Monday, March 11, 2013

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus


When my humanities classes discuss the Myth of Sisyphus, most students will invariably conclude that because we will die, we cannot afford to just exist; therefore, we must live life with a sense of urgency. For Camus, in a world characterized by a lack of meaning and coherence, value has to be created by each one of us by way of revolt.
The positive consequences of revolt include our awareness of our worth as human beings, our recognition of our universal nature, and a realization of our solidarity with others in confronting the absurd or “the confrontation of this irrational and wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart” (Camus).

“The absurd man, like an astronaut looking at the earth from above, wonders whether a philosophical system, a religion or a political ideology, is able to make the world respond to the questioning of man, or rather whether all human constructions are nothing but the excessive face-paint of a clown which is there to cover his sadness!” (Kirill O. Thompson, Professor of Philosophy & Literature, National Taiwan University).

Excerpts from the Myth of Sisyphus:
 
“I come at last to [the concept of] death and to the attitude we have toward it… Everyone lives as if no one ‘knew.’ This is because in reality there is no experience of death. Properly speaking, nothing has been experienced but what has been lived and made conscious. Here, it is barely possible to speak of the experience of others’ deaths. It is a substitute, an illusion, and it never quite convinces us. That melancholy convention cannot be persuasive. The horror comes in reality from the mathematical aspect of the event [however]…

“It is essential to consider as a constant point of reference… the regular hiatus between what we fancy we know and what we really know, practical assent and simulated ignorance which allows us to live with ideas which, if we truly put them to the test, ought to upset our whole life…

“…All knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine… Intelligence, too, tells me in its way that this world is absurd… In this unintelligible and limited universe, man’s fate henceforth assumes its meaning…

“I want everything to be explained to me or nothing. And reason is impotent when it hears this cry from the heart. The mind aroused by this insistence seeks and finds nothing but contradictions and nonsense. What I fail to understand is nonsense. The world is peopled with such irrationals… The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world…

“We turn to God only to obtain the impossible… His greatness is his incoherence. His proof is his inhumanity… Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable…  God is maintained only through the negation of human reason…

“I can negate everything of that part of me that lives on vague nostalgias, except this desire for unity, this longing to solve, this need for clarity and cohesion… I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning, and that it is impossible for me… to know it…

“If I were… a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world. I should be this world to which I am now opposed by my whole consciousness and my whole insistence upon familiarity. This ridiculous reason is what sets me in opposition to all creation…

“Either we are not free and God, the all-powerful, is responsible for evil, or we are free and responsible but God is not all-powerful. All the scholastic subtleties have neither added anything to nor subtracted anything from the acuteness of this paradox…

“The absurd man… catches sight of a burning and frigid, transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible but everything is given, and beyond which all is collapse and nothingness. He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal of hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation… The point is to live…

“All systems of morality are based on the idea that an action has consequences that legitimize or cancel it… There comes a time when one must choose between contemplation and action…

“Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is as much through his passion as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing…

“[Nevertheless,] 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…

“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.”

(1955)

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.

 

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