by Ping-Ko Chiu
— Thinking about The Stranger, Myth of Sisyphus, and The Plague
I was introduced to Albert Camus’ The Stranger many years back. At the time, I saw Mersault’s rejection of social constructs — family, formalities, government, and work — as understandable but lacking practicality. I didn’t know what to do with the feeling of the absurd that Camus is trying to convey. In fact, I had probably confused Nihilism with Absurdism at the time. I did not know that while the two arrive at the same conclusion of a meaningless reality, the ultimate attitude towards this realization is different —The former considers that it is equally meaningless to make sense of individual experiences while the latter sees freedom in the absurd and urges individuals to revolt against the condition. It was only until recently when I read Myth of Sisyphus and The Plague that I see the freedom and revolt that was not obvious in The Stranger.
To think about freedom and revolt in the right context, I had to go back to the absurd in The Stranger. Most people would probably find it hard to associate with Mersault as a human — who can be so calloused to our mothers passing? who can feel no remorse in killing an innocent? Yet, one is sympathetic to some of the absurdity he sees in this world. Some of the absurdity arrives from questioning the purpose of purely human derived constructs such as family and government — Why do we judge those who do not mourn at their mothers funeral? Some are philosophical and born out of our transition into the Nietzschian “God is dead” era — if there is no higher purpose, why “thou shalt not kill”? Either way, one cannot help but to see some truth in Mersault’s reluctance to pretend that these constructs, born out of human tendencies, should be held as holy.
Camus does not intend for us to stop at this feeling of absurd, however. In the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus says “Perhaps we shall be able to overtake the elusive feeling of absurdity in the different but closely related worlds of intelligence, of the art of living, or of art itself.” Art is presented as the escape of the absurd. What does art mean here? Perhaps we should first discern what art isn’t for Camus. Camus distances himself from the other existential philosophers by suggesting that those religious and abstract philosophers suffer from the human nostalgia to explain when met with the absurd — to take a leap of faith towards some form of deity for solace. The Absurd man doesn’t want to go that far, they recognize the limits of reason and stop there, dwell there, and suffer there. From that point on, it is left to art. Art is creation, diversity, extending beyond the limits of reason, “demands of a man and the opportunity it provides him of overcoming his phantoms and approaching a little closer to his naked reality”, “being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum…”, or to “say yes to life” as Nietzsche would put it. One sees, most clearly, this embodiment of art in the myth that Camus has created for Sisyphus. One can only consider the myth tragic if one cannot ignore the human tendency to consider the reality outside of Sisyphus’ own. For Sisyphus, however, his world is the rock, the hill, and himself, and he is living it to the maximum. This is the art of living. It is how one escapes the absurd condition.
In The Plague, Camus gives us more characters that deals with the absurd. He creates a prison of the form of an epidemic, throws people into it, subjects them to common suffering, and explore the various human responses to this shared prison. Through the people of Oran, we see various attitudes towards this shared suffering. Father Paneloux reached out to faith to attempt to grapple with the seemingly pointless violence of the microbe. He comes to the conclusion that, in this absurd condition, either one accepts all good and evil or one accepts nothing at all and reject God. Cottard found purpose in this prison. He was alien to the pre-plague world and found peace in the plague. He saw the shared suffering of all people as an affirmation of his condition. He fails to see that exile is the common human condition and not unique to himself or the people under the plague. Rambert attempted escape but eventually stayed to partake in the shared suffering. He stayed because he would otherwise look down on himself for having stayed complacent to this shared suffering. Dr. Rieux saw that the only thing he could do is to keep on working and “refuse to bow down to pestilences”. He saw that the pestilence will come again and Torrou reminds us that “…each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it.” I see in The Plague, Camus’ call to revolt against our common condition of the absurd. While all characters have different responses to the shared suffering, they are forced to fight against this suffering.
The Stranger describes the common human condition of the Absurd, The Myth of Sisyphus makes the transition from the condition to the attitude that one ought to have against the condition, and The Plague expands upon the attitude by showcasing various characters and their fight against the condition. I have only read these three by Camus. Surely, there are more to come that will change my understanding of Camus’ philosophy even further. I wonder why The Stranger is chosen to be part of many high school’s reading list. Is it simply an invitation to explore more of Camus’ absurdism — A shock to the system that forces one to reconcile with this unsettling view of reality?tags: Book