How Can We Live in the World of the Absurd? the Humanism of Albert Camus

By Lowen, Jeanette | Free Inquiry, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

How Can We Live in the World of the Absurd? the Humanism of Albert Camus


Lowen, Jeanette, Free Inquiry


Art, in a sense, is a revolt against everything fleeting and unfinished in the world.

--Albert Camus (1913-1960)

The restless questions of Albert Camus, one of the most discussed and most easily misunderstood writers of our time, continue to gnaw at us. From the first, his writings appear as a succession of explosions--the explosions of a human mind in anxiety and revolt before a world that does not hear, a universe that is indifferent to our demands. Camus expressed both the horror of living during Hitler's rise and World War II and the desire to establish a meaningful life in a meaningless world of war and futile conquest. Not content with the nihilism of his age and unable to ignore the catastrophe of modern life, he developed two related concepts, "the absurd" and "revolt" into a significant philosophy of life. And it was his insistence that an authentic revolt against the human condition had to be a revolt in the name of "the solidarity, of man with man" that has kept the questions--and the implicit hope--of Albert Camus alive.

To live in the world of the absurd, and to salvage meaning from such a world, one must live with the belief that absurdity, in the sense of recognizing and accepting the fact that there are no metaphysically guaranteed directives for conduct, can by itself generate a positive ethic. Only by this recognition and this acceptance of the world's absurdity (the lack of order, the lack of guarantees) in contradiction to the anguished demand of our innate need of order and purpose, and only by the conscious espousal of human purpose and action can we transform nihilism from a passive despair into a way of revolting against and of transcending the world's indifference to the human being.(1)

This is the response of the man who is said to represent a milestone in the development of twentieth-century thought and literature.

Camus Emerges on the Literary Scene

It was with the novel of his generation, The Stranger, that Camus burst upon literary Paris in 1942. This was the story that struck a chord in so many young people in Europe, and later in America. They found it understandable, and they were sympathetic to it. A symbolic portrayal of alienation, this is the story of a dazed and benumbed young man named Mersault, a victim of a world lacking the sustenance of any belief that recovery was possible. It is only when he is faced with extermination that Mersault's apathy turns to a violent outburst and he begins his long journey toward a sense of "consciousness." He is then forced to justify what he has been and done. He is thus on trial as a human being.

We certainly deplore the minimal humanity of The Stranger: for example, the fact that not Marie (who exists as a red-and-white-striped dress instead of as a person for Mersault) but a strand of a woman's hair is defended as the alternative to the chaplain's other-worldly values. It is this indifference to humanity, and it is this assigning to life the direct, existential encounter with the concrete as the "ultimate" value that Camus passes beyond (in The Plague, The Rebel and The Fall). Camus knew that he had to pass beyond this, but first he had to open the door, as he did in The Stranger.

The Absurd: The Stranger

Jean-Paul Sartre knew from the first that The Stranger was a novel about "the absurd" and against "the absurd." In an essay on Camus's first novel, Sartre expressed his view that the stranger Camus wants to portray is one of those terrible innocents who shock society by not accepting the rules of its game. He lives among outsiders, but to them, too, he is a stranger. And we ourselves, who on opening the book are not yet familiar with the feeling of "the absurd," vainly try to judge him according to our usual standards. For us too, then, he is "a stranger."

It is as Mersault faces death, having lived a life where he was unwilling to question anything, that he comprehends for the first time the absurd fact that all human beings must die. …

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