Albert Camus wrote in his journals that if he ‘had to write a book on morality, it would have a hundred pages and ninety-nine would be blank’.
On the last page he said he would write, ‘I recognise only one duty, and that is to love’. But Camus didn’t tell us (at least not directly) what love is, or how to understand our duty to it.
What he did write about was a way of understanding our struggle in an absurd world as an act of rebellion. And what is love if not an act of rebellion? Even the very best of lives will end in death, with no shortage of suffering beforehand. And then there are the rest of us: condemned to death as much as to life. How do we live with this? What makes it worth it? Camus’s answer is rebellion; in art; in beauty, and in love.
While revolt and freedom are familiar themes in Camus’s work, passion is the third consequence of the absurd.
Unlike Hamlet, for whom ‘to be or not to be’ was the prevailing question, and inaction the prevailing behaviour, Camus tells us the ‘whole question’ is ‘whether or not one can live with one’s passions, whether or not one can accept their law, which is to burn the heart they simultaneously exalt’. Life for Camus, like art, beauty, and love, is a call to action.
It is a way of staring our inevitable annihilation in the face and choosing a life that’s worth the price we pay for it. While revolt and freedom are familiar themes in Camus’s work, passion is the third consequence of the absurd. Negation is not enough. Nihilism is not a victory.
On realising the world has no meaning to give to our lives, it is passion that enables us ‘to take up the heart-rending and marvellous wager of the absurd’ and create meaning ourselves; to bring into existence something that hasn’t been before. Love is a form of art and, through it, a means of scaffolding a future that does not yet exist, but could.
To fail to act, even in the absence of guarantees or the promise of success, is what Camus refers to as philosophical suicide.
Of course, the possibility remains that we may never see that future. Relationships come to an end. Even perfect unions will be rent apart by death. Sisyphus never rests his bolder on top of that mountain, after all. The world is neither a fair nor sensible place. But to fail to act, even in the absence of guarantees or the promise of success, is what Camus refers to as philosophical suicide. It is to declare that life is not worth living, that it is not, as Nietzsche says, ‘worth the trouble’.
But this is the despair that one must not give into. One must instead refuse to look for an escape from one’s ailments in giving up, as much as one must refuse Kierkegaard’s leap into faith for a better or different future. ‘Real generosity toward the future’ Camus claims ‘lies in giving all to the present’.
Our lives are now, for the time that we have them, and calamity and catastrophe cannot be avoided by playing it safe. For Camus, love is the conscious choice to see the world in all it’s terrifying reality and decide that one’s effort ‘will henceforth be unceasing’.
Naturally, this most readily brings to mind the idea of romantic love. And certainly, Camus threw himself into his love affairs as passionately and as eagerly as he threw his body into the ocean. But romantic love is not the only kind of love. Our connection to our friends, our families, and our children can be just as meaningful and, in many cases, even more demanding.
For Camus, love is the conscious choice to see the world in all it’s terrifying reality.
Sisyphus may seem like an unlikely model to follow but that is only if one misunderstands what crowns his victory. Doing our duty is not merely completing the mindless repetition of the tasks assigned to us by fate and suffering in resigned silence; it is the willingness ‘to follow the curve of the great passions, sudden, demanding, and generous’.
Love is not just a confrontation with the absurdity of the world; it is a refusal to be broken by it. It is one of the ways we can each of us be stronger than our rocks. There is nothing we can do to change the constraints of our existence. Heartbreak and death await us all. Either we will fail and there will be suffering, or we will succeed but still meet tremendous pain along the way.
Love is not just a confrontation with the absurdity of the world; it is a refusal to be broken by it.
As Camus wrote, ‘the essential absurdity of this catastrophe does not alter the fact that it exists’. But it is up to us how we live with it. It is our choice whether we shrink from the slings and arrows of fate, or whether we stand in the full light of the sun while it shines above us.
It may be true that there’s no light without shadow, but what Camus means when he says that it’s ‘essential to know the night’ is that our consciousness of defeat is what makes the victory of our courage possible: ‘absurdity may be king, but love saves us from it’.
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