Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Practice of the Absurd

Something struck me the other day when reflecting on Camus' Myth of Sisyphus. He makes a number of practical proposals for how to live with the insight that life is ultimately meaningless. Some are lifestyles, others are careers. Thus, he can imagine the absurd man as a seducer (Don Juan), but also as an actor and a warrior. He discusses acting quite literally (both in terms of the work and the fame that goes with it). The "conqueror", meanwhile, stands for any historical actor (a general, a politician, or a business executive, could presumably fill this role). Finally, he clearly believes that artists, and especially writers, can live the "truth" of the absurd, i.e., can work without hope.

But what about more conventional, more "bourgeoise" lifestyles and vocations? Is it possible to be an absurd accountant, for example? Or an absurd bus driver? (There is a remark in The Rebel, as I recall, about the difference between the bus driver who can repair the bus and the one who can't.*) Or an absurd doctor or teacher? Can these lives be lived without any assumption that life "means something"? What about being a parent? What, indeed, about being a child? Does becoming a parent or a teacher constitute what Camus calls "philosophical suicide", i.e., does it require a baseless faith in the meaningfulness of existence?

At the time of the publication of The Myth of Sisyphus Camus was married (against his principles, it should be noted). But he did not become a father until three years later.

In any case, it seems to me that participation in institutions like schools and families assume that life means something. I am not willing to grant, in any but a very formal and abstract sense, that this is a philosophically untenable position. (It is perhaps the "form" of a philosophical position to declare ordinary lives untenable.)

Update: "The truck, driven day and night, does not humiliate its driver, who knows it inside out and treats it with affection and efficiency." (The Rebel, p. 293)

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