Dragooning Camus through the Morass of Reason (1 of 2)

Well, a two-post series starts now. A one-two punch.

Oddly enough, this first post is really about Gooseberries by Chekhov, although I won’t say anything more about it in this first jab. The uppercut will follow later.


Matt over at Literary Equations ran a nice bit on Camus, on absurdity, on philosophy, art, and literature, among other things. It casts a broad net, it does. While reading his post, I was pleasantly reminded of Nagel’s very fine argument on the nature of absurdity.

He offers a phenomenology of the everyday consciousness of absurdity.

Very schematically, it goes like this:

Some say life is absurd. They argue that nothing we do now will matter in a million years. But this natural expression of absurdity is incoherent. (If nothing matters in a million years, then this conception of absurdity doesn’t matter, either, and so can be rejected.)

Or they argue that we’re tiny specks in a vast universe. But this natural expression of absurdity begs the question. (What’s so bad about being a speck, after all?)

Or they argue that we’re going to die, that we’re on an elaborate journey going nowhere. But this expression of absurdity ignores the self-referentiality of our aims, pursuits, and goals. (Even if a spadeful of dirt is thrown on our rotting corpse and that is the end forever, we still find our lives significant and richly meaningful before we die. Not even the nihilist can deny this.)

Although these arguments for absurdity fail, they do express a very important intuition—namely, something is amiss, existentially speaking. Whereas Camus argues that the absurd arises because there’s a collision between us and a meaningless world, Nagel argues that absurdity results when there’s a collision of perspectives within us.

We live our lives with great care and attention and can’t help but take our choices seriously. Even the suicide does this. But because we’re self-conscious physical bodies, we can view our lives, our concerns, habits, and routines, from a unique perspective sub specie aeternitatis, i.e., as if from nowhere or everywhere.

This perspective has a tragic-comic dimension, because while we can regard our lives from this perspective, we can’t live our lives from it. In the end, we must return to the ordinary standards that guide our lives and the pursuits that make it worthwhile.

Nagel’s argument entails several interesting implications, fun to ponder: A mouse’s life is NEVER absurd; your life is sometimes absurd, IF you’re lucky; and the more your life is identified sub specie aeternitatis, the less meaningful it becomes.

Take that, Spinoza.

Here’s a passage that summarizes Nagel’s point nicely: “That is the main condition of absurdity — the dragooning of an unconvinced transcendent consciousness into the service of an immanent, limited enterprise like a human life.”

# # #

References: Mortal Questions, “The Absurd,” Thomas Nagel


4 Responses to Dragooning Camus through the Morass of Reason (1 of 2)

  1. And all I’ll say to that is, All the world is absurd save thee and me, and even thou art a little absurd! That said, I like the idea of “an unconvinced transcendent consciousness” being dragooned …

  2. Hi Sue, good to see you. When you say “even thou art a little absurd,” I’m offended that it’s only a little! By the by, your R. Owen reference and others (here and elsewhere) lead me to believe that we have a similar view of the world, although I could just be blowing smoke…. Cheers.

  3. nicole says:

    I knew I needed to read Nagel. Thank you for such an excellent confirmation.

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