Does Camus Speak to Us Now?

I just finished re-reading The Myth of Sisyphus for my philosophy book club. It has been almost twenty years since I last read it. When I read it before I thought it was brilliant, a cri de coeur for everyone to go out and live an authentic life. Today it doesn’t feel nearly so effective. No doubt some of that is due to changes in myself but there are still some exogenous factors that seem worth exploring.

My first theory was that Camus is too tied to a specific time and historical setting. He wrote in the middle of World War Two, a war that almost defines the absurd. As Adorno once said, there can be no poetry after Auschwitz. For an existentialist there can be no life that doesn’t consider suicide and face the absurd universe head on after the searing experiences of World War.

Then I considered that his argument is only effective for those who are ready to accept it. Perhaps there is a certain psychological state that the reader needs to be in to see the full force of Camus’ arguments. Maybe this is why the absurd seems like the perfect adolescent philosophy. See Holden Caulfield and Paul Goodman. Another group that seems particularly receptive to the absurd message are the religious. The form and style of the Myth of Sisyphus reminds me a lot of the mystical writings of various Christians like Meister Eckert or Pseudo-Dionysius.

My next thought, and the one that feels closest to a possible answer, is postmodernism. Perhaps Camus and the absurd are a relic of the modern era when there was a general consensus, a grand narrative, of enlightenment and human melioration to believe in. Although Camus rejected the meaning of human life he was living at the end of a time when a meaning to human life was still a live question. Today, in the postmodern world, there is no consensus that meaning exists.

On the one hand this may be considered to be the triumph of Camus’ existential absurdism, everyone is now in the middle of an absurd world that seemingly can’t be escaped. It is the impossibility of escape that makes reading Camus so difficult. The idea of revolt against the absurd seems woefully underdetermined. I guess this means I need to keep reading The Rebel if I really want to find an answer.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.