Stranger in an Absurd Land Camus’ Philosophy in Louie James Anderson Columbia College Chicago (2014) Contributor of the Month
What really counted was the possibility of escape, a leap of freedom, out of the implacable ritual, a wild run for it that would give whatever chance for hope there was. Of course, hope meant being cut down on some street corner, as you ran like mad, by a random bullet. But when I really thought it through, nothing was going to allow me such a luxury. Everything was against it; I would just be caught up in the machinery again. (Camus The Stranger) FX’s show Louie has established Louis C.K. as TV’s lone auteur. Stand-up comedian C.K. is the Watercooler Journal
writer, producer, director, editor, and star of the program. This type of singular vision is a rarity within the medium of television, and this results in an intensely personal vision of a being in constant battle with the absurd. C.K. shares this perspective with Albert Camus (1913-60), the French existentialist writer and philosopher. Like C.K., Camus had little faith in rationalism and brooded over the meaning of life in the face of death. Camus is considered a central figure in absurdist fiction, an artistic genre that focuses on the experiences of characters in a situation where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life, where existence is often represented by ultimately meaningless actions and events in an unintelligible world devoid of God, eternal truths, or values. C.K. and his show Louie are legatees of Camus’s absurdist philosophy as the show’s central character struggles to find order in the chaotic absurdity of existence. Louie is loosely based on the life of stand-up comic Louie C.K. A recent divorcee from a tenyear marriage, he now grapples with rearing two daughters while struggling to form new romantic relationships. As a person with an out-of-joint life, Louie falls under the category of the Absurd Hero, discussed by Camus in the essay The Myth of Sisyphus. For Camus, the absurd takes the form of a person’s reaction to a world apparently without meaning, and/or the reaction to invisible and controlling outside forces. According to the Greek myth, Sisyphus was condemned to roll a rock up to the top of a mountain, only to have the rock roll back down to the bottom upon reaching the summit.
“The song during the opening credits of (almost) every episode of Louie enforces Camus’ idea, eternally returning to states of decay… [It] implies a constant, endless cycle, similar to Sisyphus and his fatal struggle with the boulder.” Louie reflect the idea of Sisyphus and his ceaseless and pointless toil countless times. In the episode “Dr. Ben/Nick,” In the episode, Louie speaks during his stand-up routine: “Every day starts, my eyes open, and I reload the program of misery. I open my eyes, remember who I am, what I’m like, and I just go, ‘Ugh.’” Like Louie’s despair upon remembering his own identity, Camus writes that the most tragic moment in the life of Sisyphus is when he becomes conscious of his condition. “If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious,” writes Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. Louie desires to become something else, something other than the self. He is, however, trapped within the self. Louie’s “ugh” comes from his inability to Watercooler Journal
escape his own body, the anchor of the self. He is free from the self-induced “ugh” when asleep and the mind is unshackled; upon waking, he is greeted grimly by his physical body, reintroducing despair. The physical body “programs” the mind. This suggests that Louie feels like a computer or mechanized machine. Camus suggests that one feels like a machine-like drone when one becomes conscious of the idea that one’s daily actions are dictated primarily by an outside force (The Myth…). In this instance, the force outside Louie’s consciousness is his own body.
In the same episode, Louie seeks a cure for his body by means of his doctor, Dr. Ben. However, this attempt is ineffective. Dr. Ben mocks and heckles Louie’s body, making one tasteless joke after another at the expense of Louie, such as saying “Nurse, come in here. Is that the ugliest penis you’ve ever seen?” On the wall hangs a picture, a section of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel—The Creation of Adam. In it, God’s hand touches Adam’s hand, giving it life. Visually, Dr. Ben is juxtaposed with God’s hand behind him. Louie is on the other side of the frame next to the hand of Adam. When Dr. Ben begins the examination, he reaches across, touches Louie with his right hand (the same hand God is depicted as using to touch Adam) and says “Oh, God. How are you?” Louie presents Dr. Ben as a cruel God torturing his creation. Akin to the idea of God, contemporary society sees doctors as authority figures because they have the ability to dictate the life and death of individuals. It is assumed that like a god, doctors know Watercooler Journal
more than those who seek their aid. Because of this, the words of doctors carry greater weight than the words of non-doctors. Like the Greek gods who cruelly punish Sisyphus with the task of endlessly pushing a rock, Dr. Ben gets satisfaction from mockingly informing Louie that his body is in decay, and the only end in sight to the morning “ugh” is death. A similar collocation of the divine and the medical appears in Camus’s novel The Plague. When a city is ravaged by plague, neither prayers to God nor medical practices can save a person once sickened. In times of seemingly irrational calamity of the physical body, people either turn to religion or medicine for remedy. This is what Louie seeks from Dr. Ben. He hopes that by finding a cure for his body, he can also cure himself of “feeling like shit.” Like how the doctors of The Plague were unable to cure people of their disease, Dr. Ben scoffs at Louie for seeking an antidote. However, Louie’s bodily state is a natural result of the aging process. Like a god watches humans trying to make order out of chaos, Dr. Ben laughs at Louie’s fight against mortality, saying, “You don’t need a doctor. You need a time machine.” Here, Louie calls attention to death—an “ugh” programmed inside humans by a metaphoric god. This god, the creator of the mortal condition, is the same one people pray to when seeking to outrun death. Similarly, Louie is reliant upon his doctor to keep his body healthy, and Dr. Ben only chastises Louie for believing there is rationality behind his sickness, his “ugh”—his march towards death. As C.K. says in his stand-up, “If there is a God, then that dude is an asshole” (“God”).
“The irrationality of the world has been deciphered through his psychological processes. Once the threshold of retainability is reached, that irrationality returns altered by the journey—now in the form of art.” To Camus, death marks all things equal and equally absurd. Death itself is absurd in the sense that reason or the rational mind cannot deal with it; it is a foregone conclusion, yet it remains an unrealized possibility until some indeterminate future. The meaning of death is not rational. It is existential. Its implications are to be found not in abstraction but in the actuality of one’s life, the finality of each moment. Finitude is the sole constant that is offered by states of being. However, finitude is only an illusion. Death is only a transitional point from one state to another. States are in a constant process of becoming another state. In Louie’s pilot episode, Louie says during his stand-up act that “It’s hard to really look at somebody and go, ‘Hey, maybe something nice will happen.’ You just don’t—I know too much about life to have any Watercooler Journal
optimism, because I know even if it’s nice, it’s going to lead to shit. I know that if you smile at somebody and they smile back, you’ve just decided that something shitty is going to happen.” The song during the opening credits of (almost) every episode of Louie enforces Camus’ idea, eternally returning to states of decay: “Louie, Louie, Louie, Louie / Louie, Louie, Louie, Lou-eye / Louie, Louie, Louie, Louie / Louie, Louie, you’re gonna cry. / Louie, Louie, Louie, Louie / Louie, Louie, Louie, Lou-eye / Louie, Louie, Louie, Louie / Louie, Louie, you’re gonna die.” It fades out as the “Louie, Louie, Louie, Louie” repetition begins anew. This implies a constant, endless cycle, similar to Sisyphus and his fatal struggle with the boulder.
The desire for permanence in an impermanent existence is a constant throughout Louie. In his stand-up, C.K. discusses a time when his daughter subjected him to an endless regression of “why?” He attempts to answer his curious child’s persistent questions, but in the process, he Watercooler Journal
becomes frustrated with the lack of life’s purpose and the innocence of the child seeking answers. “Because we’re alone in the universe, and no one gives a shit about us,” he yells at her, feeling that this is the final answer of existence. Not missing a beat, the child asks yet again, “Why?” This persistent search for answers is what awakens human consciousness. When his daughter starts asking, “Why?” Louie gives her calm, polished answers. As she continues to ask, the answers become more raw, exposing something closer to Louie’s perspective. In tandem, Louie becomes less aware of his surroundings with each cycle of “Why?” and talks less to his daughter as he reacts to his own inability to know “Why?” This is because it is only when Sisyphus questions why he endlessly pushes the boulder that the individual begins to not only feel like they are a stranger to others and that others are a stranger to them, but also that the self becomes a stranger unto its self. As Camus writes, “Between the certainty that I have of my existence and the content that I strive to give to this assurance, the gap will never be filled. Always shall I be a stranger to myself… All the science of this earth will give me nothing that can assure me that this world is mine” (The Myth…). Louie feels like a stranger in his home in New York and a stranger when he travels for his job as a comedian. He proves to be unable to navigate his home city several times, as in one instance when the gap between himself and the city laws regarding the type of vehicles allowed on a certain highway ruins his daughter’s field trip (“Pilot”). He is confused by the world he exists in as he is unable to find the key that would allow him to decipher the map of human existence. As soon as he thinks he might have something to hold onto (feeling like a good father by helping his daughter’s school trip), it decays and dies (the trip is ruined due to his lack of knowledge). According to Camus, the feeling that there’s no remedy for alienation from the self “is properly the feeling of absurdity. All healthy men having thought of their own death, it can be seen, without further explanation, that there is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death” (The Myth…). In the episode “Eddie,” Louie runs into an old comedian friend—Eddie—who informs Louie that he’s going to kill himself. “I got nothing,” Eddie says, “I got nobody. I don’t want anything. I don’t want anybody. And that’s the worst part, when the want goes. That’s—that’s bad. I mean suffering is one thing, or not having is one thing. But when you just don’t care anymore.” Camus writes: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy” (The Myth…). Louie responds with “I got my reasons to live. I worked hard to figure out what they are. I’m not just handing them to you. Okay, you want a reason to live, have a drink of water and get some sleep, wake up in the morning and try again like everyone else does. If you wanna tap out cause your life is shit, you know what, it’s not your life, it’s life. It’s… Life is bigger than you, if you can imagine that. Life isn’t Watercooler Journal
something that you possess. It’s something that you take part in, and you witness.” What separates Eddie and Louie is the different level of mastery in their field. Eddie struggles to express his ideas as a stand-up comedian. Louie does so seamlessly. With all of the confession Louie experiences in the world, he is never once shown to be struggling to formulate his standup act. It flows from him. As Camus writes, “A man’s life is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened... If all the world were clear, art would not exist” (“Between Yes…”). The segments of stand-up on Louie (usually two or three per episode) are when Louie is most vocal about his emotional processes. To him, performing is a moment of confessional therapy. Camus says that “A work of art is a confession” (Notebooks…). When Louie performs stand-up, he is against a wall; Camus unconsciously writes of a such a wall: “These men who proclaim that nothing is clear, all is chaos, that all man has is his lucidity and his definite knowledge of the walls surrounding him… The mind, when it reaches its limits, must make a judgment and choose its conclusions” (The Myth…). Louie purges on anxiety in the face of absurdity and chaos. When he reaches his wall, his limit, he turns, and regurgitates that partially digested chaos upon the world. What he expels is different than that which he took in. The irrationality of the world has been deciphered through his psychological processes. Once the threshold of retainability is reached, that irrationality returns altered by the journey—now in the form of art. During his act, with his back to the wall, Louie faces an audience blanketed in blackness. He communicates to a void. It is a space where people are assumed to be but rarely shown, and therefore the adequacy of this abstract communication cannot be answered. This reflects a fundamental of the Theater of the Absurd, a theatrical application of Camus’s absurdist philosophy. European playwright Martin Esslin coined the term “Theatre of the Absurd” and defined the movement as being a focus on human beings trapped in an incomprehensible world subject to any occurrence, no matter how illogical. In the episode “Heckler/Cop Movie,” Louie is interrupted during his comedy act by a woman in the crowd who insists on talking. This only highlights the absurdism of theatrical performance. The proscenium upon which Louie performs and confesses his ideas is illusionary. That which grants him a position of power to speak his mind and create a world is a finite symbol. She effectively woke Louie up from his other state of being during his performance and made him go, “ugh.” Louie tells the woman how “the only good part of my life is when I’m on stage. You ruined that.” She highlighted how ephemeral his happiness is. Happiness and the absurd are closely tied, Camus suggests. Both are fixed upon ownership of Watercooler Journal
our world, life, and fate. It is not the goal of an absurd artist to provide universal truths. Instead, they try only to portray the world as they perceive it, knowing that the artist will die and the art will dissipate into irrelevance. The absurd artist finds inspiration in this very fatalism, working with full awareness that even his work is in vain. Mere absurdity is at the source of everything. However, this is not a negative. Both Albert Camus and Louis C.K. find meaning in their lives in the expression of the absurd. Their works live beyond their ends, as they serve as jumping-offpoints for their audiences. Thus, C.K. and Camus innately guide others towards a better grasp of existing within the nature of absurdity.
works cited Camus, Albert. “Between Yes and No.” Lyrical and Critical Essays (1985): 30-40. Print. Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. New York: Vintage, 1955. Print. Camus, Albert. Notebooks, 1942-1951. New York: Knopf, 1965. Print. Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Modern Library, 1948. Print. Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Paris, France: Libraire Gallimard, 1942. Print. C.K., Louis, dir. “Dr. Ben/Nick.” Louie. FX. New York, New York, 6 July 2010. Television. C.K., Louis, dir. “Eddie.” Louie. FX. New York, New York, 11 Aug. 2011. Television. C.K., Louis, dir. “God.” Louie. FX. New York, New York, 31 Aug. 2010. Television. C.K., Louis, dir. “Heckler/Cop Movie.” Louie. FX. New York, New York, 27 July 2010. Television. C.K., Louis, dir. “Pilot.” Louie. FX. New York, New York, 29 June 2010. Television. Di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, Michelangelo. Sistine Chapel Ceiling. 1511. Painting. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City. Di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, Michelangelo. The Creation of Adam. 1511. Painting. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City. O’Brien, Conan, prod. “1779.” Late Night with Conan O’Brien. NBC. New York, New York, 23 July 2003. Television.
image credits, in order: photo via http://www.theairgottoit.com/ ©FX Networks ©FX Networks ©FX Networks Watercooler Journal
Published on Apr 27, 2014
LOUIE gets an absurdist lens. By James Anderson (Contributor of the Month), from our May 2014 issue.