Philosophy has always been one of those baffling things that entice you at first by its simplicity, but as you get sucked into it more and more, you find yourself searching for the end of this labyrinthine landscape. I had my first exposure to anything related to philosophy in my second year of college when I stumbled upon The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. At the time, it was one of the fascinating books I had ever read. I distinctly remember sitting down with the book at 9 PM having had my dinner, and as the custom goes, was looking forward to reading anything that could distract me from the mountain load of coursework that I had to finish for the upcoming semester exams. I became so engrossed in the story that when I finished the book and went outside to take in a fresh breath of air - I was startled to discover that the sunlight was already shining throughout the corridor - it was 7 o’clock in the morning!
However, aside from a couple of books here and there, I was pretty ignorant about the whole field of philosophy . It was not until my last year of college when my then-girlfriend introduced me to different sub-fields of philosophy, and consequently, the names like Albert Camus, Bertrand Russell, and Friedrich Nietzsche and their ideas started sounding familiar. From all the ideas out there, Existentialism was something that drew me in the most.
By no means, I’m an expert in any of these matters, and neither do I have any authority to comment on them. This is just an excited rant of a newbie fanboy who just discovered his favorite toy. So please, Reader Discretion is Advised!
What does it actually mean?
Existentialism as a field traced back its existence to hundreds of years ago but was popularized mainly by Jean-Paul Sartre in mid-1900s. To simplify a field like this would be a disservice to the great philosophers who spent their whole lives trying to understand and popularize it; however, I will try to put into words whatever I’ve understood till now. The central theme of Existentialism revolves around the Individual. It brings the responsibility back to the central point of origin - to the individual. We, every one of us as an individual, are responsible - for how we live, for how we deal with the world, and essentially responsible for the way the world is right now. It also brings in this radical idea that if you try to look for a grand meaning of things in this universe, it would be a fruitless task. The universe is meaningless. There is no grand plan. So ultimately what matters is how you define the meaning of life.
There’s a line from one of my favorite shows Rick and Morty, where a character just finds out that she was conceived as a mistake by their parents. She is deeply saddened and angry and wants to run away. Her little brother then comes to her and says something that has remained with me ever since: (Watch the full scene here).
“Nobody exists on purpose, Nobody belongs anywhere, Everybody’s going to die - Come watch TV?”
Our life is purposeless. We are mere mortals who will die in a few years, and nobody will remember us. Equipped with this feeling of utter hopelessness, and only then, we can start to carve out our own meaning of existence, our own hopes for the world. It is amongst one of those beautiful contradictions that the world has to offer.
A meeting with The Stranger
Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.
The Stranger introduces its eponymous character with this rather unusual sentence. In fact, the entire first half of the book is filled with such ‘absurd’ statements. What’s strange about this character is that he doesn’t seem to feel anything. He goes through life living it from one moment to the next without reflecting on his actions. The reader is confronted with the peak of this peculiarity when Mersault commits a murder but rather than feeling remorse for this deplorable act, he feels, well, nothing. It’s only when in the second act, he is forced to reflect on his actions because there’s nothing else to do in prison, that he begins to feel the situation that he has gotten himself into truly. But even then, the only true emotion that he shows is when the prison Chaplain asks him about the afterlife, and he flows into a rage saying “This life is the only one that means anything!”
With this book, Camus brought the idea of living an ‘absurd’ life to the surface, which he goes on to hammer in fully in the successor ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’.
An Encounter with The Plague
Imagine your utopian world where you don’t have to work for eight hours a day, live in a lakeside cottage, read books whole day and generally are quite content with the way of life - and slowly a kind of mysterious wave goes through the whole town and sweeps in all your happiness and leaves you dead inside.
This is what happens in The Plague. Well, sorta.
Camus explores the idea of experiencing the present moment as it is, without any future ambitions obfuscating our judgment, and yet having the deepest desire to experience just for once what was considered as routine few days ago. Early in the story when the town finds itself woven in the murderous embrace of the plague, Camus writes about the plight of those who were separated from their loved ones:
Mothers and children, lovers, husbands and wives, who had a few days previously taken it for granted that their parting would be a short one, who had kissed one another goodbye on the platform and exchanged a few trivial remarks, sure as they were of seeing one another again after a few days or, at most, a few weeks, duped by our blind human faith in the near future and little if at all diverted from their normal interests by this leave-taking—all these people found themselves, without the least warning, hopelessly cut off, prevented from seeing one another again, or even communicating with one another.
The feeling of exile was all that the town residents were capable of experiencing. Slowly the separation started to take into possession the hearts and minds of everyone, so much as that people started to live their life through the lived experience of the past and started dreading the imagination of a rosy future. At one point, Camus writes:
We realized that the separation was destined to continue, we had no choice but to come to terms with the days ahead. In short, we returned to our prison-house, we had nothing left us but the past, and even if some were tempted to live in the future, they had speedily to abandon the idea - anyhow, as soon as could be - once they felt the wounds that the imagination inflicts on those who yield themselves to it.
However, this tough ordeal also had a silver lining. When people were forced to contemplate, despite all the hate and resentments, they always came back to thinking about their loved ones and aching to embrace them just once more. This drives home the point that a lot of other thinkers have said - love is the greatest victory, whether it be peace, war or death.
Nevertheless - and this point is the most important - however bitter their distress and however heavy their hearts, for all their emptiness, it can be truly said of these exiles that in the early period of the plague, they could account themselves privileged. For at the precise moment when the residents of the town began to panic, their thoughts were wholly fixed on the person whom they longed to meet again. The egoism of love made them immune to the general distress and, if they thought of the plague, it was only in so far as it might threaten to make their separation eternal. Thus in the very heart of the epidemic, they maintained a saving indifference, which one was tempted to take for composure. Their despair saved them from panic, thus their misfortune had a good side.
The Conclusion and the path ahead
Both of these books are considered as one of the best works of Albert Camus, and for good reason. The fluidity in the prose and the thought-provoking ideas in the content make for an exciting read. I’ll surely be delving into the rest of the works of Camus, as well as exploring other philosophy writers like Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Although time is the enemy here, let’s hope that I keep myself motivated enough to finish all these books.
I’ll keep you guys posted in the meantime :)