Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus and the Absurd
Born in Mondovi, Algeria, to a French family, Albert Camus (1913–60) would make his mark as a philosophical novelist and essayist. At the age of seventeen he contracted tuberculosis, which effectively ended his playing goalkeeper for the football team at the University of Algiers. It also caused him to pursue his studies part-time, and he took odd jobs including working as a private tutor.
He joined the anti-German resistance in Paris during World War II. His most well-known writings include the novel
Sisyphus was a figure from Greek mythology who was condemned by the gods to push a rock up a mountain for all eternity. As he gets the rock to the top it rolls down again, and he must start over. Albert Camus saw the parallels between Sisyphus and the workman of his day spending time at the “same tasks” every day.
As part of his involvement with the resistance during the war, Camus edited an underground newspaper,
At that time he made the acquaintance of Jean-Paul Sartre. The two became habitués of the Café de Flore on the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris, where talk of politics and existentialism flowed freely. Camus made frequent stops in the United States, where he lectured on French thinking. He also voiced strong criticisms of Communist ideology, which led him to separate from Sartre.
Human rights became his focus in the 1950s. He protested Soviet oppression in Eastern Europe. He was also a vigilant pacifist and voiced his opposition to capital punishment around the globe. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, not for his novel
Camus died suddenly in a car accident on January 4, 1960. The train ticket found in his pocket might suggest that he had planned to travel by train but changed his mind. Oddly, Camus had uttered a remark earlier in his life that the most absurd way to die would be in a car accident.
Camus describes the absurd both as the human condition and as “a widespread sensitivity of our times.” While several of Camus's works deal with the absurdity of human existence,
In an essay entitled “An Absurd Reasoning,” Camus wrote: “This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.” But it's what Camus does with the absurd that makes up the most interesting part of his philosophy. It would be one thing to recognize our human condition but suggest nothing to do in response to that condition. Camus does both.
Does existentialism in the twentieth century extend beyond France?
Yes, in the twentieth century existentialism infiltrated American art forms. For one, Herman Hesse's 1928 novel
He does advise that you not run from your human condition. You should not commit suicide. Instead you must embrace the absurd. He calls keeping the absurd alive an “attitude of permanent revolution.” He writes:
Like the heroic doctor in his novel