Why live, if we’re going to die?
This was a key question for Albert Camus, a handsome, Nobel Prize winning French philosopher. Camus believed that death steals the meaning from life – what’s the point of living if all that awaits us is a cold, worm-infested grave? God is dead, and an eternal afterlife is longer a possibility. Without religion to save us, how can we live with the pointlessness of existence, with the absurdity of it all?
Lyrical and Critical Essays is a volume of essays in which Camus explores this fundamental question, shedding further light on the ideas expressed in his novels.
While travelling in Italy in 1937, the following reflection encapsulates the problem that Camus was wrestling with:
“Italy, like other privileged places, offers me the spectacle of a beauty in which, nonetheless, men die.” — The Desert
What is the point in such beauty existing, and for us to experience that beauty, if it’s destined to be forever lost? How can we muster the strength to go on in the face of our inevitable death? Camus experienced undeniable natural beauty, but bristled with anguish at its meaninglessness. Things happen, we experience them, and then we die. Metaphysical significance cannot be found in anything.
“The air grows cool. A foghorn sounds at sea. The beams from the lighthouse begin to turn: one green, one red, and one white. And still the world sighs its long sigh.” — Between Yes and No
We’re on a perpetual merry-go-round, with the same tired tune from the same tired speakers, crushing us into relentless anguish and despair.
“His fever sings. He walks a little faster; tomorrow everything will be different, tomorrow. Suddenly he realizes that tomorrow will be the same, and, after tomorrow, all the other days. And he is crushed by this irreparable discovery. It’s ideas like this that kill one.” – Irony
Camus found his answer to the meaninglessness of life in a tenacious, immutable acceptance of our sorry condition. We’re going to die, and there’s nothing we can do to change that, so rather than wallowing in anguish at our situation, why not just accept it? This acceptance is a form of rebellion against the merciless impotency of existence — I’m going to die, but fuck you, I’ll accept it nonetheless.
“At this extreme point of acute awareness everything came together, and my life seemed a solid block to be accepted or rejected. I needed a grandeur. I found it in the confrontation between my deep despair and the secret indifference of one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.” – Death In The Soul
The battle between Camus’ despair of the futility of life, and the indifference of the world, amounts to a decision between acceptance or rejection. Between living fully, or throwing your hands up and committing suicide.
“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” – The Myth of Sisyphus
Why live, if we’re going to die?
Affirming every aspect of our lives won’t necessarily lessen our despair, but we shouldn’t want to lessen our despair, because this is also a part of life to be accepted. Fantasising of another life is a tragedy – our own can be dazzling with the right perspective.
“For if there is a sin against life, it lies perhaps less in despairing of it than in hoping for another life and evading the implacable grandeur of the one we have.” – Summer in Algiers
“I love this life with abandon and wish to speak of it boldly: it makes me proud of my human condition.” – Nuptials at Tipasa
One cannot remove the negative from life without also removing the positive. The negative can only be identified because of the existence of positive. Take away despair, and you must also remove its natural contrast: joy.
“There is no love of life without despair of life.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side
“But if we give up a part of what exists, we must ourselves give up being; we must then give up living or loving except by proxy. Thus there is a will to live without refusing anything life offers: the virtue I honor most in this world.” – Return to Tipasa
“In the difficult times we face, what more can I hope for than the power to exclude nothing and to learn to weave from strands of black and white one rope tautened to the breaking point?” – Return to Tipasa
There’s nothing for it but an unbridled acceptance of everything that happens to us, and by existing in this way, we’re rebelling against the absurdity of our human condition. Shunning the world does nothing to alter its uncompromising indifference; only affirmation can provide us with the determination to continue living.
“If an anguish still clutches me, it’s when I feel this impalpable moment slip through my fingers like quicksilver. Let those who wish to turn their backs upon the world. I have nothing to complain of, since I can see myself being born.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side
Camus found unending solace in natural beauty, and the sensual abilities that allow us to receive the world. Awareness of every spectacular triviality was enough for him, despite their lack of meaning. Simply experiencing the world was the point.
“What counts is to be true, and then everything fits in, humanity and simplicity. When am I truer than when I am the world? My cup brims over before I have time to desire. Eternity is there and I was hoping for it. What I wish for now is no longer happiness but simply awareness.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side
“Millions of eyes, I knew, had gazed at this landscape, and for me it was like the first smile of the sky. It took me out of myself in the deepest sense of the word. It assured me that but for my love and the wondrous cry of these stones, there was no meaning in anything. The world is beautiful, and outside it there is no salvation.” – The Desert
“How many hours have I spent crushing absinthe leaves, caressing ruins, trying to match my breathing with the world’s tumultuous sighs! Deep among wild scents and concerts of somnolent insects, I open my eyes and heart to the unbearable grandeur of this heat-soaked sky.” – Nuptials at Tipasa
Only by living honestly, by accepting our absurd condition completely and without restraint, can we expel the terror of our impending doom. Our efforts should be placed on the body, in our ability to perceive and appreciate the awesome wonder all around us. Only there can meaning be found. Bitter, often uncomfortable, but meaning nonetheless.
“The immortality of the soul, it is true, engrosses many noble minds. But this is because they reject the body, the only truth that is given them, before using up its strength. For the body presents no problems, or, at least, they know the only solution it proposes: a truth which must perish and which thus acquires a bitterness and nobility they dare not contemplate directly.” – The Desert
“It is not surprising that the sensual riches this country offers so profusely to the sensitive person should coincide with the most extreme deprivation. There is no truth that does not also carry bitterness.” – Summer in Algiers
What we need most of all is the fearlessness to accept everything that comes our way, good or bad. We must positively affirm every experience – open our arms to receive it, and be consequent rebels.
“The great courage is still to gaze as squarely at the light as at death.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side
“There are some people who prefer to look their destiny straight in the eye.” – Between Yes and No
Why live, if we’re going to die? Because life can be spectacular with the right attitude. We’ll experience everything that is thrown at us — joy, agony, depression, hope, lust, love, ambivalence — and by accepting all of it, we’re rebelling valiantly against the absurdity and meaninglessness of existence. Only through acceptance can we truly be free.