Spring Thesis

Meaning and Absurdity

Thesis Adviser: Professor Maire Jaanus

Class: Senior Seminar: On Happiness (Barnard College)

Submission Date: 10 May 2013

“O Deep Thought computer,” Lunkwill said, “the task we have designed you to perform is this. We want you to tell us….” he paused, “The Answer.”
“The Answer?” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to what?”
“Life!” urged Fook.
“The Universe!” said Lunkwill.
“Everything!” they said in chorus.
Deep Thought paused for a moment’s reflection.
“Tricky,” he said finally.
“But can you do it?”
Again, a significant pause.
“Yes,” said Deep Thought, “I can do it.”
“There is an answer?” said Fook with breathless excitement.
“Yes,” said Deep Thought. “Life, the Universe, and Everything. There is an answer. But, I’ll have to think about it.”
[Seven and a half million years later…. Fook and Lunkwill are long gone, but their ancestors continue what they started]
“We are the ones who will hear,” said Phouchg, “the answer to the great question of Life….!”
“The Universe…!” said Loonquawl.
“And Everything…!”
“Shhh,” said Loonquawl with a slight gesture. “I think Deep Thought is preparing to speak!”
There was a moment’s expectant pause while panels slowly came to life on the front of the console. Lights flashed on and off experimentally and settled down into a businesslike pattern. A soft low hum came from the communication channel.
“Good Morning,” said Deep Thought at last.
“Er..good morning, O Deep Thought” said Loonquawl nervously, “do you have…er, that is…”
“An Answer for you?” interrupted Deep Thought majestically. “Yes, I have.”
The two men shivered with expectancy. Their waiting had not been in vain.
“There really is one?” breathed Phouchg.
“There really is one,” confirmed Deep Thought.
“To Everything? To the great Question of Life, the Universe and everything?”
Both of the men had been trained for this moment, their lives had been a preparation for it, they had been selected at birth as those who would witness the answer, but even so they found themselves gasping and squirming like excited children.
“And you’re ready to give it to us?” urged Loonsuawl.
“I am.”
“Now,” said Deep Thought.
They both licked their dry lips.
“Though I don’t think,” added Deep Thought. “that you’re going to like it.”
“Doesn’t matter!” said Phouchg. “We must know it! Now!”
“Now?” inquired Deep Thought.
“Yes! Now…”
“All right,” said the computer, and settled into silence again. The two men fidgeted. The tension was unbearable.
“You’re really not going to like it,” observed Deep Thought.
“Tell us!”
“All right,” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to the Great Question…”
“Of Life, the Universe and Everything…” said Deep Thought.
“Is…” said Deep Thought, and paused.
“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.

-Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy



French philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960) is well-known for introducing the concept of the absurd as the crux of human existence. In his essay, “Albert Camus: The Plague of Absurdity,” Louis Rossi defines absurdity as “the result of the discovery of a divorce between the world as it is and man’s conception of the world as it ought to be” (400). Fyodor Dostoevsky, Voltaire and the Dadaists depict all too well the reality of the horrors of the world, and it is nothing like the way we imagine the world should be. Acknowledging this profound metaphysical clash between the “is” and the “ought” is the basis of absurdism, and it is presented as an attitude toward the timeless problem of evil and suffering in the world. Each of these great thinkers approaches this clash in a different way, and I will flesh out their ideas over the course of this essay. Their philosophies fall out on various points on the spectrum of meaning. One side, which includes Viktor Frankl and Dostoevsky’s Alexei Karamazov, uses meaning as a jumping off point. The other group, which boasts the likes of Albert Camus and Dostoevsky’s Ivan and Dmitri Karamazov, observes the world at large and resigns itself to the lack of metaphysical meaning. Frankl, Dostoevsky and Camus also touch upon the implications of metaphysical freedom as it is defined by—or, in the case of Camus—confined by, meaning. Lastly, ideas about happiness can be gleaned from an acceptance—or rejection—of meaning.


Camus and Absurdism

“Living is keeping the absurd alive.”

―Albert Camus


Albert Camus’ propagation of absurdism places him squarely in the “meaninglessness” camp. Existentialism as understood by Camus confronts this paradox of the absurd by trying to escape from it. Existentialists attempt to find meaning where there can be none. Camus’ philosophy, however, accepts the absurdism implicit in the condition of life and tells us to persevere in spite of it. Camus presents several consequences of absurdism: The first is to revolt against the acceptance of any reconciliation of our metaphysical struggle, as Ivan does in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Next, one can embrace metaphysical freedom; Viktor Frankl offers a positive spin on this notion of freedom, while Dostoevsky shows the negative manifestations of radical freedom. Unlike Ivan Karamazov, who cannot and will not accept this willful ignorance, and Viktor Frankl, whose entire psychotherapeutic model of logotherapy centers around the existence of meaning, Camus embraces an epistemological agnosticism towards teleology; he confronts the absurd life and the desire to know the reason behind it precisely by letting it go. “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning,” he admits, “But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it” (Camus 51).

According to Camus, abandoning the idea of a meaning in life is the only way to acquire true freedom; for a man committed to a meaning and a purpose becomes “the slave of his liberty,” but the absurd man is free from any meaning. Camus believes that by accepting the radical, metaphysical freedom that the doctrine of absurdity promises, one can live an altogether “better” life (53). Without being tied down to a particular teleological goal, man can live each moment to the fullest. Because the absurd man has no concern for the future or for the past, the overall “quality” of his life is irrelevant. Rather, Camus writes, “what counts is not the best living, but the most living” (61). Espousing metaphysical freedom in light of the absurd enables man to get the most out of each moment without concerning himself with teleology or historical angst.

For Camus, “The point is to live” (65). This seemingly simple concept is central to his analysis of the myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus, who captured Death and then dared to escape the underworld himself, was subject to the most dreadful punishment imaginable to the meaning-obsessed human race: endless, utterly futile labor. The gods doomed Sisyphus to eternally roll a stone up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again upon reaching the top, leaving him to start all over again. Camus captures the hopelessness that stems from Sisyphus’ endless, meaningless labor, focusing especially on the latter’s mindset as he treks down the mountain in order to resume his pointless task. But according to Camus, hopelessness is not equivalent to despair. The key to Camus’ philosophy is that Sisyphus continues his meaningless trek while fully conscious of its absurdity—and by accepting his fate, the absurd man will acquire happiness. Happiness is inseparable from the absurd; they are “two sons of the same earth” (122). With the realization of the absurdity and meaninglessness of life comes the conclusion that life is, moment-to-moment, what we alone make of it. The famous last line of Camus’ rendition of the myth of Sisyphus illustrates this point precisely: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (123).

Another characteristic of Camus’ absurd hero is that “He is, as much through his passions as through his torture” (120). This emphasis on Being reveals hints of existentialism; that is, simply existing is half the battle. Insofar as man exists, he must then contend with the “torture” that is an inevitable—and, indeed, integral—part of life. In addition to—or perhaps in spite of—his tortures, Sisyphus fosters a persistent and characteristically absurd love for life (“his passions”), matched only by Ivan Karamazov and the memorable old woman in Voltaire’s Candide. Fittingly, it was Sisyphus’ “passion for life” that precipitated the institution of his infinite punishment to begin with.


The Search for Meaning

“If there is meaning in life at all, there must be meaning in suffering.”

―Viktor Frankl


Like all survivors of the Holocaust, Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) saw his outlook on life change dramatically after his time in the concentration camps. Unlike many others, however, Frankl emerged with an inspiring view of human existence. A survivor of the Theresienstadt Ghetto and two concentration camps, Frankl lost his wife, mother, father and brother in the camps and witnessed unspeakable horrors. But unlike Albert Camus, Frankl committed himself to the notion that there is meaning in life—and, therefore, in suffering. He confronted the troubling existence of evil in the world with a determination not to give in to the cynicism of absurdity, but rather to find meaning in his suffering and devote his life to proactively pursuing this meaning. Frankl’s postwar life-work took the form of his book Man’s Search for Meaning, published in Vienna in 1946 and released in the United States in 1959. He begins by chronicling life in the concentration camps—a Sisyphean paradigm of crushing labor if there ever was one—and describing the psychological mindsets of the prisoners during the war. Part Two puts forth Frankl’s pioneering theory of logotherapy, which helps people find the unique meaning in their lives.

In contrast with Freud’s “pleasure principle,”  Frankl’s logotherapy suggests that the striving towards meaning is “the primary motivational force in man” (Frankl 99). This motivation to discover meaning can be actualized in three ways: (1) By creating a work or doing a deed, (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone, and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering (111). Frankl expands upon (1) and (2) by describing instances where his patients establish a purpose for themselves in the form of something close to them, like a scientific achievements, or a significant other. Frankl recounts the story of a man who became depressed following his wife’s death but was comforted upon realizing that his wife was spared the suffering of losing him. “In some way,” Frankl writes, “suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning” (113). Meaning is, for Frankl, what keeps us going in the face of suffering. As Nietzsche expressed, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” Frankl insists that this maxim could be the psychotherapeutic model for sufferers of all kinds, including prisoners of concentration camps.

Award-winning journalist Ben Sherwood, in his book, The Survivor’s Club: The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life, tells the story of a Holocaust survivor who embraced this message. Magda[1]survived Auschwitz and immigrated to Westchester, New York after the war, where she married and had two children. Though she occasionally suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Magda functioned astonishingly well. She insisted that survivors “had an obligation to live their lives fully,” and she believed that “success and happiness were important posthumous victories over Hitler.” Several years later, however, Magda’s entire outlook had changed. Her husband died, and she lost both her son and grandson to cancer. Even worse was the pain that she felt on behalf of her granddaughter, who was consequently dealing with the deaths of both her father and brother.  Magda’s daughter tried to convince her to see a psychiatrist so that she could get a prescription for anti-depressants, but Magda refused. In response to this, Rachel Yehuda, a leading authority on PTSD and human resilience, said to Magda: “I can’t help thinking that under the circumstances, your granddaughter is pretty fortunate.” When her patient responded with indignation, Yehuda continued:

“Fortunate, to have someone in her life who can understand what she is going through. You of all people know what it is like to lose a father and brother at this age. You were not so lucky to be able to cry in the arms of your grandmother, but I imagine that it would have been much easier for you if you had…. Your granddaughter has you. Maybe that’s why your daughter wants you to take those antidepressants, since you cannot be of much help in your current condition.” (Sherwood 181-182)

Thus, by discovering a meaning for her suffering, Magda—with this slight nudge from Yehuda—was finally able to develop a proactive way to do good for another in the face of this suffering. As Frankl noted above, suffering can cease to be suffering as soon as it acquires a meaning. In one of the most powerful passages in his book, Frankl’s rallying cry supports this story by ascertaining the inherent meaning of suffering:

If there is meaning in life at all, there must be meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete. (Frankl 67)

 Without darkness, there can be no light; without evil, there can be no good. Or, in the words of Albert Camus: “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night” (123). Camus and Frankl diverge in their beliefs in meaning, but both view suffering as an integral part of life, and both prize the metaphysical freedom implicit in every man and woman as a way to face suffering head-on. However, unlike Camus, Frankl declares that “Human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning” (83). For Frankl, being alive is inseparable from having purpose and meaning, and since suffering is a part of life, suffering must have a meaning, too.

Freedom and Responsibility

Frankl emphasizes that the opportunity to establish meaning is grounded in the way in which one bears one’s burden (Frankl 78). External forces may be governing a person’s circumstances in life, but the reaction to these circumstances are controlled by her alone.A concentration camp represents the epitome of incarceration. Every minute of a prisoner’s life was controlled by Nazi officers and rules were arbitrarily established according to their whims. Yet it was precisely in these paradigms of physical imprisonment that Viktor Frankl insists man’s freedom shines through most strongly. He relates that the “suffering and death” of the prisoners he countered “bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost” (66). That is, no matter what was done to her body, her family, or her friends, a prisoner would always be able to choose her attitude towards her circumstances. She, alone, is the mistress of this “inner freedom.” Says Frankl: “It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful” (67). This stands in stark contrast to Camus’ absurdism; in The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus reverses Frankl’s statement and flips “meaningful” to “meaningless.” For Frankl, the existence of freedom makes life meaningful, but Camus accepts the existence of meaninglessness as a given and deduces his concept of freedom from that.

Frankl takes his idea of freedom even further, introducing an important corollary that is intricately tied up with the concept of spiritual freedom—that is, responsibility.  Frankl identifies freedom as the “positive aspect” associated with the “negative aspect” that characterizes freedom. If freedom is generally defined as a lack of constraints, responsibility is the normative impetus to act based on those lack of constraints.

The oft-quoted Spider-Man line, “with great power comes great responsibility” (which actually originated from the works of Voltaire) comes to mind when describing this connection between freedom and responsibility. Freedom is the most raw, unbounded kind of power, and the responsibility that comes along with an acceptance of spiritual freedom is prodigious indeed. A free life without meaning is in danger of “degenerating into mere arbitrariness” (132). Franklpaints a profound picture to illustrate the importance of responsibility, recommending that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast of the United States be complemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast. Yet he swerves into Camus’ philosophical territory by scoffing at the question of the meaning of life as an “absurd query,” noting that instead of focusing on discovering a teleological goal in life, we must focus on how we can better improve life each and every day. Frankl explores this topic more thoroughly in his elucidation of logotherapy:

We had to teach the despairing men that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual. (Frankl 77)


Happy vs. Meaningful

The above Frankl passage may imply that the discovery of meaning leads to happiness, but the connection is actually much more complex. Emily Esfahani Smith of The Atlantic recently incorporates Frankl’s arguments in her article delimiting the differences between living a happy life and living a meaningful one. In 1991, Man’s Search for Meaning was counted among the ten most influential books in the United States, demonstrating the prevailing national desire for direction, meaning and purpose. Over two decades later, however, this emphasis on living for something beyond the self seems to fly in the face of our current cultural trends, which advocate the pursuit of individual happiness. But as Frankl points out, this pursuit of happiness is misguided, for one must have a reason to be happy. He writes: “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”

Ultimately, according to Smith, leading a meaningful life can ensure some sort of higher “satisfaction,” as opposed to ensuring momentary happiness. While Camus cherished this idea of a moment-by-moment joy, Smith’s study establishes a more selfless ideal that builds off of Frankl’s conceptions about responsibility towards others, embodying the meaningful and happy lifestyle led by Alexei, Dostoevsky’s hero in The Brothers Karamazov. Smith notes that research has shown that having a purpose in life “increases overall well-being and life satisfaction,” and, following the theme of Ben Sherwood’s Survivor’s Club, “enhances resiliency” as well. All of these represent conditions that go beyond mere momentary happiness. A 2012 study[2] illustrates the selfless nature of “meaning” as opposed to the selfish nature of “happiness.” The study singled out nearly 400 Americans aged 18-78 over a month-long period and asked them to assess whether their lives were meaningful and/or happy. The researchers discovered that those who identified as being “happy” were associated with being  “takers,” whereas those who judged their lives to be “meaningful” leaned towards being “givers.” Tellingly, those who lead meaningful lives report the higher stress-levels associated with being “givers.” However, Smith’s findings indicate that “happiness” is inherent to the moment and caters only to the self, whereas “meaning” provides long-term satisfaction and involves transcending the self. “Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explains Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study.

Several studies cited by Frankl in his book yielded similar results, even thirty years ago. In France, a public opinion poll revealed that 89% of people admitted that one needs something for which to live. Another poll targeted students from 48 colleges across the United States and discovered that only 16% chose “making a lot of money” as something they consider “very important to them now,” whereas 78% marked off “finding a purpose and meaning to my life.” Frankl admits that these results may seem trivial in the eyes of those who maintain that meanings and values are nothing but defense mechanisms, reaction formations and sublimations. “But as for myself,” he declares, “I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my ‘defense mechanisms,’ nor would I be ready to die merely for the sake of my ‘reaction formations’” (99). If, as Ivan’s devil says so succinctly, “suffering is life,” then for Frankl, the meaning of suffering is life.


Intro to Brothers Karamazov

 “There is only one thing that I dread; to not be worthy of my suffering.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky


The philosophical views expressed in the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) emerged from two key traumatic experiences in the young Fyodor’s life: the murder of his father by serfs while he was away at boarding school, and his arrest (and subsequent time spent in a labor camp in Siberia) in 1849 for distributing socialist propaganda.  The anguish suffered by Dostoevsky during these difficult times is undoubtedly expressed in his deep-thinking novels. Though he initially championed the views of radical freedom exemplified by the socialist party, his time in prison led to a rejection of many of those values. While in prison, Dostoevsky also developed epilepsy, and these seizures would continue to plague him for the remainder of his life, further molding his views on suffering.

Dostoevsky’s last and most intricate masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, was published in 1880, just a year before the author’s death. The novel tackles critical questions about human experience and, as an inseparable addendum, human suffering, focusing on religio-moral issues such as faith versus doubt and the problems of freedom and moral responsibility.

Each of the titular brothers embodies a different response to the absurdity of life and its many personal tragedies. Since Camus himself admitted he was largely influenced by Dostoevsky’s philosophical writings, it is not surprising that Camus’ categories of reactions to the absurd life correlate closely with the worldviews embodied by the Karamazovs. Dmitri epitomizes the life of momentary passion, and his inexplicable impulsivity stems from an acceptance of radical metaphysical freedom. Alexei Karamazov’s character breaks from Camus’ absurdism and leans towards Frankl’s philosophical views of transcending the self and finding meaning—and happiness—in suffering. Ivan, by far the most agonized character in the novel, bullishly pursues an overarching meaning in life even while simultaneously rejecting the possibility of any meaning in life at all.


Dmitri Karamazov – Freedom and Spontaneity

A far cry from the moralistic, logical nature of Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, The Brothers Karamazov presents characters who are contradictory, wildly passionate, and (both colloquially and philosophically) absurd. As Camus himself remarked, “Probably no one so much as Dostoevsky has managed to give the absurd world such familiar and tormenting charms” (Camus 110). Thus, while Frankl embraces responsibility as a necessary component of freedom, Dostoevsky’s characters accept no such corollary to freedom, and as a result, the concept of freedom instead leads them to absurdity. Complete and utter freedom, insofar as it stems from and leads to absurdity, is far from a positive notion in Dostoevsky’s novel. Instead of the discovery of spiritual freedom leading to empowerment, it instead leads to either paralysis or to its polar opposite: inexplicable spontaneity. The Brothers Karamazov is overflowing with instances of characters acting in erratic, impulsive ways—that is, doing things for no reason. Dmitri Karamazov, the eldest of the clan, is the prime perpetrator of spontaneous, meaningless acts. When he comes upon his beloved brother, Alyosha, at a crossroads, Dmitri jumps out and startles the latter, crying, “Your money or your life!” As the overwrought Alyosha breaks down in tears, Dmitri’s only explanation for his behavior is that “a foolish thought came to me” (Dostoevsky 154). Dmitri’s impetuousness leads him to beat Nikolai Snegiryov’s at a bar, and impetuousness suffuses Snegiryov’s abrupt change of mind in accepting and then rejecting Katerina Ivanovna’s apology money. The entire murder trial delineates Dmitri’s propensity for spontaneous action; for example, when prompted for the reason he snatched the alleged murder weapon if he didn’t actually use it, he replies, “What purpose? No purpose! I just grabbed it and ran” (470). This response succinctly expresses the meaninglessness implicit in actions that stem from total metaphysical freedom. Dmitri, an absurd man after Camus’ own heart, is free from any meaning or purpose except his minute-by-minute desires. Madame Khokhlakov, in one of her many ridiculous (and entertaining) rants, discusses how declaring an act a “fit of passion” can be used to explain away absolutely anything—though of course, describing something as such is precisely a way of stripping it of any rational, meaningful explanation (578).


Alexei Karamazov – “The Giver”

Though he is often more of an observer than an actor, Alexei Karamazov, the youngest son of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, is Dostoevsky’s proclaimed “hero.” Alyosha is a naturally virtuous young man with a boundless love for mankind and an infinite capacity for forgiveness. Despite being fresh out of adolescence, Alyosha is mature beyond his years and possesses a pure—but far from naïve—faith in God and humanity. Following in the footsteps of his beloved elder, Zosima, Alyosha devotes his life to doing good for others and spreading love to all. In the terminology of the studies presented in Emily Esfahani Smith’s article from The Atlantic, Alyosha can be classified as a “giver.” He does not shy away from pain and hardship; in the middle of Ivan’s grim depiction of the multitude of suffering in the world, he mutters, “I want to suffer, too” (Dostoevsky 242). His life is far from painless, and therefore far from blissful. But he is the only character in the novel who is able to commit to a path in life and find meaning and happiness within that.

At first glance, this idea of “happiness within suffering” seems to be hopelessly paradoxical, since people who are suffering are generally also unhappy. But Smith’s study and the Elder Zosima’s teaching indicate that it is not just a possible way of living , but also a preferred way of living. Zosima tells his youthful protégé, “You will behold great sorrow, and in this sorrow you will be happy” (77). Later, he elaborates on this edict: “Life will bring you many misfortunes, but through them you will be happy” (285). In both passages, Zosima specifies a task for Alyosha to carry out: (1) “…you will bless life and cause others to bless it—which is the most important thing” (285), and (2) “Seek happiness in sorrow. Work, work tirelessly” (77). Zosima’s decree gives Alyosha a forward direction in life. In one of the most poignant plots of this sprawling novel, the youngest Karamazov encounters the terminally ill Ilyusha Snegiryov and, as a result of his “tireless work,” brings peace between Ilyusha and the other schoolboys and provides them with a spiritual purpose. In doing so, Alyosha is able to find and spread happiness in a place of sorrow.

Zosima’s message of universal love and kindness also enables Alyosha to lead a meaningful life even without intellectually cognizing life’s meaning. When Alyosha imitates Ivan’s imaginary Christ by giving his brother a wordless kiss on the lips instead of attempting to engage him in theological dialogue, he demonstrates that some things cannot be expressed in words; some things, like the meaning and purpose of life, might be inherently incomprehensible. This concept that so terrifies Ivan is not problematic for Alexei Karamazov. Cultivating faith in God and doing good for all are ideals that are intrinsically good and can and should be carried out in all of life’s circumstances.


Ivan Karamazov – The Absurdist Rebel

There is no character in The Brothers Karamazov more tormented than the middle child of Fyodor Pavlovich. Ivan’s entire existence is a vacillation between wanting to know the reasons for everything and wanting to remain indignantly ignorant; between embracing a faith in the existence of a higher cause and doubting that there is any. Ultimately, Ivan is doomed by his worship of cold intellectualism. Camus rejects meaning at the outset, but Ivan’s attempts to determine the meaning of life (and, therefore, of suffering) through intellectual contemplation leads him toward a more turbulent absurdity.

The concept of the absurd as it relates to Ivan is manifested in his reaction to the metaphysical freedom that both Camus and Frankl cherish. At the end of the novel, Ivan has a hallucinatory conversation with “The Devil.” Effectively arguing heatedly with himself, Ivan’s contradictory sentiments cancel each other out and precipitate state of meaningless absurdity. His devil is a farce; he is led to meaninglessness because of his acceptance of such a radical freedom and his inability to accept a modicum of the responsibility for which Frankl advocates. Ivan’s descent into absurdity is precisely the kind of life to which Frankl was referring when he said that a free life without meaning is in danger of “degenerating into mere arbitrariness” (Frankl 132). Dmitri represents this kind of “arbitrary” life that Frankl describes, but Ivan is the one who is deeply, irrevocably haunted by it. The discovery of inner freedom has the unique power to lead a person on the path to a life of meaning—as in Frankl’s case—or along the path toward a life of absurdity—as in Ivan’s case.

Ivan’s sense of absurdity also emerges from his observation of worldly suffering. He is initially led to reject God because he cannot harmonize the idea of human suffering (specifically that of children) with the idea of a just and righteous God. This is a theological problem that has plagued philosophers, moralists and religious men and women for centuries, but Ivan offers an assessment of the problem of suffering amidst his frenzied rambling. However, he virtually waves off the “problem” of human suffering in general, ostensibly subscribing to the biblical doctrine of original sin:

“I will not speak of grown-ups because, apart from the fact that they are disgusting and do not deserve love, they also have retribution: they ate the apple, and knew good and evil, and became ‘as gods.’ And they still go on eating it.” (Dostoevsky 237-238)

Ivan’s acerbic and universal denouncement of mankind reflects his uncompromising view of humanity. The idea of human beings suffering for the sins of the past is not problematic for Ivan because, he observes, these people are merely continuing on the sins of their forefathers—they “still go on eating [the apple].” There is, he explains, “a beast hidden in every man, a beast of rage, a beast of sensual inflammability” (241-242). Ivan cynically accepts this theory as the answer to general human suffering and dismisses this problem because he is able to synthesize a concrete reason for it. This view contrasts with his sharp-tongued analysis of the suffering of children, who “have not eaten anything and are not yet guilty of anything” (238). He has already discovered the meaning of the suffering of “grown-ups,” and now he focuses his attention on the problem of the suffering of children.

Ivan dives into several horrific accounts of “blameless” children suffering unspeakable horrors at the hands of “disgusting,” sinful adults. In one story, an “intelligent, educated gentleman and his lady” flog their seven-year-old daughter with a branch covered in thorns (the father is pleased by the extra pain inflicted by the thorns), beating her mercilessly and almost, Ivan says, to the point of sensuality. “The child is crying,” Ivan babbles, but then “the child finally cannot cry, she has no breath left: ‘Papa, papa, dear papa!’” (241). The brutality continues in Ivan’s retelling of an occurrence from “the darkest days of serfdom.” An eight-year-old serf in the house of a retired general once threw a stone while playing and accidentally maimed the paw of one of the general’s prized hounds. When the master found out, he locked the boy up and, the next day, ordered the boy to be stripped naked in front of all the residents of his estate. The boy’s mother was forced to stand in front of them all. The general told the boy to run, and released his pack of hounds to hunt the boy down and tear him apart, all in front of the boy’s mother (242-243). As if these tales weren’t indescribably appalling enough, Ivan also recounts an instance of Turks who have “taken a delight in torturing children.” The Turks, Ivan explains, are known to “[toss] nursing infants up in the air and [catch] them on their bayonets before their mothers’ eyes” (238-239).

The piling on of atrocity after atrocity leads Ivan—and, for a moment, Alyosha as well—to conclude that life must be meaningless and absurd. The recognition of limitless freedom had already set Ivan on this path to absurdity, and the incompatibility of a just God and the existence of such shocking evil nudges him along even further.The inseparable pairing of suffering and absurdity is revealed when Ivan  immediately follows up his anecdote about the Turks with the aside, “By the way, the Turks are very fond of sweets.” This jarring non sequitur effectively renders the previous passage devoid of meaning and perfectly captures the nature of the absurd as it connects to suffering. In sum, he exclaims to Alyosha, “If everyone must suffer, in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children got to do with it?” (244). This impassioned query proves to be rhetorical, because Ivan is ultimately unable to come up with any possible meaning for the existence of suffering children, and this fatalistic absence of meaning leads him to absurdity. Ivan insists that despite his unquenchable thirst for “the whole of truth”—that is, the meaning of suffering—no answer will ever suffice (245). He takes a page out of Camus’ book by declaring that “the world stands on absurdities,” and deduces that life must then be meaningless. “I don’t understand anything,” Ivan says deliriously, “and I no longer want to understand anything” (243).



“But what was this world created for?” said Candide.

“To drive us mad,” replied Martin.



François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778)—better known as the eighteenth-century tragic dramatist, Voltaire—was no stranger to personal suffering. A frequent critic of the French government, Voltaire was imprisoned in Bastille for slandering the Regent, then beaten after offending a courtier, and eventually exiled from his native Paris. He was also particularly affected by tragedies of a more global nature; namely, the 1746 earthquake that destroyed part of Lima and another earthquake nine years later that killed over 50,000 people in Lisbon. Stricken with horror over these inexplicable calamities and the mass suffering they produced, Voltaire, like many others before and after him, began to concern himself with the theological and metaphysical problem of suffering: How can a merciful God let suffering occur? Voltaire also considers suffering caused by acts of man in addition to acts of God—Why did God create such a horrible world?  These questions propelled Voltaire to compose his most famous novella on the problem of suffering: Candide.

Gottfried Leibniz attempted to answer these questions by positing the popularly held idea of free will as a double-edged sword. We prize our metaphysical freedom, but its existence also presupposes the existence of evil. Man has the freedom to act as he pleases, and acting in a way that causes suffering to others is necessarily included. Yet Leibniz was also committed to the theory that God, due to his perfection, must have created the best possible world. In light of this contradiction, Leibniz insisted that individual suffering contributes to the “greater good” of the universe at large—and this is the particular aspect of his philosophy to which Voltaire took exception. The notion that a person’s suffering can somehow contribute to the general good of others is anathema to Voltaire, and it’s not difficult to see how such a doctrine can be made to sound callous.  In Candide, Voltaire ridicules this concept through the voice of the eponymous hero’s ill-fated mentor, Pangloss.

Pangloss endures unthinkable hardships throughout the book. He is hanged at an auto-da-fé, dissected and flogged—just to name just a few of the horrors he is forced to endure. Through it all, however, he maintains his stubborn Leibnizian optimism that “everything is for the best” (Voltaire 35). Pangloss doesn’t deny the existence of suffering, but insists that it is somehow considered “good.” Voltaire slyly points out the inconsistency of this concept: By viewing suffering as “good,” the world is considered a better place with the presence of more suffering. As Pangloss explains, “Private misfortunes contribute to the general good, so that the more private misfortunes there are, the more we find that all is well” (31). This philosophy seems to be a contradiction in terms.

While Pangloss blindly espouses this “all for the best” doctrine in light of whatever life throws at him, other characters—like Candide and Cunégonde—struggle mightily with the callous doctrine. Pangloss’ (and Leibniz’s) philosophy essentially denies the importance of suffering in itself; there is no “meaning in suffering” as Frankl understands it (emphasis mine). After being flogged mercilessly and then experiencing an earthquake, Candide, “trembling with fear and confusion,” attempts to make sense of Pangloss’ philosophy in light of seemingly random and meaningless suffering. “When it comes to my dear Pangloss being hanged—the greatest of philosophers—I must know the reason why,” he exclaims. “And Lady Cunégonde, that pearl amongst women! Was it really necessary for her to be disemboweled?” (37) Candide’s obsession with “the reason why” pits him against his mentor’s ideas about an overarching reason to explain all suffering. When Cunégonde—who, in fact, had not died from her “mishaps”—rejoins the crew, she, too, anguishes over the suffering of others, crying out in despair after witnessing Candide’s flogging. She says to herself, “What can have brought my adorable Candide and our wise Pangloss to Lisbon, one to receive a hundred lashes and the other to be hanged?” Cunégonde concludes that Pangloss has “cruelly deceived” her with his “all is for the best” philosophy. In stark contrast to Pangloss, both Cunégonde and Candide attempt to find a deeper meaning to the terrible events that befall them over the course of their misadventures.

The tale of Candide and his motley crew is considered absurd (in the colloquial sense) due to the sheer number of misfortunes they encounter; we are able to share a shaky laugh at their expense because it is inconceivable that a single person could endure so many horrors. But Voltaire, unfortunately, was not plucking these horrific tortures out of his imagination; many of them were and are all too real. Had Voltaire lived two centuries later, he undoubtedly would have struggled with making sense out of the insensible horrors of the Holocaust, on which Frankl focuses his attention. But Voltaire’s sharp wit appears to be more in line with Camus and Ivan Karamazov in that he believes there cannot be any sufficient reason to describe such suffering. In a particularly scathing passage, Voltaire the brutality of war precisely by mocking the possibility of finding any real meaning in it. He describes a battle through the eyes of Candide:

Those who have never seen two well-trained armies drawn up for battle, can have no idea of the beauty and brilliance of the display. Bugles, fifes, oboes, drums, and salvoes of artillery produced such a harmony as Hell itself could not rival…. Finally, the bayonet provided ‘sufficient reason’ for the death of several thousand more…. Candide trembled like a philosopher, and hid himself as best he could during this heroic butchery. (Voltaire 25)

Voltaire, ever the pacifist, infuses this passage with ironic imagery. The term “heroic butchery” dispels any doubts of equivocation and enables us to look back on the passage in light of his clearly disdainful view on warfare. “Butchery” is an unambiguously negative word in that it portrays humans as animals; to then label butchery “heroic,” which describes something noble and selfless, is a classically absurd contradiction in terms, akin to describing a “square circle.” “Beauty,” “brilliance,” and “harmony” therefore invoke ironic implications as Voltaire describes the details of “butchery.” Most striking is his use of the phrase “sufficient reason,” set apart in quotation marks to suggest not only that its meaning is satirical but also, on another level, that its significance is empty. The contradictory terms that Voltaire utilizes ensures that the entire passage essentially cancels itself out. He concludes that any attempt to establish meaning in suffering necessarily negates the suffering itself; therefore, we should not attempt to find any meaning in it at all.




“Dada is like your hopes: nothing

like your paradise: nothing

like your idols: nothing

like your heroes: nothing

like your artists: nothing

like your religions: nothing”

Francis Picabia


The brief but extreme movement of Dadaism expressed this very existential idea put forth by Voltaire and Camus and rejected by Frankl: that life is inherently devoid of meaning. Like the aforementioned passage about the nature of war, the whole of Dadaism is “the point where the yes and the no and all opposites meet” (Kristiansen 460).  Dadaism was a culture of meaninglessness that emerged from the ashes of war, as a direct result of the impossibility of finding sense amidst such barbaric chaos. Donna M. Kristiansen summarizes the motivations behind Dadaism in three alliterative words: disgust, disillusionment and disinterest. This was the attitude of the post-World War I generation which was “suffering the agonies of the chaotic universe” and “losing faith in everything,” like ethical values and the structure of society (Kristiansen 457). As far as cultural movements go, Dadaism was a mere flash in the pan—it began in Zurich in 1915 and ended less than a decade later, in 1924. For a concept whose goal was essentially its own destruction, its lack of durability is unsurprising. But one could also say that, by abruptly burning out, Dadaism actually achieved its purpose (which, strictly speaking, provides us with yet another contradiction!).

The word “Dada” itself is meaningless in the universal sense. Kristiansen explains its differing significance to several cultures:

 It means the tail of a holy cow to the Kru Negroes, a cube to the Italians, mother to the Rumaniansa, hobbyhorse to the French, a nurse  to the Russians, father to the Americans, and everything to an incoherent babbling baby of any nationality. (ibid.)

In short: it means nothing. And, according to the Dadaists, so does life. The existential anguish that was experienced as a result of postwar disenchantment produced a profound morality crisis for the Dadaists. As a result, Dadaism rejected reason and logic, and affirmed chaos and nonsense. Dadaists produced incoherent manifestos and campaigned for spontaneity, negation and absurdity. Logic was considered to be “an inorganic disease” because it presumed a unified principle of thinking, which is unbearably restrictive for the Dadaists. Judging from their experiences, the world is so erratic and unpredictable—that is, the precise opposite of logical—that the only way to approach life is to embrace radical freedom from every conceivable social convention (458). Tristan Tzara, author of the Dada Manifesto of 1918, represented Dadaism’s nihilistic side. He wrote that man is an “infinite and shapeless variation” and the embodiment of chaos.[3] All efforts toward making rational sense of the world are utterly futile because of this. The only “truth” comes from pure spontaneity, which is free from all conventions or restrictions.

The arbitrary nature of human existence necessarily negates the possibility of making meaning out of the chaos, rendering all of life and human experience absurd. Richard Huelsenbeck, in his essay “History of Dadaism,” provides a stark answer to our most probing existential question: What is life? According to the Dadaist, life is

… fixing up philosophy for supper. But before you have it ready, the mailman brings you… a telegram announcing that all your chickens have died of hoof and mouth disease, your father has fallen on a pitch fork and frozen to death, your mother has burst with sorrow on the occasion of her silver wedding (maybe the frying pan stuck to her ears, how do I know?). That’s life my dear fellow. The days progress in the rhythm of your bowels and you, who have so often been in peril of choking on a fish bone, are still alive. You pull the covers up over your head and whistle the “Hohenfriedberger.” (qtd. in Kristiansen 406)

This passage sounds like a scene torn right from the pages of Candide, and Voltaire’s work undoubtedly contains prescient allusions to what later became Dadaism. In short, both Voltaire’s Candide and Huelsenbeck’s account of Dadaism accept the question of the meaning of life as absurd and toss an absurd answer right back at us.


Conclusion: Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything

The belief that suffering plays an integral role in simply being alive is one that is taken up by many different figures throughout literary and philosophical history. The wise wizard Albus Dumbledore told Harry Potter after the death of Harry’s godfather, “Suffering like this proves you are still a man! This pain is part of being human…!”[4] In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov has a hallucinatory conversation with “The Devil,” who takes the physical form of a garishly dressed middle-aged man and represents his own subconscious. Like Camus and Frankl, the devil paradoxically identifies suffering—and the profound metaphysical doubt that comes along with it—as what makes life worth living:

“‘Hosannah’ alone is not enough for life, it is necessary that this ‘Hosannah’ pass through the crucible of doubt… People… suffer, of course, but… still they live, they live really, not in fantasy; for suffering is life.” (Dostoevsky 642)

The devil admits that without suffering, life would be—well, not life at all. A blissful life is not real, because suffering is an essential part of being alive. Responding to a scathing barb of Ivan’s about the devil having his “nose out of joint,” the devil responds sententiously, “It’s sometimes better to have your nose put out of joint than to have no nose at all…” (646). This cryptic statement encapsulates the importance of life per se: Better a life filled with suffering then no life at all.

Dadaism’s approach to life is pretty bleak. It goes much further than merely rejecting the idea of a meaning in life; Dadaists are so entrenched in absurdity and an existence devoid of meaning that they find it impossible to live life at all. But Viktor Frankl, Ivan Karamazov, the unfortunate old woman in Candide, and even Camus find ways to live life—and to love life—in spite of everything. Fittingly, Frankl, with his emphasis on finding meaning amid even the most horrifying of horrors, originally titled his book, Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen: Ein Psychologe Erlebt das Konzentrationslager, which translates to “Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp.” The first part of this title resonates throughout the philosophies and thoughts of many of the writers and characters discussed in this essay. Ivan, after relaying his abhorrent stories of children suffering, explains this sentiment perfectly:

“If I did not believe in life, if I were to lose faith in the woman I love, if I were to lose faith in the order of things, even if I were to become convinced, on the contrary, that everything is a disorderly, damned, and perhaps devilish chaos, if I were struck even by all the horrors of human disillusionment—still I would want to live, and as long as I have bent to this cup, I will not tear myself from it until I’ve drunk it all!” (Dostoevsky 230)

With this, Ivan fundamentally summarizes centuries of metaphysical anguish and “horrors of human disillusionment” that stemmed from the pervasive problem of suffering—but then throws it all out the window in light of his euphoric love for life. Even Ivan’s devil desperately clings to this very same love for life: “I would give all of that life beyond the stars, all ranks and honors, only to be incarnated in the soul of a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound merchant’s wife and light candles to God,” he proclaims (642). Since the devil—a manifestation of Ivan’s hallucinatory mania—exists in Ivan’s mind only as a stubborn adversary, their alleged agreement on this obsessive (and most times irrational) love for life is telling indeed. In Candide, the old woman whom Candide and his crew encounter also confesses her “ridiculous” love for life despite having suffered more than a fair share of atrocities over the course of her lifetime. “A hundred times I wanted to kill myself,” she says, “but always I loved life more” (Voltaire 57). Camus also devotes himself to living in spite of absurdity, and in light of the deep-rooted freedom that an acceptance of the absurd life provides. In fact, Camus views suicide as the rejection of that freedom and as precisely the wrong way to go about reacting to absurdity.

Albert Camus’ belief in the absurdity of life leads him to reject the idea of a meaning of life, but also leads him to pursue a carpe diem existence full of spiritual freedom and passion. As he concludes at the end of The Myth of Sisyphus: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Dostoevsky’s Dmitri Karamazov lives this style of life, but the impetuousness that results from such radical freedom is, in Dostoevsky’s view, unsustainable. Ivan, however, would have been a model absurdist in his time, but unlike Camus, he is ultimately unable to accept epistemological agnosticism (“I want to be there when everyone suddenly finds out what it was all for,” he asserts towards the end of his spiel to Alyosha [Dosoevsky 244]) and feels paralyzed by his freedom rather than empowered by it. Alexei, the youngest of the clan, mixes in faith in God as the impetus that propels him to be a “giver,” and he is able to find meaning in doing good for others despite not knowing “what it [is] all for.”  Frankl put it best at the end of his great philosophical work: “After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer on his lips” (Frankl 134). Meaningful, meaningless, or something in between, one aspect of life is agreed upon by the figures presented in this essay: that it has always been, and will always be, worth living.



Works Cited

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York,: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955. Print.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. Print.

Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon, 2006. Print.

Kristiansen, Donna M. “What Is Dada?” Educational Theatre Journal 20.3 (1968): 457-62. JSTOR. Web. 10 May 2013.

Rossi, Louis R. “Albert Camus: The Plague of Absurdity.” The Kenyon Review 20.3 (1958): 399-422. JSTOR. Web. 10 May 2013.

Sherwood, Ben. The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life. New York: Grand Central Pub., 2009. Print.

Smith, Emily E. “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.” The Atlantic. N.p., 9 Jan. 2013. Web. 10 May 2013.

Voltaire. Candide. Trans. John Butt. London: Penguin Group, 1947. Print.


[1] The name was changed to protect the woman’s identity. This story  is taken from chapter seven (“The Dancer and the Angel of Death: How did Anyone Survive the Holocaust?”) of The Survivor’s Club.

[2] “Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life,” by Roy F. Baumeister (Florida State University), Kathleen D. Vohs (University of Minnesota), Jennifer L. Aaker (Stanford University) and Emily N. Garbinsky (Stanford University). Forthcoming in Journal of Positive Psychology.

[3] “The Dada Painters and Poets, ed. / translated by Robert Motherwell (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, Inc., 195 l), page 77.

[4]Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling. (824)


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