As a favour, I once agreed to attend a friend's presentation on French existentialism. I remember sitting there - hungover and lamenting the burden of the favour - watching her anxiously prepare. I had this horrible feeling that the whole thing would be dreadful and I would therefore have to lie through my teeth. She approached the little podium and nervously began: 'my mother died today. Or was it yesterday.'
Like the rest of the now attentive audience, I justifiably assumed that my friend's mother had perished in the last couple of days. 'These lines from The Outsider', she continued to a collective sigh of relief, 'demonstrate Albert Camus's acceptance of the unpredictability of death'. She had us, from this point on, utterly captivated, and my hangover, thankfully, started to dissipate - this usually requires an Alka-Seltzer or two.
My friend proceeded to tell her audience all about the life and work of Camus. It was, indeed it is, an interesting subject. In her concluding section, she briefly recounted the story of Camus's death and rather shockingly declared that it was 'strangely appropriate.' It was such a bold statement - quite an achievement considering that she had begun by telling us that her mother had just died - and I decided, with the help of my friend, to explore this subject further.
I learnt that on the 4th of January, 1960, at the age of forty six, Camus had planned to take a train back to Paris after a Christmas holiday with his wife and kids. At the last minute, Camus changed his mind and decided to travel instead with his publisher Michel Gallimard. During the journey, Gallimard's car slipped off the icy roads and smashed into a tree, immediately killing Camus.
How, I asked myself, could this death be interpreted as 'strangely appropriate'? For a better understanding, I turned to Camus's greatest philosophical work.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus contemplates why we don't simply kill ourselves when confronted with the inexorable absurdity of existence. The absurd, for Camus, is born from the human need to find meaning in a world that refuses to provide any. Camus argues that one must acknowledge life's absurdity but never quite accept it. Yes, life is full of suffering, and yes, there is no apparent meaning to any of this shit, yet we must rebel against all the ostensible nonsense for we have a 'metaphysical honour' to do so.
What does Camus mean by this metaphysical honour and how can the individual embrace it? Well, we can't believe in a God as this is to accept the absurd and to attempt to elude it through the prioritization of another, supposedly better, life. Belief in another existence beyond this one is pretty much just a cheap cop-out. There is, apparently, no metaphysical honour in theism.
Suicide is also a cop-out. For Camus, it's the most obvious albeit understandable escape from the absurdity of existence. So, it appears, the metaphysically honourable individual must be a non-suicidal atheist who perpetually rebels against the absurd. Camus then analogously alludes to the Homeric myth of Sisyphus to provide his reader with an example of how one can attempt to fight against the absurd.
According to the Homeric myth, Sisyphus - due to his licentious travails, his absolute love of life and his scorn of death - was condemned to an eternity of pushing a large boulder up to the top of a hill. Every time the boulder was about to topple over, Homer tells us in The Odyssey, its sheer weight sent it rolling back down, forcing Sisyphus to return to the bottom to once again push the pitiless boulder with all his might. Camus compares the human experience to that of Sisyphus, for man too is condemned to an absurd and painful life that seems to make no sense. The only hope for man is to rebel against this absurdity and be entirely happy with their metaphorical boulder. Camus argues that 'one must imagine Sisyphus smiling'.
This profound theory seems to make Camus's death all the more absurd. For someone who believed that man must attempt to stay alive in order to rebel against the absurd - a difficult feat indeed - Camus was condemned to a punishment far worse than that given to Sisyphus. His life was stolen from him in the most arbitrary fashion.
Camus, however, was mindful of the fragility of the human experience - death is random yet inevitable - and this informed his belief in the absurdity of life. One can only hope that he retained his sensitivities right through to his final moments. Perhaps we should imagine that he, like Sisyphus, was smiling. After reading the work of Camus, it became clear that my friend had drawn on something exceptionally profound. The absurd death of Albert Camus was indeed 'strangely appropriate'.