Albert Camus’s philosophy of Absurdism still resonates with people around the world but his advocacy for our responsibility towards society has remained under-acknowledged. On his birth anniversary, Kunzum revisits two of the Nobel-winning philosopher’s works. By Paridhi Badgotri
The Greek mythic figure of Sisyphus persists as a symbol of the human condition. From serious philosophers of yore to modern-day meme makers, humans have found solace in his story for centuries. In fact, French philosopher Camus explained his philosophy of Absurdism through Sisyphus. The Greek gods had punished Sisyphus to endlessly roll a boulder to the top of a mountain—but the rock, inevitably, falls back down, only to be rolled up all over again. In his 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus uses the meaninglessness of Sisyphus’s task to explain humans’ attempt to find order/meaning to life in a universe that refuses to offer any. The futility of Sisyphus’s efforts is an apt metaphor for humanity’s inevitable defeat against the absurdity of its own existence.
When our lives have no purpose, the obvious question that pops up is, why even try? Camus’s simple alternative to suicide: to accept this absurdity and revel in it. One can rebel by simply being aware of the absurdity of one’s existence and find some joy in it. Camus ends his essay with: “The struggle itself… is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”.
However, things take a different turn when one looks at Camus’s fiction, especially The Plague, which was written as an ode to the people who tried to fight the black death. The novel is set in a fictional town, Oran, on the coast of Algiers. When rats begin to die, the town cannot fathom the arrival of a plague, which will go on to kill millions of people. Everybody stays in denial. The word ‘plague’ is on the tip of their tongues, but the residents are too afraid to say it out aloud—as if the word itself holds the power of creation.
But there are some who realise the dangers posed by the plague, like the protagonist: Dr. Reiux. In a conversation with his journalist friend, he says, “There is no question of heroism in all this. It is a matter of common decency… but the only means of fighting a plague is common decency”. Camus emphasises that there is no radicalism in trying to save humanity—it is the duty of all of us as humans, an act that we’re born to do, a moral responsibility.
Many think of absurdism and nihilism when they think of Camus, but Camus’s absurdism comes with an implicit responsibility. The absurdity of our life is not a reason to sit back and do nothing—it should make us accept the nature of life and the universe, and roll the boulder up with a heightened self-awareness. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Kunzum proudly stocks many works of Albert Camus. Pair The Myth of Sisyphus with the novel The Stranger and the essay The Rebel.
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