Time of the Absurd

“I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.” — Albert Camus

Our world feels out of tune. We are, it appears, in a world where lying and offending is brave. Where decency, kindness and solidarity are a problem. Where those calling for peace are terrorists and white supremacists are the victims. Celebrities are gods and comedians have replaced journalists. Where those firing their weapons need saving and the children of Gaza are condemned to perform on instagram to beg for their life. 

We are in the Theatre of the Absurd. 

The Theatre of the Absurd, or absurd drama, emerged in Europe towards the end of the second world war and related to ideas found in existentialist philosophy, characterised by a sense of meaninglessness, where reality is replaced by nonsense, people are condemned to repeat pointless actions, where they simultaneously face horrific and comedic circumstances. 

While for many writers of the absurd genre, the overarching theme was the pointlessness of life, this did not mean one would sink into despair, nor did it mean one needed to resolve the absurdity of the world with more reason or more sanity. 

One of the leading voices of the absurd was French philosopher Albert Camus, who was active in the French resistance and wrote for a banned newspaper during German occupation. For him, the absurd was found in our constant search for meaning in a world indifferent to our plight. Camus was very sensitive to the horrors of the world and insisted we should not despair, rather we should embrace the contradictions of our world and “make justice imaginable.”

In his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, he considers whether in a world without meaning, life is even worth living. He concludes that it is, but not through trying to find meaning or resolve the absurd, but rather by confronting it. 

The absurdity of humans was also an important element of Chinese philosophy. Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi believed we should find joy and peace in life's absurdities, that we had to laugh at our mistakes, find beauty in our failures and embrace individual freedom and spontaneity.

Sisyphus, a character from Greek Mythology, was condemned by the gods to forever push a rock up a mountain, only to see it roll back down as he reached the top. Camus suggests that we should imagine Sisyphus happy. He says we must acknowledge the hopelessness of our situation, accept our human condition, and carry on regardless, and that Sisyphus shows us we can live “with the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.” 

He proposes various ways to confront the absurd, including through creation and rebellion. We can create art not in order to create meaning for ourselves or others, but simply in the joy of creation. Rebellion can be both through actions and a state of mind, “an attitude of heroic defiance or resistance to whatever oppresses human beings." (these ideas were developed in his later essay called The Rebel).

Anyone who works for social change these days may well at times feel like Sisyphus. But if we can take responsibility for our own lives and avoid false solutions, false hope and accept our condition, then perhaps we can find our purpose in the face of absurdity, and reach a higher level of consciousness: to live in the moment and confront the absurd. 

Note: please note that we will be moving our mailing list to substack from next week. You will continue to receive the journal as before. 

Words, Veronica Yates and Illustration, Miriam Sugranyes




References


The Myth of Sisyphus
, Albert Camus.

The Rebel, Albert Camus.

‘The Myth of Sisyphus - Albert Camus - Absurdism,’ Revolution and Ideology Podcast, you can listen on Youtube, or your usual podcast platform.

‘Albert Camus on the Will to Live and the Most Important Question of Existence,’ Maria Popova, The Marginalian. Read here.

‘The Wisdom of the Ridiculous,’ Alan Watts Lecture, Library of Consciousness. Listen here.

‘The Philosophy of Zhuangzi: Embracing the Absurdity of Life,’ Oliver Benett, Memo’d. Read here.

Further Resources

Gaza, Camus, and the logic of violence, The Gray Area with Sean Illing, 10 June 2024. Listen here: https://www.boomplay.com/episode/7407953.

‘The Absurd,’ Thomas Nagel, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 68, No. 20, view here or download the pdf here.
‘A plea for magic,’ Bayo Akomolafe, 7 August, 2016. Read here.

Rhinoceros, Eugene Ionesco.

Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett.

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