Albert Camus and the Politics of the Absurd

Sticking with “The Myth of Sisyphus” for the moment, what would a Sisyphean politics look like? This is not an easy question to answer since the theory of the absurd sets itself against all the narratives that might provide a framework for a particular political position. The absurdist is first and foremost a theorist, not a political agent, and the highest virtue for the absurdist is lucidity, and it is this that undermines the foundations of the narratives so important to political actors.

So what is the political upshot of absurdism? Material for an answer to that question is to be found in an excellent article by Robert Zaretsky. He describes the political turmoil in Algeria at the end of WWII – a situation that Camus had to take a stance on, one way or the other. Here is how Zaretsky describes the outbreak of hostilities between the French, the Arabs and the Berbers in Algeria:

“The killing began in 1945, when Arab nationalists in the town of Sétif held a demonstration marking France’s liberation from Germany. Someone fired a shot; guns and knives replaced banners and flags; rampaging protesters overwhelmed the small police force and murdered more than one hundred French residents. As massacres go, this was especially horrific: women’s breasts were sliced off; men’s genitals were stuffed into their mouths. France’s response was equally appalling: organized repression and vigilante violence seized the region for the next several days. More than fifteen thousand Arabs and Berbers were killed, often in grisly fashion.”

How does Camus (who is both Algerian and French) respond? He can side neither with the Algerian nationalists nor with the French colonialists. He walks, instead, into no-man’s land and calls for dialogue – for justice for everyone within Algeria, regardless of their nationality. Zaretsky describes one public meeting where Camus hoped that a dialogue between the warring sides might begin:

“Camus began to speak: “This meeting had to take place,” he declared, “to show at least that an exchange of views is still possible.” He asserted that he was a private, not public, figure. But with war seeping into the realm of the private, he and his colleagues had stepped forward, in the knowledge that “building, teaching, creating [are] functions of life and of generosity that could not be pursued in the realm of hatred and bloodshed.” We must not deny, Camus continued, historical and demographic facts. In Algeria “there are a million Frenchmen who have been here for a century, millions of Muslims, either Arabs or Berbers, who have been here for centuries, and several rigorous religious communities.” Yet extremists were trying to deny this reality by terrorizing not just the other side, but also the moderate members of their own ethnic groups. If both sides did not open a dialogue, the Frenchman will make up his mind “to know nothing of the Arab, even though he feels somewhere within him, that the Arab’s claim to dignity is justified, and the Arab makes up his mind to know nothing of the Frenchman, even though he feels, somewhere within him, that the Algerian French likewise have a right to security and dignity on our common soil.” If each and every Frenchman and Muslim did not make an honest “effort to think over his adversary’s motives,” the violence would carry Algeria away.”

Zaretsky’s description (assuming it can be trusted) highlights some noteworthy features. Camus doesn’t want to become a public figure. Of course, he was a public figure, but he wanted to think of himself as an individual, not as someone with a particular role to play in a historical movement. He did not want to take sides, but rather wanted to find a way to overcome the opposition between the two sides in the name of justice. This is slightly naive because the idea of justice, with its abstract notion of the person whose dignity must be recognised, although universal in scope is European in origin, and so a victory for justice – were it possible – would not actually be a victory for something neutral.

Restated in the terms found in “The Myth of Sisyphus” Camus position is this: the French, the Arab and the Berber narratives are fictions. People ought to realise that they are mere fictions and stop insisting on them. Certainly no one ought to be put to death for a fiction.

In a similar situation others have seen the need to take sides. In the conflict between the Arabs and the Ottomans over Palestine, T E Lawrence put on the clothes of the Arab, climbed onto a camel, joined the ranks of the Arabs and began killing. For Camus, there is nothing worth killing for. At first sight this seems like a paragon of innocence, but actually it is violent. The insistence upon the old abstractions of the Enlightenment (universal justice and the attendant notion of the unencumbered self) strafe into the rooted worlds of people like the Arabs and the Berbers like unending rounds of machine gun fire.

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Camus or Beuys – What can we learn from a hare?

Nietzsche said “Give me more eyes”. Here are two sets of eyes: Those of the artist Joseph Beuys, and those of the philosopher Albert Camus. Two visions of the world. Which would you say has less need of an optician?

Joseph Beuys’ vision is connected with his experience of WWII. He had been a gunner in the Nazi air force. He had been wounded more than five times, and had come close to death in a plane crash on 16 March 1944 (in which his pilot died), and was later racked with the guilt of having been part of the military machine responsible for the holocaust.

To illustrate the world according to Beuys let me recall his performance: How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. The performance took place inside a small gallery in Dusseldorf in the mid 1960s – a performance seen through the gallery window by people standing outside in the street. Beuys could be seen sitting in the far corner of the gallery with his face covered with gold leaf (stuck on with honey). To the sole of his right foot was tied a heavy iron plate. In his arms he tenderly cradled a dead hare and was seen whispering to it. Then he got up, walked around the gallery, showed the paintings one by one to the hare, explaining them and letting the hare feel them with its paws.

Joseph Beuys explaining pictures to a dead hare

At this point readers of Camus are likely to recall the famous phone booth cameo near the beginning of “The Myth of Sisyphus”. It throws into stark relief the difference between the two visions. Let me quote Camus:

At certain moments of lucidity, the mechanical aspect of [people’s] gestures, their meaningless pantomime makes silly everything that surrounds them. A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive. This discomfort in the face of man’s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this “nausea,” as a writer of today calls it, is … the absurd.

As in Beuys’ performance, here we have someone seen through a glass partition. Because we can’t hear the conversation the person’s gestures are said to appear meaningless, silly and inhuman. For Camus this is not just a fleeting impression, rather it is a privileged moment in which the essential truth about things is revealed – the truth about the essential meaninglessness of reality (human life included). We imagine that things have a meaning, and we habitually talk about them as if they do, but in truth they have no intrinsic meaning. We might feel nauseous at this thought, but after reading “The Myth of Sisyphus” our stomach is supposed to have settled and we henceforth feel at ease living in what Camus calls the desert – a desert where the comforting illusions of meaning have withered and been blown away.

Beuys, of course, would have been appalled if his spectators out in the Dusseldorf street had reacted in the way Camus describes. The honey, the gold, the iron, the window, the dead hare and the other elements of the performance were intended to create layers of meaning, however ambiguous and contentious they may have been. They were meant to prompt a search for meaning and for a deeper engagement with things – not to stress the futility of any such search or the lack of any such depth. The dead hare, for instance, works on a number of levels, one of which comes out in a comment Beuys later made. Talking about our powers of intuition – our sensitivity to how meaningful the world around us can be – he said that hares were probably more gifted than humans, who too often see the world through the narrow slits left by a terrible hypertrophy of the intellect. Beuys had a sense of humour. One of the messages of the performance was that it would be easier to explain art to a dead hare than to most humans, who therefore probably deserved to stay on the pavement outside the gallery.

Camus and Beuys move in opposite directions. Camus is the philosopher – an unrepentant intellectual, and lover of the Truth. Admittedly he turns the intellect against itself, but he insists on keeping the intellect pure and clean and hard. No layer of meaning can stand up to the merciless scrutiny of the intellect. They fall away, revealing reality to be a meaningless alterity – like the shifting, shapeless sand of Camus’ desert. The desert is an inhospitable place, and it takes us away from the comforts of society, but during the cold nights we can warm ourselves with the thought that we haven’t let ourselves be deceived.

According to Beuys’ vision, that insistence upon the priority of the intellect, and that construal of reality as a dumb, inhuman other is the very thing that needs to be addressed, and it needs to be addressed not just for aesthetic reasons but for wider ethical, political and historical reasons. (Let’s not forget that Beuys was also one of the founding members of the Green Party in Germany.) That idea of reality as meaningless objectivity is not unrelated to man’s inhumanity to man. Truth and war and ecological rape have gone hand in hand. If there is to be hope for humanity, that hypertrophy of the intellect needs to be undone somehow – the grip of the intellect needs to be loosened, allowing a deeper engagement with our world – a world that can start to appear meaningful in a myriad ways – ways that involve feeling, intuition and the imagination just as much as the intellect.

To end this juxtaposition of the two visions, it is not entirely ridiculous to say that the difference between Camus and Beuys is seen most starkly in their answer to the question: Do we have anything to learn from the hare?

Camus and the Death of Eros

A few of us are lucky to live in the countryside, and we can do things like walk up the hill on a winter’s morning to gather wood from the forest. It is a habit, but it doesn’t deserve the sort of denunciation that habits get in Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”. Habits, according to Camus (and others) are supposed to deaden and conceal. By contast, my wood-gathering walks enliven and reveal. I guess the reason has to do with the erotic character of the experience – the profound pleasure of walking up the hillside in all weathers and gathering fuel in a way that feels more like an act of respect than one of abuse.

From Camus’ perspective the repetition of the act could only have a negative effect, allowing “the ridiculous character of habit” to set in. But this is wrong. The result is actually a positive one of establishing an identity between myself and this small expanse of countryside. The phrase “I know it like the back of my hand” hints at the way the land almost becomes an extension of the body.

Affirmative experiences like this throw a critical light on developments in modern urban society, where ugliness tends to prevail between the sheen of the shopping malls, and however often someone visits the latter I doubt whether they establish an erotic extension the self. In the city, both the shiny functional order of the palaces of commerce and the chaotic ugliness beyond  are equally alienating, and any discussion of alienation (going back to Camus’ starting point in “The Myth of Sisyphus”) would have to include them.

But where does Camus stand with respect to the de-eroticisation of everyday life? Sadly, he ends up affirming it. The problem goes back to the horrible lucidity that Camus insists on – a lucidity for which all meaning (including the significance of my favourite mountain paths) has to be seen as mere illusion – a whimsical nothingness projected onto bits of inhuman alterity. Meaning falls away, and we are left with a lucid gaze falling on an utterly meaningless, and unerotic, inhuman otherness – reality, according to this unappealing metaphysic.

And nothing could be less erotic than the world of Sisyphus. He, too, has a path up the hillside, but we are led to understand that the ascent of it can never be a pleasure. He has his rock – the perfect placeholder for Camus’ de-eroticised inhuman reality. Those of us who handle rocks know how sensuous they can be, but there is none of that in the myth of Sisyphus. So if we identify with Sisyphus (as I guess Camus wants us to) we end up saying “Yes” to the diminution of the erotic in everyday life, which means affirming an aspect of our alienation.

Why? What’s the pay off for the loss of a more profound engagement with the world we live in? Camus’ answer: lucidity. In other words: our lives are diminished, and we (with our Sisyphean acts of self-denial) have diminished them further, but we still have the Truth. Ah, what a consolation that is!

One-Dimensional Camus?

When all is said and done, despite a penetrating cultural self-consciousness that sees through all the inducements of modern society, does Camus not end up lending support to Herbert Marcuse’s one-dimensional man?

To recap: Marcuse’s one-dimensional men are perfectly adjusted to the status quo – they see nothing beyond the horizons of the given. Of the two dimensions – actuality and potentiality – one-dimensional people miss the latter, and do not see that a very different order of things is both possible and desirable.  In short, they are happy cogs in the social machine.

Admittedly, Sisyphus is far from being an archetypal happy shopper – someone utterly lost in the gaudy play of our commercialised social imaginary – and if such a happy shopper picked up “The Myth of Sisyphus” by mistake he would realise the error before getting to the end of the first page and put the book down again.

That being said, what is the Sisyphean world if not uni-dimensional? If, as Camus says, we are to imagine that Sisyphus is reconciled to his fate, that can mean nothing other than a resounding “Yes” to the alienating social reality that Camus seemed to be so critical of at the beginning of the book.

Following Camus, we end up back with the happy shoppers. Scowling, we will look a bit out of place, but we will go along with the crowd since it seems there is nothing better to do.

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Note: See this article for a good summary of Marcuse’s key idea.