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What exactly are we meant to be doing here?

At the intersection of science and philosophy lies a fundamental question: ‘What is the meaning of life?‘ When both scientists and philosophers venture into this realm, an answer proves elusive—in fact, it rarely holds that a scientist and a philosopher come to agreement on much at all. Despite this, considering that humans have been on the pursuit of knowledge and meaning since the inception of society and community, it remains a problem for many that a solution has yet to be found. From this arises the question: ‘Why do we care at all?‘ It seems clear that people question this at some point in their life; for me, it was at 15—emotional, confused, and desperate for some direction and guidance. But you don’t need to concede, and come to this question at a point of hopelessness. Absurdism teaches us that finding fulfillment in living a life saturated with chaos and irrationality is wholly worthwhile, despite the nihilism embraced by those who influenced the Absurdists (we’ll get back to this later).

I first encountered absurdism through Haruki Murakami, my first book of his being ‘Norwegian Wood’. Among his diverse works, ‘Norwegian Wood’ stands out as one of the more subdued pieces. Then, I delved into his more popular books: ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,’ ‘Kafka On The Shore,’ and ‘1Q84,’ each progressively delving into stranger and more surreal narratives. Murakami is renowned for his ‘magical realism,’ a term he popularised. His work consists of talking cats, multiple dimensions, parallel universes – it is, in essence, about the magic lurking in the mundane. Immersing yourself in Murakami’s writing, you discover a peculiar sense of agreement, an acceptance that conversing with cats is entirely ordinary. Murakami effortlessly weaves a dreamlike quality into the narrative, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.

Murakami’s work is fundamentally influenced by German philosopher Franz Kafka (1883-1924), whose famous views on life essentially discuss the ‘absurdity’ of life, that the whole human race is a consequence of ‘one of God’s bad days’. He says: ‘The meaning of life is that it stops. Anything that has real and lasting value is always a gift from within. A first sign of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die’. Kafka famously thought of life as something chaotic and meaningless, and this is very clear in his writing. His novella ‘The Metamorphosis’ depicts the inner thoughts of a boy called Gregor, who is inexplicably turned into an insect. It discusses alienation, isolation, and takes an allegorical route to drive home to readers an idea common to us all: the struggle of finding one’s identity amongst the pressures of modern society. But beyond this, I find that ‘The Metamorphosis’ deals with bigger ideas. In the novella, a boy turns into an insect, and his family nor his friends seem to care! Not only this, but Gregor doesn’t dwell much on how he came to this transformation in the first place. The idea is that life will hand you strange situations- deal with it, rather than find meaning in it.

“How about if I sleep a little bit longer and forget all this nonsense”,
― Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis

Kafka also wrote another classic absurdist novel called ‘The Trial’ (which happens to be one of my favorite pieces of writing of all time). It explores a disturbing and ridiculous legal system and its effects on a man under trial for an unknown crime. The novel is the account of a young, seemingly once-successful man named Josef K. and his helplessness in an incomprehensible system. Throughout the novel, there’s a persistent feeling suggesting that something is amiss. Philosopher Hannah Arendt writes: “In spite of the confirmation of more recent times that Kafka’s nightmare of a world was a real possibility whose actuality surpassed even the atrocities he describes, we still experience in reading his novels and stories a very definite feeling of unreality.” Reading the novel, we understand Kafka’s philosophy that nobody is perfect; that in life we are doomed to irrational and chaotic circumstances with uncertain ends. I highly recommend you read ‘The Trial’- it has an enchantingly profound sense of unease interwoven into the narrative.

It is important to note that Kafka was influenced by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). I am sure if you know anything about philosophy, you have heard of this man, so I will not delve much into a deep discussion on his ideologies, but rather, I will discuss why his existentialism is entirely different from Kafka’s absurdism. Nietzsche was a huge critic of traditional European religion, morals, and societal values, advocating for a reevaluation of established beliefs and embracing a perspective that challenged conventional norms. His famous quote “God is dead” from his book ‘Die fröhliche Wissenschaft‘ or ‘The Joyful Science’ marks Nietzsche’s declaration of the end of any kind of looming deity in our lives and the beginning of a meaningless existence he calls the ‘Eternal Return’—the idea that we are reliving every life again and again, experiencing every pain and joy repeatedly. Nietzsche’s philosophy is far more complex than this, and cannot be perfectly summarised by me (nor anyone else for that matter—he was a strange man). Still, I believe it is widely agreed that his ideas fall under nihilism, the belief that life is meaningless. How is absurdism different? Absurdism emerges as a response to nihilism. While nihilists assert that life is devoid of meaning, absurdists posit that life is inherently worthwhile, even in the absence of inherent meaning.

‘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.’ – Albert Camus

I cannot talk about the Absurd without mentioning Albert Camus, and particularly, his essay titled ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’.

Sisyphus by Italian painter Titian (1549)

When we acknowledge absurdity, we realise that having hope for tomorrow, paradoxically also brings us closer to death. The first part of his essay questions that upon realising that life is meaningless, is suicide necessary? Camus believes that suicide is a cop-out, a pathetic escape from life—a way of avoiding the true question at heart. He argues that there is no more meaning in life than there is in death itself. We can not escape the absurdity of life with death. So then, as Camus says, we are left with two options: religion—following an order and finding comfort in rules and a higher power, or rebellion—an idea best described by his retelling of the legend of Sisyphus. I’ll make it short: Sisyphus rebelled against the gods, putting Death into chains and effectively granting immortality to humans. He was then banished to the underworld, but he managed to escape. As punishment for his sins, the gods condemned him to roll a rock up a cliff, only to watch it fall back down, perpetually repeating the cycle for eternity. Camus asserts that as Sisyphus recognises the futility of his task and the inevitability of his fate, he becomes liberated to grasp the absurdity of his situation, and ultimately, contentment.

Now, onto the important question: Why is it satisfying to agree with absurdism? Well, firstly, it finally puts responsibility on ourselves. We are no longer blaming a god, supernatural power, or societal pressures for the way our lives have gone; we are in control of our own lives. Embracing absurdism encourages a profound sense of liberation, as it acknowledges that the pursuit of meaning is a personal endeavor, granting us the freedom to shape our narratives and find purpose on our own terms. We are free to stop wanting, and to start accepting instead.

Beyond this, we are able to acknowledge and finally justify the unpredictability of life, and find solace in the very chaos that others may see as a source of despair. Absurdism offers a unique lens through which we can view the uncertainties and absurdities of existence with a sense of understanding and even appreciation. We are left to navigate the trials of life with resilience. Camus may disagree with that last sentence, but I believe that absurdism provides hope; it suggests that absurdity and hopefulness are intertwined, each essential for the other’s existence. In this way, you can say that this entire article is written by a ‘Kafka-supporter’, rather than a ‘Camus-supporter’.

Finally, I want to argue how natural it is to come to absurdity as a conclusion to the question at title of this article. We aren’t meant to be doing anything here, we simply exist. At some point in our lives, we come to the realisation that we are here, and there’s nothing we can do to change that fact. Much like Gregor in ‘The Metamorphosis,’ we grapple with life as it unfolds—whether with or without hope, guidance, or external motivation. Take a moment to reflect. I am certain that, at some point, you too have come to this realisation. Whether or not you still adhere to this philosophy is another question. My point is that it remains a natural, human response to a question that inherently haunts us, so why argue against it? I implore you to explore Absurdism as a possible philosophy to live your life by- you may find that you already agree with some aspects of it.