Philosophically, Camus is known for his conception of the absurd. Perhaps we should clarify from the very beginning what the absurd is not. The absurd is not nihilism. For Camus the acceptance of the absurd does not lead to nihilism (according to Nietzsche nihilism denotes the state in which the highest values devalue themselves) or to inertia, but rather to their opposite: to action and participation. The notion of the absurd signifies the space which opens up between, on the one hand, man’s need for intelligibility and, on the other hand, 'the unreasonable silence of the world' as he beautifully puts it. In a world devoid of God, eternal truths or any other guiding principle, how could man bear the responsibility of a meaning-giving activity? The absurd man, like an astronaut looking at the earth from above, wonders whether a philosophical system, a religion or a political ideology is able to make the world respond to the questioning of man, or rather whether all human constructions are nothing but the excessive face-paint of a clown which is there to cover his sadness. This terrible suspicion haunts the absurd man. In one of the most memorable openings of a non-fictional book he states: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer” (Camus 2000:11). The problem of suicide (a deeply personal problem) manifests the exigency of a meaning-giving response. Indeed for Camus a suicidal response to the problem of meaning would be the confirmation that the absurd has taken over man’s inner life. It would mean that man is not any more an animal going after answers, in accordance with some inner drive that leads him to act in order to endow the world with meaning. The suicide has become but a passive recipient of the muteness of the world. “...The absurd ... is simultaneously awareness and rejection of death” (Camus 2000:54). One has to be aware of death – because it is precisely the realization of man’s mortality that pushes someone to strive for answers – and one has ultimately to reject death – that is, reject suicide as well as the living death of inertia and inaction. At the end one has to keep the absurd alive, as Camus says. But what does it that mean?
In The Myth of Sisyphus Camus tells the story of the mythical Sisyphus who was condemned by the Gods to ceaselessly roll a rock to the top of a mountain and then have to let it fall back again of its own weight. “Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn” (Camus 2000:109). One must imagine then Sisyphus victorious: fate and absurdity have been overcome by a joyful contempt. Scorn is the appropriate response in the face of the absurd; another name for this 'scorn' though would be artistic creation. When Camus says: “One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness” (Camus 2000:110) he writes about a moment of exhilarated madness, which is the moment of the genesis of the artistic work. Madness, but nevertheless profound – think of the function of the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear as the one who reveals to the king the most profound truths through play, mimicry and songs. Such madness can overcome the absurd without cancelling it altogether.