Albert Camus: Living in the Tension & an Ethical Politics in the Absurd World

albert camus 

The current age is an age of absurdity. In the thesaurus, absurd is defined as “utterly or obviously senseless, illogical, or untrue; contrary to all reason or common sense; laughably foolish or false” (“absurd”). Unfortunately, one need not rely on a dictionary to point out the tension between the way one desires the world to appear and the harsh truth of human existence. Every day one is confronted with reminders that life is full of contradictions and uncertainty; often the approaches to life that made sense even a few years ago no longer create the same opportunities in a fast-paced and ever-changing society. Some scholars, including Jean-Francois Lyotard, have used the term postmodern to describe this era defined by a decline of agreed-upon daily practices. According to Lyotard, this postmodern moment is one in which “the grand narrative of modernity has lost its credibility,” and therefore the question of knowledge is open to debate and disagreement. Whether one refers to this historical moment as an age of absurdity or as postmodernity, life provides ample reminders that human existence is partly defined by opposition and ambiguity. It is within such moments of disruption (and interruption) that one must turn to those who offer guidance for navigating related circumstances; in this case it is the life and work of Albert Camus that provide guidance, insight, and inspiration for living in an age of absurdity. Camus’s insights are especially enlightening for those interested in questions of human communication distinctively, the study of communication ethics. Through his various roles as journalist, playwright, actor, essayist, philosopher, and novelist, Camus engaged a complex world in a variety of capacities and offered an array of insights into and interpretations of his time. This project seeks to contribute to the argument that Camus’s deep ethical commitments allow him to serve as a philosopher of communication for an age of absurdity (Sleasman, “Albert Camus”). To that end, this introduction explores foundational concepts that establish a framework for the remainder of the text. “Even my death will be contested. And yet what I desire most today is a quiet death, which would bring peace to those whom I love.” The word he used in this expression shows his greatness of understanding the absurdity. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Albert Camus declared that a writer’s duty is twofold: “the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance against oppression.” These twin obsessions help explain something of Camus’ remarkable character, which is the overarching subject of this sympathetic and lively book. Through an exploration of themes that preoccupied Camus–absurdity, silence, revolt, fidelity, and moderation–Robert Zaretsky portrays a moralist who refused to be fooled by the nobler names we assign to our actions, and who pushed himself, and those about him, to challenge the status quo. It is essential for us to know whether man, without the help of the eternal or of rationalistic thought, can unaided create his own values . . . the uneasiness that concerns us belongs to a whole epoch from which we do not want to dissociate ourselves. . . . We know that everything is not summed up in negation and absurdity. But we must first posit negation and absurdity because they are what our generation has encountered and what we must take into account.1 (Albert Camus, “Le Pessimisme et le Courage”, Combat 3 November 1944). Despite his popular image, strictly speaking Camus was not an existentialist. His first major philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), was explicitly intended as a critique of existentialism, especially the Christian existentialist tradition of Kierkegaard, Jaspers and Chestov. According to Camus, starting from the premise that nothing in the world has meaning or depth; existentialists proceed, through a leap of irrational faith, to find meaning and depth in it. He thus criticizes representatives of the philosophical movement with which he is most closely associated for “deify[ing] what crushes them and finding reason to hope in what impoverishes them” (MS: 35; E: 112). Although the “absurd”, as we shall see, constitutes Camus’s “first principle”, he nevertheless defines his intellectual programme precisely in contrast with existentialism. In 1943, for example, he declares that the purpose of The Myth of Sisyphus is to define “an absurd way of thinking [une pensée absurde], that is, one delivered of metaphysical hope, by way of a criticism of several themes of existential philosophy”. In 1944 he declares that, although it is a “great philosophical adventure”, he believes the conclusions of existentialism to be “false”; a few weeks later, Sartre characterizes Camus as a proponent not of existentialism but of a “coherent and profound… philosophy of the absurd”. In November 1945, a month after the first issue of Sartre’s journal Les Temps modernes appeared, Camus declared: No I am not an existentialist. Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names associated. We think that one day we may publish a short statement in which the undersigned affirm that they have nothing in common and that they each refuse to answer for the debts that the other may have incurred… Sartre and I had published all of our books, without exception, before becoming acquainted. Our eventual meeting only confirmed our differences. Sartre is an existentialist, and the only book of ideas he has written, The Myth of Sisyphus, is directed against the so-called existentialist philosophers.  By one of the most profoundly influential thinkers of our century, The Rebel is a classic essay on revolution. For Albert Camus, the urge to revolt is one of the “essential dimensions” of human nature, manifested in man’s timeless Promethean struggle against the conditions of his existence, as well as the popular uprisings against established orders throughout history.

Albert Camus was born on 7 November 1913, at Mondovi, a small town in the Bone district of Eastern Algeria. His father, Lucien Auguste Camus, was an itinerant vineyard worker, who had learned to read and write in the orphanage where he had spent his childhood. Camus’s mother, nee Catherine Sintes, could not sign her name on her marriage certificate. She remained illiterate to the end of her life. On 16 October 1957, Albert Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He was the ninth French writer to win it, and the youngest. Only Rudyard Kipling, who had been honoured in 1907, at the age of forty-one, was younger at the time of the award. Camus dedicated his Nobel Prize speeches to Louis Germain, the Primary School teacher who had given him the coaching and encouragement without which, as he recognised, he would not have won the scholarship that enabled him, in 1924, to go to what was then the Grand Lycee d’ Alger. None of Camus’s mature works bears any obvious traces of his poverty-stricken early childhood or of his fairly tumultuous adolescence. In 1943 he wrote in his Carnets that he had spent ten years acquiring something which he thought priceless, a heart free from bitterness, and he never lost the memory of having been poor. His first completed novel, La Mort heureuse (A Happy Death), written between 1936 and 1938 but not published until 1971, eleven years after his death, dwells in some detail on the advantages of being rich. In 1947, in a lively exchange of public letters with the left-wing journalist Astier de la Vigerie, Camus observed that he had discovered freedom not in the works of Karl Marx but in poverty.

It is, perhaps unfortunately, Camus’s most famous remark, more frequently quoted than the closing words of Le Mythe de Sisyphe: ‘The struggle towards the summit is alone sufficient to satisfy the heart of man. We must imagine Sisyphus as happy.’ Camus explained elsewhere what he meant, and his position is not an indefensible one. His mother was still living in Algiers, and went to the market every day to do her shopping. If a terrorist had thrown a bomb and killed her, and if the use of torture might have prevented this bomb from being thrown, then Camus would, in some way, have been guilty of her death. The argument presupposes, of course, that torture does help to prevent terrorist acts. Its usefulness is, perhaps, as suspect as the supposedly deterrent effect of capital punishment. In 1958, Camus recognised this very clearly when he wrote, in his Avant-Propos to Actuelles III, that it had perhaps managed, at the cost of a certain honour, to discover thirty bombs, but at the same time produced fifty new terrorists’. From 1951 onwards, Camus also became increasingly involved in the public quarrels which are so marked a feature of French literary life. Part of the interest which his books aroused in the France of 1945 stemmed from an intriguing contrast: on the one hand, there was Camus the political journalist of Combat, writing in terms of obvious sincerity about justice, freedom and truth; and, on the other, there was the Camus of L’Etranger, Le My the de Sisyphe, Caligula and Le Malentendu, for whom the world was totally absurd. Camus had already, in 1943, begun to put the two sides of his personality together in his Lettres a un ami allemand (Letters to a German Friend), and the process was virtually completed in 1945 with the publication of a short essay entitled La Remarque sur la revolte (Remark on Revolt). In it, Camus defended the existence of certain moral values, and especially that of individual human rights, and a number of ideas which the essay contained recur in La Peste. An exploration of Camus’s understanding of absurdity and of how it can function as a metaphor that guides communicative decision making establishes the background against which he completed his life’s work. For Camus, absurdity was not simply a theoretical concept but part of everyday life; therefore the following section illustrates how he encountered absurdity in his daily existence. Finally, an outline of the remaining chapters provides insight into Camus’s unique contribution to the theory of communication ethics. These steps provide the structure for addressing the central question of this book: How does Albert Camus’s use of the metaphor of the absurd assist one in engaging the contemporary historical moment, a time of narrative and virtue contention, from an existential ethical perspective?

Absurdity as A Metaphor

Fundamentally, Camus understood absurdity as a desire for clear understanding in a world lacking universality and in which contradiction is a given. Such an environment challenges one to make sense of everyday circumstances and to fi nd meaning in existence. It was within “The Myth of Sisyphus” that Camus presented one of his clearest descriptions of an absurd existence; in the preface he wrote, “The fundamental subject of ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ is this: is it legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life has a meaning?”. As opposed to providing an explicit definition of the term absurd in his work, Camus created vivid characters who illustrated the concept. He also provided a broad description of how absurdity surfaces in everyday life; in other words, he painted a picture of absurdity within the human experience. Although Camus himself never truly defined the concept, this has not discouraged other scholars from attempting to fill that void. In November 1942, Camus made the following entry in his notebook:

Development of the absurd:

  1. If the basic concern is the need for unity;
  2. If the world (or God) cannot suffice.

It is up to man to forge a unity for himself, either by turning away from the world, or within the world. Thus are restored a morality and an austerity that remain to be defined. (Notebook IV 41)

The reality of the absurd provides a common theme that serves as a background concern for each of Camus’s works explored in this text. Camus’s use of absurdity as a metaphor becomes a lens through which thinkers today can view their own historical moment. Throughout these early years, Camus’s main engagement with absurdity came through his personal experiences, which would be expanded during his years of academic training and encounters with the ideas of many thinkers, including St. Augustine and Fyodor Dostoevsky. From 1918 through 1923 Camus attended primary school. Upon completion of this phase of his education, he held various jobs, including selling spare parts for cars and working in a marine broker’s office (Cruickshank 13). He completed his formal education in 1936 with a dissertation that addressed the beliefs of Plotinus as they related to those of St. Augustine. Although Camus never embraced the Christian faith, he remained sympathetic to Christian beliefs throughout his life. While completing his education, Camus was also building a reputation for his skills and interest in the theater. In 1935 he founded the Théâtre du Travail (later reorganized into the Théâtre de l’Equipe). Within this context, Camus first adapted and performed works by Dostoevsky. Although it was not published until 1944 or performed until 1945, Camus wrote the play Caligula during this period of theatrical productivity. Camus moved to mainland France in 1940 when he accepted a job working as a reporter at the newspaper Paris-Soir only months before the German offensive in northeast France and the beginning of Camus’s journey into the French Resistance movement in the early stages of World War II. After the German occupation of Paris, Camus remained in the French capital. In 1943 he met Jean Paul Sartre, who would be

a major influence throughout Camus’s life. During this time, Camus edited and wrote for the underground newspaper Combat. Following the liberation of Paris by the Allied forces, Camus offered his vision for postwar France. His commitment to ethical practice was evident when he wrote on September 4, 1944, “The affairs of this country should be managed by those who paid and answered for it. In other words, we are determined to replace politics with morality. That is what we call a revolution” (“Morality” 28). This overwhelming burden that Camus felt for the future of postwar France did not immobilize him or leave him incapable of making a decision about how to act in a given moment. He sought the freedom to respond to the moment as was necessary and rejected being limited by any one particular system of belief. He did not “belong to any school of thought” and, like Franz Kafka, held a “marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy [that was] superfi cial, academic, and remote from life” (Kaufmann 12). Camus had a keen interest in the implications of deeply philosophical ideas revealed in everyday life, an interest accompanied by his commitment to an ethical philosophy. With the publication of The Rebel, Camus’s criticism of Soviet communism brought him into direct conflict with his friend of over ten years, Jean Paul Sartre. By this point, Sartre had become one of many “apologists for Stalin” (Lottman 523), whereas Camus was growing more and more hostile toward communism. “The author’s [Camus’s] unambiguous stand against Stalinism was bound to receive sympathy and approval from conservatives, from anti-Communists of all types” (Lottman 522). Camus worked from a position in a larger context or narrative, and he came to embody the particular narrative that he represented. Camus’s commitment to living out his political and philosophical beliefs despite the absurdity of his historical moment, though it contributed to the eventual break in his relationship with Jean Paul Sartre, demonstrated his belief that words and actions should be consistent with each other. Aronson wrote, “In the end Camus and Sartre split not only because they took opposing sides but because each became his own side’s intellectual leader”. Perhaps in less turbulent times the two could have remained friends, but the politics of their everyday lives and the situation in postwar France made that option impossible. In our current moment, many would simply “agree to disagree,” but in a moment characterized by an “unbridgeable gulf between rationality and existence” (Cruickshank 49), this split further accentuated the absurdity of their time.


When Albert Camus died in an automobile accident on the road back to Paris on January 4, 1960, he was carrying with him a bulging black leather briefcase, the expanding accordion type, with reinforced corners and a three position lock he never used. Caked in mud, it was found on the road near the tree against which the car had smashed. Inside the briefcase, along with personal effects such as a journal, some letters, and a passport, was the manuscript of the novel he had been working on in his recently acquired Provençal retreat at Lourmarin. The book would have been called Le Premier Homme (The First Man). Camus had written only part of the first draft 145 closely written manuscript pages, some eighty thousand words. The final manifestation of absurdity for Camus was the manner in which he died. On January 4, 1960, while traveling with his good friend and publisher, Michel Gallimard, Camus was killed in a car accident that had no apparent explanation (Lottman 698). In some ways it seems appropriate that the life of one who was so deeply influenced by the metaphor of absurdity should be cut off through this tragically inexplicable event.


  1. Anderson, Rob, Leslie Baxter, and Kenneth N. Cissna. “Concluding Voices, Conversation Fragments, and a Temporary Synthesis.” Dialogue: Theorizing Difference in Communication Studies. Ed. Rob Anderson, Leslie A. Baxter, and Kenneth N. Cissna. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2004. 259–268.
  2. Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  3. Arnett, Ronald C. Communication and Community: Implications of Martin Buber’s Dialogue. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

———. Dialogic Confession: Bonhoeffer’s Rhetoric of Responsibility. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.

———. Dwell in Peace: Applying Nonviolence to Everyday Relationships. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1980.

  1. Arnett, Ronald C., and Pat Arneson. Dialogic Civility in a Cynical Age: Community, Hope, and Interpersonal Relationships. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.
  2. Aronson, Ronald. Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  3. Barrett, William. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Anchor Books, 1962.

Pravat Ranjan Sethi is teaching at Central University of Himachal Pradesh. The area of interest is Modern History in particular Nationalism, Philosophical Analysis, Political History & Critical Theory and Social Theory.

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