Albert Camus (1913-1960), A Perspective
by Dr. Parviz Dehghani
Albert Camus (1913-1960), A Perspective
Who was he? He was a celebrated French-Algerian writer, playwright and thinker. He was a very close friend of Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris. They were working together on the radical left-wing paper, called ‘Combat’. However, there was a breach in their friendship and over a dispute they never spoke again. Camus’ best writings are ‘The Stranger’, ‘The Outsider’ and ‘The Plague’. But his most significant contribution to existentialist philosophy is ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’. In this Myth he develops the main existentialist theme of ‘absurdity’. He argues that human existence is irrational. It is absurd, because we try to make sense of a senseless world. Why is it absurd, because there’s a confrontation between [this] human necessity and unreasonable silence of the world? We ask, what is the meaning of life as if life has a meaning to begin with? Senseless killing of children and innocent people is answered by silence. The word ‘absurd’ in Latin is ‘absurdus’, which means not to be heard of. (Webster’s) Hundreds of Children were recently killed in Ukraine due to the Russian invasion and soon after 19 children were gunned down in their school in Texas. The world has not been silent, however. But this is not what Camus is referring to. This silence is not what Buddhist called noble. Silence is also a metaphor used for the Ultimate Reality, because it cannot be divided. I quote what Camus said exactly here ‘the absurd is born of the confrontation between [this] human need and the unreasonable silence of the world’. This reminds me of the movie, ‘The silence of the lambs’. Why are the lambs silent all of a sudden? They are perhaps apprehensive, because there’re wolves around. My late mother used to tell me, the answer to the foolish is silence. This is reasonable silence. But unreasonable silence is what Camus is talking about. In the face of so much immorality, cheating and laying the world around you is silent. Did my mother know anything about Camus? I don’t think so. Camus calls this silence unreasonable. ‘Absurd’, for Camus, is to be understood in its original humorous sense. We can know this when we compare the ridiculous with the sublime. For example, this can be shown when a soldier attacks a machine-gun nest with a sword. The leaders of some countries still think they can fight the most powerful nations with centuries ago weapons. In the myth of Sisyphus the king of Corinth, who was condemned by the Gods to be in the home of the dead or hell and push a large rock up a hill only to find out it roll back down again as he arrives at the pick. (Webster’s) There’s a similar story going back to centuries ago. There was a great hero who was a Tartar conqueror in South and West Asia by the name of ‘Timur-e Lang’ or ‘Timur the Lame’, Persians names him as ‘Teimur-re lang’. (1336?-1405)(The Random House, Biographical Dictionary) He is also known as ‘Tamerlane’. He was in a battle field where he felt he was about to be defeated. He took a refuge in a ruined building or a cave to rest for a while away from his troops. In the mean time he looked at a black ant that was carrying a grain seed up slop on a wall several times in order to reach the summit to no avail and after trying numerous times it finally made it to the top. Having observed these restless efforts by the ant, he went back to the battle field and won the war. “Humankind was born into toil and struggle. The soul must never give up its struggle to find Divine presence through signs in nature, in history and in its own essence. It is a struggle that is ceaseless, boundless, unending until the soul departs from this world and meets Him. Allah favors those who strive patiently and persevere. This is the inner meaning of Sabr”. (The internet) The word ‘Sabr’ has been mentioned in the Holy Qur’an many times, which means ‘patience’. This term defies time, which is an illusion in Hinduism. What is surprising is that Camus was born in Algeria, an Islamic country and it seems he had not learned anything from that culture. There were Sufis or Muslim mystics in Algeria with whom he never had any association. He probably didn’t even know where they were unless you’re deeply involved with the totality of that culture. I’m not Camus scholars. Then again I could be wrong. Nevertheless, I only speculate here and have a perspective.
The fate or destiny of Sisyphus, according to Camus, elucidates the uselessness, worthlessness and hopelessness of labor. Just like Sisyphus we live our lives and at the end we achieve nothing. A Persian saying has it that ‘from where have I come, my coming was for what benefit, to where am I going, you don’t tell me where my home is?
Bertrand Russell once poetically said, ‘all the labor of the ages, all devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins’.
Why shouldn’t we commit suicide given the fact that we live a pointless existence in an uncompromisingly irrational universe? This is the inevitable conclusion of existentialism, which other great thinkers like Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Karl Jaspers and Sartre all stayed away from. At least Heidegger took death seriously. It looks like all other philosophers avoided the question of death entirely.
Let us remember that Husserl, who was Heidegger’s mentor, was not an existentialist. He was rather the father of phenomenology, who was pushed aside by Heidegger himself, perhaps because he was Jewish. All these great thinkers were not successful to stay with the initial premise of their existential philosophy, which is the fact that the absurd is a result of the confrontation between a rational being and an irrational world.
Camus thought all these philosophers tried to come up with solutions for this problem at hand. Little did they know that it is impossible to do that, because this is what human existence is all about? To solve this problem is to contradict the very idea we started with.
Suicide, for example, is just another effort at resolution. We think by committing suicide we have solved the problem. He maintained that ‘Suicide’, as a resolution of the absurd, would be… a denial of the very condition of man’s existence’. As I write these sentences, suicide has been considered as the second cause of death in the United States of America.
Without doubt, Camus moved himself and readers back into an inescapable corner. To welcome absurdity is to face death, because death is also absurd. If we don’t accept it is to put up with a life on the overhanging rock, the place we cannot jump to comfort, but just live ‘on the dizzying crest-that is integrity, the rest subterfuge’. The dizzying crest or summit, he said, is the complete conscious experience of being alive, just like Sisyphus confronting death and pointlessness of one’s struggle in life.
Given the absurd, we must even, metaphorically, ‘revolt’. By the word ‘revolt’ he means to be conscious of a crushing fate, but without the yielding or surrendering that should accompany it. In other words, bear the suffering but don’t give in. This exact opposite of what Buddha taught. He simply told us to detach ourselves from the changing world to end suffering. Therefore, Sisyphus being condemned to forever repetition and being aware of it, discovers that ‘Lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory’. Camus says we should imagine Sisyphus happy, for ‘being aware of one’s life, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum’.
As you can see, Camus didn’t believe suicide was an option or an answer in the face of absurdity of life. They say once a scorpion is surrendered by a ring of fire, it commits suicide hurting its head with its poisonous tail. However, the black ant observed by Teimur-e Lang never did such a thing. The ant never just bears the suffering it was going through either. It kept on going on that slippery slope till it finally reached the top.
For Camus, this is a necessary condition of the encounter of man and the world. Suicide never resolves the absurd. In fact it is a sign of defeat. It is a rejection of the very condition of human’s existence.
(Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers by Philip Stokes, page 154)