When next you meet an existentialist, ask him what kind of existentialist s/he is. There are at least as many varieties of existentialism as there have been high-profile thinkers propounding it. Several major strains ran through postwar France alone, most famously those championed by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus — who explicitly rejected existentialism, in part due to a philosophical split with Sartre, but who nevertheless gets categorized among the existentialists today. We could, perhaps, more accurately describe Camus as an absurdist, a thinker who starts with the inherent meaningless and futility of life and proceeds, not necessarily in an obvious direction, from there.
The animated TED-Ed lesson above sheds light on the historical events and personal experiences that brought Camus to this worldview. Beginning in the troubled colonial Algeria of the early 20th-century in which he was born and raised, educator Nina Medvinskaya goes on to tell of his periods as a resistance journalist in France and as a novelist, in which capacity he would write such enduring works as The Stranger and The Plague. Medvinskaya illuminates Camus’ central insight with a well-known image from his earlier essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” on the Greek king condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity.
“Camus argues that all of humanity is in the same position,” says Medvinskaya, “and only when we accept the meaninglessness of our lives can we face the absurd with our heads held high.” But “Camus’ contemporaries weren’t so accepting of futility.” (Here the Quentin Blake-style illustrations portray a couple of figures bearing a strong resemblance to Sartre and de Beauvoir.) Many existentialists “advocated for violent revolution to upend systems they believed were depriving people of agency and purpose.” Such calls haven’t gone silent in 2020, just as The Plague — one of Camus’ writings in response to revolutionary existentialism — has only gained relevance in a time of global pandemic.
Last month the Boston Review‘s Carmen Lea Dege considered the recent comeback of the thought, exemplified in different ways by Camus, Sartre, and others, that “rejected religious and political dogma, expressed scorn for academic abstraction, and focused on the finitude and absurdity of human existence.” This resurgence of interest “is not entirely surprising. The body of work we now think of as existentialist emerged during the first half of the twentieth century in conflict-ridden Germany and France, where uncertainty permeated every dimension of society.” As much as our societies have changed since then, uncertainty has a way of returning.
Today “we define ourselves and others on the basis of class, religion, race, and nationality, or even childhood influences and subconscious drives, to gain control over the contingencies of the world and insert ourselves in the myriad ways people have failed and succeeded in human history.” But the existentialists argued that “this control is illusory and deceptive,” an “alluring distraction from our own fragility” that ultimately “corrodes our ability to live well.” For the existentialists, pursuit of good life first demands an acceptance of not just fragility but futility, meaninglessness, absurdity, and ambiguity, among other conditions that strike us as deeply unacceptable. As Camus put it, we must imagine Sisyphus happy. But can we?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.