Unknown, Unkissed, and Lost Part 3: Camus & Kaufman



French philosopher Albert Camus examines the absurdity of human existence in his famous essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Framing his argument around the question of suicide, Camus examines whether or not there is meaning in life and how we should act if there is none. Likewise, Kaufman’s films reflect certain elements of Camus’ argument, by demonstrating the habit and tedium of human existence, showcasing the Absurd in his characters’ actions, and exploring different ways of responding to the Absurd.


The lives of Kaufman’s characters are often Sisyphusian, stuck on guided routines. Perhaps the most blatant example of a character belonging to time in this way is Caden Cotard of Synecdoche, New York. The opening scene presents itself as a straightforward breakfast scene of Caden eating with his family; however, the dates on the radio, newspaper, and food labels suggests that time is actually passing by at alarming rate, making the scene a montage of months and months of different mornings, all of which fit the same basic structure. This clever technique underscores how, to Caden, his life has become so routinized that days blend together, turning to weeks and even months.

Camus also discusses the routine in the human experience through a series of theatre metaphors; for instance, he describes the Absurd as the “divorce between man and this life, the actor and his setting” (6). This choice of metaphor emphasizes the artificiality of our interactions and routine; we often embrace habit to such an extent that we live our lives on scripts, already planned. This happens quite literally in Synecdoche, New York, as Caden’s theatre project grows bigger and bigger, meaning “it becomes more and more difficult for viewers to determine the boundaries between the set and Manhattan itself, just as it becomes difficult to know where Caden’s life ends and the theater piece begins” (Deming 203). For instance, Caden begins staging his domestic fights from his personal life and having his wife reenact them in rehearsal as well as writing in his secret cleaning routines of Adele’s apartment; in the same way that routine makes man an actor in his own life according to Camus, Caden wholeheartedly embraces routine in modeling parts of his theatre project around his own life.

Nearing the end of Caden’s life, the immense set he built begins to crumble, debris covering the streets and fire engulfing parts of the buildings. Camus asserts that “It happens that the stage set collapses…the stage scenery masked by habit becomes again what it is,” explaining that once we break past our habits, we look past the fake worlds we’ve created for ourselves and see the truth (Camus 10, 11). Through Camus’ interpretation, one would imagine that the set would be falling apart due to a removal of habit; however, it is in this point in the film that Caden experiences habit the most, obeying literal directions from Millicent. This conflict with Camus’ ideas reflects just how deeply Caden is buried in his own delusions; even when he tries to escape his warehouse, he ends up in the impossible warehouse-inside-of-the-warehouse. Also, even though the physical set is falling apart and it seems like all the actors are dead, Caden is still absorbed in his play, claiming “I know how to do this play now” up until his last breath.


Camus explains that humans have an innate desire for an understandable universe: “this desire for unity, this longing to solve, this need for clarity and cohesion” (Camus 34). However, the world is inherently incomprehensible, illogical, and chaotic to human minds; as Camus explains, “the world is neither so rational nor so irrational. It is unreasonable and only that” (33). Much in the same way that a cat cannot construct their world to the same complexity of a human, humans can only understand the universe through a severely limited point of view, meaning that “Understanding the world for a man is reducing it to the human, stamping it with his seal” (13). Camus explains that “what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity;” in other words, this clash between the human desire to understand clashes with the inherent indifference of the world, resulting in the Absurd (15).

Kaufman depicthuman-4s elements of the Absurd in each of his films. Most Kaufman characters feel lost or alienated from the world, trying to make some sort of meaningful connection or make sense of their situation, limited by the restraints of human thought. For instance, the characters in Human Nature constantly attempt to understand the world through human terms. Kaufman expresses this to an absurd extent when Nathan attempts to teach rats table manners, administering shocks to them when they fail to choose the correct fork during the meal. Nathan’s worldview is so rigid that he feels the need to impose his human rules on the world, whereas ideas of etiquette and manners are socially constructed.

Even more interesting, however, is how the supposedly more “natural” characters like Lila still apply their human concepts onto nature in romanticizing its qualities. Lila feels the wilderness to almost be a character in itself, welcoming and comforting her despite her physical deformities. She claims “Birds and squirrels and rocks and trees didn’t seem to judge my hair,” framing nature almost as a loving presence and personifying it (Human Nature).  However, Camus argues that “at the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman” and that despite the apparent warmth of the natural world, we have simply “clothed them” with “illusory meaning;” where Lila feels a connection with nature, there is instead a vast indifference and lack of meaning (10). While the characters in Human Nature do not recognize the absurdity of their thought, Kaufman makes the subtext blatant through these humorous situations.


Camus enumerates that there are two obvious options for responding to the absurd: physical suicide and philosophical suicide; in other words, when one realizes that life is inherently meaningless, one can choose to end their own life, or find hope through some meaning-filled source of hope such as religion (even though it defies human rationality). If some greater meaning like God exists, Camus argues that it’s not worth our time; we can only understand that which the human mind can comprehend. He further rejects philosophical suicide on the grounds that “The important thing… is not to be cured, but to live with one’s ailments;” one must accept the absurdity rather than cover it up with clear, easy solutions (26).

To Camus, however, this lack of meaning and hope in life does not make it not worth living. This leads him to his third option for responding to absurdity: accepting the Absurd. This entails living a life of revolt, freedom, and passion. Camus describes the mythical Sisyphus as the absurd hero, explaining that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy;” in his futile tasks, he still finds joy (78).

While Kaufman’s characters tend to recognize the absurdity of the universe, almost always choosing life over death and rejecting all-encompassing answers to simplify their worlds, they are still unfulfilled and unhappy with their existences; they seem to defy all three of Camus’ options. However, they seem to glean fulfillment from either the pursuit of art or establishing relationships with others.

For instance, Caden seems to recognize the absurdity of life, explaining quite bluntly to his cast that “We’re all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive.” At the same time, however, he seems to be avoiding this truth himself. His choice to create the double of Manhattan is, in itself, a way of responding to absurdity; he sees the real world as less meaningful than his replica because “it is not a made thing, a consciously crafted space, it is not imbued in every asset with meaning–it does not enact its own meaningfulness” (Deming 204). Therefore, Caden’s construction of the play is a way of creating meaning where there is none. However, what prevents Caden from accepting the absurdity is “Caden’s attempt to represent his world traps him rather than allows him to escape” (Deming 203).

anomalisa1280ajpg-0d6f64_1280wOthers of Kaufman’s characters have not even recognized the absurdity of their situation; oftentimes, despite encountering blatantly absurd or surreal elements, Kaufman’s characters fail to take note of the incongruences in their world. For instance, in Anomalisa, when Michael exits the shower and starts staring at his reflection in the mirror, he comes close to taking off one of the components of his puppet face, an action which would reveal to him greater truth about himself. However, it is in that moment that he hears Lisa’s voice in the hallway, causing him to abandon his revelation and run out into the hallway in search of her. Later, the film suggests that Lisa does not necessarily have a different voice than everyone else, but Michael just perceives her that way, as evidenced by the fact that the more annoying he finds her mannerisms, the more the voice of Everyone else creeps into her speech. This means that Michael’s hearing of Lisa’s voice was a sort of defense mechanism, distracting Michael just when he is about to be truly introspective and discover truth about the relationship between him and his world. Instead of facing the absurdity, he chooses to try to find meaning in some external source – Lisa. In this way, Michael still eludes the absurd, continually seeking external stimuli to avoid facing his true self.

Thus, Kaufman’s characters experience the absurd through hitting the limits of rational thought and falling victim to pointless routinization; however, no character of Kaufman’s truly embodies the absurd hero, at least not in the noble, optimistic sense that Camus implied. While his characters tend not to commit physical or philosophical suicide, they are still unable to be happy in the way that Camus imagines Sisyphus. Even with these points of contrast between the two authors, Kaufman still manages to convey all the confusion, hypocrisy, and delusion that occurs when the human mind must face the Absurd.


Works Cited

Anomalisa. Dir. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. Perf. David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan. Universal Pictures, 2016. DVD.

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O’Brien. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2016. WordPress. Web. 1 Aug. 2017.

Deming, Richard. “Living a Part: Synecdoche, New York, Metaphor, and the Problem of Skepticism.” The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman. Ed. David LaRocca. Lexington, KY: U of Kentucky, 2011. 193-207. Print.

Human Nature. Dir. Michel Gondry. Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman. Perf. Patricia Arquette and Rhys Ifans. 2002. DVD.

Synecdoche, New York. Dir. Charlie Kaufman. Perf. Phillip Seymour Hoffman. 2008. DVD.