By Albert Camus
Everyman Library, 1982, 116 pages
This 1942 classic is about a man, Meursault, who shoots an Arab eight times without premeditation because he, Meursault, is overcome by the heat of the Algerian sun. He is unable to explain what he did and is sentenced to death.
The book received many interpretations, including it being (1) a psychological exploration of Meursault’s mind, a mind developed during an unfavorable upbringing, (2) a thriller portraying an existential philosophy, and (3) as Camus himself claims, Meursault is a man who is “condemned because he doesn’t play the game. In this sense, he is an outsider to the society in which he lives, wandering on the fringe, on the outskirt of life, solitary and sensual.” By “playing the game,” Camus means inventing reasons for one’s thoughts and behaviors, even life itself, which are untrue, because people really don’t know why they act as they do and what is the meaning of life; so they invent conventions and values that are not related to reality or how they really feel. But Meursault insists upon being honest, doing and saying only what he knows to be true, not what people want or need to hear. Thus, despite the conventional requirement to cry at his mother’s funeral or show regret for killing a man, he doesn’t display these emotions because he doesn’t feel them.
Thus, Camus is dramatizing the idea of the “absurdity of life,” that life has no known meaning; people are unable to discover the true purpose and design of anything, and the explanations they give may make them feel good, but are not true. People insist on living a life ruled by the laws of morality, of “right” and “wrong.” But Meursault rejects morality and lives a life based on “truth.”
Camus, of course, was not the first to notice that people are unable to know life’s purpose. Many others said this long before him. The ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, for example, tells of the futility of life: a man is punished by the gods by needing to push a huge bolder up a steep hill daily, but after the bolder reaches the top, it rolls back down. The fourth century BCE Greek philosopher Plato told about human ignorance in his parable of people living in dark caves, unable to see the light of the sun. The author of the biblical book Ecclesiastes mentions all of the activities that people think are meaningful and calls them “vanity,” using a Hebrew word havel, which literally means a puff of air. The book ends with advice to stop searching and just do what God orders to be done. Similarly, the author of the biblical book Job describes Job and his friends trying unsuccessfully to explain why bad things happen to good people and concludes with God’s voice appearing to Job within a stormy whirlwind and telling him that his concept that the world functions according to the rules of morality is a fiction; the world functions with violence according to God’s unknown plans where animals tear one another to eat, where innocent children die, where good men and women suffer.
In his The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus offers four solutions for people who recognize the absurdity of life. The first takes Don Juan as an example: reject the notions of sin, damnation, and salvation, and seek the enjoyment of sex and other sensations. The second uses the actor as a paradigm: seek to enjoy every role you play with intensity as you encounter new people and experiences. The third looks at the conqueror: know that conquests are impermanent, but enjoy the pleasure of the quests. The last is the creative artist who knows that he can’t change the world, but enjoy what he can do. In short, an intelligent person who sees the absurdity of life seeks what pleasures he can obtain while he is alive, without feeling guilt.
Victor Frankl describes it best in his Search for Meaning, his description of horrendous and purposeless life in a Nazi concentration camp. He discovered that people can keep themselves alive if they have a sense of meaning. His hope to reunite with his wife kept him alive during his incarceration even though he didn’t know that she was already dead. Thus, although life is absurd, for it lacks any purpose that people can understand, people should find their own meaning, purpose, and enjoyment in life, even if it is unrelated to reality and untrue.