Protocol #1: Facing the Absurd

I recently finished callback auditions for a theatre show here at Pomona. I felt I performed well, but all I knew for sure was that I’d find out the final decisions sometime the next evening. Until then, the waiting was torture. I’ve often found that people can deal with good news and deal with bad news, but the unknown is the toughest. The potential reactions to absurdism, as Camus explains it, remind me of dealing with good, bad, or the unknown. Camus elucidates three solutions to facing the reality of the world. First, one can find no meaning in life and therefore decide not to live (7). They may also rationalize everything with an overarching “leap”, such as how Kierkegaard explains philosophy through religion (37). Each of these cases is like reacting to good or bad news; knowing something for sure one way or the other—or in the philosophical case, assuming one definitely knows the meaning of life or lack thereof—provides an outcome which ignites a course of action forward. But the tricky part, Camus claims, is straddling the unknown and facing the absurd. 

People crave categories and clear-cut methods to make sense of things, as “a world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world” (6). For example, if I get into the show, hooray! If not, I can move on and audition for other performances (or focus on writing thesis…). But the void of information causes my brain to whirr, left in a liminal space. Camus asks how to contend with this unending feeling of floating in the chaos, swimming in the midst of the absurd, as opposed to choosing to escape from it or taking a leap of faith as a diversion tactic. And he suggests embracing the messiness of life and living passionately.

Physics dictates that entropy is the general trend in the universe—we are always veering towards increasing disorder. Yet humans love to cling to concreteness. We have a “nostalgia for unity, that appetite for absolute” (17), which makes it easier to determine what life is meant to be and how to engage in it. But Camus suggests that mentally festooning to the extremes is not necessarily the right course of action. Why not fully accept that we are in a state of degradation? It’s a matter of being brutally honest with oneself and making sense of reality.

Going back to theatrics, much of comedy is based off the juxtaposition of incongruities, the occurrence when a pattern or usual, expected outcome is replaced by an unexpected action, which catches us by surprise and ensues in humor. Camus asserts that the absurd only exists when a person and the confusing, cold world are in constant engagement and it “relies on their presence together” (30). Like in comedy, absurdity “bursts from the comparison between a bare fact and a certain reality” (30) in that we compare what we expect to happen with the surprise of what actually happens. This principle of comedy is also situational: you need to take the action and its context together for the joke to make sense and be funny, otherwise it is simply an explainable isolated incident. In addition, Camus’s idea that “the cat’s universe is not the universe of the anthill” (17) holds true, not only from species to species but from one individual to another. We each understand the world through our own lenses. A stressor for me, such as an impending audition result, may be a breeze for you, or what you find hilarious might not be my taste, and vice versa. So while we contend with existentialism, in the meantime we can try to find laughter in the unanswerable, chaotic world we find ourselves in.

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York, Vintage International, 1983.

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