“If I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers. I can sketch one by one all the aspects it is able to assume, all those likewise that have been attributed to it, this upbringing, this origin, this ardor or these silences, this nobility or this vileness. But aspects cannot be added up.” — Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus’s treatise on the absurd, Camus wrote about the conflict between what man wants from the universe – order and meaning – and what the universe is – chaos -, which is what he referred to as “the absurd”. This is fundamentally why he rejected the label of “existentialist” – he felt that existentialists fell into the trap of accepting the lack of order or meaning, but then seek to find meaning anyway. He also rejected, firmly, the notion that acceptance of the lack of meaning left suicide as a tenable alternative to living. Instead, he posited that one could, and should, accept that there is no meaning, but that, armed with that knowledge, we can then proceed to live a full, meaningful in its own way, even happy, life. Sisyphus’ endless task of rolling a rock up a hill when it keeps coming back down was used by Camus as a metaphor for humanity – we struggle without purpose, but once we accept that, we can find happiness. In some respects not all that far from Taoism, and in my own mind, still not terribly far from the existentialists.
Albert Camus, photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson – borrowed from the Encyclopedia Brittanica.