Who Is Albert Camus?

The most absurd way in which a man can die is in a car accident
-Attributed to Camus


Absurdité, or absurdity, is a situational trait that we often like to regulate into convenient spaces within our lives. We write it into our comedies, raise it out of our children, frown upon it in our working lives; we move it hither and thither until the sobriety of straightforward expectations develops into the illusion of control. We attempt to sequester the absurd to every part of our lives that is less real – less immanent. And yet, the absurd encroaches into every crevice of our existence. Such, to Albert Camus, is the essence of absurdity.

Camus wrote The Misunderstanding in 1943 war-torn France, one year after his famous novel The Stranger and his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he expresses his well-known musing that the main problem of philosophy is suicide, and whether or not life is truly worth living. In this ground-breaking essay, Camus wonders whether there can be a “rationality unto death”, or a series of simply logical propositions that lead to the conclusion that death is not merely unavoidable, but desirable. His conclusion is compelling, deciding that there is value in life, not in absolute terms, but also neither in purely arbitrary terms either. Life becomes a serious search for real meaning couched in absurdity. He sets himself apart in this work from the French existentialists, with whom others often identified him, but with whom he never saw himself.

It is truly telling that Camus wrote The Misunderstanding the year following The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. His depiction of Meursault’s life in The Stranger was one of his strongest absurdist depictions of his literary career, and his musings on philosophy in The Myth of Sisyphus became the very philosophical ideas with which he is most often identified. The Misunderstanding itself exists at the crossroads of the brilliant ideas in those two former works. In The Misunderstanding, Camus seems to make one of his most cogent points about the relationship between death and absurdity.

Like any work of value, Camus’ writing did not exist in a vacuum. He was very much driven by an over-arching political interest that saw his participation in a potpourri of groups from World War II until his death in 1960. Depending upon where and when he was, he aligned himself variously with peace movements in his birth-land of Algeria during the Algerian War, with Communists during the ‘30s, with both pacifists and rebels in occupied France, and with human rights activists throughout the ‘50s. The political impulse was clearly present in Camus, and one must wonder to what extent the ideas of political involvement and the absurd actually coincided in his mind.

Philosopher, writer, activist, and Nobel laureate; pacifist, rebel, man of letters, and man of action; Camus was nothing simply, but rather everything complexly. His ideas are more than mere representations of the world surrounding him; they are exhortations regarding the world surrounding us. They are not artifacts from a dusty history; they are living reflections that carry on to the future. After all, Camus himself did end up dying as a passenger in the very kind of car accident that he reportedly reflected upon earlier in his life. The true embodiment of his absurdism, Camus unquestionably was.

~ Peter August



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