Episode 4: Camus and the Absurd

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Discussing Camus’s “An Absurd Reasoning” and “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942).

Does our eventual death mean that life has no meaning and we might as well end it all?  Camus starts to address this question, then gets distracted and talks about a bunch of phenomenologists until he dies unreconciled.  Also, let’s all push a rock up a hill and like it, okay?  Plus, the fellas dwell on genius and throw down re. the Beatles, the beloved Robert C. Solomon and Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers.

An abridged version of the reading covered with most of the good stuff in it is here. An unabridged version of “An Absurd Reasoning” is here.

Also, Wes said something wrong on the episode.

End song: “My Friends” by Mark Lint and the Simulacra (2000).

If you enjoy the episode, please donate at least $1:


  1. Peter

    August 10, 2009

    Not to go off on a tangent on a tangent, but prog is not a bastardization of fusion. They’re just different scenes.

    • pissangel

      July 3, 2012

      Prog is just an illusion. If one truly examines Prog, one finds that there is no Prog.

  2. Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer

    Mark Linsenmayer

    August 11, 2009

    Right, but the pretension of prog is that it is breaking “new ground,” and it is (was), viewed as an extension of rock from already-very-expanded view the Beatles (and others) established, but when you compare the gestures towards long-form complexity that Yes or Crimson or whoever created (and I do like these bands a lot, much better than I like just about any fusion) with what the “professionals” more educated in the history of music were doing even before that, and by this I mean actual classically trained composers and jazz veterans, then prog rock just looks like kids fooling around. So, the point is, pop/rock has to be great as pop/rock, i.e. catchy and dynamic and theatrical with a real connection to the audience, not because it’s “progressive” in any sense. Consequently, I much prefer, say, Van Der Graaf Generator (which gets its quality from its bite and spitting poetry and spinning, hypnotic riffage) to ELP (which does offer some good theatrics but which seems most of all to be trading on the impression of “look at me, I’m an awesome instrumentalist!” when compared to a fusion band like Return to Forever ELP is pretty amateurish).

    • Doug

      June 26, 2011

      Uhhh, Prog was where psychedelia went in at least an ATTEMPT to steer clear of the arid, sterile, pointless athleticism of fusion, Birds of fire excepted (and maybe the Bill Conners-era RTF). Sorry. (How in god’s name did this blog arrive at this place?)

  3. Peter

    August 11, 2009

    The issue I took with your statement was that it seemed you said Prog came from fusion. Both started around the same time, and many bands overlapped, but I don’t think prog copied fusion. I think that the style created by prog was relatively unique even if it wasn’t groundbreaking in technical playing or arrangement.
    For example, I think that Mars Volta is very unique in style, even though I acknowledge what they’re doing technically isn’t new.
    I absolutely agree that Keith Emerson can’t hold a candle to Chick Corea, nor Chris Squire to Jaco. The only “prog” musician that I think is capable of standing up to his fusion peers is Bill Bruford, and he’s really fusion more than half the time.
    However, I’d take Close to the Edge or Selling England by the Pound over any fusion album.

  4. matth

    August 13, 2010

    Marge: Oh, I invited my sisters over.
    Jay: Ooh, sisters. Allow me.
    [walks off to answer door; screams]
    Jay: [on the couch] So then _I_ said to Woody Allen, “Well, Camus can
    do, but Sartre is smartre!”
    [Patty laughs]
    Selma: So original.
    Marge: How droll!
    Homer: Yeah, well, “Scooby Doo can doo-doo, but Jimmy Carter is
    [a bale of detritus blows across the living room]
    — There weren’t no sound but the whistling breeze…

  5. Laura

    December 4, 2011

    I know I emailed Wes a question re this episode but I started thinking more…………..So if we can never get beyond the questions and the recognition there is “no escape” and if we embrace an inquiry to which we know there is no answer and focus on the struggle–what worries me is where are we left? I understand the idea of being satisfied with the “struggle” but to know it is likely futile…then…its hard, having been raised in this time and in this society, to grasp the validity, a comfort with that experience.

    Though I very much want to.

    Isn’t that the role of the philosopher anyway?

    And to the question of asserting there is “meaning” found when your work is recognized by “others”, I have a real problem with that. Doesn’t that infer focusing on the “end” and not the “question” or the “struggle” and hence the “work” itself?

    I have always found I create something better when I don’t consider the “end” (this does not discount my concern voiced earlier as I am discussing creating work here, not the “search”).

    And further I feel slightly foolish worrying about where happiness is found in all this.

    • Drake

      January 17, 2012

      “And further I feel slightly foolish worrying about where happiness is found in all this.”

      I think that’s the point. If you require a reason to be happy with life, then you probably aren’t (happy).

      “I understand the idea of being satisfied with the “struggle” but to know it is likely futile…then…its hard..”

      A struggle is only futile if there is a goal which it cannot achieve. The thing about the ‘absurd life’ is that there is no goal, and so futility is not a concept that can be applied to it.

      People in general seem to have a base desire for validation, I think this is why they search for meaning in life, and find it either in religion or the recognition of others. If I understand correctly, Camus is saying this desire should not be the impetus for much of anything, living least of all.

  6. alh

    December 16, 2011

    he died in a car not on a motorcycle

    • Laura

      December 16, 2011

      yes, I think Wes corrected himself on that–either way, it is curious…

    • Michael deCamp

      January 25, 2012

      Correct, in a car driven by his publisher. Jan 4, 1960. I was 15, heartbroken.

  7. Vea

    February 2, 2012

    I’m totally the kind of person that does not read other people’s comment before commenting and since I’m about two and a half years late (and haven’t check the facebook page yet)… I just wanted to say Mark, you are a rock star. When I heard the song at the end of the podcast I totally called it–I knew it was you. And of course, your band is called the Simulacra.

    Anyways, I’m a big fan and I’m looking forward to the podcasts to come.

    From the rainy city of Vancouver.

  8. Paul

    February 19, 2012

    I liked it but felt you skirted around what I feel are the main themes. I don’t think death is central in Camus & others obsession with absurdity. Rather the lack of reference, justification, reason for acting. Sisyphus is the story of the pride of a man being bigger than his rock- being lucid and cognizant of meaninglessness but being an agent nonetheless.

  9. Gary M

    April 19, 2012

    Your podcasts are great. This episode really impacted me, I find Camus’ writing the most relevent philosophy I’ve ever read. This episode made it accessible to me so thanks. I’m only a couple of essays in at the moment – but I think I’ll be reading Camus a great deal now thanks to your introduction. Here is a blog post about how I relate to what he says! http://wisemeup.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/an-absurd-man/

  10. Tim T

    May 19, 2012

    I recently found your podcasts and they are awesome. I really enjoy listening to them at night as they put me to sleep every time (lol- really) So I end up listening to them many times before I get the whole thing listened to.

    Would it be possible for you to do a session on “Morally Obligatory Suicide” (Kant)

  11. julia stanton

    January 11, 2013

    Re. the Sisyphus myth, I found myself building a box at the top of the hill, putting the ball in it, buttressing it, then going away to do whatever I wanted (either sit, or sit and think). So once you shelve the question of the absurd (contain and ignore it), life becomes whatever you want it to be. Ignoring it means “choosing to ignore it” and it’s life-transforming. Don’t sit on the thistle and howl; just get up and walk away. Why would this not be philosophically satisfying?

    • dmf

      January 12, 2013

      how do you ignore a mood and how exactly does life become whatever you want it to be?

  12. karenewool

    January 18, 2013

    ..”Know thy Self” which is another way to say have an examined life, (…) that’s actually another way that if you delve far enough into yourself, you begin to see that you, yourself, are fundamentally unknowable in the same way that the universe is, so you can’t know yourself and telling you to do that is vague and unhelpful..” Favorite quote!!!

    Alas, the smartassed answer that I was looking for for when teachers told you “Just be yourself ” in high school. Haha! Actually, I did have an English teacher that said something along Wes’s lines but it wasn’t nearly as articulate!

  13. karenewool

    January 18, 2013

    Sorry maybe that was Mark! I only know Sean’s voice..

  14. Dan

    March 13, 2013

    Good cast,good tune.You guys are enjoyable.And yes the ole life’s a journey not a destination…on a long enough timeline the species survival rate is 0,so time comes into play with meaning in our thinking, I guess,time and the validation of others..maybe the meaning we seek can only be found in the perpetuation and evolvement, of the species,…though because of the time factor,the eventual demise of all,maybe that to is absurd.So the only meaning that can be derived, must be found in the doing, or some such haha thanks love to consider it all…

  15. Charis Varnadore

    May 7, 2013

    Camus died in an AUTOMOBILE accident, not on a motorcycle!!!

      • dmf

        May 7, 2013

        heh, that fact is obviously THE hermeneutic key to understanding his life’s work…

  16. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder

    Wayne Schroeder

    May 7, 2013

    Maybe he died driving his AUTOMOBILE into a motorcycle, because:

    “If something is going to happen to me, I want to be there.”
    ― Albert Camus, The Stranger

  17. elona

    May 12, 2013

    Will to power explanation helps makes sense of the Boston bombings.

  18. John Gavazzi

    September 4, 2013

    Liked the episode until it seemed to go off the rails – off topic – for a period of time. Also, there is an abundant amount of research on suicide that can show where Camus may have been correct or incorrect. You all were right on that meaninglessness does not necessarily lead to suicidal ideation. Social connection or strong interpersonal relationships to others will decrease suicidality more so than creating meaning in life. Then again, that interpersonal grounding could be considered finding “meaning” in life.

    I decided to write this directly to you all rather than tweet it. The tweet did not turn out so well.


  19. Mitch Hampton

    January 7, 2014

    Robert Solomon absolutely belongs in the pantheon. I only had one opportunity to meet him at APA conference and he gave one of the most incisive papers, full of real wit and fearless critique at the contemporary state of philosophy. And he was a great writer. R.I.P.

  20. Joe Hennen

    February 28, 2014

    Enjoyed the discussion! To your points about the idea of meaning as signifying to others…I would suggest referencing (and possibly discussing via podcast, which would be excellent to hear) similar ideas in the work of relatively little-known Ernest Becker, specifically his piece “The Denial of Death.” He synthesizes the work of Kierkegaard, Freud, Otto Rank, and others in describing the basic human motivation as the desire to transcend the problem of mortality through “hero-systems” such as religion/fame/wealth, participation in which allows individuals to feel immortal/eternal.

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