Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Albert Camus

I browsed through "100 ideas that changed the world" and at number 90 was “Existentialism Defines an Absurd Existence”.  Here's the paragraph I read on page 118: 
… But the most popular of the group [of French and German existentialists] was the saturnine Algerian-born writer Albert Camus (1913-60).  In his essay "The Myth of Sisyphus," a meditation on the predicament of humans attempting to make sense of a senseless universe, he memorably expressed a central existentialist tenet: the absurd. Reflecting on the Greek figure of Sisyphus, who is condemned eternally to roll a rock up a hill only to have it roll down again, Camus tells us that by recognizing the absurdity of his situation, Sisyphus gains at least the dignity of forthright clarity. "We must imagine Sisyphus happy," Camus famously concludes, for "being aware of one's life, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum." Camus died in the most absurd way of all - a car crash. 
We value our lives and think them important, but we also know that we will die and that time will erase all our work.  Though we long for it, we cannot create meaning or hope in a world that contains neither.  Our awareness of the paradox between our desire on the one hand and our disappointment on the other are the terms of an absurd life.  Camus states:  “Knowing whether or not one can live without appeal is all that interests me.”  And later concludes: “Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth.  They are inseparable.”  The image of a happy man devoid of hope is the mark of absurdity.  (This reminds me of the story of the monk hanging on the end of a rope above a chasm.  Above him a black mouse and a white mouse gnaw at the rope, slowly reducing its width to that of a single strand.  The monk sees a strawberry near the cliff by which he hangs, so he picks it, and eats it.)  "The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man." "The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself."

Albert Camus was 46 when he died in 1960.  Three years before his death he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for his writings against capital punishment (Reflections on the Guillotine, 1957).  In 1942 he published The Myth of Sisyphus, and in 1951 The Rebel, which builds upon the ideas of the earlier work.

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