Friday, January 09, 2015

Albert Camus's "The Myth of Sisyphus"

The absurd, according to Camus, arises from the tension between an inhuman world and our human longing to make sense of it. To kill oneself is to try to escape the absurd. Camus recommends, instead, living in lucid acknowledgement of this tension. It is not easy. In his view, existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard evade the problem by positing transcendence, or God, as beyond human reason. They abolish human reason in favor of the eternal. On the other hand, the phenomenologists such as Husserl claim to attend to the phenomena of the world but end up finding essences in them, analogous to Platonic forms, and so abolish the unknowability of the world. Instead of destroying or weakening either of the terms, Camus prefers to live fully and creatively in the gap between mind and world. For him, the figure of Sisyphus embodies this attitude of heroic futility. Unexpectedly, Camus finds a happiness in Sisyphus' plight.

All of Sisyphus' silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the univers 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.

Two things attract me to Camus's philosophy of the absurd. First, he is clearly indebted to the thinking of Nietzsche, who proclaimed that God is dead, and we must take up the burden of becoming the masters of our own fates. Camus quotes the German philosopher throughout his essay. Second, Camus insists that he is trying to live according to what he knows clearly. He refuses mysticism. He also refuses sentimentality. It is not enough to live according to how one feels. It is nobler to live with what one knows. My one reservation is this: the reification of human consciousness. This is what divides us supposedly from the non-conscious world. But perhaps we are less conscious than we think we are, and the world is more conscious than we think it is. Camus would presumably dismiss the first as an abdication of reason, and the second as mysticism, but I am not so sure.

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