Albert Camus and the Political Philosophy of the Absurd

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2008-05-12

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Compared to the unmistakable impact of absurd theatre, literature, and art on contemporary European and American cultures, the philosophy, morality, and politics of the absurd have remained relatively obscure. Few interpretations of Albert Camus' philosophic contribution have successfully defined the meaning of absurdity, its components and dynamics, or its moral and political consequences. This dissertation attempts to clarify these areas of absurd thought by applying the logic of ambivalence to Camus' philosophy of the absurd, revealing its compelling diagnosis of extremism and indifference, its experiential grounding for post-traditional values, and its unique appeal for moral and political maturity.

After reviewing the recent history of the concept of absurdity in Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Nagel, and elsewhere (Chapter 2), I offer detailed analyses of Camus' absurd and the contributions of his scholarly critics (Chapter 3). I introduce the concept of ambivalence in the work of Eugen Bleuler, Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, Otto Kernberg, and relevant sociological and political researchers (Chapter 4) to argue that the absurd is best understood not in skeptical or existential terms, but as an ambivalent 'position' with respect to countervailing desires, primarily a desire for unity and a kind of principium individuationis (Chapter 5). These ambivalent desires are implicated in the moral and political tensions between self and others, absolutes and limits, creation and destruction, even good and evil.

Applying this interpretation to Camus' The Stranger and its main character, Meursault (Chapter 6), and to The Myth of Sisyphus, The Rebel, The Plague, and other works (Chapters 7 and 8), I argue that the destructive ideologies Camus decried may be understood as defenses against the ambivalence of the absurd, while an absurd morality demands mature and creative resolutions of contradiction, resistance against defensive reactions, and deliberate moral and emotional identifications with others and enemies. Analyses of two controversial cases, Camus' defense of Kaliayev and the 'fastidious' Russian assassins of 1905 and Camus' unpopular stance on the Algerian War (1954-1962), are offered as miniature case-studies to ground conclusions about the meaning of absurd morality and politics (Chapter 9).

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