Are we fated to feel lost? We often say we will cross the bridge when we get to it, but what if that bridge becomes the abyss we never thought we could come out of? What if it has a door to let you in, but the seemingly never-ending abyss of absurdity, engulfs your soul without so much as a warning? If life is meaningless, could our individual lives still hold value? Such were the questions being explored under the banner of existential philosophy.
Camus on life’s meaning
Existentialists believed that people were born as blank slates, each responsible for creating their life’s meaning amidst a chaotic world. On the contrary, the theme propagated through the existential philosophy by Albert Camus was that each of us had a shared value which was to seek out meaning despite the world’s arbitrary cruelty.
Camus viewed humanity’s desire for meaning and the universe’s silent indifference as two incompatible puzzle pieces and considered trying to fit them together to be fundamentally absurd. This became central to the philosophical views Camus held, that argued life was inherently futile.
The Stranger by Camus offers a rather bleak response to similar questions. It follows Meursault, an emotionally detached young man who does not attribute much meaning to anything. He does not cry at his mother’s funeral, the mourners do not seem to evoke any emotion in him, he helps his friend in a scheme to humiliate a woman, and he even commits a violent crime. But, Meursault does not feel any remorse. For him, the world is pointless and moral judgment has no place in it. This attitude creates hostility between Meursault and the orderly society he inhabits – slowly increasing his alienation until the novel’s explosive climax.
There may not be any explanation for an unjust world but choosing to live regardless is the deepest expression of our genuine freedom.
Another profound philosophical piece by Camus is The Myth of Sisyphus. In Greek myth, Sisyphus was a king who cheated the Gods and was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down every time he reached the peak. The cruelty of his punishment lay in its singular futility, but Camus argues that all of humanity is in the same position, and only when we accept the meaninglessness of life, can we face the absurd with our heads held high. And so, absurdity becomes a path to search for answers in an answerless world. We are creatures who strive for meaning, for answers, but we are abandoned in a universe full of seeming meaninglessness.
Sartre and the meaning of life
Existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre believed in existing with authenticity. And so, Sartre spoke of existence preceding essence against any divine powers or fate. We are all endowed with an abundance of freedom that lets us define/attribute meaning to our existence, and if we choose to follow a path set by others, we give in to what he terms as the ‘bad faith’ – that is, a refusal to accept the truth.
Lessons from Fight Club (1999)
Pop culture often blurs the lines between nihilism and existentialism. David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) is a powerful film that many viewers relate to, and continue to be in awe of. Living in a rationalising world where everyone is in a rat race and doing the same thing again and again and again, can have a dehumanising effect turning everyone into lonely, alienated drones.
The unnamed protagonist undergoes an identity crisis, craves to find meaning in life, and exerts his freedom through his alter ego (Tyler Durden) in a world driven by consumer culture. Through Tyler, he starts the ‘Fight Club’: laypersons, nobodies, and everybodies come together to fight. In the process, they break each other’s ribs, teeth, limbs, cut their lips, bruise their bodies. Most leave physically broken yet they return to the fights unfailingly. There are no awards, no grand prizes. The aim? To explode through the monotony of their lives in the modern world, driven by consumer capitalism.
The fights are where these men exert their freedom and make the choice to experience life. This is where who they are isn’t defined by someone else. Here, they are.
The power to choose
The question then arises: do we have a choice, and if so, we do, who decides it for us? The existentialist answer: yes, you always have a choice, and no one but you decides what that choice is. If the world is inherently devoid of purpose, you can choose to imbue it with whatever purpose you want. In a world where we see nature existing in peace, a flower’s purpose in the world is just to be a flower; your purpose in life is to just be you, and not be a part of the rat race that strips away the authentic meaning of your being.
This Night Owl Original has been authored by Mekhela. Mekhela is a poetic translation of spring in human form. She loves to talk to people and form meaningful connections. Language and empathy are her forte, and she is always ready to put a smile on others' faces.
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