The Absurd

Over at Heterodoxia, Awet Moges has written an excellent essay on Camus, Sisyphus Shrugged: An essay on Myth of Sisyphus. The essay can also be found at The Galilean Library ( my home base and home to the best discussion forum on the net – amongst other things. Please, check it out!). Anyway, other than giving some more exposure to this essay, I also responded to it and I’d like to post my original response ( very slightly edited) to Awet here as well. Please, read his essay before perusing my comments to give it context! Thanks.

The response:

Great stuff, Moges. Succinct but trenchant analysis. Your conclusion cuts to the heart of the issue for me and why I was ultimately dissatisfied with Camus’ ‘solution.’ Note also that the Myth of Sisyphus, stripped of of its figurative meaning ( through our modern lens) makes our experience even more absurd. Sisyphus, after all, has an object for his rebellion, the Gods. He is laughing in their faces, cheating death and now laughing as he pushes the boulder repeatedly up the mountain. He is not confronted with indifference, he’s defying the sentence of the Gods. The Gods, reinterpreted as significates of the absurd, effectively spotlights the situation man finds himself in but the myth works because of its literal content, that there is an object, an active, opposing, real force in the Gods. Defying the almighty Gods certainly takes balls. But what is the object of man’s rebellion? The theater of his own mind, his imagination. In other words, himself. The absurd is a consequence of how he views the world or the unhappy fact that he’s able to experience the world as it truly is. The object then of his defiance is not an active, opposing force, but silence. There is no actual object to defy, only the consternation of his own mind. This is why “leaps of faith” seem so necessary.

Thus the assertion that we need to live with the absurd is an equally arbitrary move, no less another “leap of faith”. The very rejection of suicide may be a compromise with the absurd, but at the same time, it seems a matter of choice, not a logical conclusion to a philosophical system.

It is this essential arbitrariness that is the true torment. Suppose we we able to deduce how to live in an absurd world, to convince with reason that suicide is not the ‘right’ response. Let’s even assume that we could have the ultimate argument from ethics that unequivocally shows that suicide is not the answer. What does it matter? “From dust you came, to dust you shall return.” When the world is experienced as and projected or thought about as indifferent and absurd, every response regardless of their logical or ethical validity makes no difference. Sisyphus continues his absurd defiance while another kills himself. We want to value Sisyphus’ defiance yet if the beginning point of existentialism is this vivid awareness of meaninglessness and indifference then the absurd hero and the coward are alike paper in wind. Their responses to this indifference is in principle no different from the tree that sways left and the tree that sways right in response to the wind – all we have are different events that will soon be extinguished. We can decry this as cowardice, as nihilism, but when death is the final arbitrator, we have the ultimate confirmation of meaninglessness – all that torment, all that overcoming, all that depression, all that recovery is reduced to the insentient dirt we piss on. Again, you can feel guilty for having suicidal thoughts and then going through with it but when it is envisioned that your death returns you to dust, to a non-existence of indifference there is very little in philosophical response here. One simply goes on living because they can find reasons to not because they’ve grappled with and overcame the absurd. There is no overcoming or shrinking in the face of indifference. If indifference is the beginning point, the “essence” of the world then arbitrariness is what we’re left with: no amount of moral castigating or grandiose leaps are more apropos in a world fundamentally indifferent. It all amounts to the same thing. Now, as for more horrifying thoughts:

We as the human species may not have arrived at a perfect understanding of our world, but what would be the consequences if that ideal did become a reality? If we knew everything, won’t life be utterly boring, and consequently, intolerable? There won’t be any more challenges or excitement from life. Everything is already ordered down to the last minutiae, all future events already known in advance. A bottomless, infinite, and obscure world may cost us confusion and frustration, and the impossibility of ideal knowledge. But the cost of a perfectly known world might be infinitely greater

Why would “knowing everything” entail knowing the future? Or that there would be no challenges? This seems horrifying only if “knowing everything” about the world entails determinism. Of course, this is not to say that knowledge of indeterminacy, of absolute freedom by itself would be liberating ( after all, what do you do with this freedom?) but at least, that would open up possibilities. It seems to me that you could “know everything” like you instinctively know how to be a good boxer or basketball player. Life doesn’t become more boring having this instinctive ability. They’re still challenges, other players, etc. In the same sense, we could come to “know everything,” i.e the purpose of the human species – whether there is or isn’t and if neither, whether we can truly make a purpose for ourselves that is more than dust in the wind. Or whether the latter is all we can get. Certainly, the knowledge maybe painful but the torment of death, the threat of meaningless would have to be experienced or seen differently. I think, anyway. The “threat of meaningless,” for example, if we know certainly that everything is meaningless can no longer be a threat and what would this entail?

But to go a bit further. Consider the problem of evil. A “solution” I’ve considered for the problem of evil has nothing to do with eradicating it or coming to a theological “understanding” for why it exists but recognizing it. The suggestion here is that part of the problem of evil is that we do not know from whence it came, how to delineate it. For example, we have a legal system predicated on various forms of responsibility, assumptions about the culpability of people for crimes but a science growling in the background that this is all amiss: none of us are doing things of our own volition. Now, we all go on living as if this isn’t a problem. We still get outraged at murderers, sadists and whatever the like and invent ever more clever arguments that allow us to attribute blameworthiness to what are essentially apples falling from a tree. Yet, I hazard the thought that this situation cannot stand and far from entering into a black hole of determinism, we’ll come to a point where we are able to recognize evil as evil: as the pure, free choice of some men to do others harm for the sake of it. In this situation, we have no excuses, nothing to rationalize and explain away – this person is evil out of pure, actual choice. What do we do if this were to come to pass? Is this comforting or terrifying? I choose the latter. In a world where we can recognize evil as choice, we have not eradicated evil. Instead, we have to deal with it, accept it not as something abhorrent in nature, a “defect” of some sort or any numerous other things but an actual, capable choice.

I view ideas about the potential “advancement” of the human species, a “perfect understanding of our world” in the same way. I have sympathies with philosophers that have tried to show that our absurd awareness is a sickness, an illness signifying not the world as it is – truly absurd- but a world from which we have become totally alienated. Our estrangement from the world is not a calling for us to leap from it into a shadowy world of “transcendence” but a calling for a return, a recognition that we have already transcended nature imagining ourselves to be a fiery nothingness haunting it. This negative transcendence, a transcendence that compels us to leap rather than steadily ascend, is a distortion of man’s real relationship to the world – it removes all quality and value from the world and puts into man’s head who then projects it back into a life-less, meaningless void. Nature can only find meaning so long as man invents it but all man has done here is take what is in nature to be solely in himself , strangely imagining ( and it is strange!) that all that goes on in him is somehow not going on in the world.

Of course, we can argue that this is bad faith with Sartre or that it is “eluding” with Camus but the philosophers I’m interested in do not view the human condition as static, or think we have in anyway “peaked” in our development so that our existence is condemned to a debilitating awareness of futility. Neither is the future of the human species envisioned to be paradise on earth – instead, we’re faced with the fact that man underestimates himself and should he come to realize what he is, he has the capability from his own choosing for destruction or ascension. When Barfield says:

The possibility of man’s avoiding self-destruction depends on his realizing before it is too late that what he let loose over Hiroshima, after fiddling with its exterior for three centuries like a mechanical toy, was the forces of his own unconscious mind.

I’m not filled with cheery thoughts. Of course, we can interpret this as another in a long line of lunacy, of the inscrutable grandiosity of man, but all the same, this is just as terrifying to think if we were to confirm the literal truth of what Barfield is here suggesting. After all, if man is this capable of destruction, if the forces of his unconscious mind are really nuclear, recognition of this, in spite of what Barfield says will not only lead to the avoidance of destruction but may hasten it. Barfield, however, is making the valid argument that our ignorance of our own capabilities prevents us from, at the very least, recognizing that we can do something about it – self-destruction is not the only possibility. This “brave new world” is not one of pure bliss as any philosophy that attempts to exalt man is caricatured as but one instead where man cognizant of what he is finds himself with infinite responsibility. But moreover not one that is empty and impotent as we have when we constantly have to “leap” but one grounded in himself.

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3 Responses to The Absurd

  1. Paul Newall says:

    This is a superb post. With regard to the first part, I’m not sure that our understanding of “this essential arbitrariness” has moved on since Ecclesiastes and the preacher says much the same in his discussion; perhaps the only difference is that, in the face of this arbitrariness, Camus urged rebellion whereas the preacher advised living joyfully and following God’s commandments. As you say, if everything is absurd then rebellion is no more or less heroic or meaningful than anything else, including suicide. The latter at least has the merit, according to Kirilov, of refusing to play the game and declining to deceive oneself.

    Your comments on evil are interesting. Perhaps the notion that, in an absurd world, evil actions do not differ in any essential sense from any others is so terrifying that we invent metaphysical structures to avoid it and rescue the “other-ness” of evil? As you note, the problem of evil disappears as soon as we reject this step. The transcendence you mention merely ensures that the problem persists because we separate ourselves from the world and then try to understand our place within it.

  2. Michael S. Pearl says:

    Now posting my comment in the right place (I think and hope) —

    “… if the beginning point of existentialism is this vivid awareness of meaninglessness and indifference …”

    Here are some passages from Man in the Modern Age by Karl Jaspers which are quite relevant to much of what you discuss:

    Sociology, psychology, and anthropology teach that man is to be regarded as an object concerning which something can be learnt that will make it possible to modify this object by deliberate organisation. In this way one comes to know something about man, without coming to know man himself; yet man, as a possibility of a creature endowed with spontaneity, rises in revolt against being regarded as a mere result. … Existence-philosophy is the way of thought by means of which [a] man seeks to become himself; it makes use of expert knowledge while at the same time going beyond it. This way of thought does not cognise objects, but elucidates and makes actual the being of the thinker. … Existence-philosophy may lapse into pure subjectivity. Then selfhood is misunderstood as the being of the ego … Out of a chance-medley with sociological, psychological, and anthropological thought, it may degenerate into a sophistical masquerade … But where it remains genuine, where it remains true to itself, it is uniquely effective in promoting all that makes man genuinely human. … Irresoluteness has become the form of … peace which the general interests of the life-order demand. Hence there is a secret struggle between a will that seeks decision concerning true being and the will to a freedom from all trouble and effort … In this perversion, man turns against liberty. Inspired with a secret love for the being which existed for him as a possibility, he is impelled to destroy it wherever he encounters it.

    And if you think that some – if not much – of this eventually will show up in my own on-going ruminations “About Evil”, you think correctly.

  3. mosaicroy says:

    Right as I was fiddling with it, Michael! Anyway, thank you both for the replies. I’ll think of something to say in response eventually. For now, I’ll gladly read more on Evil at The Kindly Ones and think through this “Perhaps the notion that, in an absurd world, evil actions do not differ in any essential sense from any others is so terrifying that we invent metaphysical structures to avoid it and rescue the “other-ness” of evil? ” a bit more.

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