Critical Essays Camus and the Absurd


To enter into the literary world of Albert Camus, one must realize, first off, that one is dealing with an author who does not believe in God. Major characters in Camus' fiction, therefore, can probably be expected either to disbelieve or to wrestle with the problem of belief. One's first response then, as a reader, might profitably be a brief consideration of what might happen to a character who comes to realize that there is no Divinity, no God. What happens when he realizes that his death is final, that his joys, his disappointments, and his sufferings are brief flickers preluding an afterlife of nothingness? What changes in his daily pattern of work-eat-love-sleep must he now effect? Much like Kafka's Joseph K., the man in question has staggeringly comprehended that he is condemned to an eternal void — and because of no crime. Only because he is a part of a meaningless birth-death cycle is he doomed; the fact of death and his mortality is all. He sees, in short, The End focused on the screen of his future, the screen on which he used to project his dreams and hopes. Hope based on anything superhuman is now futile. He sees an end for him and for his fellowmen. So, what then? Suicide, if all is meaningless? Or a blind return flight toward an external, though ever-silent, God?

This concern with death and its abyss of nonexistence is the basis for most of Camus' literary works. Condemned to an everlasting zero of eternity, Camus' characters often suffer their author's own involvement and anguish; and, for his readers, the recognition of the fact of their own deaths is the starting point for their confronting and experiencing Camus' concept of the Absurd.

As a salvation, however, from despair and nihilism, Camus' Absurd embraces a kind of positive optimism — optimism in the sense that much emphasis is placed on human responsibility for civilizing the world. The fictional characters, therefore, who shoulder their new mortal responsibility, are often characterized as rebels. In revolt from both a cowardly suicide and an equally cowardly faith flight, the new optimism suggests man's returning to the center of a philosophical tightrope above an intensely physical death and, in his revolt, performing precariously. Above the threat of death, in confrontation with death, the metaphysical ropewalker acts "as if" his actions mattered. Obviously they don't in any long-range sense. And, rather than scamper to either the poles of Hope or Suicide, he knows that he will eventually fall, but stays mid-center. Obviously his life, the lives of all men do not finally matter. Death is definitive. But, clown-like, he creates new acts, new entertainments — reaching, gesturing. Exploiting his precarious posture in a new burst of freedom, he restructures his actions, and in vivid contrast to death, he diffuses joy and a sense of ridiculous responsibility.

Walking on this razor's edge of "as if" means that man must act to his fellowmen as though life had meaning; in short, living an absurdity. Knowing that man has only man to depend upon, however, he can take fresh courage. He is now rid of fearful superstitions and questioning theories; he can now discard the religious faiths which assume man is subservient to a Something divine and eternal. Man now has no excuse for failure, save himself. "God's Will" as a pocket excuse for failure is no longer valid. Man succeeds or fails because of the strength, or the lack of it, in himself. Each man is acting as a representative of all mankind; he is responsible for creating peace in the world. No longer will Sunday's prayers excuse Saturday's hates. He is responsible for all and is totally alone. Camus challenges man to do the work which he has hitherto assigned to God.