The absurdist philosophy of Albert Camus held that life had inherent worth, even if it had no inherent meaning – a notion that has important parallels in approaching depression and suicide.
But for the absurd existence of a tree, Albert Camus may or may not have celebrated his 100th birthday last week. That might seem a glib way to reference a man’s tragic death, but somehow, I think Camus would have approved. He may even have thought it particularly apt that, given his philosophy, he should have his existence so abruptly and randomly snuffed out.
A French-Algerian novelist, playwright, journalist, essayist, philosopher and revolutionary, Albert Camus is a hero to me. Without any hyperbole or exaggeration, his words – and the fervid thought behind them – changed my life for good. The ambiguity of that last word is deliberate. It may seem odd to say my life was changed for the good by someone who held that life was meaningless. But that is the point. For Camus, life is good precisely despite its meaninglessness.
When I was ten or eleven, I discovered to my horror that a couple of my classmates (Iron Maiden fans who drew devils on their copybooks) didn’t believe in God. I knew they must be wrong, because without God, how could life have any meaning? And if it had no meaning, what would be the point in continuing to live? But by my late teens, I found my own faith waning, and suddenly that question became crucially real to me.
At seventeen, I was introduced to Camus through his most famous novel, The Outsider. At first it unsettled me, but as I became more familiar with his work, I understood how he was tackling my dilemma, a dilemma we all face. He opens The Myth of Sisyphus by stating: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
The existentialist philosophy with which Camus was often associated, concerned itself in part with the irreconcilable conflict between our natural, inevitable demand for a meaning to life, and the universe’s equally inevitable silence to that demand. However convinced we are that there must be a reason for us to be here, there is – beyond our own human constructs of religion – no such reason to be found. This unsolvable double-bind is what existentialists call the absurd, and it may at first seem to lead to despair and nihilism.
But not for Camus. It is because of how he confronts this “one truly serious philosophical problem” that I say his words and thoughts changed my life for good and for the good. He rejected his existentialist label, in part because what he concluded from the absurd was very different from the traditional existentialist conclusion. For Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialists, the absurd was an end: the world was reducible to nothing, human life and existence once analysed were meaningless, and that was the end of the story – an end that itself embodied this very absurdity.
For Camus, however, life begins – not ends – with absurdity. To live one’s life in spite of its inherent meaninglessness constituted a revolt against the absurd, and emphasised the highest quality of the human individual. In this, he destroyed the assumption that life’s inherent worth was dependent on life’s inherent meaning. In that revolt, we create our own meaning, and so overcome the despair and angst that might otherwise result from the absurd. He writes: “The true greatness of man is to fight against that which is greater than he”.
Depression and The Absurd
There is a parallel here with the mental health issues that I have written about in the past. In the last week or so – the week of Camus’ centenary – there have been some extraordinary and courageous testimonials in the Irish media from high-profile men about their struggles with mental health issues. Radio presenter John Murray returned to RTÉ after seven months off-air due to an “undisclosed illness” – and opened the show with a frank discussion about the difficulty of his struggle with depression. When Cork hurler Conor Cusack described his own breakdown as “the crack to allow the light in” that helped him face his suicidal depression, he was speaking of a similar experience to Camus’ encounter with the absurd: “It happens when the stage-sets collapse… It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows.”
What follows is a choice. The absurd person or the depressive person can succumb to the absurdity or to the depression (which at the extremity amounts to suicide), or they can revolt: face the reality of the absurd or the depression, and continue to live anyway, in spite of it. Camus does not deny it is a struggle – his exemplar of the absurd person is the mythical Greek king Sisyphus, condemned for eternity to roll a boulder up a mountain only to watch it roll down again. But he does hold that life’s worth and happiness exists in the authentic awareness of that revolt. What Camus shows – to the absurd person, the depressive person, the suicidal person – is that life does not need meaning to have worth. “That revolt gives life its value.” he writes, and concludes that “the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
In facing the absurd, Camus finds not nihilism but authentic happiness, happiness without hope, happiness simply in the present moment. That moment, that very act of being, that experience of simply existing is reason enough to live. The moment does not have to mean anything – that it is is enough. “If there is a sin against life,” Camus writes in Summer in Algiers, “it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.” It is no coincidence that many of the writings where he gives the most eloquent voice to life’s meaninglessness are also replete with vivid sensuous details of living – the blue and gold of the Algerian sky, the straggling honeysuckle gracing an ugly house, the deep, clear water in the bay at the end of the day, the simple pleasure of resting one’s head on a lover’s stomach. “In the midst of winter,” he says in Return to Tipasa, “I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as… in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.
In my Existentialism class at college, we barely touched on Camus. He denied he was an existentialist, others denied he was a true philosopher, since his thought was subjective and emotive, not objective and logical. Still, I chose to write my thesis on him because I felt more profoundly affected – subjectively and emotively – by his writing than by anything else in my course. (Also, I was perhaps drawn to a thinker who elucidated his thought not in dry academic texts, but artistically and aesthetically in novels and plays.) His may not have been philosophy in the academic sense, but it was a philosophy, a personal ethic by which to live. What I found in Camus was what I had been looking for when I chose to study philosophy – that it would be a guide to life and how to live it authentically. Camus offered me that, and – often in the face of fierce criticism – he exemplified it himself: philosophically, artistically, politically and personally.
“Men must live and create,” he wrote in his Notebooks. “Live to the point of tears.”
A Happy Death
At the moment of his execution in The Outsider, the anti-hero Meursault “felt ready to start life over again”. But aware of that impossibility, instead “for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe… I was happy still.” In January 1960, Camus decided on a whim to take a lift to Paris with his friend Michel Gallimard rather than take the train with his family. When, with his unused train ticket in his pocket, the car hit a random tree, I imagine that – had he time to do so – he too would have considered it an absurd but happy death.