From Adam Gopnik’s “Facing History: Why We Love Camus,” sadly hidden behind a paywall:
Olivier Todd, the author of the standard biography in French, suggests that Camus might have benefitted by knowing more about his anti-totalitarian Anglo-American contemporaries, Popper and Orwell among them. Yet in truth the big question Camus asked was never the Anglo-American liberal one: How can we make the world a little bit better tomorrow. It was the grander French one: Why not kill yourself tonight? That the answers come to much the same thing in the end—easy does it; tomorrow may be a bit better than today; and, after all, you have to have a little faith in people—doesn’t diminish the glamour that clings to the man who turned the question over and looked at it, elegantly, upside down
I’d never thought about the issue of meaning quite like this, but I’m definitely on the Popper-Orwell team, the one that asks about making the world “a little bit better tomorrow,” or at least finding something meaningful to do today that might lead to the better world tomorrow. The “grander French” question used to hold more attraction, when I was younger and stupider; now it just looks pointless. If there’s no reason to live, there’s also no reason to die. That’s the essential point Todd Andrews realizes in John Barth’s novel The Floating Opera, and it’s the sort of profundity that seems utterly obvious in retrospect. I’d add one other point: if life is meaningless, you can append any meaning you want, and making things little bit better tomorrow is a pretty choice (you could also say that you’re trying to conduct a marginal revolution that takes small steps toward improvement).
People who find ways to make life meaningful and find ways to be more than just a consumer are, in my view, the ones who win big these days, when we don’t just have meaning handed to us. Instead, we have to try harder to find it. I like the Anglo-American answer, as given by Gopnik’s reading of Camus, but that might just be my own latent Anglo-American culture.