The Absurd Hero in Camus and Godard

Benjamin Rivière

The Absurd Hero

Before World War I, the world was not fully cognizant of the magnitude of man’s capacity to destroy and maim. Suddenly, in the trenches of war, we witnessed the horror of chemical warfare, the damage of bombs and grenades, and the mass deaths wrought by automatic machine guns. In the wake of this unprecedented suffering, we began to question how we define our selves, our God and our purpose. How could God exist in such a morally desolate world? Abandoned and mutilated, how we could be the child of God. These sentiments incited young philosophers to understand the world in a new philosophy they termed “existentialism,” giving their era a modernist perspective grounded in a loss of meaning.

One of the guiding principles of existentialism is that God is either dead or has abandoned humanity. Either way, this tenet has two important implications. First, man can no longer expect salvation at death, which is followed by nothingness. Second, he is ultimately responsible for his own fate in the world. Without the presence of a higher entity embedded in western society and culture, the existentialists followed this reasoning until it led to the loss of purpose in daily life and routine. Most of all, humanity ultimately would have to face death without any fulfillment of greater purpose on earth. Thus, in the void left by the disappearance of God and any sense of purpose commuted by Christianity, the existentialists saw “absurdity,” or the absurd.

In 1942, Albert Camus wrote about the absurdity of life in his essay of the “Myth of Sisyphus.” Camus presents Sisyphus as the portrait of the absurd hero. The Greek myth explains how Sisyphus broke the rules of the Gods by chaining Death when Death came to take Sisyphus to the underworld. Sisyphus’s eternal punishment in the underworld is to push a giant boulder up a mountain, only to have it fall down again upon its own weight every time he reaches the summit. Sisyphus faces an absurd task because his task loses meaning after he becomes conscious of the inevitable fall after each struggle pushing the rock up the mountain. Inspired by the same sentiments, French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard adopted the absurd theme in his film “Pierrot le Fou” that explores the struggle of the modern man through Ferdinand, the protagonist. Ferdinand realizes the absurdity of consumerism and flees from his home and family with his lover, Marianne. They live together until Marianne reveals she has another lover, at which point Ferdinand kills them both and commits suicide. He attempts to save himself in his final moments, but he fails and dies anyway. In this research paper, I explain Sisyphus’ fulfillment of the absurd hero and then hold Ferdinand to the same criteria of the absurd hero as defined by Camus: one that realizes and accepts the absurd, one that is guided by his passions and who values life above all. Then, I use these heroes to analyze the existentialist perspective of man’s freedom from the bias of false truth.

Sisyphus’ punishment, to roll a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll down again—ad infinitum—is a fitting symbol of the post-WWI modernist era. As a metaphor for the human condition and the absurdity of our experience, Sisyphus is the epitome of the absurd hero because he is able to recognize the absurdity of the human condition, abandon hope, find happiness in material reality, and ultimately find meaning in the struggle itself. Sisyphus realizes that the rock’s falling is inevitable, so pushing the rock up the mountain becomes pointless. So it is with our own lives—if there is no God and no coherent meaning in the universe then our everyday activities become entirely meaningless. From the perspective of the universe, our labor is meaningless, so it falls upon our shoulders to find meaning in what we do. This is the struggle of the absurd man; to exist in an apathetic, incoherent universe while longing for meaning. Thus, both Sisyphus and humanity face the absurd. At this instance, man can either accept the only truth—which is the lack thereof—or he can perform “bad faith” defined by Sartre as “falsehood” and “lying to himself” (Being and Nothingness 329). Most men choose bad faith. However, Sisyphus chooses to accept the absurd thereby transcending the absurd prison.

Just like Sisyphus’ punishment, Ferdinand’s modern consumerist society becomes a metaphor for absurdity. In this sequence, Godard demonstrates the loss of meaning in human interaction; the men drone about cars and women drone about shampoo while they pursue meaningless sexual relations.  Everything is treated as a commodity.  In this respect, Godard writes a social critique of the transformation of our culture into a glossy magazine, a commodities market for products, ideas, attitudes and behaviors—a complex in which man has lost his individuality and his purpose. Ferdinand is a member of the proletariat and recognizes the absurdity of his society in the marketplace. “Les abrutis” that Ferdinand sees at work cannot recognize that they are enslaved to the same boulder as Sisyphus and that they will face death without even having realized their absurdity or without even having lived authentically. These drones deceive themselves and commit Sartrian “bad faith” by ignoring the absurd, abandoning their consciousness and convincing themselves of truth in consumerism and purpose through fulfillment of social norms. Drawing from the same experiences as Camus—post war—Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” presents a different perspective of the absurd focusing on the amorality and indifference of the universe. The characters recognize the absurd but are unable to accept it, escape it or deceive themselves. Instead they turn to alcohol and their dependency on the drug is evidence of their “bad faith.” Godard presents Marianne as a foil to Sisyphus. She is not an absurd hero either because, although she is conscious of the absurd, she becomes lost to Sartre’s notion of “anguish” in the face of the ultimate responsibility in a world void of God –“it is in anguish that man gets the consciousness of his freedom” (Sartre 29). In the following clip, Marianne becomes paralyzed by her realization of her own freedom. In her inability to act or to revolt, Marianne loses the potential of becoming the absurd hero.  According to Camus, action against anguish is necessary in order to become the absurd hero because revolt defines him. Analogous to Sisyphus, Ferdinand rises above his environment and accepts the absurdity of the human condition while still rebelling. All of a sudden, he rejects convention and the fake life his wife and father-in-law have constructed for him to escape with Marianne. Both Sisyphus and Ferdinand have the ability to transcend their respective absurd prisons through continuous acknowledgment of the absurd and by embracing the struggle. The action of Sisyphus and Ferdinand is their manifestation of the absurd struggle because they continue their futile search for meaning. Only then can the absurd man feel truly free and happy—Ferdinand is satisfied living simply and writing poetry on the seaside. The significance of Sisyphus and Ferdinand’s transcendence rests on the Sartrian notion of “anguish” and “bad faith.”

The first characteristic of the absurd hero is to recognize the absurd. The second characteristic of the absurd hero is that he rejects suicide. Without inherent meaning in life, one might feel despair that suffering renders life not worth living. The absurd hero embraces the struggle and the contradiction of living without purpose. Camus defines the absurd hero’s absolute dedication of life through this philosophical argument: because there is no truth or coherence in the universe, the absurd man cannot hold values. When Sisyphus descends into the underworld and faces his eternal torture, he begins to feel the absurdity of pushing the rock up the mountain with the same, inevitable end. Upon reaching the top of the mountain, Sisyphus becomes conscious of the absurdity of his task. The decision he faces now concerns a metaphorical suicide. Within his mind, he can choose to continue his absurd revolt in joy or sorrow. If Sisyphus abandons himself to the absurdity, he would face his task in sorrow and it would be metaphorical suicide. If Sisyphus surrenders to sorrow, he will be admitting that the suffering in life without purpose makes life not worth living. However, Camus suggests that Sisyphus retains joy without hope or purpose in his return to the rock. In this instance, Sisyphus accepts the absurd contradiction of the task and becomes the absurd hero. Following the analogy, performing this task with happiness suggests that Sisyphus, as the absurd hero, accepts the void of God and purpose and continues living despite suffering.  The final line of Camus’ analysis demands that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy,” suggesting that Sisyphus has found happiness in the struggle and thus embodies the absurd hero. Sisyphus demonstrates the absurd contradiction of finding happiness through acceptance of his own meaningless existence while struggling to attach meaning. His acceptance of the rock’s inevitable fall does not stop him from rebelling against the inevitable by pushing the rock up the mountain. Thus, the revolt of the absurd man is the evidence and manifestation of his struggle.

Ferdinand contemplates committing suicide at two separate instances in the film. In both cases, Ferdinand is afraid of losing Marianne, revealing that he considers her his purpose in existence. Therefore, when Marianne abandons him, Ferdinand faces the absurd dilemma of the modern man who has lost the meaning of his life. Ferdinand asserts himself as an absurd hero by, in every instance, clinging to life despite his suffering and lack of meaning.  For Ferdinand, committing  suicide would be admitting that suffering makes life not worth living. When Marianne physically abandons Ferdinand, he sits on train tracks, but runs away when faced with the train. Ferdinand is defined by his last second act to save himself.  Ferdinand saving himself is the revolt against despair and suffering. Ferdinand considers suicide the second time after he kills Marianne and losing his love reminds him again of the absurdity of life. Ferdinand straps explosives to his face and lights the fuse. This time, however, Ferdinand is unable to save himself. The panorama camera shot following Ferdinand’s death is symbolic of the absurdity of the human condition. Despite his struggle—emotions and trauma and death—the sun keeps shining indifferently over the blue ocean. His struggle has accomplished nothing. Without a God, there is no higher entity to feel responsible or obligated to man. The final panorama is symbolic of the absurd human condition of living and struggling with the same inevitable end and ultimately facing death in an apathetic universe. Godard repeats Ferdinand’s attempted suicide twice in order to emphasize Ferdinand’s evolution into the absurd man. Both the train and the explosives represent death. In these moments, Ferdinand will come to the epiphany that life without purpose is still sacred and that he will always reject death—traits that define the absurd hero. Nevertheless, by attempting suicide in the first place, Ferdinand fails to follow Camus’ criteria of the absurd hero. Only in the moments in which he tries to save himself does he demonstrate his ability to value life without meaning.

The final characteristic of the absurd hero is “passion,” as described by Camus. This passion represents the absurd hero’s dedication to the present. If man has become the hero of the absurd, he has abandoned hope and purpose. Therefore, the future does not interest him. Camus and Godard suggest that only in the state of the absurd hero can man truly appreciate the present. Sisyphus is defined by his “passion for life” and “hatred of death.” He is punished because he tricked Hades into letting him return to the world. Instead of returning promptly, Sisyphus lived out his days on a beach. Sisyphus is described as a “wise” mortal, so we can assume he was aware that ultimately, he would have to return and pay for his crime. However, he actively chose to defy and to stay in the world for as long as possible. In this regard, Sisyphus is an absurd hero  because he values life and the present more than he fears the future or even an eternity of torture. Just as Wallace Stevens implies in “Sunday Morning,” paradise is not in a promise located in the distant future but in the here and now. Only in the present do emotions reign over reason and logic. Therefore, as absurd heroes, Sisyphus and Ferdinand are led by their fleeting emotions.

After abandoning money and cars, Ferdinand lives in an isolated seaside cottage alone with Marianne, spending what little money they have left on books. He spends his days writing in his diary or reading books. These actions suggest that Ferdinand has awakened from a self-imposed slumber governed by advertising and protracted relationships, to the beauty of the world. By contrasting them with his new lifestyle, Ferdinand can realize the misplaced values of his consumerism society. Ferdinand draws the “modern slaves” working class through a communist lens.  This portrayal of the proletariat echoes Sisyphus’s punishment; the proletariats are slaves to a meaningless task that only sustains the consumerism complex. As a contrast, Ferdinand displays his own freedom through dancing and singing with Marianne.  Ferdinand becomes spontaneous, guided only by his heart and the elements. Ferdinand cannot rely on reason because of the lack of coherence in the universe and therefore turns to emotion. In the absence of truth, genuine human experience is all man has to fill the void. In the following clip, an American filmmaker explains to Ferdinand the significance of capturing emotions in art, in his case the cinema. . In this case, the filmmaker’s art form is cinema and because his art captures human emotion, it is the manifestation of the present. As the absurd man, Ferdinand is drawn to art and starts writing poetry. Ferdinand’s poetry is a testament of his passions and thus Ferdinand has fulfilled the same other absurd traits as Sisyphus. Therefore, I will treat “Pierrot le Fou” as an equal absurd testament as “The Myth of Sisyphus” in the upcoming analysis of existentialist freedom.

In both Camus and Godard’s analysis of the absurd, they emphasize the randomness of the universe in the absence of God. In the absurd universe, occurrences defy logic and coherence. This apparent randomness is actually an expression of freedom. In the absurd world, freedom from roles, expectations, and logic defines complete freedom. Sartre’s belief in “bad faith” is man avoiding the absurd by convincing himself of a truth in the universe. Camus presents this false truth as logic and Godard presents this false truth as the social norm. The man that has bad faith does not possess freedom because his consciousness is a slave to a false truth that he will then obey. Only when man becomes conscious does he realize the absurd and thus his own freedom. Sisyphus is responsible for many of the absurd events in his myth. His act of defiance to chain Death when the god comes to take him to the underworld demonstrates his fulfillment as the absurd hero in two ways. Firstly, his act of revolt against Death proves his passion for life, despite its loss in inherent meaning. Also, the act of revolt is the ultimate act of absurdity because revolting suggests attaching meaning to life. Secondly, if God is naturally man’s master, the act of a man’s domination over a god, defies the logic and natural order of the Greeks. In this way, Sisyphus is ultimately responsible for an absurd world. Another absurd act of Sisyphus is demanding of his wife to cast his naked body into the public square after his death. After he was unable to attain the underworld, Sisyphus returns to his wife from the dead and chastises her for her obedience. The request itself is completely meaningless and defies logic and tradition of the Greeks. Once again, Sisyphus accepts responsibility for the absurd world he creates. Sisyphus recognizes the absurdity of the world, and therefore the lack of order. By actively creating the absurd world, Sisyphus is rejecting the Greek Gods’ dominion over the world and asserting his own.  Sisyphus’ return to the natural world to chastise his wife for her obedience epitomizes the absurd man. Metaphorically, Sisyphus rejects the notion of obedience because, to the absurd hero, without any coherence or logic to the universe, revolt is manifestation of the struggle. Revolt implies that despite being aware of having lost meaning in his life, Sisyphus will continue to labor and search for meaning.

Similarly, in Godard’s universe, Ferdinand is subject to and responsible for random occurrences. When Ferdinand is driving the car, he purposely drives off road and into the water, ruining the car.  Ferdinand’s position as the driver is symbolic of the absurdist notion that man is completely responsible for the world. As he drives down the road, Ferdinand refuses to drive straight. To drive straight would be to obey and, as an absurd hero, Ferdinand feels the need to revolt in order to demonstrate his absurd struggle. Eventually, Ferdinand drives the car completely into the water. The following long shot of the car slowly drowning emphasizes the logical defiance of Ferdinand’s act. Through the car’s slow death, we are instinctively drawn to save the car. Thus, Godard includes a social critique of our self-incurred delusion. The car holds absolutely no meaning other than the material value assigned to it by consumerism; in the absence of God, the common man requires the logic of society in order to give his life meaning and to prevent him from living in the void. Thus, the common man lives without freedom and it takes the acceptance of the absurd to free him.

Similarly, Ferdinand revolts against society’s conventions—namely money and consumption values. Firstly, Godard asserts that Ferdinand exists in an absurd universe. Godard shoots scenes out of order and numbers chapter titles randomly creating the feeling of incoherence that reflects the absurd universe. He focuses on man’s dependence to existing society on norms in order to secure his sense of meaning despite the absence of God. This dependence prevents man from expressing his freedom. Ferdinand becomes a contrast to this society when he abandons his money in a car fire, saving only a children’s comic.  The simple act of burning money defies the logic of society and Ferdinand commits rebellion against the marketplace of commodities and consumerism. The inversion of values in Ferdinand is symbolic of his rejection of society; where he was once a meaningless drone, unable to recognize his own absurdity. The title of the comic book he saves is “La Bande De Pieds Nickeles”-a French expression meaning “those who don’t go to work.” Godard paints the characters in the comic book commonly seen as goons as heroes and inspirations to Ferdinand. In Camus’ serious vision, the comic characters are rebelling against consumerism and modern society by not going to work.

In the sudden loss of inherent meaning and purpose in life, the absurd man transcends his condition. Both characters become absurd heroes through their traits: recognizing the absurd, finding happiness in the void and ultimately clinging to life. These traits allow the absurd hero to accept the lack of hope and purpose in his life and therefore recognize the conscious attempt to convince itself of truth in the absurd universe. In the absence of God, the common man will become enslaved by his own bad faith of consumerism and shallow societal norms in order to avoid the anguish—the terrible weight—of his own responsibility. Therefore, his actions will be dictated by an entity other than himself. However, absurd heroes who are sometimes misunderstood are actually expressing their freedoms through revolt. Despite the development of existentialism in the mid 20th century, it is no longer a prevailing philosophy. Perhaps Godard’s example of the drowning car offers an answer by suggesting that we are unable to accept the burden of the void.

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Basic Writings of Existentialism. New York: Modern Library, 2004. N. pag. Print.

Pierrot Le Fou. Dir. Jean Luc Godard. Perf. Jean Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina. Canal Plus, 1965. Laser disc.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Being and Nothingness.” Basic Writings of Existentialism. New York: Modern Library, 2004. N. pag. Print.

Stevens, Wallace. “Sunday Morning.” N.p.: Poetry, 1915. Print.

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