Monty Python and The Meaning of Albert Camus
By Luc Pelletier
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life is a disjointed, confusing piece of cinema. The sketches presented hang together by a thin thread, namely the quest for the meaning of life. Sometimes, without warning or apparent reason, the movie interrupts itself to take us in a different direction. Some scenes are downright strange and incomprehensible, such as the aptly named “Middle of the Film.” Whereas previous Python movies had some sort of unifying plot, there is no such thing in The Meaning of Life. The movie feels, indeed, meaningless.
What were the Pythons trying to accomplish with this movie? Is there a system of thought that could help us make some sense of it? Is the title The Meaning of Life merely an excuse to collect the sketches together or is there a deeper reason for it?
Life’s meaning (or meaninglessness) is a question that presses us all at some point in our lives. No writer or philosopher, perhaps, concerned himself more with this question than Albert Camus. So let’s consider his work to help us understand The Meaning of Life.
If we examine the issue closely, we can draw some fine connections between Camus’ demanding, ever-ambitious philosophy and the Pythons’ ludicrous, irreverent humor. After a quick overview of various Python characters who exemplify fundamental concepts of Camus’ thought, we will show where The Meaning of Life stands on its eponymous question.
The Absurd is described by Camus as the relationship between our imperious desire for reason and order and the indifferent “silence of the Universe.” The Absurd arises when humans seek meaning and fail to find it. Ours is a never-ending quest that is bound to fail because of the silent universe. It is an inevitable condition of human existence, yet we are unable to accept it.
The most potent example of the Absurd in The Meaning of Life comes from the “Galaxy Song” scene. Mrs. Brown witnesses her husband as good as murdered by public officers so his liver can be “used to save lives.” She displays no emotion, stating her husband had it coming when he “signed one of those silly cards.” Mrs. Brown inevitably reminds us of the emotionally-vacant protagonist of Camus’s The Stranger, Meursault.
As if receiving visitors on any regular day, Mrs. Brown offers the officers a cup of tea. One of them (John Cleese) follows her to the kitchen and casually tries to talk her into giving him her liver.To convince her, a crooning Eric Idle dressed in pink walks out of her refrigerator and sings the “Galaxy Song.” The irresistibly catchy song captures the smallness and insignificance of man in a vast and indifferent cosmos. Mrs. Brown then says, “it makes you feel so, sort of insignificant, doesn’t it?” and offers to donate her liver on the spot.
In doing so, she embraces nihilism—the view that existence is “useless and senseless”—then renounces life and presumably dies after having her liver extracted. Physical suicide is the first option that Camus sees when confronted with the Absurd, and it is what he concerns himself with during a large portion of The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus rejects physical suicide as a solution since he sees it as cowardly. Moreover, suicide makes living rather impractical, so necessarily we need to find a different response.
The second attitude we can adopt in the face of the Absurd is philosophical suicide. To Camus, this option is just as inadequate as the first. The character that best embodies philosophical suicide in The Meaning of Life is the Roman Catholic man who sings “Every Sperm is Great.” Having fathered dozens of children because he refuses to use contraception (out of respect for the will of God), he proceeds to sell them to medical experiments. The Roman Catholic man has put his faith in God, has suspended his reason, and hopes for an afterlife that allows him to altogether avoid a reflection about the meaning of life.
Although religious people might be the first ones to come to mind, when we think of philosophical suicide, Camus rejected the attitudes of several celebrated philosophers as equally wrong. This is how he stands outside of existentialism, despite his name usually being attached to it. Existentialism is a philosophy that recognizes the utter meaninglessness of human life, but invites humans to create meaning for themselves. Representatives of this philosophy include Sartre, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. Camus himself refused the label throughout his life. Replacing the illusions of a religion with the illusions of a revolution, utopia, or ideal is equally misguided. Both require a “leap of faith” that is rationally unjustifiable. There is no creation of meaning; there is no escaping the Absurd.
The character most representative of existentialism in The Meaning of Life is Gaston (Eric Idle), who waits on Mr. Creosote at the French restaurant. After Mr. Creosote explodes, the maître d’ (John Cleese) and a cleaning lady begin to discuss the meaning of life. The camera moves to Gaston, who feels compelled to give us his own answer. He takes us on a walk to his birthplace and delivers the heartfelt meaning of life he has developed for himself. As the audience remains obstinately silent, he feels insulted, becomes angry, curses us, and walks away. The meaning he made up for himself did not stand up to scrutiny, or to the deafening silence of the Absurd that we, as the audience, represent.
Although today it might seem commonplace to state that one should build a life’s meaning for him- or herself, in Camus’ view this is still not enough. We cannot merely invent meaning where there is none, as this is a form of escapism. There needs to be a different response.
The third response in face of the Absurd is revolt, a term that is easily misunderstood. Example of characters in revolt in The Meaning of Life include the various employees at the Crimson Permanent Insurance company. Not only do the bureaucrats rebel against their masters, have them walk the plank, and terrorize entire financial districts, but they gatecrash the main feature itself when they interrupt a meeting between businessmen (with “the meaning of life” as the next point on their agenda). However, their methods would have appeared too violent and bloody to Camus, who condemned Marxism-Leninism for this reason and thus created a famous feud with his friend and colleague Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus tried to invalidate murder as a response to Absurdism in his essay The Rebel and, in a different way, in his play Caligula.
Camus shunned revolution and instead used the term “revolt” to refer to an attitude of defiance one must adopt in face of the indifferent universe. To Camus, Sisyphus is the prime example of a man living in revolt, in full awareness and acceptance of the Absurd. Sisyphus, ordained by the gods to roll his boulder up a hill only to watch it fall on the other side and start all over again, is the Absurd hero par excellence. He accomplishes his task, knowing full well its meaninglessness, yet he accepts it and carries on.
There is no meaning to life, and there will never be, Camus insists. But the struggle to find meaning is what makes human experience rich and worthwhile. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” This is the paradox that Camus wants us to keep within us as we attempt to live a lucid life that still permits joy.
There is an afterlife in the Pythons’ movie, depicted as a perpetual Christmas party in a Hawaiian restaurant. It remains as meaningless as they could make it, so much so that the sequence is interrupted and we are brought back to the woman who introduced “The Middle of The Film.” She reads “the meaning of life” (“it’s nothing very special”) off a card that she then nonchalantly tosses away. The statement she reads is not so much in answer to “what” is the purpose of life, but more of an answer as to “how” we might want to live. We still don’t have meaning. We are still empty-handed.
Does the movie give us any definite answer? Of course not. Has the movie cheated us, then? Again, no, since this is precisely what Camus valued. Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life is a truly Absurd movie, as it managed to look bleakly at life in its absurdity and arbitrariness, and avoided providing an easy, misleading answer to anyone. Thus it kept the struggle going, and it made us smile and laugh along the way. It would be difficult to imagine Sisyphus any happier.
CAMUS, Albert. L’Étranger. Gallimard. 1942.
CAMUS, Albert. L’Homme Révolté. Gallimard. 1951.
CAMUS, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. Gallimard. 1942.
SIMPSON, David. Albert Camus (1913-1960). The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessible at https://www.iep.utm.edu/camus/. Visited on February 26th.
Monty Python and The Meaning of Life. Dir. Terry Jones. Perf. Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin. Universal Pictures. 1983.