Friday, November 30, 2012

Existentialist or absurdist? Understanding Camus


Albert Camus/From Wikipedia
Albert Camus consistently rejected the label of “existentialist” for himself, preferring that of “absurdist.”

I’ve always thought that, in part, there was a jealousy dynamic involved. He didn’t want to be under the “umbrella” of the same descriptive label as was Jean-Paul Sartre. This parallels why I see Igor Stravinsky not wanting to be called a “neoclassicist”; that label was already hung on Sergei Prokofiev; see here for more on that.

That said, it’s arguable that there are differences between Camus and Sartre, and that, as well, Camus knew his own writing better than anybody else, and should be allowed for his own labeling. (Exactly the same argument applies to Stravinsky vs. Prokofiev and, in fact, I have a similar blog post up.)

Fortunately, Wikipedia has a very good page on absurdism. The best part is that it offers a nice comparison chart of basic issues versus both secular existentialism (Sartre) and religious existentialism (Kierkegaard), as well as against nihilism.

I like absurdism because it sees more grays and fewer blacks-and-whites in life. But, it’s not nihilistic, which, well, sees all blacks!

Versus existentialism in general, absurdism says life may have meaning, not that it necessarily does. But, more “positively” than secular existentialism, it also says that the universe may have inherent meaning, but we can never know that.

That said, I’m not sure how much Camus believed that, and he wasn’t the only literary or philosophical absurdist, to be sure. Personally, I’d nuance that statement to say, “I don’t think the universe has inherent meaning, but I can’t prove it doesn’t.”

Also, versus both types of existentialism, absurdism says, don’t expect any guarantees, even on an individualized attempt to create personalized meaning out of life.

That, of course, was part of Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus.”

In turn, in that book, he first articulates the philosophy of revolting against the absurd, which finds its ultimate articulation in “The Rebel.”

Here is where Camus and Sartre parallel each other on the issue of “authenticity.”

For Sartre, it’s about being authentic by creating an authentic meaning for life. For Camus, it’s about the authenticity of one’s revolt.

And, as a result, Camus tells us that a life without hope is not necessarily a hopeless life.

And, along with Camus’ general terseness of writing, that’s part of why I admire him as an author in general and definitely hold him on a higher level than Sartre. A play like “No Exit” aside, Sartre simply doesn’t seem to have a visceral grasp of modern absurdity the way Camus does.

For additional thoughts on and interpretation of Camus, not necessarily agreeing with what I have written, see this site from Swarthmore. For some of Camus’ pithier insights, see this page of quotes.

And, go here for my thoughts on Camus' birth centennial.

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