“Only one thing: this thickness and this strangeness of the world, that’s the absurd.”
On June 16th 2016, the Labour member of Parliament, Jo Cox, was brutally murdered by Thomas Mair, an unemployed gardener. Although the perpetrator had a history of mental illness, he also had ties with extreme right-wing parties, including neo-Nazi groups. Some witnesses reported him saying “Britain first” or words to that effect at the time of the attack, which would seem to indicate that the murder of Jo Cox was not a random act. But why did Thomas Mair carry out such an act, and what was he expecting to achieve? He acted out of pure ideology and hatred for Jo Cox who vociferously did not share his extremist views.This man was so alienated with the world he experienced, that his only option was to murder the one person within his reach whom he passionately felt responsible for his alienation. In March 2015, the co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525, Andreas Lubitz, committed suicide by crashing the aircraft, not only killing himself but also 149 others. Lubitz was also deeply alienated with the outside world, as demonstrated by his medical records. Both tragedies result from the irrational actions of individuals in deep and life threatening existential crises. For Mair and Lubitz, the irrationality of murder seems to converge with the irrationality of suicide.
I see that a lot of people die because they feel that life is not worth living. I see others who, paradoxically, get killed for ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living. – Albert Camus
Jo knew that our politics, at its best, still works – that, if we recognise our humanity in each other, we can advance the social justice, human dignity and peace that we seek in the world. – Barack Obama
For Albert Camus, the French playwright and philosopher, the problem of suicide is the most important question arising in philosophy. Its importance stems, of course, from the actions associated with the answer to the problem, i.e. the possibility of ending one’s own life.
Suicide has never been dealt with except as a social phenomenon. On the contrary, we are concerned here, at the outset, with the relationship between individual thought and suicide. An act like this is prepared in the silence of the heart as is a great work of art.
The person who is going to commit suicide may not be ignorant of what he will do, but is not necessarily aware of the deep feelings compelling him to carry out his act. However, the final decision to commit suicide results from a personal conviction that life is so irrational and beyond comprehension, that it is not worth living. Taking one’s rationality to its conclusion, suicide would seem to be the only option available. But is suicide really a rational answer to the irrationality of life, and are those who commit suicide acting out the logical conclusion to their existence? Being rational in an irrational life is relatively easy and harmless. You rationalise and act accordingly, even if the experience of the world around you is irrational. Wanting to discover the inherent value and meaning of our existence, however, is bound to fail and leads to what Camus describes as “the absurd”. Trying to figure out why life has no fundamental value or logic that we can understand only leads to a potentially lethal conflict within our minds. Most of us can cope with this lack of understanding and continue to live our lives without even thinking about it. Trouble starts for those who cannot.
Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. Society has but little connection with such beginnings. The worm is in man’s heart. That is where it must be sought. One must follow and understand this fatal game that leads from lucidity in the face of existence to flight from light.
The absurd originates thus from an ongoing conflict between our ideals and nostalgia for order, meaning and clarity on the one hand, and the chaos and irrationality of the outside world on the other. But, as Camus writes, the three protagonists of this ongoing tragedy are inseparable, rather akin to a married couple divorcing but never separating. The absurd is not confined to the human mind or the outside world, but requires the juxtaposition of the two in order to exist. In fact, as in the Holy Trinity where the Spirit links the Son to the Father, so the absurd is the link between man and his world who both exist as an “irreconcilable couple”.
Thinking about our existence and trying to ascertain where we “fit in” is part of human nature, but can lead to our alienation from the world we live in. It’s only what we understand that makes us feel at home and brings us happiness. Failing to understand is the root cause of all our existential uncertainties and anxieties.
In a universe suddenly divested of illusion and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land.
At this point of his effort man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.
The irrational, human nostalgia and the absurd that arises from their head-to-head, these are the three personages of the drama that necessarily finishes with all the logic that an existence is capable of.
We must refute the absurd, rebel against it, and then love it…
Camus draws three conclusions from the absurd that he describes: rebellion, liberty and passion. By doing so he transforms life’s “invitation to die” into a refusal to commit suicide.
Committing suicide is not the answer to the problem of the absurd. As already mentioned, it is what links humans to the world. Eliminate the human, you destroy the world and the absurd that goes with it. Camus is not telling us to accept it either, because if we do, the absurd part of the “existential trinity” disappears. If we accept the confines imposed by the fact that life is absurd, we can still fight this absurdness and encounter happiness within its confines. Realising that our outside world is absurd, and experiencing it is, in fact, part of what makes us human. Cats or trees “fit in” with nature and, insofar as we can tell, ask no existential questions. Many people find comfort and answers in religion. Whilst I profoundly respect their views, this is only a way of avoiding the problem posed by the absurdity of existence.
Our experience of the absurd should drive us away from the temptation of suicide because, writes Camus, it “escapes suicide insofar as it is consciousness and refutation of death, at the same time”. The fact that we are all mortal is one of the main absurdities of our existence. By arguing that as we are going to die anyway, committing suicide is just “agreeing” to die earlier, we are, in fact, “giving in” to the absurdness of life, and not combating it. The combat against the absurd forms an integral part of our life and we should not only rebel against it, but rebel passionately. The absurd needs to exist, and unlike the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, man must not face the other way.
The absence of hope and future increases man’s freedom. Hope, Camus insists, doesn’t signify despair. We can continue to make plans and hope for the future, as long as it remains within the confines of the absurd. As for freedom, man is no longer limited by a transcendent being dictating his life, or by fear of what will happen in the after-life. There is no indefinite future to be scared of because man is mortal, and this mortality is the one thing we are certain of.
One must imagine a happy Sisyphus.
King Sisyphus was punished by the gods for trying to avoid death. He was condemned to push a boulder up a mountain slope, only to watch it roll back down under its own weight. For the gods, nothing was worse than a task that was futile and without hope. Camus imagines that Sisyphus could have been happy despite his punishment. On descending the mountain to push the boulder back up, he could have realised that he is, in fact, superior to his destiny and “stronger than his bolder”. The realisation that his destiny is inevitable is enough to make his happiness.
“I’m going for a walk…” he told us. He travelled to Beachy Head, and jumped.
On the 16th december 1979, I came back from playing football with my brother and saw my mother in the front garden talking to Terence Judd who lived with his parents just a few houses away from us. Terence was an extraordinarily gifted pianist and went to the French Lycée in London, just as I did. He was a only a year older than me, but thanks to his worldwide fame and busy agenda, seemed to live in a different world. I stopped to greet him and I remember distinctly that he was really looking forward to his Russian tour early in the new year. “I’m just going for a walk…” he told us, and walked down the road towards the Underground station. Terence Judd’s body was found a week later, washed up on the beach at the foot of Beachy Head, investigators having found a one-way train ticket in his pocket. Terence Judd had a history of mental illness, including a nervous breakdown and depression. Like Sisyphus descending the mountain, so Terence Judd had the time to reflect on his destiny during the train journey from London to Brighton. What actually went through his mind, only he will ever know. Was he so alienated from the world as to feel that his life was no longer worth continuing? Was he, like Sisyphus, condemned to a never ending need for perfection in his performances?
When someone takes another 149 to their deaths, suicide is not the right word. – Lufthansa CEO
Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings co-pilot who killed himself and 149 others by crashing a passenger airliner in March 2015 also seemed quite normal to the people who knew him. He had always dreamed of being a pilot and, according to Lufthansa’s CEO, “was 100% fit for flying”. After the tragedy, it became apparent that Lubitz had concealed his psychological condition from his employers, in order to be able to fulfil his boyhood dream. Investigators found evidence that Lubitz had researched how to obtain deadly drugs, suggesting that he was well intent on committing suicide. If we assume that Lubitz did commit suicide, in killing 149 innocent people he also committed mass murder. The combination of suicide and murder, called murder- suicide (MS) is a complex psycho-social illness occurring predominantly in men. Depression is invariably linked to MS, together with a distinct conviction of uselessness and severely decreased or totally non-existent masculinity. This perceived loss of manhood and the obligation to get it back can lead to indiscriminate violent conduct, characteristic of MS.
My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain. – Thomas Mair
When Thomas Mair brutally assassinated Jo Cox, he was in a parallel world full of intolerance and xenophobia. He was the man who would ignite the fire that would expel foreigners from his shores and confirm the dominance of the “indigenous” race, whites like himself. The way he carried out the murder reminded me of the murder that took place in Albert Camus’ novel “The Stranger”. Mersault, the main character of the novel, is detached from the world around him. Even the death of his mother seems to leave him unaffected. In a moment of confusion, Mersault kills an Arab by shooting him four times, saying that he was blinded by the Arab’s knife. At the trial, he never gave a meaningful explanation as to why he shot the Arab. He also failed to explain why he waited after the first shot before firing three shots at the already motionless body.
Mair was also severely confused at the time of his attack.. He stabbed Jo Cox, making her fall to the ground, before shooting three times and repeatedly stabbing her. According to witness accounts, he then “calmly walked away”.
Both Mersault and Mair lived in a disconnected world. In displaying his indifference to everything, Meursault challenges moral standards, where grieving death is the norm. Because of Meursault’s lack of grief and his indifference towards anything that can happen to him, he is seen and judged as an evil outsider. At his trial, the fact that he had no reaction to his mother’s death seemed more inditing than the murder he committed.
Mair is also an evil outsider. Having been intoxicated for years with extremist propaganda and ideology, he had no problems in brutally murdering a representative of true democracy. Mair’s real life was worthless and mundane and he became the true liberator in the parallel world he had created in his mind. This was his way of combating the absurdness he experienced in the world around him.
Albert Camus never managed to write about how to love the absurd. He was killed in a car accident at the age of 47. We are left with a punished Sisyphus on his mountain, maybe a happy Sisyphus. Mair is also punished, but let us hope that he doesn’t find happiness in the same way Sisyphus might have done. If he does, life would not be absurd, life would be evil.