Albert Camus: The French Kafka

Myth of SisyphusI was first introduced to Albert Camus in 2009 when a work colleague lent me The Myth of Sisyphus, when we both had a common interest in books and writing. I’d not heard of him, and such was my French at the time, I couldn’t even pronounce the name properly (Albɛʁ Kæˈmu / or Alber Camoo). This was a time when I was still naïve and a bit cocky, but also not as well read as I’d like to think. When someone comes along and gives me essays from a French philosopher, I suppose I still had quite a distance to go.

I didn’t read non-fiction (as I said, I was naïve), so I felt out of my depth. But The Myth of Sisyphus was something else. Camus just flat out admitted life is meaningless. However, the question is: does the realisation of meaninglessness require one to commit suicide? No. Because, as a species, our strive for meaning is the meaning itself. It’s our existing that makes us who we are.

The title character, Sisyphus, from the Greek mythology, was punished by the gods for his trickery and deceitfulness against death. His punishment was to push a boulder up a hill until it fell back down again, only for him to start over again. For all eternity.

Myth of Sisyphus

My interest in this led me to Camus’ novels. This time fiction instead of an essay, still he continued to write existential philosophy into his stories. The Outsider (sometimes translated as The Stranger) is one of my favourites, and its is this piece of writing that closely resembles Franz Kafka.

The Outsider is about a man, Meursault, whose mother dies and instead of grieving, he decides to go smoke and drink coffee. The story goes on to involve his neighbour, Raymond, who beats his girlfriend for being unfaithful, which causes the girlfriend’s brother to attack Raymond with a knife. When Meursault sees the knife, he shoots the girlfriend’s brother. The story then moves into part two, which sees Meursault in court.

Meursault’s lack of emotion causes him to appear inextricably different. He is, essentially, an outsider. He seems to be on the outside of normal human emotion, rationality, and societal norms. He even says to a chaplain that God is a waste of time.

This novel reminds me of Kafka’s The Trial. In this, Josef K., on his 30th birthday, is arrested for no reason. He’s put on trial but has no idea what he’s done, nor is the crime ever spoken of by anyone, despite them thinking he’s guilty. This is the same ‘outsider’ feeling Camus wrote about, that existential paranoia and absence from both society and reality, which makes you almost an enemy to everyone else. As though you’re supposed to conform to this state of being, this existence, as though life and existence are a society itself. This is essentially what Camus meant in the philosophy of the absurd.

“As though you’re supposed to conform to this state of being, this existence, as though life and existence are a society itself.”

The TrialEven though Meursault was put on trial for a reason, there is still the sense that he was guilty beforehand. He was looked upon with suspicion for not grieving for his mother, he was also emotionally absent when Raymond beat his girlfriend, allowing it to happen. But Meursault seems to have stopped existing even though he’s still living. He’s not really there. (Psychologically, you could look at it as though he switched off mentally when his mother died, and from then on he was grieving, but just didn’t open up. But because this was different to the ‘normal’ grief that was expected of him, he was no longer part of normal functioning society).

Josef K. was never given a reason for being arrested. It seems the trial could be a symbol for an inner process (the German for ‘trial’ is ‘process’). Something inside of him he is battling, like Meursault, which no one else knows or understands, and this lack of understanding leads others to see him as an ‘Other’ or even an outsider.

The Rebel by Albert Camus is another of his essays. It discusses the motivation for rebellion and revolution. Camus states that humans naturally rebel if they become disenchanted with how society and justice are run. This means there is a clash or a contradiction between two things: the human mind and its search for clarification; and the meaningless nature of the world. This, again, is what Camus describes as absurd.

“Camus states that humans naturally rebel if they become disenchanted with how society and justice are run.”

The rebel (i.e., Meursault and Josef K.), can been seen as absurd because they claim to believe in nothing as a form of internal protest. But, in protests (and in Camus’ example of the French Revolution), the rebel does in fact believe in the protest itself and in the value of the protester’s life. Therefore, it is far from meaningless, as there is a meaning in it; there is a point to it, a goal one wants to reach, and that goal is a fundamental change.

Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka

Kafka’s The Castle portrays a man, K., who arrives in a village and tries to get through to the authorities who live in a castle. He just wants a legal claim to go through so he can live in the village. But the dark, surreal, absurd story indicates a sense of alienation and the frustration of trying to get through the legal bureaucracy.

What I find interesting is that Kafka was incredibly skilled at pinpointing this absurdity in our human society, which seems to contradict our human nature. His stories are so surreal they can be interpreted over and over, seeing symbols and metaphors for these similar themes. However, Camus explained what Kafka pointed out. And that was, although we’ve grown as a species, we seem to have forgotten we’re just natural creatures who invented societal norms and bureaucracy ourselves. It can sometimes feel depressing to go to work on a miserable Monday morning, and it may feel like life is going nowhere. But what Camus was saying was our natural impulse is to rebel against that because we’re not built to wear a suit and sit at a desk.

The point is, like in The Myth of Sisyphus, the pointlessness and meaninglessness of life is the rock which Sisyphus has to push up the hill. This represents the absurdity in our lives, which we see as societal norms. But what Camus said was: ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’ This means, as meaningless life seems to be, if you feel like an outsider or alienated, your main source of freedom is yourself, so no matter what you do, you must find your happiness while you do it.

Albert Camus
Albert Camus

Michael Holloway

One thought on “Albert Camus: The French Kafka

  1. Very nicely written and a very clear, concise comparison of the hidden meanings behind Camus’s and Kafka’s works. I have not studied philosophy formally, but based on what little I know of their works and philosophies, you are spot-on in the comparison. Thanks for bringing this to light.

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