At one point in Douglas Adams's hilarious Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a sperm whale plaintively wonders to itself: "Why am I here. What is my purpose in life?" as it plummets toward the planet Magrathea. This appealing but doomed creature had just been "called into existence" several miles above the planet's surface, when a nuclear missile, directed at our heroes' space ship, was inexplicably transformed into a sperm whale via an "Infinite Improbability Generator." Evolution, too, is an improbability generator, although its outcomes are considerably more finite. And the disconcerting reality is that after being called into existence by that particular improbability generator called natural selection, human beings have no more inherent purpose to their lives than does Douglas Adams's naive and ill-fated whale, whose blubber was soon to bespatter the Magrathean landscape.
The struggle as well as the paradox of a meaningful life was beautifully chronicled by a man born precisely a century ago, on Nov. 7, 1913: Albert Camus, beloved to many of us who first encountered his thinking in the tumultuous 1960s as the real-life biographer of a mythological character, Sisyphus.
In his most famous essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus made the point that Sisyphus stands for all humanity, ceaselessly pushing our rock up a steep hill, only to have it roll back down again. Over and over, ceaselessly, remorselessly, always striving but never succeeding, if only because ultimately everyone dies and his or her personal boulder rolls back down. Gravity always wins.
Camus nonetheless concludes his essay with the stunning announcement that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” because he accepts this reality, defining himself—achieving meaning—within its constraints. Camus’ stance is that meaning is not conveyed by life itself but must be imposed upon it. This might not have been welcome news to that whale whose blubber was soon to bespatter the Magrathean landscape, but it has been illuminating indeed to the rest of us who have a bit more time to struggle and more opportunity for short-term success … albeit no basis for anticipating a fundamentally different outcome.
Camus is the existential thinker most associated with the “life is absurd” characterization of the human condition. Often misunderstood, he felt that this absurdity didn’t reside in life itself, but in something uniquely human, namely the peculiar relationship (which he called a “divorce”) between the human need for ultimate meaning and the “unreasonable silence” of the world. For Camus, neither human existence nor the universe is inherently absurd, but rather the relationship between the two, whereby people seek something of the universe that it fails to deliver.
"The greatest mystery," according to André Malraux, whose work Camus greatly admired, "is not that we have been flung at random among the profusion of the earth and the galaxy of the stars, but that in this prison we can fashion images of ourselves sufficiently powerful to deny our nothingness.” Denying our nothingness isn’t quite what Camus proposed; rather, he urged something closer to accepting our nothingness and pushing on nonetheless, achieving meaning via meaningful behavior, even though—or rather, especially because—in the long run any action is meaningless. Probably the greatest such account of people achieving meaning through their deeds is found in Camus’ novel The Plague, which describes events in the Algerian city of Oran during a typhoid epidemic.
Camus’ plague stands for many things: the German occupation of France during World War II, the inevitability of death, and, of course, the plague itself. The struggle against cruelty, against death and disease, against an uncaring universe, must ultimately fail. But it isn’t a fool’s errand, since what gives life meaning is how one chooses to live, knowing this. (Had Sisyphus anticipated, each time he heaved his boulder to the summit, that maybe this time it would stay there, he would have been a ridiculous figure, rather than the existential hero of Camus’ analysis.) The Plague is a “chronicle” compiled by the heroic Dr. Rieux, in order to “bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
Ruminating on Sisyphus, Camus wrote that “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” And at the conclusion of The Plague, while the citizens of Oran are celebrating their “deliverance,” Dr. Rieux knows better, that the plague bacillus will some day return. But at the same time, his commitment to the struggle, to what defines human beings in an otherwise uncaring universe, is undiminished. My wife and I were especially active—obsessionally so—in the antinuclear movement during the 1980s, when the Reagan Administration ramped up the nuclear arms race and displayed a horrifyingly cavalier attitude toward nuclear war. Like Sisyphus and Dr. Rieux, we knew that the nuclear genie could not be stuffed back into its bottle, but we derived great comfort from a Camusian perspective, which legitimated struggle as a deep human responsibility, regardless of “success” or “failure.”
Thus, Dr. Rieux understood that all human victories are temporary, which renders his perseverance all the more grand: “He knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record or what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilence, strive their utmost to be healers.”
Part of that healing, according to Camus, was a commitment to be “neither victims nor executioners,” and his refusal to countenance revolutionary violence was a major factor in his break with Jean-Paul Sartre. Shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, Camus—born in Algeria and sympathetic to Algerian independence—was heckled for his condemnation of murder in any form. “People are now planting bombs on the tramways of Algiers,” he famously responded. “My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”
On this centenary of his birth, with strident voices calling for violence and destruction, generating false hopes and destructive acts, many of us would prefer the healing, humane wisdom of Albert Camus.
David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book is Buddhist Biology: ancient Eastern wisdom meets modern Western science (Oxford University Press).