My interest in Absurdist literature and Albert Camus led me to email the blogger Robin Bates, author of the blog BetterLivingThroughBeowulf.Com, and ask him about these subjects. Below is his reply:
Albert Camus was a superstar during his life, in part because he summed up intellectuals’ distress over a world
- which old certainties seemed to be vanishing away
- when religious belief was on the decline
- after a second world war
- now with an atom bomb
Existentialism has some connection with the theater of the absurd. If there is no god, the reasoning went, then our lives have no ultimate meaning and our lives are absurd. As put by some: We are just a chemical reaction that occurred on a small pebbling hurling through the vast reaches of interstellar space, and an encounter with a large enough meteor would put an end to everything in a moment. Existentialism was a response to that bleak view of the world.
It’s always useful for me to remember that existentialism has the word “existence” at its core–it’s a philosophy that directly addresses existence questions, such as
- why are we here?
- where did we come from?
- why do we die?
- what is the meaning of our suffering, etc?
If there is no meaning to life, then it shouldn’t matter if Meursault shoots the Arab in The Stranger. In The Plague, such a sickness causes us all to question the meaning of life. Is there meaning in pushing a rock up a hill over and over, given that this could be a metaphorical expression of many of our lives.
Existentialists traced their thinking back to a number of others, including
- Dostoevsky (especially the Grand Inquisitor chapter in Brothers Karamazov),
- Nietzsche (wrestling with the death of God),
- Kafka, and
- Kierkegaard (Christian existentialists look to him).
The hard-boiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler have been described as existential, with the private eyes seeking to solve sordid crimes, even though the world won’t be that much of a better place even if they are successful. “You’re just a grubby little man in a grubby little world,” one villain tells the detective in Murder My Sweet. In The Maltese Falcon, when pushed to defend why he does what he does, Sam Spade replies, “When you’re partner dies, you’re supposed to do something about it.” It didn’t matter that his partner was a sleaze.
And that gets at one of the existential answers, one that existential authors like Ernest Hemingway also arrived at. If there’s not greater meaning [in life], then you determine a meaning and then you dedicate your life to that meaning. Sisyphus’s life has meaning because he dedicates it to pushing the rock up the hill, even though from another vantage point it’s all absurd. In fact, certain existentialists saw a kind of heroism in dedicating efforts to something which might be absurd.
There’s not much heroism to Vladimir and Estragon waiting around for Godot (God?) in Samuel Beckett’s play–so there’s a thin line between absurdism and existentialism.
Now, there are Christian existentialists, with the apparent absence of God from the world requiring a leap of faith (Kierkegaard). Existentialism is often seen as a very individualist philosophy, which is why it has fallen out of favor with some. After all, as soon as you start talking about families and communities, individual searches can seem somewhat selfish and self-absorbed. But there’s no doubt that existentialism has had a major influence on world literature. A whole generation of young people looking for meaning saw Camus as their spiritual guide.