When you read the words existential or existentialism you probably think “crisis” next. “Brooding.” “Bleak.” “Not for me!” “When will someone invent a larger ketchup packet?” I understand the thought process. It seems all too natural to limit your involvement with the subject to a vapid BuzzFeed listicle (that may or may not break multiple capitalization rules) before realizing that you are indeed having quite a hard time keeping up with the Kardashians.
Existentialism. Don’t knock it ’til you try it, folks. But what is it? My goal is to answer that as concisely as possible here, linking elsewhere as I see fit. This is Part I, focusing solely on Albert Camus. Next time the focus will shift to Jean-Paul Sartre. Their ideas have changed me.
Who is Camus? I could tell you, but I think the following video does an excellent job. Watch it.
Camus is the man behind an offshoot of existentialism called absurdism. It’s actually quite simple to understand. The absurd is the result of a conflict between our desire for meaning and the lack of evidence of such meaning existing. Or, as he puts it, “The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world” (The Myth of Sisyphus). Our desire and the world’s apparent indifference are irreconcilable, like Ronda Rousey and that woman who kicked her in the face. We’re stuck, just kinda orbiting around on some sphere of Ikea furniture. Someone threw out the directions.
In his book, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus encourages the reader to recognize the absurd and to push on regardless. In contrast, he discourages us from opting out of this conflict through suicide (which is nice of him and certainly a good start). He also discourages us from looking for meaning outside of personal experience, through belief in a deity or deities, for example. (Important: I have nothing against your faith. Also, there are existential philosophers who incorporate faith. Camus does not.) To do as Camus encourages is to revolt, to reject hope. What’s left is to experience things for the experience alone, to continue the futile search solely for the happiness that searching might bring. He asks us to be like Sisyphus, the mythological figure who was forced to roll a boulder up to the top of a slope, only for it to roll back down before his tired eyes. He is doomed to repeat this process for eternity. Famously, Camus states “one must imagine Sisyphus happy” (Sisyphus).
It’s really not that dark. Sure, we are to reject hope, to admit that there’s no inherent meaning in, well, anything. But what we’re left with isn’t so bad. We’re left with a stocked fridge and a chef’s kitchen. No cookbook. No all-powerful Gordon Ramsay being all sweary and stuff. It is up to each one of us. We can create.
If you’re still reading, hey, you might have found something that you’d like to learn more about. You’ll probably seek more material if that’s the case (@ me), so I’ll stop with my explanation and move on. In keeping with what I’ve done so far, I’m going to include a few quotations from Camus’ work that are at first scary or morose and argue their beauty and use.
“To work and create ‘for nothing’, to sculpture in clay, to know that one’s creation has no future, to see one’s work destroyed in a day while being aware that fundamentally this has no more importance than building for centuries- this is the difficult wisdom that absurd thought sanctions. Performing these two tasks simultaneously, negating on one hand and magnifying on the other, is the way open to the absurd creator. He must give the void its colours.”
This one is also from Sisyphus, and it really speaks to my personal biases as someone who identifies as a writer. I’ve always wanted to write a novel, but my desire is always chased by the existential thought: “there are countless books on library shelves, untouched for eternities. Why would anyone pick mine up? Why bother?” Camus’ words in the above quotation calm my mind, stifle my doubt. I must write for the act itself. Whether or not anyone reads is inconsequential. Though, if someone does read, perhaps that’s another experience to soak up for some stranger embracing the absurd. This quotation isn’t just for writers, but all who create: point guards, painters, carpenters, trequartistas. Also, that last line (bolded here) is just ace.
“At that time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowing overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it.”
This quotation comes from Camus’ novel, L’Étranger (The Stranger or The Outsider). The last bit is the most important, for it tells of a certain human resilience and satisfaction. I do not fear what unfortunate events my future might hold. I would adapt. But what’s more, I don’t pine for an extravagant life or tropical real estate. I would get used to that too. I’d still be me. In Camus’ own words, “there’s always something to be thankful for.” Here and now can be good. Be realistic. Do not wish your time away.
“Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.”
Another one from L’Étranger, and I saved this one for last intentionally. It is clearly… abrasive, but I’ve used these words to comfort myself more than once. For example, I don’t love flying. Before a transatlantic flight I was in a text conversation with a friend who also feared flying. The friend tried to make me feel worse, “jokingly.” I replied with the above quotation. It was tongue-in-cheek. I reflected. I believed it. I couldn’t control the plane any more than I could control the “when” or the “how“. So it didn’t matter, nothing did, and that made me feel so much better.
I know it sounds absurd.