Camus and the Absurd

Albert Camus

There was a lot of absurdity in Camus’s life. When he published The Stranger in 1942, France was occupied by the Germans. Even though it was an indirect rebuke of the Vichy government, among many other things, the German censors let it go. Camus had his Goya and Velasquez mojo working, so Vichy and the Nazis didn’t see what he was up to. Nor did they know about his work for the Resistance, and Combat, until it was too late.

It was absurd that Camus died in a car crash at the age of forty-six, just three years after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was absurd that the manuscript of his last novel, The First Man, was found in the mud near the wreck and published in 1995 by his daughter. I wrote a review of the book when it first came out, for an absurdly small newspaper in the mountains of North Carolina. I imagined then that the act of writing it, given the size of the audience, was an absurd gesture which somehow gave the whole thing some fleeting dignity.

What was far from absurd about Camus was the fact that he changed with the times, with the evidence on the ground. He was almost invariably ahead of the curve, knowing when a movement, a philosophy, a school of thought had lost its authenticity, its independence, its vital core. And he loved the sun. He loved women. He loved living in the present, in the body of the moment, next to another body.

Camus said:

“We have exiled beauty; the Greeks took up arms for her.”  


“We turn our backs on nature; we are ashamed of beauty. Our wretched tragedies have a smell of the office clinging to them, and the blood that trickles from them is the color of printer’s ink.”

He warned about relying too much on the theory of the absurd:

“Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful.”

Camus did his thesis work on Plotinus and Augustine. But here, I think he sounds like Spinoza and a bit like Pascal:

“I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I cannot know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms. What I touch, what resists me–that I understand. And these two certainties–my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle–I also know that I cannot reconcile them. What other truth can I admit without lying, without bringing in a hope I lack and which means nothing within the limits of my conditions?”

But, finally, I think, Camus preached acceptance, amor fati, like Nietzsche. Though, unlike Nietzsche, he could actually live out his Yes, seek pleasure in the sun and bodies and motion and time.

“Outside of that single fatality of death, everything, joy or happiness, is liberty.”

Is it absurd to think at least some of that difference comes from geography? Climate? Certainly, the different eras had much to do with it.

Is it also absurd to put Camus in my pantheon? To even have a pantheon?  Among the greats, the painters, poets, composers and philosophers of genius . . . A complex question for the self. And a complex and resounding No as answer.


Camus and the Absurd
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