he imagined a purpose to his life, he adapted himself to the demands of a purpose to be achieved and became the slave of his liberty. Thus I could not act otherwise than as the father (or the engineer or the leader of a nation, or the post-office sub-clerk) that I am preparing to be. I think I can choose to be that rather than something else. I think so unconsciously, to be sure. But at the same time I strengthen my postulate with the beliefs of those around me, with the presumptions of my human environment (others are so sure of being free, and that cheerful mood is so contagious!). However far one may remain from any presumption, moral or social, one is partly influenced by them and even, for the best among them (there are good and bad presumptions), one adapts one' s life to them. Thus the absurd man realizes that he was not really free.
Knowing whether or not one can live without appeal is all that interests me. I do not want to get out of my depth. This aspect of life being given me, can I adapt myself to it? Now, faced with this particular concern, belief in the absurd is tantamount to substituting the quantity of experiences for the quality. If I convince myself that this life has no other aspect than that of the absurd, if I feel that its whole equilibrium depends on that perpetual opposition between my conscious revolt and the darkness in which it struggles, if I admit that my freedom has no meaning except in relation to its limited fate, then I must say that what counts is not the best living but the most living.
What, in fact, is the absurd man? He who, without negating it, does nothing for the eternal. Not that nostalgia is foreign to him. But he prefers his courage and his reasoning. The first teaches him to live without appeal and to get along with what he has; the second informs him of his limits. Assured of his temporally limited freedom, of his revolt devoid of future, and of his mortal consciousness, he lives out his adventure within the span of his lifetime. That is his field, that is his action, which he shields from any judgment but his own. A greater life cannot mean for him another life. That would be unfair. I am not even speaking here of that paltry eternity that is called posterity.
If it were sufficient to love, things would be too easy. The more one loves, the stronger the absurd grows. It is not through lack of love that Don Juan goes from woman to woman. It is ridiculous to represent him as a mystic in quest of total love. But it is indeed because he loves them with the same passion and each time with his whole self that he must repeat his gift and his profound quest. Whence each woman hopes to give him what no one has ever given him. Each time they are utterly wrong and merely manage to make him feel the need of that repetition. “At last,” exclaims one of them, “I have given you love.” Can we be surprised that Don Juan laughs at this? “At last? No,” he says, “but once more.” Why should it be essential to love rarely in order to love much?
“There is but one luxury for them—that of human relations. How can one fail to realize that in this vulnerable universe everything that is human and solely human assumes a more vivid meaning? Taut faces, threatened fraternity, such strong and chaste friendship among men—these are the true riches because they are transitory.”
Let me repeat that these images do not propose moral codes and involve no judgments: they are sketches. They merely represent a style of life. The lover, the actor, or the adventurer plays the absurd. But equally well, if he wishes, the chaste man, the civil servant, or the president of the Republic. It is enough to know and to mask nothing.
Creating is living doubly […] Creation is the great mime.
The great novelists are philosophical novelists—that is, the contrary of thesis-writers. For instance, Balzac, Sade, Melville, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Proust, Malraux, Kafka, to cite but a few.
But in fact the preference they have shown for writing in images rather than in reasoned arguments is revelatory of a certain thought that is common to them all, convinced of the uselessness of any principle of explanation and sure of the educative message of perceptible appearance. They consider the work of art both as an end and a beginning. It is the outcome of an often unexpressed philosophy, its illustration and its consummation. But it is complete only through the implications of that philosophy.
All of Dostoevsky’s heroes question themselves as to the meaning of life. In this they are modern: they do not fear ridicule. What distinguishes modern sensibility from classical sensibility is that the latter thrives on moral problems and the former on metaphysical problems. In Dostoevsky’s novels the question is propounded with such intensity that it can only invite extreme solutions. Existence is illusory or it is eternal. If Dostoevsky were satisfied with this inquiry, he would be a philosopher. But he illustrates the consequences that such intellectual pastimes may have in a man’s life, and in this regard he is an artist.
Any thought that abandons unity glorifies diversity. And diversity is the home of art. The only thought to liberate the mind is that which leaves it alone, certain of its limits and of its impending end. No doctrine tempts it. It awaits the ripening of the work and of life. Detached from it, the work will once more give a barely muffled voice to a soul forever freed from hope. Or it will give voice to nothing if the creator, tired of his activity, intends to turn away. That is equivalent.
To the celestial thunderbolts he preferred the benediction of water. He was punished for this in the underworld. Homer tells us also that Sisyphus had put Death in chains. Pluto could not endure the sight of his deserted, silent empire. He dispatched the god of war, who liberated Death from the hands of her conqueror.
Sisyphus woke up in the underworld. And there, annoyed by an obedience so contrary to human 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. Recalls, signs of anger, warnings were of no avail. Many years more he lived facing the curve of the gulf, the sparkling sea, and the smiles of earth. A decree of the gods was necessary. 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.
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.