According to Albert Camus in his work The Myth of Sisyphus, man is engaged in a futile search for meaning, as the world itself is completely devoid of significant and universal truths. He compares life to the myth of Sisyphus, the Greek figure who was doomed to roll a boulder up a mountain, only to never reach the top. Instead of giving up and embracing oblivion, however, Camus believes that "The struggle itselfis enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy" (Camus 1955, PAGE). Sisyphus becomes the embodiment of Camus’ absurd hero – a man who attempts to persevere in a world that does not care for him. This kind of absurd hero is repeated in Camus’ existentialist story “The Guest,” with the character of Daru. Like Sisyphus, Daru is someone who simply accepts the reality that he lives in, and is punished for it regardless, largely in keeping with Camus’ idea of the absurd hero.
“The Myth of Sisyphus” outlines the basic principles behind the absurd hero that Camus values in Sisyphus. In a world that is devoid of meaning, Camus believes a man who lives within it must acknowledge that everything is allowed, a statement which “is not an outburst of relief or of joy, but rather a bitter acknowledgment of a fact” (Camus 1955, PAGE). Figures like Don Juan are absurd heroes; they accept that their lives are finite and not determined by any higher moral codes or power, and just behave accordingly. The limitations of life fuel the absurd hero and spur him to make decisions based on his own thinking and desires: "There is no noble love but that which recognizes itself to be both short-lived and exceptional” (Camus 1955, PAGE). Camus also believes that actors are absurd heroes, as they behave ephemerally and manufacture their own being, even if only temporarily: "In those three hours he travels the whole course of the dead-end path that the man in the audience takes a lifetime to cover” (Camus 1955, PAGE).
The absurd hero is also a conqueror and warrior, according to Camus; understanding that his life and that of others is finite, he chooses to get things done in his short time on Earth instead of contemplating from a distance. Turning to Sisyphus as the ultimate absurd hero, Camus notes that the hero is fully aware of his own condition; instead of hoping, he understands that "there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn” (Camus 1957, PAGE). To that end, there is no option but to just keep moving forward – to continue pushing the boulder. To understand existentialism is to know how absurd your life is, and subsequently to accept it.
In Camus’ “The Guest,” an existential sense of terror pervades the work, following the author’s existentialist view of life. The character of Daru is completely helpless in the Algerian desert, with nobody around to give him salvation or assistance. With the rare exception of Balducci, a friend of his, and an Arab prisoner, he has a perpetual feeling of loneliness and isolation. The Algerian desert is a fantastic place to set such an existentialist story – a place with few resources and no one to help them, the desert is a perfect metaphor for the helplessness of an existential world. At the same time, Daru’s absurd hero knows he belongs in this cruel world: "This is the way the region was, cruel to live in, even without men--who didn't help matters either. But Daru had been born here; everywhere else, he felt exiled” (Camus 1957, PAGE). Nothing exists within and around his home, and he sees no people or food in any direction. As cruel as the desert is, it is the only place that Daru knows, and so he must remain there.
The key, it seems, to Daru’s meager sense of satisfaction within the world of “The Guest” is his ability to accept the limitations of his world and work within them: "In contrast with such poverty, he who lived almost like a monk in his remote schoolhouse, nonetheless satisfied with the little he had and with the rough life, had felt like a lord" (Camus 1957, PAGE). Existentialism provides him a hollow life devoid of meaning and focused on material needs; the chaos robs Daru and his people of any higher purpose. However, in order to make himself an absurd hero, Daru must combine self-satisfaction and self-control in order to make himself his own master. A higher power is often important to a satisfied life; societies often start to devalue life if they accept their understanding of the limits of physical reality (and the promise of nothing beyond it). With no meaning comes no accountability in the life of the absurd hero.
That being said, there are elements to Daru that indicate a desire to overcome the ephemeral nature of his life. For instance, Daru works as a schoolteacher, which indicates a certain ideological alignment with the government; as someone who works for them, he must teach their ideology (Roberts 532). To that end, he does not sit on the sidelines as much as he believes, but actively takes a position with the state. Furthermore, his choice of profession indicates a desire to help others and teach them, providing a sense of continuity that would not concern a perfect absurd hero. Absurd heroes live in the moment, while teachers plan for their country’s future; to that end, Daru’s actions betray his desires as an absurd hero.
At one point, Daru is offered the opportunity to bring the prisoner to the local government to face justice, an option which angers him. He did not ask to be involved in this crusade, and so he resents both Balducci and the prisoner for making him responsible for someone else. His ire turns to both sides of the Arab’s plight – he hates the Arab for not being able to escape, and the government for demanding that he be complicit. Because of this resentment, Daru does whatever he can to stop himself from making a choice. However, when morning comes and the prisoner is still there, Daru simply decides to give him some money and supplies, and makes him make the choice for himself, accepting his position as giver of hospitality (Black 50). .
Despite this lack of accountability, there is still a great deal of shame and guilt that Daru feels during the course of the story. According to Just, “In Camus’s narratives, shame functions as an ethical principle which, while bestowing personal identity by making one aware of oneself, is inseparable from dialogue and thus from the communal dimension” (909). In the context of “The Guest,” Daru feels shame at his inability to make a decision, something which he should be able to do as the absurd hero; in this way, he almost feels guilt that he is temporarily unable to fulfill Camus’ demands of him. Sisyphus, as the ideal absurd hero, would immediately make his decision and move on, not burdened by the responsibility of consequences for his actions due to his existential understanding of the universe. Daru, on the other hand, is conflicted, which brings about the aforementioned shame.
Daru’s choice is incredibly brave, and is in keeping with Camus’ absurd hero; even knowing the uselessness of his choice and the inevitability of the Arab’s capture, he still chooses to place the choice in the Arab’s hands. With this action, Daru risks alienation from his people, when all he is doing is permitting the Arab to make his own free decision. Either way, Daru was going to be given punishment, whether he did the right or wrong thing. This is the burden of responsibility that is placed on Daru’s head, which shows him having an investment in the future of this country, something that does not line up perfectly with the absurd hero (Hooti 3747).
Daru of Camus’ “The Guest” fits the author’s assertion of the absurd hero, the man who simply lives to survive and accepts the meaninglessness of his existence, but only to an extent. Daru is like Sisyphus in that he understands that life is meaningless, that his actions mean nothing, and that he wants to take as little responsibility as possible. However, in the fact that he is a schoolteacher for the state, and that he has so much hesitation about whether or not to turn in the Arab prisoner, he demonstrates a desire for continuity and purpose that would not belie the absurd hero. Daru is a flawed absurd hero, but this also illustrates our desire to imbue meaning onto our lives in spite of its meaninglessness. In this way, Camus is both wrong and right; the world is without meaning, except that meaning which we impose on it ourselves.
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