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Essay

Cavorting with Camus and The Myth of Sisyphus

By Rakhi Dalal

Camus, as a writer, receives mixed response from the readers. It is understandable when some readers avoid reading him, because he seems a difficult writer whose works are taken to be disturbing. Some readers appreciate his writings though they do not agree with him. While for some, Camus’ ideas are irrelevant when compared with those proposed by existential philosophers. Although Camus is often categorised as an existential philosopher but he himself never approved of that. In one of his interviews he said:

“No, I am not an existentialist. Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names linked. We have even thought of publishing a short statement in which the undersigned declare that they have nothing in common with each other and refuse to be held responsible for the debts they might respectively incur. It’s a joke actually. Sartre and I published our books without exception before we had ever met. When we did get to know each other, it was to realise how much we differed. Sartre is an existentialist, and the only book of ideas that I have published, The Myth of Sisyphus, was directed against the so-called existentialist philosophers.”*

Albert Camus

When compared with different periods of his life, his writings offer an insight into the state of mind Camus was often fraught with. The penning of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, which he did almost simultaneously, came at a point when he himself faced despair about the kind of life he was living, which included his anxiety about his future as a writer and finding his place in the World. At this time he was in Algiers, his native land, far from the hubbub of Paris. His more mature works , like The Rebel and The Plague, came later on where Rebel dealt with the problem of “murder” as against the problem of “suicide” which he dealt in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’.  We can notice the change in the focus of the writer, which turned from inner to outer, from individual to social as he moved from one work to the other. As he matured as a writer, Camus himself felt annoyed at his proposed idea of absurd. He said:

“This word “Absurd” has had an unhappy history and I confess that now it rather annoys me. When I analyzed the feeling of the Absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus, I was looking for a method and not a doctrine. I was practicing methodical doubt. I was trying to make a “tabula rasa,” on the basis of which it would then be possible to construct something. If we assume that nothing has any meaning, then we must conclude that the world is absurd. But does nothing have any meaning? I have never believed we could remain at this point.”**

Now this is what keeps me in awe of the writer. He is one writer, who has never been afraid of opening his heart, his thoughts, anything which plagues his mind, before his readers, before this world. In that sense, he may be termed as a radical and approached with scepticism, but it cannot be ignored that the ideas he proposed came to influence the generation of writers engaged in the works of absurd, for example, Samuel Beckett who contributed significantly to the Theatre of Absurd.

The idea of repetition which he proposed with Sisyphus, which in turn was inspired by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition, is witnessed significantly in the works of Beckett too. What is more, his ideas also, even now influence the readers like me in whose face the “why” of existence suddenly strikes one fine day. It wouldn’t be an overstatement or some form of fervent adherence to the writer if I admit that he inspired the mind to seek more and not be satisfied till the response unites the thought and the experience.

He is not an easy writer to read, agreed, but his writings are not disturbing, specially if one gets to understand that his writing, whether The Stranger or ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, is a declaration of writer’s notion that the life must be lived fully in awareness of the absurdity of this world.

In the ‘Myth of Sisyphus’, he terms the world as absurd because it doesn’t offer any answer to the question of existence, it being a silent spectator to the suffering of whole humanity. In a universe, divested of meaning or illusions, a man feels a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. But does this situation dictate death? Camus ponders upon the problem of suicide and contemplates then whether suicide is the only answer to this absurd world which doesn’t answer anything.  He opines:

In the face of such contradictions and obscurities must we conclude that there is no relationship between the opinion one has about life and the act one commits to leave it. Let us not exaggerate in this direction. In a man’s attachment to life there is something stronger than all the ills in the world. The body’s judgement is as good as the mind’s and the body shrinks from annihilation. We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking. In that race which daily hastens us towards death, the body maintains its irreparable lead.

And to kill one self means to allow both life and death to have dominion over one. Hence, the absurd doesn’t dictate death but calls for the awareness and rejection of death. It calls for living it with consciousness —- with revolt, freedom and passion.

Neither religion, nor science for that matter, provides answer to a questioning mind satisfactorily. While the former tends to imbue it with an idea of eternity; an extension of life in heaven, the latter merely tries to explain it by hypothesis. But Camus cannot believe either of them.

Then turning to existential philosophers, he says that they “without exception suggest escape”.

“Through an odd reasoning, starting out from the absurd over the ruins of reason, in a closed universe limited to the human, they deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them. That forced hope is religious in all of them.”

To further explain this, he presents to us the ideas proposed by different philosophers. For example he says:

Of Jasper:

Karl Jasper

Karl Jasper, psychiatrist and philosopher, writes: “Does not the failure reveal, beyond any possible explanation and interpretation, not the absence but the existence of transcendence?”

So that Jasper proposes the existence which cannot be defined as “unthinkable unity of the general” and the “inability to understand” as the existence which illuminates everything.

Of Shestov:

Lev Shestov

Lev Shestov, the Russian existentialist philosopher, names the fundamental absurdity by saying: “This is God: we must rely on him even if he does not correspond to any of our rational categories.”

For Shestov, reason is useless but there is something beyond reason, even if that something is indifferent to us.

Of Kierkegaard:

Soren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard calls for the third sacrifice required by Ignatius Loyola, the one in which God most rejoices: The sacrifice of the intellect. He says, ‘In his failure, the believer finds his triumph.’

Kierkegaard substitutes his cry of revolt for frantic adherence.

Camus doesn’t agree with these philosophers, who did, all of them, tried to understand the absurd but finally gave into that which they found impossible to define. He calls their giving up as philosophical suicide. He cannot believe in Jasper’s idea of Transcendence. In response to Shestov, he says “To an absurd mind reason is useless and there is nothing beyond reason.” He chooses ‘despair’ instead of Kierkegaard’s frantic adherence. He says “I want everything to be explained to me or nothing.”

 So now when faced with absurd and being in consciousness, how best to live the life? Camus advocates the life of a seducer (Don Juanism) actor, conqueror or creator following the three consequences of absurd i.e. revolt, passion and freedom.

 By revolt, Camus means to keep the absurd alive by challenging the world anew every second.  

By freedom, he means losing oneself in that bottomless certainty, feeling henceforth sufficiently removed from one’s own life to increase it and take a broad view of it.

By passion, he means being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum.

Though he praises the absurd man in a seducer, actor or conqueror, it was his stance on creator which I drew me towards his ideas. He says:

“Creating is living doubly. The groping, anxious quest of a Proust, his meticulous collecting of flowers, of wallpapers, and of anxieties, signifies nothing else.”

Sisyphus

Towards the end of this essay, he compares absurd with Sisyphus, who, according to the myth, was condemned to rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, only to see it rolling down back every time he reached the top. He says that though Sisyphus is well aware of his fate, of the continuous struggle he has to engage in, but he is still passionate about his life and doesn’t give up. It is during his descent, that Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained.

Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

The other essays in the collection, ‘Summer in Algiers’, ‘The stop in Oran’, ‘Helen’s Exile’ and ‘Return to Tipasa’ are worth reading too. In ‘Return to Tipasa’, we observe Camus prevailed over by nostalgia for home, for his land. It is here that he says:

In the direction of the ruins, as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but pock-marked stones and wormwood, trees and perfect columns in the transparence of the crystalline air. It seemed as if the morning were stabilized, the sun stopped for an incalculable moment. In this light and this silence, years of wrath and night melted slowly away. I listened to an almost forgotten sound within myself as if my heart, long stopped, were calmly beginning to beat again. And awake now, I recognized one by one the imperceptible sounds of which the silence was made up: the figured bass of the birds, the sea’s faint, brief sighs at the foot of the rocks, the vibration of the trees, the blind singing of the columns, the rustling of the wormwood plants, the furtive lizards. I heard that; I also listened to the happy torrents rising within me. It seemed to me that I had at last come to harbor, for a moment at least, and that henceforth that moment would be endless.

What I realized reading these essays over again was that despite of being labelled as the proponent of absurd, it is actually living that he so fervently speaks about; Not just living but living passionately and fully. Living in awareness and questioning. Though he seems to be recommending a negative faith (as James Wood says in introduction) against the religious or existentialist ideologies, he nevertheless demonstrates a distinctive way to the seekers to come to terms with the existence; the way to be chosen henceforth, of course, depending upon the individual, starting every day with an ever new light.

“In the middle of winter, I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”

*From an interview with Jeanine Delpech, in Les Nouvelles Littéraires, (1945). Cited in Albert Camus: Lyrical and Critical Essays, Vintage (1970)

** From an interview with Gabriel d’Aubarède, in Les Nouvelles Littéraires, (1951). Cited in Albert Camus: Lyrical and Critical Essays, Vintage (1970)

Source : http://www.camus-society.com/albert-camus-existentialism.html

Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ . She lives with her husband and a teenage son, who being sports lovers themselves are yet, after all these years, left surprised each time a book finds its way to their home.