The Absurd

“There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”

– Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

According to Greek mythology, the gods punished King Sisyphus of Ephyra for his deceit and cruelty. They devised a maddening torment, condemning Sisyphus for all eternity to push a massive boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back down as soon as he neared the top. His labors were futile and meaningless, an absurd, aimless chore. The myth has frequently been cited as a metaphor for the human condition.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus outlines a philosophy of righteous resistance that acknowledges the hopelessness of the human predicament while simultaneously affirming the value of mounting an offensive. We should, he argues, follow Sisyphus who, as Camus interprets him, embraces his punishment as a form of defiant rebellion against the gods. The first step in overcoming the difficulties engulfing us, Camus writes, is to affirm the futility of our efforts and relinquish the quest for happiness. Our destinies are not of our own making, nor can we alter course to avoid the icebergs looming ahead in the darkness. Only direct confrontation with the inevitability of death and the unattainability of happiness can adequately attune us to the genuine character of life and reorient our efforts towards the only recourse available. We cannot escape the frigid water but, emulating Sisyphus, we can swim with the currents carrying us towards disaster as a meaningful act of protest. Human action, Camus insists, always bears witness to purposeful volition. In acting, I assert my will by complying with the tides sweeping me out to sea – I defy my fate even while enacting it.

I’ve often taken comfort in Camus’ assurance that “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” One cannot help but admire this bleak but valiant humanism. We’ve all experienced moments when the forces opposing us overwhelm our meager resistance. It’s comforting to think that silent, participatory defiance confers nobility upon suffering when nothing else can. No gesture appears equal to the task, no escape strategy commensurate with the scale of the tragedy ensnaring us; all our pitiful attempts at overcoming merely tighten the bonds restraining us.

Notably, Camus’ vision does not entail victory over catastrophe but conscious engagement in it. Sisyphus’ defiance doesn’t save him from torment, but by resolutely taking up the rock time and time again he sublates the absurd act and appropriates it to his own subversive ends. This doesn’t negate its absurdity, Camus insists, nor can it if we properly comprehend Sisyphus’ dilemma. Camus criticizes the way some existentialists – particularly religious existentialists – attempt to transmute absurdity into the means of salvation, thereby introducing a fourth, unjustified term into the human + universe = absurd equation. For Kierkegaard, the absurd tension resulting from the opposition of human ambition and an indifferent universe implicates a mediating factor, god, who ultimately reveals himself as a supra-rational entity capable of transcending human finitude and imposing order upon chaos. Camus rejects Kierkegaard’s solution, as it vitiates the very conditions prompting the need for a resolution, namely the irreconcilable conflict between human ambition and a deterministic, inhospitable cosmos. Absurdity for Kierkegaard constitutes the ground of possibility for divine intervention which ultimately triumphs and rescues humankind from despair. But one cannot issue a solution that denies the problem, Camus argues, and whatever approach we adopt to the absurd must honor its inviolability. Far from eradicating the absurd, Sisyphus’ active resignation fetishizes it. He relishes his punishment, denying his tormentors the satisfaction of refusal. This masochistic domination over our fate, Camus tells us, is the only noble response available to us.

While I admire and even subscribe to elements of Camus’ thesis, I see problems. As I’ve already mentioned, Camus maintains that absurdity arises necessarily from the co-existence of two terms: humankind and the indifferent universe we inhabit. Absurdity consists in the relation between them and does not simply reside in one or the other. Their opposition gives rise to absurd incongruities, such as humankind’s unrealized desire for happiness in a universe insensitive to our plight. Camus carefully defines the absurd so to avoid a reductive psychological theory in which our subjective feelings of disappointment constitute its philosophical significance. True, we experience the absurd as thwarted desire, but for Camus absurdity overflows our narrow awareness. It obtains wherever human ambition and existence’s cold indifference collide in opposition. It’s a product emerging as a result of our brute presence in the universe, not a quality emanating from our feelings. In this manner Camus denies the possibility of “integrating” the absurd within a philosophy of redemption that transfigures and nullifies its inherent irrationality.

Camus seems to think that just by properly comprehending the terms “human” and “universe” we arrive at the judgment “existence is absurd.” In philosophical parlance, we’d call this an analytic judgment. Analytic judgments involve terms or subjects that, once “unpacked” of their logical attributes or predicates, demonstrate the truth of the judgment. The truthfulness of the judgment “all bachelors are unmarried” can be established analytically by unpacking the predicates contained in the term bachelor. But do the terms “human” and “universe” logically unpack to reveal the necessity of Camus’ judgment about the absurd? I don’t see how. Neither term necessarily bears predicates that, when placed alongside the others, expose some deep logical incompatibility. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine what predicates might hypothetically demonstrate the inevitability of Camus’ conclusion. Even if we define humankind as striving beings and the universe as a place where striving is frustrated – highly dubious definitions – in what respect is this necessarily absurd? What standard are we measuring the situation against? That we sense existence to be absurd, or that we at the very least ought to sense its absurdity, if we’re paying attention, is irrefutably true as far as I’m concerned. But I can’t detect a logical reason to reach the conclusion that it is absurd through any sensible definition of the terms “human” and “universe.” Absurdity is an evaluative concept implying the existence of normative standards, not a purely descriptive term picking out the presence of brute states of affairs. We only arrive at Camus’ judgment in a context with preexisting evaluative standards authorizing us to identify the conditions under which a particular set of incongruities or disparities qualities as absurdity. The bare factors of Camus’ equation provide no such criteria.

But the vision of reality advanced by religious existentialists does furnish them. By positing the existence of an ideal world in which humankind and god are united they introduce a standard according to which our current situation falls short. This appears to me a necessary condition for depicting human experience as objectively absurd. We need an alternative paradigm to reveal the paucity of our condition, a rubric Camus’ austere ontology prohibits. Kierkegaard’s invocation of the absurd acts to disrupt his readers, jolting them from their complacency into awareness of humankind’s fallen condition and need for restoration. Despair illuminates the possibility for redemption by promoting investigation into the conditions rendering our lives absurd. The more convincing our experience of absurdity, the more convinced we become of an alternative reality functioning as an objective standard. To take our encounter with the absurd seriously, we must grant the theoretical plausibility of escaping it.

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