“At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.” Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
The Beginner’s Guide to Absurdism is designed to provide a surface-level understanding of the Absurd – a philosophical concept on human existence.
What is the Absurd? Is it any different to Nihilism? And where does Donkey Kong fit into all of this?!
My Beginner’s Guide to Absurdism addresses all these questions – and more!
What is Absurdism?
Absurdism is a philosophical theory on the meaning of life.
Well, okay, it’s a bit more complex than that. Rather, Absurdism is the conflict that arises between our expectations and reality.
Scientists know the how of human existence (i.e. the big bang), but we don’t know the why.
What exactly is our existential purpose?
Humans are pattern-seeking mammals, and we like to find reasoning where possible. The frustration to find this singular meaning is the Absurd.
To quote Camus, it’s ‘the divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints’.
But, to be clear – life itself is not Absurd. Nor are people.
The Absurd is that single moment, the tear in reality one suffers upon realising that there is no objective meaning to our lives. This means that there is no pre-ordained purpose, or explicit reason, as to why we’re here.
Isn’t this just Nihilism?
Nihilism is the negation of all principles, both moral and existential.
Nihilists and Absurdists both agree that there is no objective meaning of life. However, there is a clear difference between the two.
Nihilism: “Life has no meaning, therefore nothing really matters”
Absurdism: “Life has no meaning, but how do we move beyond this realisation?”
For a Nihilist, lack of meaning is the end. On the other hand, the Absurdist looks beyond this lack of meaning.
Upon realising this lack of purpose or meaning, the Absurdist asks the question, ‘well, what now?’
Awareness of the Absurd is simply the beginning point for the Absurdist.
Living an Absurd Life
Albert Camus, the writer and philosopher most closely identifiable with Absurdism, argues that there are three responses to the Absurd – only one of which is correct.
1) Suicide ❌
Upon the realisation that life has no meaning, you could kill yourself.
However, this isn’t desirable.
Socially, suicide is a terrible thing. But on a philosophical level, it doesn’t resolve the Absurd. It simply severs the tie between oneself and the Absurd.This, Camus argues, is not the answer.
2) Philosophical Suicide ❌
Alternatively, you could turn away from the Absurd through what Camus describes as ‘philosophical suicide’.
In short, this is when a person takes a ‘leap of faith’.
Often associated with religion, this leap of faith solves one part of the equation, insofar as the person is now comforted by their own constructed meaning.
However, philosophical suicide is denial.
It’s a confession that one is unwilling to confront the Absurd. And therefore, the Absurd remains unresolved.
3) Revolt through Acceptance ✔️
Once one has experienced the Absurd, it’s difficult to ‘unsee’ it.
Alone, at 2am in the morning, one reflects. In this heightened lucidity, one remembers the enormity of the Absurd – its dizzying, alienating truth.
The third solution is revolt.
How do we revolt? Well, one must first embrace the Absurd for what it is. Accept the inescapable truth that neither rationality nor religion will give you an objective meaning.
Create art that parodies the Absurd condition. Rage against the existential machine. Live life to its fullest, but without ever losing sight of the Absurd (or else you risk philosophical suicide!)
Live in permanent revolt against your condition, but humanely and maybe even ironically!
Examples of the Absurd
The Myth of Sisyphus
The title of Camus’ essay on the Absurd, Sisyphus was also a deceitful King in Greek mythology.
Twice, he cheated death before Zeus condemned him to the Underworld.
From here, Sisyphus was forced to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill for eternity. Every time Sisyphus almost reached the top, straining every muscle of his body, the boulder would roll back to the bottom, and he would be forced to begin again.
How does this relate to us?
Well, we’re asked to ‘image Sisyphus happy’ by Camus. Sisyphus embraces the boulder and his own condition. And in this way, he wins a victory against Zeus once again.
Christopher Hitchens on Fear, Life, and Free Will
I’m not quite sure that Hitchens intended his comments to be an Absurdist revolt (rather, he was speaking on free will).
However, in my view, Hitchens encapsulates the concept of an ‘absurd life’ succinctly – and humourously!
“You’re expelled from your mother’s uterus – as if shot from a cannon – towards a barn door studded with old nail files and rusty hooks.
It’s a matter of using up the intervening time in an intelligent and ironic way – and try not to do anything ghastly to your fellow creatures.” Source: youtube.com.
A rather crude analogy, but it demonstrates the alienation, and eventual emancipation an Absurdist gains from accepting, and subsequently embracing, the absurd.
Donkey Kong (1981)
Hear me out.
Wisecrack runs a YouTube series called 8-Bit Philosophy. It’s an approachable, if simplistic, view of philosophical ideas.
One of their episodes focuses on ‘Why Shouldn’t We Commit Suicide?’ addressing Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus through the lens of the 1981 videogame, Donkey Kong.
Mario must climb a series of ladders in order to rescue Pauline, a damsel in distress, from Donkey Kong – an ape who has taken her captive.
At the end of every level, Mario reaches the top, overcoming a variety of traps, barrels, and fire, only for Donkey Kong to carry Pauline off to another ‘level’.
If Mario, or in this case the player, embraces this reality, they consciously create an Absurd meaning and therefore live an Absurd life.
8-Bit Philosophy does a decent job of explaining complex ideas, and you can watch them all here!
The Beginner’s Guide to Absurdism Recommended Reading
Unsure of where to start with Absurdist literature? These are my top 5 books that either directly address, or contain Absurdist undertones.
1) Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
2) Albert Camus, The Plague
3) Franz Kafka, The Trial
4) Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground
5) Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
Absurdism in Brief
In brief, Absurdism is the divorce between our expectations of meaning and the reality that eludes us. Our innate desire to find patterns in meaning will ultimately be disappointed.
However, this isn’t the end. Absurdism is not Nihilism.
‘Even within the limits of nihilism, it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism,’ Camus writes in The Myth of Sisyphus.
Living ironically, the Absurdist parodies their own condition. They produce art, music, and literature that both celebrates and revolts against their situation.
The Absurdist embraces their Sisyphean struggle. They create their own boulder, and in the seemingly fruitless struggle, they remain content.
If you found The Beginner’s Guide to Absurdism insightful, please do feel free to share it.
And if you have any questions, leave me a comment below!