In the essay An Absurd Reasoning, Camus defines the sense of absurdity that applies to the human condition by specifying that it is not in the world alone or in human beings alone, but in the relationship between them. Human beings have a “nostalgia for order,” an expectation of meaningful pattern, that is inevitably frustrated by the actual messy condition of the world. This category of the absurd becomes for Camus a codeword for all that is disordered and evil that human beings must confront.

Camus had a powerful literary skill for evoking the awareness of the absurd. But if all that he could do was to describe alienation and frustration we might consider him merely a skillful whiner. You might think about contemporaries who articulate this “absurdity” in film or music. Do they have any proposals about the way out? Despite his reticence to use the term, Camus offers a path of hope. Consider how this is set out in slightly different ways in his early and later works.

The early stage: How can I confront the absurd and be honest? How can I, as an individual, maintain my integrity and not give in to the temptation to ignore the absurd or pretend it is not real by escaping into a transcendent standpoint that rescues me from it? The central question is suicide. If life has no plan or values written into it, is it worth the effort to continue to live? Camus responds that (a) If I commit physical suicide I give in to the absurd and surrender my existence. And (b) If I commit philosophical suicide I stop paying attention to the reasoned evidence. I execute my mental self by a leap to an absolute. Camus’ answer is to live, to live guided by three virtues: revolt, freedom and passion. It is the prideful, narrow happiness of the defiance exhibited by Sisyphus.

The later stage: What happens when the individual who wishes to take a stand against the absurd realizes that he or she is not alone? How shall I act toward others around me? If there are no absolutes that I can trust, is it permissible to dominate and use those others who may be less observant, or unsuspecting that their “rules” are not accepted by everyone? The central question is murder – is there any basis for constraint against this? Once again his skill as a writer makes the question come alive. But, he argues, we are not alone. I rebel, therefore WE exist. The very capacities of intellect and self-directing choice which mark us as having human dignity lead us to notice, if we are consistent at all, that our hopes and dreams are not the only ones that count. We cannot pretend that our metaphysical identity as a person is achieved in isolation, or can be sustained in isolation. Instead, there is an essential solidarity against the forces of the irrational and the absurd. It is demanding, and often inconvenient to our selfish inclinations, to remember this. But the realization that we are not alone is the path to our hope. One powerful symbol of this in his writings is the character of Dr. Rieux in The Plague.

Finally, if the path away from bitterness and isolation is one of a “realization” then there is a special role for creativity. The challenge is to expand our imagination. To not settle for what is merely routine or comfortable. To celebrate what is different among us, to reach out to one another in precisely the way that Clamence in Camus’s The Fall fails to do when he passes the suicidal woman on the bridge. Camus always resisted the claim that humans could not succeed at this unless they were guided by a supernatural grace. But he also knew the difference such a grace would make. What would it be like if we gave up our usual defensive positions of holding to comfortable traditions, and we started to pay attention to the actual events and people around us? In The Rebel Camus offers us a challenge. It sounds like too unambitious a move to some, but it is, in fact, not so easy to accomplish. Can we live so that at least we do not contribute to the absurd? Can we live without doing harm?

(November 7 was the 93rd anniversary of the birth of Albert Camus)