“The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!”
Hamlet, Act I, Scene V.
As Hamlet lamented against his destiny when receiving it from the ghost of his dead father, so do we as contemporary observers of a world seemingly out of joint have every reason to lament about our position in it. And what makes matters worse: No ghost was revealing our destiny to us.
Whether the world is objectively out of joint or not, is a matter of great debate. A debate, that requires a definition of what a world in joint actually looks like. However, this is not the topic of this essay. The more important question however is: How do we intellectually engage with a world that seems out of joint?
A world out of joint, simply put, is a world that does not comply with individual expectations of how it should be. In order to answer the question, we need to focus our attention on the relation between an individual, that has expectations, and a world, that does not comply with them. The fundamental dilemma is us continuing to build up expectations based on a false feeling of certainty, that can be refuted by the world any day.
This essay is an attempt to dissect this dilemma through the example of the Syrian war. It is a call to keep looking for answers about the conflict despite inevitable disappointments, but to do so, without falling for the temptation of certainty. It is a contemplation by a development worker based abroad, so to say a dispatch from the field. The field in this case is Gaziantep, an industrial city in South-Eastern Turkey, around 125km away from Aleppo, which hosts a sizeable Syrian refugee population and acts as a hub for aid and development programs into Northern Syria.
When reading the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus in Gaziantep, my aim is not to create a philosophical treatise on his ideas. It is instead about reflecting on these very ideas and to use them as a starting point for soul-searching on the different ways of engaging with a world that does not comply with our expectations.
Gaziantep is one of the gates into a Syria that is witnessing war, destruction and fragmentation with the end state unknown. An ongoing clash of the forces of history, that include the great powers and several lesser powers of our time. A clash that throws one question right into our face: What is this violence all about? Because of its proximity to Syria, Gaziantep is a place, that vehemently demands reflection on our position towards this war. And reading Camus is one way to start.
Camus and the absurd
Sisyphus, according to the Greek myth, was sentenced by the gods to the punishment of rolling an immense boulder up a hill. Once he reaches the top, the boulder roles down the hill, making it a futile and absurd work into eternity. When Camus, in his 1942 essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”, looks at the human condition and our position in the world, he does not consider the world to be absurd. It is rather our incessant yearning for unity and certainty, faced by the silence and randomness of the universe, which makes our existence resemble that of Sisyphus’ punishment.
No matter how hard we try to come up with a concept of an inherent and guaranteed meaning, that gives us a feeling of certainty, we will always encounter events that refute our concepts. There will always be a gap of what we would like to know and what we actually know. While there is still the possibility of a meaning that transcends our world, it is outside the limits of the human condition to grasp it. Desperately trying to find it, is the definition of the absurd.
To Camus, the first and only serious philosophical problem when dealing with the absurd is the question whether to commit suicide or not. However, committing suicide amounts to negating the question. It amounts to resigning in the face of the absurd and withdrawing, without having solved the philosophical issue at hand. Therefore, resignation is not an option.
Another way, to avoid the challenge of the absurd, is externalizing the search for certainty, by taking over a concept of meaning from someone else and just follow it unquestioned. This can either be in the form of a conscious leap of faith into a philosophical or religious concept, that explains, what is outside the human reasoning, and is thereby by itself immune to questioning. Or it can be in the form of taking over, unquestioned, the concepts of people around us, thereby not even realizing the possibility of the absurd. However just like resignation, externalizing the search is still avoiding facing the absurd.
The feeling of a world out of joint is only the symptom. The cause is a human mind that strives desperately for certainty while constantly being disappointed by the universe. When it comes to dealing with the absurd, Camus tells us to imagine Sisyphus happy. As soon as he accepts his destiny and makes it his own, the punishment loses its dread. The absurd challenges us to accept the possibility of a world without certainty. Accepting this possibility is liberation. It is one way to become aware of the limitedness of the human mind and to come up with authentic ways to engage with the world around us.
The Syrian war
Particularly during times of war and upheaval, the directions, of the events that we experience, are not always the directions we expected them to go. In Syria, hopes for a non-violent transition to democracy have long ago given way to disillusion and frustrations. While expectations, that a continuation of one-man rule will unite and stabilize the country in the long term, will lead to similar disappointments later on.
The war as such is not absurd, it is a complex, multi-faceted and compartmentalized clash of various interests. What is absurd, is the desire to push it into simplifying concepts, a world of heroes and villains. The complexity of the war means that each area has a sociopolitical context of its own, each actor has a plurality of interests and each verdict that seemed certain will be disproven at some point. This is of course not limited to the Syrian war, but it is certainly a characteristic feature of it. Any simplification in this context will be refuted eventually and the sooner one realizes this, the more authentic his or her engagement with the conflict will become.
So how else can we react to the war? Another option is resignation, manifested in the form of cynicism. However, this only amounts to running away from the problem at hand. It negates the question instead of answering it. The question of how to engage with a world, that is not complying with expectations is not limited to the Syrian war. We encounter the same feeling in many other situations and evading that question by fleeing into cynicism, deprives us from an authentic look not only at the Syrian war, but the world around us in general.
Particularly on Syria, a widespread way of escaping the absurd are conspiracy theories, fueled by the thirst for an all-explaining theory that the ordinary media and authorities seem failing to deliver. It is a way of doubting already the very information we get about the war and building up structures of thought, that ensure that the information that we get confirms what we already know. This is not only an epistemological problem, as it brings into doubt the possibility to know anything, it also has practical consequences. Just as resignation and cynicism, conspiracy theories fail to address the initial dilemma at hand. And even worse, they contribute to the seeming randomness of the war when different groups end up killing each other in the name of fighting the same conspiracy. As it is currently happening in Syria, where various actors hostile towards each other, from the government to ISIS, are mobilizing their supporters by claiming to fight the Zionist conspiracy.
Spirituality can play an important part in improving our engagement with the war. Having faith helps people trapped in the war to cope with its volatility and encourages them to show kindness and patience in the face of its brutality. However, once spirituality is used to give inherent meaning by dividing the different sides of the war into sectarian heroes and villains, it will fail just as secular simplification does.
The issue of democracy in Syria shows how accepting the absurd enables us to have a more authentic intellectual engagement with the war. Back in 2011, supporters of the protests considered them as a manifestation of a universal trend towards liberal democracies. A comeback of the end-of-history-theories, with a meaning, that seemed to be certain and guaranteed: Syria will transition to a participatory and rights-respecting form of government. Making the decision, whether to support the protests or not, on the assumption of a universal trend means externalizing our stance on the notion of certainty. From an absurdist point of view however, that certainty could never be guaranteed. Instead, whatever happens in Syria is not the result of a universal trend, but the result of millions of individual decisions which are being reevaluated and taken anew every day. Knowing the outcome of all these decisions is impossible. Once we realize this, we are forced to engage with the complexity of why people take their respective decisions and the circumstances under which they are taken. A participatory and rights-respecting government is still something worth fighting for. But for our motivation to become authentic, it needs to come from within ourselves and not from the elusive certainty of the end of history.
Instead of dealing with an impersonal inherent meaning, the absurd forces us to engage with our fellow humans. It forces us to engage with points of view that are opposing our own, thereby making our view of the world more authentic. It forces us to embrace complexity and whatever stance we take towards the conflict afterwards, it becomes truly our own once we stop externalizing it to a universal trend or false certainties.
Accepting the absurd and refocusing on the human
Despite all the shortcomings of our human condition, we do have the power over our own stance towards the world. Accepting the absurd, and not relying on the certainty of an inherent meaning, opens up our experience to be directly in touch with the world around us, even when it defies our expectations.
Accepting the absurd is the starting point to a more conscious and self-reflective stance towards the world. It puts the focus on our quest for meaning away from the world and back to ourselves and our individual engagement. Basing our stance on a need for perfection of the world, will inevitably fail. In Syria, just as anywhere else. This realization helps us make peace with the irrational, the imperfect. Camus’ call for the acceptance of the absurd is always a call for humanism.
As certainty is impossible, constantly examining our own stance and reaching a greater understanding of the human condition is the only way to an authentic engagement. This is a call for the examined life, a call for listening to points of views opposing our own and therefore a call for philosophy. Whether as an aid worker in Gaziantep or in any other role in any other place. Whether looking at the war in Syria or any other manifestation of a world out of joint. Engaging with the world through the lens of the absurd helps us navigating its complexity and dealing with setbacks and disappointments.
This essay is a reminder to avoid the double temptation of resigning in front of the absurd or falling for illusions of certainty. Let us not give up in the face of disappointed expectations or overwhelming complexity. Realizing the impossibility of certainty, is the first of many steps towards an authentic engagement with the world and towards a stance that is truly our own.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Mayerhofer is working for a Syrian NGO in Gaziantep. In his spare time, he reflects on the philosophical dilemmas in development aid. You can contact him at [email protected]