Albert Camus on Kafka and the absurd, taken from “Myth of Sisyphus”.
Here, have some flash-fiction from seventy years ago.
You know the story of the crazy man who was fishing in a bathtub. A doctor with ideas as to psychiatric treatments asked him “if they were biting,” to which he received the harsh reply: “Of course not, you fool, since this is a bathtub.” That story belongs to the baroque type. But in it can be grasped quite clearly to what a degree the absurd effect is linked to an excess of logic. Kafka’s world is in truth an indescribable universe in which man allows himself the tormenting luxury of fishing in a bathtub, knowing that nothing will come of it.
The bathtub story starts from an absurd proposition (fishing in bathtub).
The doctor assumes the patient has taken seriously the first part of the proposition (fishing), so proceeds to play along by asking whether the fishes are biting.
The patient, however, latches onto the second part of the proposition (bathtub) and is insulted by the doctor’s lack of intelligence.
The logic of both participants isn’t at fault, though the disjunction stemming from the initial absurdity is. At a basic level this paradoxical repartee is easily inserted into the core of any incident. Somehow it doesn’t fail to perplex every time.
Man is talking to the wall. Friend asks whether the wall is talking back. Man responds: “It’s a wall, how can it talk back?”
Woman in a café is teaching her dog to read. Kindly waiter asks whether the dog has learned any of the letters yet. Woman responds: “It’s a dog, you idiot.“
Boy is writing dead grandma a letter. Mother asks whether he expects grandma to reply with a letter. Boy rolls eyes and responds: “Of course not, grandma is dead.”
Even though I just wrote those three examples, holding their meaning in my head makes me spin like Kafka’s top.
Sartre and Camus on drawing inspiration from life.
Quote: This is what I have been thinking: for the most commonplace event to become an adventure, you must — and this is all that is necessary — start recounting it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.
But you have to choose: to live or to recount.
— Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (translator: Robert Baldick)
A lesser mind might have put that last statement as: you cannot be both present in the moment and looking back at the past. Or: you cannot be both within, experiencing life, and without, observing it. But Sartre framed his words in terms of storytelling. On the other hand, the first sentence of the Quote is a recipe for any author (supposedly) bereft of ideas or inspiration: you are a story, your life is a story, all you have to do is recount it.
Skip now from Sartre, the existentialist, to Camus, the absurdist, speaking in his novel The Stranger(which I discussed in The Sunny Absurd).
On Albert Camus’ Stranger, and the book’s main antagonist: the sun, as a symbol of the absurd.
Albert Camus’ Stranger(1942) has one protagonist, the first person narrator called Meursault, and one antagonist: the sun. The book is originally in French; I quote from a translation by Stuart Gilbert. I have italicised all the words related to the sun.
Quote: There was the same red glare as far as the eye could reach, and small waves were lapping the hot sand in little, flurried gasps. As I slowly walked toward the boulders at the end of the beach I could feel my temples swelling under the impact of the light. Itpresseditself on me, trying to check my progress. And each time I felt a hot blast strike my forehead, I gritted my teeth, I clenched my fists in my trouser pockets and keyed up every nerve to fend off the sun and the dark befuddlement it was pouring into me. Whenever a blade of vivid light shot upward from a bit of shell or broken glass lying on the sand, my jaws set hard. I wasn’t going to be beaten, and I walked steadily on.
Any book blurb gives away that this is a story of how Meursault got drawn into a murder on an Algerian beach. There’s also mention of the story being Camus’ exploration of the nakedness of man faced with the absurd. The Quote describes Meursault walking along the fateful beach, and his physical fight with the absurdity of his situation.
The Quote is not a spoiler. The book is short, around 100 pages, and within the first quarter the following words play prominent roles in conveying the oppressive mood of absurdity: sun, light, heat, lamps. The remaining three quarters intensify the heat — summer and the plot set in.
Oh, and the opening words are: Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. That surely adds to the heavy mood, and yet, the only image that had stayed with me since I last read this book, half a life ago, was the dazzle of yellow and white that can wreck havoc on the mind.