Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1296
Regarded as one of the foremost thinkers and writers of modern France, Albert Camus reached maturity at a time when Adolf Hitler came to power. Camus’s writings express the horror of living during Hitler’s rise and during World War II, and the desire to establish a meaningful life in a meaningless world of war and futile conquest. Not content with the nihilism of his age, and unable to ignore the catastrophe of modern life, Camus developed two related concepts, the absurd and revolt, into a significant philosophy of personal life. He examined the concept of revolt at length in The Rebel (1951), but in The Myth of Sisyphus he presents the concept of the absurd and thus outlines the belief that the individual has worth but lives in a world that denies such worth. The absurd is the clash between the order for which the human mind strives and the lack of order that one finds in the world.
Camus begins The Myth of Sisyphus by categorically stating that the one truly serious problem of philosophy is suicide, because suicide is the confession that life is not worth living. Why, he asks, do people not commit suicide? From this springboard he goes on to describe the absurdity of existence. People are not logical in the act of killing themselves, but they do believe in the absurdity of their lives. The absurd, Camus explains, forces itself upon a person when that person desires to find absolutes by which to guide his or her life; a person searches for absolutes but finds that the world is not reasonable. Once one realizes that existence is absurd, two solutions emerge: suicide or recovery. In short, one’s experiences bring the necessity of choosing between suicide and life in absurdity. If one chooses life, then one must accept the absurd. This absurdity is neither in the person (who has an internally consistent understanding) nor in the world (which also is consistent), but is the bond uniting them; therefore, physical suicide does not answer the question of absurdity—such an act merely destroys one of the terms.
Having stated this thesis, Camus then considers the alternatives to physical suicide. Philosophical suicide, the existential “leap of faith,” is an antirational acceptance of the limits of reason. Reason’s limitations are an excuse to transcend to God. Camus calls this attitude an escape; the absurd does not lead to God but only to itself. Hence, to speak of a “leap of faith” is like advocating physical suicide since both are escapes and, therefore, seek to contradict or negate the absurdity of existence. Physical suicide attempts to have value or meaning in a meaningless existence; the existential “leap” tries to evade the condition of life. Rejecting physical and philosophical suicide, Camus reaches the final alternative: A person must fully confront the truth of his or her existence and accept it. Continually tempted to either kill oneself or make a “leap,” a person must live only with the certainty that nothing is certain except the absurd. A person must find whether it is possible to live without appeal. Such a person is indifferent to the future but wants to live the now to its fullest; such a person is interested not in the best life but in the most living, realizing that the condition of life is contradictory.
In the second part of this slender volume, Camus treats the ethical implications of life in the absurd. Having chosen absurdity, how does one act positively while consciously aware of the negative character of the choice? Although all systems of morality are based on the idea that every action has consequences, one who recognizes the unpredictable and unreasonable condition of life cannot judge an act by its consequences. Instead, such a person sees action as an end in itself—the value of life being measured by its sterility, indifference, and hopelessness. Don Juan, for example, goes from one affair to another, not because he searches for total love but merely because he needs the repetition. Yet Don Juan is not melancholy; he knows his condition of life—seducing—and does not hope (the desire to have life other than it is). He can live in neither the past nor the future; he lives entirely in the now. He fully realizes that there is no such thing as eternal love, so he has chosen to be nothing. If he was punished as Christians say, it was because he achieved knowledge without illusion. Like Don Juan, the actor is also absurd, because he (or she) applies himself wholeheartedly to being nothing—a mask that lives only three or so hours. He seeks the sterile life that accepts the absurd as its basic condition.
Finally, Camus describes the conqueror, the third example of the absurd man. Conquerors live completely within time; they are the rebels who shall never succeed, for revolution is always against God and no person can be victorious. Still the conqueror fights on, knowing that conquest is futile. These examples—the seducer, the actor, and the conqueror—represent the extremes of absurd action. The ordinary person, who knows but hides from nothing and who squarely faces life without hope, represents the typical absurd person, but it is the creator who is the most absurd character of all.
Each type of absurd person puts his or her entire effort into a struggle that is doomed from the beginning, but the creator is one who attempts to examine and to enrich the world that is ephemeral and meaningless. Art is the death and propagation of experience, the absurdly passionate repetition of monotonous themes; it is not escape from existence but the portrayal of the blind path of all people. The artist and the art “interlock”; the work of art illustrates the mind’s repudiation of itself, the desire of the mind to cover nothing with the appearance of something. Thinking is creating a world of images; the novelist who is philosophical creates the full complexity and paradox of life. Fyodor Dostoevski, for example, was not interested in arguing philosophical problems but rather in illustrating the implications of such speculation. Dostoevski’s novels are filled with absurd judgments, the greatest of which is that existence is illusory and eternal. The absurd novelist, then, negates and magnifies at the same time; such a novelist does not preach a thesis but describes the contradictions of life. The absurd novel has no depth beyond human suffering. Thus the creator passionately describes the fleeting, trying to capture the ephemeral that cannot be captured; a human creator, too, is doomed to failure from the beginning.
The closing section of the volume gives the book its title. In the classical myth of Sisyphus’s punishment, Camus finds the absurd hero. Sisyphus is condemned to an eternity of futile and hopeless work. He rolls a huge stone up a mountain, a struggle that takes superhuman strength. The moment that the stone reaches the pinnacle, he cannot keep it balanced; it rolls back to the valley. He knows that his strength and effort are hopeless, yet he silences the gods by his determination to do the hopeless. Actually Sisyphus’s consciousness of his torment and its hopelessness makes him superior to it—his very act is a revolt because his consciousness makes him happy and happiness negates punishment.
Not until The Rebel did Camus analyze the nature and implications of this revolt from the absurd; however, in his lucid, often lyrical The Myth of Sisyphus, he clearly describes the condition of life that he found in Hitler’s Europe. The result of this description, the concept of the absurd, formed the basis for his works and became one of the fundamental essays in modern French philosophy and letters.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528
The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus’s most explicit philosophical pronouncement, begins by dismissing all reflection that evades the question of why people live. “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide,” he declares. “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
The Myth of Sisyphus includes several miscellaneous pieces—a discussion of Franz Kafka, a self-interview on the responsibility of the artist, and four personal evocations of the landscape of Algeria that were also published elsewhere. The most remarkable and influential section of The Myth of Sisyphus, however, is its title essay. In it and the supporting chapters, Camus appropriates the ancient Greek story of the king of Corinth who was punished by the gods for failing to show them sufficient respect. Sisyphus is condemned for eternity to push a boulder up the side of a steep mountain. Whenever he is about to reach the summit, the boulder rolls back to the base, and Sisyphus is obliged to begin his endless, pointless task again.
Camus seizes on this myth as an emblem of the human condition. Life, he contends, is absurd. Devoid of purpose, existence is an endless, empty series of compulsive repetitions with no possibility of attaining a goal. Sisyphus becomes the prototype of the “absurd hero,” a figure whose variations Camus traces in the roles of the philanderer, the actor, and the conqueror. Like Rieux, who rebels against a scheme of things he cannot accept but cannot change, Camus’s Sisyphus is a figure of admirable futility: “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. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.”
A literary meditation rather than a work of rigorous formal philosophy, The Myth of Sisyphus offers a vision of human contingency and self-authentication popularly associated with the term existentialism. It assumes a post-Nietzschean universe in which the obituary for God has been written. Refusing to accept external validation, Camus contends that individuals are responsible for their own situations. He insists that such responsibility begins with awareness, a consciousness that The Myth of Sisyphus is itself designed to encourage.
The essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” concludes with the provocative assertion that despite the futility and dreariness of his punitive task, Sisyphus is a figure of felicity: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.
Sisyphus possesses the satisfaction of awareness, the modest pleasure of honest confrontation with the bleak conditions of his existence. It is a gloss on the life and works of Camus himself, an obsessively lucid author who refused the spurious consolations of actions and expressions that divert readers from the truth.
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