If Jean-Paul Sartre was wildly popular, his younger friend, Albert Camus, was wildly cool.
Sartre was ugly; Camus, handsome. Sartre loved women; women loved Camus. Sartre was kind of a dick. Camus was cool.
And though Sartre's writings were hugely popular immediately after World War II, they were soon eclipsed in popularity by Camus' novels and essays, which continue to impress readers. The Stranger is currently voted Number 25 in Goodreads' Best Books of the 20th Century and The Plague sits at 124 . . . nothing by Sartre breaks the top 250. The Stranger has sold 6 million copies and The Plague, 12 million.
Albert Camus received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957. Less than three years later, he died in a car accident (or was murdered by the KGB) at age 46.
Between those events, he adapted Dostoyevsky's The Demons for the stage.
The demons in Dostoyevsky's novel were children of Enlightenment rationalists. They had taken the principles of the Enlightenment, elevated their rationality into deities, and reached demonic conclusions, like the ones reached by the objective and detached Alexei Kirilov:
Mr. Kirilov simply collects observations; he does not touch upon the essence of the matter or, as we might say, the moral aspect of it. Indeed, he denies there is any such thing as morality and he advocates the latest principle—total destruction in the name of the ultimate good. Mr. Kirilov has already demanded that more than one hundred heads roll so that reason may be introduced in Europe, and that considerably exceeds the figure proposed at the last peace conference. In that sense, Alexei Kirilov is ahead of everyone.
Kirilov later uses his logic to conclude that he must kill himself to bring about the revolution. His was a "logical suicide" and a major subject of Camus' essay, The Myth of Sisyphus.
Camus: The World Isn't Rational. It's Absurd
“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, that of suicide. To judge that life is or is not worth the trouble of being lived, this is to reply to the fundamental question of philosophy.”
These words stand at the beginning of Albert Camus' philosophy. The question of suicide (and later murder) was his touchstone. For Camus, both questions arose from a problem that he called “the absurd.”
The absurd, Camus said, is the state of existence that is every man's lot because nothing corresponds to his highest yearnings. In order to understand what Camus is saying, consider how ridiculous it would be if there was no such thing as food, but we had an appetite for it. At some point, someone would become aware of the odd juxtaposition of appetite and no food, and say, “What's going on here? Why do we have an appetite if there is no such thing as food to satisfy it?” That's the same thing Camus said about man's desires and dreams. Every man hopes, but there is nothing to satisfy his hopes. Man naturally harbors desires, but there is nothing to respond to them. Man is like an abandoned baby crying to an oak tree for milk. That, Camus said, is absurd.
At the end of The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus meditates on the “absurd hero” Sisyphus, a character from Greek mythology. Sisyphus was a crafty man who repeatedly betrayed and disobeyed the gods. As punishment, he was sentenced to an eviternity of rolling a huge rock to the top of a hill. Every time he got the rock near the top, it would roll back down. Sisyphus would then have to walk back down the hill and start pushing the rock up again.
Camus' meditation centers on Sisyphus' mindset at the times he walks down the hill to get the rock after it rolls down. During these relatively leisurely moments of reprieve from pushing the rock, he can reflect on his condition:
“I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness.”
This, Camus muses, is when Sisyphus can think about his horrible state of existence. It's in the reprieve that Sisyphus has the leisure to see the acuteness of his quintessentially absurd existence: The aspiration to get the rock to the top and its predestined frustration. The myth is tragic, Camus explains, but only because its hero, Sisyphus, is conscious of the absurdity of it all.
But Camus also says that Sisyphus is happy because he is aware of his tragic situation. He understands his fate and understands he can't avoid it, so he ceases to expect that he'll ever succeed in getting the rock over the top. In other words, he negates all hope. It's frustrated hope that makes the punishment hard, Camus says, so if hope is negated, the torture ceases.
And then Sisyphus can roll the rock up the hill, concentrating all his effort on it, resigned to the fate of it rolling back down, but happy because he stands above fate by recognizing it for what it is: absurd.
Camus and Dostoyevsky Rejected The Enlightenment
Camus' philosophy of the absurd is, of course, a flat-out rejection of Enlightenment rationalism, just as Dostoyevsky's fiction, especially The Demons, was.
And even though neither Camus nor Dostoyevsky was an "existentialist" in the sense defined by Jean-Paul Sartre (which I call an "extreme existentialist"), they recoiled against the extreme essentialism, which was embodied by Enlightenment rationalism, that was the mark of modernity.
In response, Dostoyevsky painted the ludicrous destruction born of Enlightenment rationalism and Camus pointed to the absurdity of existence and the corresponding vapidity of an Enlightenment mindset that was naively oblivious to it.
Camus was the Founder of the Postmodern School of Absurdism
Folks can disagree that Camus was the founder of the Absurdism school of philosophy. Maybe that distinction belongs to Kierkegaard.
Absurdism also probably isn't a "school" of philosophy, but it's at least a classroom, or maybe a patio of, the existentialist school.
And I'm not sure anyone else considers it a "postmodernist" line of thought, though it clearly is, if "modernist" means Enlightenment and rationalism, which are the things rejected by postmodernists.
But here's perhaps the most striking thing about Camus' absurdism:
Who the frick ever told him in the first place that the universe is rational?
Camus' philosophy is so common-sensical, why did he need to write a philosophical essay during the ravages of World War II to explain it to everyone?
Was anyone thinking, "Hey, the world is gripped in total war and the Nazis are slaughtering Jews by the millions, and everything makes so much sense, especially after the rational serenity that was World War I"?
The idea of rational existence should've been as effectively destroyed by the world wars as the 14th-16th centuries destroyed the idea of the Tao.
But it was still persisting. Idiots were still putting their faith in rationalism.
And even after the world wars, Fascism, the savagery of the USSR, and the Chinese Communist Party, we continued to trust in rationalism.
To this day, we continue to put our faith in rationalism, including experts who can think our cultures out of the morass we are sinking into.
Even Camus approached absurdism with rational discourse, reaching a (not entirely convincing) rational conclusion for not committing suicide: to wit, suicide would be surrender to the absurd. A true man should rise and fight, even though he can't win.
Absurdism is a Rejection of Left Hemisphere Hegemony
All of us occasionally behave like William Faulkner, who would supposedly get drunk, stumble into his Oxford, Mississippi backyard, and shake his fist at the heavens in irrational defiance. We all have gotten frustrated at the screaming indifference of the universe. We all intuit that things are irrational.
But then we behave like things are rational and we can think our way to them.
It's because we live in a left-hemisphere culture.
The left hemisphere is the hemisphere of explicit thought, of rationalism. It values what it can know: grasp, use, and control, and it puts little, if any, value on things from the right hemisphere, like intuitive wisdom, its ability to appreciate paradox, and respect for the irrational.
And then when a thinker like Camus comes along and shows that the left hemisphere is missing something--that the right hemisphere is still relevant and the world isn't only a batch of essences that we can pick up and study and use to reach logical conclusions--we're charmed: mesmerized, even.
And we buy his books by the millions and give him the Nobel Prize.