Episode 4: Camus and the Absurd

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 says

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

  2. Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

    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 says

      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 says

    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 says

    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 says

    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 says

      “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. Vea says

    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.

  7. Paul says

    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.

  8. says

    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/

  9. Tim T says

    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)

  10. julia stanton says

    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?

  11. karenewool says

    ..”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!

  12. Dan says

    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…

  13. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    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

  14. John Gavazzi says

    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.


  15. Mitch Hampton says

    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.

  16. Joe Hennen says

    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.

  17. JanneM says

    I’m starting to like your program, even as some of you seem to like to talk about themselves more than ideas. But I guess that comes with the aspiration to be listened to by an audience – be that podcast or lecture or rock star.

    Anyhow, about the topic which was life without meaning. You did nice twist by adding the question that isn’t that self-cultivation just another false solution to the existential problem/terror of meaninglessness. But I think that after that, once you agreed on it being such false solution, you took the easy way out. That’s because if the argument that life is meaningless is correct – as that it is true and ‘the truth’, the undercurrent beyond anything and everything else (when meaning is understood as something humane or “symbolic” in lacanian terminology and not in the way that we are blobs of cells that try to preserve themselves) – then the only solution _is_ to have that meaning made up. Just as the author you were discussing about did. And then it comes to the question of whatkind of answer is made up for this lack of meaning. Self-cultivation and trying to learn about yourself (‘know thyself’) is one answer, which also happens to be quite highly valued among different schools of thought. Trying to exist without meaning is somewhat difficult task to do, and this leads to another thing I wanted to note or criticize you about: it really seems (thou I’ve listened only few programs so far) that you have really read a lot about thinking and ideas, but not have lived the experience or ‘essence’ behind the ideas. I think this might be one thing that separates those whom you labeled as geniuses from those that only follow their line of thought – like disciples and critics, ie. who would like to be like them. This is quite the same thing as saying that trying to follow Buddha will not lead to learning about yourself, but learning about Buddha – and the only way to learn about oneself is to learn about oneself, not about Buddha. So, when Freud – an unarguably genius mind – did what he did, he no doubt used everything he had in his reach to find and formalize that which he did, but it was no copy-paste job, it was a definite journey to some uncharted territory (that is, ‘real’ in lacanian terminology) and made some sense out of it. Such is a genius that he thinks and does that which other people had no idea could be done – it is outside of others’ rationale, ‘out of their mind’. And hence something new is born.

    I don’t know how this relates to anything anymore..

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Welcome to the fold. Sounds like you’d enjoy our episode on Schopenhauer from this last summer, which discussed much the same point about genius. Not sure where you get off making assumptions about what we have or haven’t experienced, but we’ve agonized plenty about this whole project of putting time studying other philosophers and how that relates to developing your own ideas. Maybe after you’ve produced a body of original ground-breaking work yourself, you can check back with us second-hand hacks and tell us what it’s like.

  18. says

    So I was thinking about Sisyphus this morning and the thought of non-equilibrium thermo dynamics came to mind. The basic idea there is that “nature abhors a gradient”. So the world is full of energy gradients (entropy). Like the energy of the sun goes from an extremly concentrated form and dies out in the vaccume of space. But along the way, a host of new structures emerge that both live off this stream of energy and detain it (plants emerge on planets that can support them, these capture and hold some ot the energy that would otherwise just flatten out in space). Of course, entropy has its way with these plants eventually too BUT, new forms arise that live off and detain the chemical gradients of rotting corpes. So, at some level, the natural world seems to resist total heat death. Whether or not entropy wins in the end is an open question I suppose but there does seem to be some little Sisyphys who keps pushing that rock back up the hill.

  19. Profile photo of Christopher McGowen says

    I happened to begin reading the Iliad as translated by Fitzgerald around the same time I listened to this podcast . I came across a line from the introduction by Andrew Ford that resonated with me about the absurdity of life:

    “For a hero, the craving of recognition is ultimately an attempt to find compensation for mortality.”

    The idea of compensation (of any type from what or whomever) for mortality fascinates me.


  1. […] While irony is generally interpreted as being the same as sarcasm, or satire, I saw something different in, say, South Park’s portrayal of Al Gore, which is so silly that I can’t see it as an actual criticism of global warming alarmism. Instead, it just uses our familiarity with this phenomenon as a premise for something comic. This is also my reading of Sacha Baron Cohen’s social commentary and Howard Stern’s arrogance. As detailed in my first post on this, I see in these examples some suspension of judgment on the part of the perpetrators: if it’s a commentary, it’s an ambiguous one, rooted in some recognition of the absurd. […]

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