Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Camus

As the title suggests I wish to recall a story – the story of how I grew to stop worrying about and subsequently fighting with the nature of my existence and embrace the happiness of the absurd.

I first read Camus’ seminal work “The Outsider'(or ‘The Stranger’ as it known in more civilized countries) when I was 14 – and as is the case for most 14 year old boys who read that book I fell instantly in love with Meursault. Oh how his brooding disinterest and rampant melancholy resonated with my own difficulty in feeling much of anything for the world. I was hooked from the very first page all the way through to the last, ravenously I ate that book up in a single sitting. I sat for weeks after trying to piece together what Camus had been trying to tell me – I settled upon a meaning that satisfied my angsty teenage view of the world and this acted as my ‘gateway drug’ into the wide world of existentialist philosophy.

Over the next few years I took in Kierkegaard, Sartre, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky – I remember once as a rather more petulant man trying to argue a far too literal case of the aphorism ‘Perception Is reality’ with a teacher; A memory that still brings a scarlet hue to my cheek to this day. Needless to say I had fallen hard for these dead men and their vastly pessimitic vantage on the world.

There is only one problem with a child growing up an existentialist – most of them are miserable bastards. Necessarily when confronted with the vast precipice of human possibility anxiety emerged as a key theme within the thought of the existentialists and a certain degree of pessimism about one’s ability to ever overcome or resolve this anxiety.   When I think about ‘mature themes’ I actually think it is these types of thoughts rather than sex or violence or drug use that should receive cautionary listing at the beginning or on the covers of media to which they can be attributed. They certainly played havoc with my mind for a great many years. This is not a havoc I regret as I still count myself to be a firm existential to this day; however I must acknowledge the shortcoming of my past if I wish to grow into the future.

I spent years advocating a kind of indirect existentialist strength of character through expending energy trying to solve my issues with reason and practical thought – as I thought must have been the intent of my philosophical brethren, for was not their philosophy a reasoned and measured response to their own problems with life?  In this state I was forced to seek a rational answer for every problem I was presented with – this caused me the greatest degree of angst imaginable – for as many readers will be aware, this is an entirely futile exercise.

It wasn’t until i was possessed, after attaining a tertiary qualification and some nouse at the ability to research, with a desire to conduct a comprehensive and chronological reading of the historical evolution of existentialist thought that a number of key facts I’d missed as an adolescent emerged to me.

First and foremost – That I had entirely misunderstood Camus as an author. Instead of mirroring the Nihilism or angst that came to characterize so many of his forebears Camus advocated a much more practical and upbeat response to the problem of existentialist anxiety. Happiness. Instead of resigning himself to Kierkegaardian anxiety upon realizing that when faced with the entirety of human possibility it was impossible to possess any great deal of surety or rational sense of  meaning; Camus advocated living a life that was in and of itself a  justification for living. He advocated a love of the human body and of the smaller pedestrian joys of life – finding joy in the unlikely and absurd nature of one’s existence and happiness in the natural beauty that surrounds us. It was not until I could really grasp the joy of Camus’ absurdism that I really began to understand, after years of pessimistic existential dread, the aphorism “We must imagine Sisyphus happy”.

It is in this acceptance of the abstract nature of our lives – in the ways our lives fail to mirror the very rational and trackable progress that the modern world teaches us to expect through: Video games, fitness wearables and loyalty rewards schemes that I found happiness. It is in the almost Orwellian doublethink of the adage that ‘practice makes perfect’and the rejection of this truth that happiness can be found. The modern world allows us to make anything of ourselves given enough effort, but this will not guarantee us happiness. So I have learnt to let go and Camus showed me the way.  Not the type of ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ kind of letting go that some achieve when they assign this same absurd to the deific, as I feel this defeats Camus’ message in it’s own crucial way – more on that some other time, but rather the acceptance that no choice can be made with the type of surety we are trained to expect. There are no ‘risk mitigation strategies’ or progress bars for the meaningful pursuits in life – happiness is achieved by accepting one’s own uniquely fallible position within the vast and unfeeling world and seeing the small beauties in everything despite knowing that nothing you can do has any degree of certainty or ability to affect this.

It is for this happiness that I fell in love with Camus all over again as an adult for the beauty that he captures with his words and the joy he expresses in the mundane and the absurd.

So that is the story of how I learned to stop worrying and love the absurd.

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2 thoughts on “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Camus

  1. This song would pop up on Rage when I was growing up in the late 80’s, https://youtu.be/ZMqPlQgHww8, I had no idea what it was about. 30 years later I understand. The idea of looking at human life in macro, or the life of a planet, and seeing it as meaningless because of its non-existence before and after, and the eventual erasure of all its memory is depressing. It can also lead to an idea that the decisions made inside the life are of no consequence, that the unfettered pursuit of self-gratification is the only thinking persons choice. I think this is a product of an outlook which sees time as linear, and dimensionality as singular. A view which sees each moment of life as a layer in a painting which exists perpetually in connection with everything else, leads to a different conclusion.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you’ve hit on the difficulty of being a pure existentialist – they are supremely clever people who construct well thought out arguments, but are mostly miserable bastards. It must be hard being inside their head, let alone living with them. It is almost as if to be a “real philosopher” you have to be a miserable bastard that is only capable of happiness if it is due to some deep intellectual joke. Whilst they put forward a good understanding of our existence they miss the joy to be found in the small things in life, and the love to be found when connecting deeply and authentically with other people who we share our journey with.

    This is the great thing about Camu – he combines the intellectual rigor that is necessary for the thinking person to make sense of the world, whilst encouraging the joy of the child. It is almost as if he has taken to heart the Golden Mean proposed by Aristotle, that everything in good in moderation (including being a miserable bastard).

    I’d be interested to hear more from you about happiness and perhaps how Epicurean philosophy and Camu can inform each other.

    This piece shows an intellectual humility that is beautiful. I especially liked the section regarding your scarlet hue on the argument of perception and reality – it is a reminder that the Socratic method of teaching works, and is there for the student to grow and develop an inner dialogue, not just rehash words without understanding or reflection.

    Like

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