The Myth of Sisyphus, a lively introduction to the absurd (Part 1)

sisyphus-franz-von-stuck 

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.

There is probably no better introductory sentence than the above. The Myth of Sisyphus, a philosophical essay by Albert Camus, is published in 1942 with the English translation arriving about a decade later.  I had tried to make this reading several times in past, the first being when I was still in high school. Yet I always failed for I was too young to understand at the beginning and too frightened to find out the answer later on, even when I had read a great deal of literature by the same author. Time has come though for a man to face his fear and read each page like drinking sip after sip a bitter cup of tea which appeared to slay his very soul at the outset but it only served to remove layer after layer the thin veils of truth with him admiring her naked beauty in the end.

There principally three schools of thought regarding the crucial question and as a result three definite actions that precede it. First, nihilism is adamant there no meaning, either intrinsic or extrinsic and this amount to declaring that life is not worth living. Quite accurately, as Nietzsche puts it, “one must preach by example”, an absolute pessimist by dire consequence of his belief once he proclaim himself as such,  should  thus opt for death. Camus notes “I haven’t seen however anyone dying for an ontological argument” or more satirically I would rephrase it “I have never talked to a true nihilist for he is a dead nihilist”. The most ridiculous case is probably set by Schopenhauer who advocated in favor of suicide until his late senior age. Joking aside, this ideology can be viewed an direct reaction towards the resolute certainty which the opposing side professes.

Second, the leap of faith, that belief which manifest itself in all forms and flavors in religion, spirituality, existentialism, asserts there is at least somewhere, somehow some meaning. It clearly depends how much or what kind of meaning one has in mind; there can an almighty God or a personal sense of purpose which transcends life. This world is not devoid of hope, therefore is worth living and this amounts to a concise summary of the aforementioned system. In the word of Camus “that nostalgia for unity, that appetite for the absolute illustrates the essential impulse of the human drama”. I cannot judge people who dedicate their lives on that urge although perhaps I have done it in the past. Nonetheless, this is why it is called a leap of faith or keenly “philosophical suicide”, because it eludes the problem in a convenient way by which the very negation of thought, in spite of being sometimes within human reason, becomes essentially a renewed eternal truth. “But seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable” dear Kierkegaard, Shestov, Heidegger, Husserl, Sartre.

Here lies what is left other than plain and philosophical suicide: the notion of the absurd. In a rather lyrical definition, “absurd is that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, the nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together”. In all honesty there is no way to know whether the world has a meaning outside the human condition; it would be impossible to comprehend it anyway and it would inevitably require a leap. How then can one live conscientiously in a world deprived of hope, “without appeal” and yet not suicide? Suicide is avoiding once again from the whole reality by terminating it physically.

Negating one of the terms of the opposition [i.e. suicide be it plain or philosophical] amounts to escaping it. To abolish conscious revolt is to elude the problem. The theme of permanent revolution is thus carried into individual experience. One of the only coherent philosophical positions is thus revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity. It is an insistence upon an impossible transparency. It is that constant presence of man in his own eyes. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.

Consciousness and revolt, these rejections are the contrary of renunciation, and constitute the first consequence of the absurd. Thereafter follows the notion of freedom. In order to understand if a man is free we need to know whether or not he has a master. Apparently, the acceptance of a presence of God reduces the problem of freedom all over to the quest of meaning; the paradox of free will and the omnipotent God is well-known from antiquity (see Epicurus’ analysis) and all subtleties are unable to resolve it. The question might be cast as “what freedom can exist in the fullest sense without assurance of eternity?” Unexpectedly, a less restricted one.

To the extent to which one imagines a purpose to his life, he adapts himself to the demands of a purpose to be achieved and became the slave of his liberty.  To speak clearly, to the extent to which I arrange my life and prove thereby that I accept its having a meaning, I create for myself barriers between which I confine my life. I do like so many bureaucrats of the mind and heart who only fill me with disgust and whose only vice is to take man’s freedom seriously. The absurd enlightens me on this point: there is no future. Henceforth this is the reason for my freedom.

After this critical observation the notion of freedom acquires a definite time limit, “it does not write a check to eternity but it takes the place of its illusions which all stop with death”. Owing to those two principles, death and the absurd, one receives the only reasonable freedom:  without the promise of the eternal the absurd man is released from everything outside his universe. After his conscious revolt, his choice for a life with no consolation, he realizes he is free until the end of his time. This constitutes the second consequence of the absurd.

What about morality or emotions? Belief in the meaning of life always implies a set scale of values, choices and preferences. It assumes a predefined distinction of good and evil and merely calls for conformity. In the absurd reasoning no code of ethics and no effort are justifiable a priori. One could argue that we have just created the portrait of a sociopath, an amoral human being, who unchained from the necessities of social albeit indifferent norm is maybe entitled to kill. Does this remind us the Stranger? We have to wait to find out for Camus said in the preface “the Myth of Sisyphus marks the beginning of an idea which I was to pursue in The Rebel. It attempts to resolve the problem of suicide, as The Rebel attempts to resolve that of murder”, while the essay concludes:

All that remains is a fate whose outcome alone is fatal. Outside of that single fatality of death, everything, joy or happiness, is liberty. A world remains of which man is the sole master. What bound him was the illusion of another world. It frolics in myths, but myths with no other depth than that of human suffering and, like it, inexhaustible. Not the divine fable that amuses and blinds, but the terrestrial face, gesture, and drama in which are summed up a difficult wisdom and an ephemeral passion.

This is finally compared with the actual myth of Sisyphus (or of Danaides) . The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. One though does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness. Both Dostoevsky with Kirilov and Sophocles with Oedipus in their tragic works assert that “all is well”. Likewise the absurd man personified in this last excerpt declares:

 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, 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. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

The machine-shop worker keeps asking me if I am happy whenever we come across within the absurd walls of our routine, now I think I have an appropriate answer.

Α.Δ.

About Απολύτως Διαλλακτικός

Logical stories of everyday madness
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19 Responses to The Myth of Sisyphus, a lively introduction to the absurd (Part 1)

  1. alexsveltina says:

    In the same sense that matter and energy exist because nothing, or the absense of anything, cannot exist; for nothing in it’s own attribute is something after all; existential eternity, and the illusion of sentient death follows the same plot-line with the former blotting out all plebian empiricism of the latter. Thusly suicides are enternally forgiven and worthwhile.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is well-known that matter and energy are conserved. Indeed, one might be tempted to say that if consciousness is nothing but the very same matter and energy -what else anyway?- no one can really destroy (or create!) oneself, when by oneself we imply one’s consciousness. Panpsychism comes than as an immediate consequence or as I would call it “conservation of consciousness”. Not only suicide is not culpable under this light, but birth too. It only remains to you, my friend, to provide a formal proof that this is exactly the case for that great if, that strict definition of consciousness in terms of matter and energy. And of course after the stirring proof one, preaching by example, should commit suicide and even go one step further take everyone else for the ride.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The comic of happiness | Απολύτως Διαλλακτικός

  3. H μοίρα του ανθρώπου σε έναν παράλογο κόσμο:

    “Ένας κόσμος που μπορούμε να τον εξηγήσουμε χρησιμοποιώντας ακόμη και πρόχειρες δικαιολογίες, είναι ένας κόσμος οικείος, φιλικός. Αλλά μέσα σ’ ένα σύμπαν στερημένο ξαφνικά από ψευδαισθήσεις και φώτα, ο άνθρωπος νοιώθει ξένος. Σ’ αυτή την εξορία, τη στερημένη από τις αναμνήσεις μιας χαμένης πατρίδας ή από την ελπίδα μιας γης της επαγγελίας, δεν υπάρχει βοήθεια. Αυτή η απόσταση, του ανθρώπου απ’ τη ζωή του, του ηθοποιού απ’ το σκηνικό του, αποτελεί κυριολεκτικά το συναίσθημα του παραλόγου”.
    O Καμύ τελειώνει το δοκίμιο του προτρέποντας μας να φανταστούμε τον Σίσυφο ευτυχισμένο σε αυτή την αέναη χωρίς προοπτική, προσπάθεια -τιμωρία του,προσπαθώντας να εκλογικεύσει την αγωνία μιας ζωής χωρίς νόημα, και την έλλειψη ενός βαθύτερου σκοπού .
    Ομως θα έλεγα ότι υπάρχει και κάτι πιο πέρα απο το να αναλύσει κανείς και να περιορίσει την απεραντοσύνη που μας περιβάλλει . Είναι η “η μη δράση” μέσα σε μία εκκωφαντική σιωπή, γιατί «Δεν υπάρχει αστειότερο πράγμα απ’ τη δυστυχία» και αυτή είναι η εσωτερική εξέγερση ενός ανθρώπου που ψ’αχνει να βρεί τις αλήθειες του …”να μην δίνει δεκάρα”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ο κόσμος δεν είναι ακριβώς παράλογος… “I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.”
      Το χαρούμενο τέλος που δίνεται είναι κατ’ εμέ κάπως ειρωνικό διότι δεν είμαι σίγουρος αν δύναται ο Absurd Man να έχει συναισθήματα, ευτυχία ή δυστυχία. Επομένως, σίγουρα “δε δίνει δεκάρα” αλλά αυτό δεν τον οδηγεί στη “μη δράση”. Η δράση του παραμένει ως έχει, arbitrary and abstract.
      Όσον αφορά το νόημα, η ύπαρξη του δεν βέβαιη ή καλύτερα εμείς δε μπορούμε να είμαστε βέβαιοι. Αυτό που δεν υπάρχει σίγουρα είναι -δε θα σ’ αρέσει- η ελπίδα.
      Ο πειρασμός για μένα είναι άλλος, να μάθω γαλλικά και να διαβάσω το πρωτότυπο.
      Φιλιά ΝΝ!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Ron Houssaye says:

    Beautiful, sir. My favorite section of your post is this one:
    “Second, the leap of faith, that belief which manifests itself in all forms and flavors in religion, spirituality, existentialism, asserts there is at least somewhere, somehow some meaning. It clearly depends how much or what kind of meaning one has in mind; there can an almighty God or a personal sense of purpose which transcends life. This world is not devoid of hope, therefore is worth living … In the word of Camus, ‘that nostalgia for unity, that appetite for the absolute illustrates the essential impulse of the human drama.’”
    Ah yes, the leap of faith, one that I took also at the age of 24. When I was studying philosophy, The Myth of Sisyphus had the most impact on me of any philosophical work. You really captured the spirit of the Absurd Man in the way Camus defined him. The seeker then is not hopeless in the face of a universe which seems to have no meaning! Camus was a heroic and tragic figure, trained at the Sorbonne, a family man, too, and a rebel. Above all, he was a sensitive soul.
    Thank you for bringing this period in my life back to me! Please view my blog post, Philosophy, God and Iced Cream, at: https://addictedtomercy.com/2018/01/08/philosophy-god-and-iced-cream. I do refer to the Myth of S. My blog in some ways is similar to yours. It is found at this address: https://addictedtomercy.com. Please leave a comment!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you Ron for your kind words. There is no doubt that the words of Camus resonate with all of us who dare to doubt the meaning of own very own existence. I am aware though that for the poor these kind of inquiries might appear as luxury and for the rich as mere frivolity, while the middle class incessantly struggles to maintain its status (which could also explain the torpid discourse of philosophy throughout time). But, one needs to gather the pieces of his personal integrity, his honesty towards himself, his truth and face the question outside the goggles of politics, society or economics. I have a precognition that reversing this thought process would actually prove more utilitarian than the traditional definition of utility.
      There is however another constraint for it is not so much the dearth of personal integrity (which would be hard, maybe impossible to define in absolute terms) rather than the leap which constitutes crux of the problem. The bigger this leap the more unlikely to envourage an in depth conversation. Radicalism of ideas, of any sort of ideas, is the culprit. In just psychological terms, or as Camus would perhaps put it “the side effects of the absurd”, man opts for a certainty, highly abstract or ridiculously described, in order to steer clear of the absurd. Thus he either forsakes his consciousness by rolling the stone oblivious until the end of his life or is crushed instantly by the magnitude of its force upon sudden realization.
      It is nice to recollect of one’s memories and to let go (I am not sure to the point of addiction to mercy!). I hope my words don’t confer any judgment because that would be presumptuous of a man’s journey. Take care good sir, I consider you now a friend even though we are strangers in this vast and indifferent internet.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Είναι πολλά χρόνια πίσω που διάβασα τον “μύθο του Σίσυφου”του Καμύ. Κι ούτε που τόχω πιάσει στα χέρια μου μετά.Κι ούτε με βλέπω να το κάνω Ίσως, Ισως, στο μέλλον, διαβάσω θεωρίες άλλων, στο μεταξύ φτειάχνω την δικιά μου. Όμως είναι πολύ ενδιαφέρουσα για μένα η μελέτη σου, Διαλλακτικέ μου. Το παράλογο υπάρχει, πέρα από ο,τι λέει, ο Καμύ, μα, πιστεύω, δεν είναι σε αρμονία με τον Λόγο.Κι οτι η λογική τ’ανθρώπου είναι μικρό μέρος του Λόγου μοναχά και έξω από το παράλογο. Κι οτι οι άνθρωποι μπορεί να ονομάσουν παράλογο κάτι που είναι απλά πέραν της λογικής, χωρίς όμως και νάναι έτσι.Απλά, επειδή αδυνατούμε ως προς την κατανόηση. Το θέμα, όμως της ελευθερίας του ανθρώπου σε σχέση με τον Θεό με ταλάνισε για πολλά πολλά χρόνια. Και μπορώ να πω, σήμερα έχω καταλήξει σε αυτό, μακρυά από τις διδαχές και τις σκέψεις άλλων. Μα, δεν είναι της παρούσας Να σου πω, τι; Πιστεύω ότι ο άνθρωπος είναι καταδικασμένος στην ελευθερία και ελεύθερος να επιλέξει τι και που θέλει να είναι και να περπατήσει. Ακόμη και ότι και η απόφαση ακόμη για την νοητική, συναισθηματική ή πραγματική του αυτοκτονία του, πράξη ελεύθερης επιλογής του είναι. Κι αλλοίμονο να εξαρτάμε τις πράξεις μας από τον “προβλεπόμενο” σκοπό τους ή από την, όπως νομίζουμε, ανυπαρξία του. . .Βαρειές οι κουβέντες στα θέματα που θίγεις..Κι έχουν την ομορφιά τους γιαυτό.

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    • Βαριά τα δύσκολα, βαρετά τα εύκολα. Θαρρώ πως για να μάθει κανείς θα πρέπει να πονέσει. Δεν είναι όμως ο ίδιος πόνος με αυτόν του βασανισμού αλλά λειτουργεί σαν ένα είδος ανακούφισης όπως μετά από μία μεγάλη επέμβαση. Βέβαια υπάρχει ο κίνδυνος να συνηθίσει κανείς σε αυτά τα ισχυρά ναρκωτικά της διαύγειας κι έπειτα “you can’t -hardly- get no satisfaction” from anything else. Χρειάζεται μια ισορροπία θα έλεγες, ιδού λοιπόν ένας ρόλος του λυρισμού, να αραιώνει το φάρμακο!

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      • Το διάβασα και χαμογέλασα στο σχόλιό σου, Διαλλακτικέ μου. Βαρειές οι κουβέντες, είπα. Στα εύκολα χμ τα Δηλαδή, το θέμα μου είναι στενόχωρο για τον χρόνο που περνάω τώρα. .Ναι, για να μάθει κανείς, πονάει. Μακάρι νάταν τόσο εύκολο όσο μια χειρουργική επέμβαση ακόμη και μεγάλη, όπως λες. Η χειρουργική επέμβαση κρατάει ορισμένο χρόνο, ενώ η πορεία αυτή, οχι. Όντως, στην πορεία, σαν ρθεί μετά η γαλήνη, ο άνθρωπος, σαν πως λέει ο ποιητής μας ο Λειβαδίτης ο Τάσος “Γιατί ο πόνος, ο απέραντος ανθρώπινος πόνος, σ’ ανασηκώνει πάνω απ’ τον εαυτό σου…Kαι τότε καταλαβαίνεις τους πόνους του απείρου όταν κοιλοπονούσε τον κόσμο. Kαι τους πόνους της γής
        για να γεννήσει ένα στάχυ… ” Κάπως έτσι..Και εδώ έρχεται το χαμόγελο που σου είπα..”Χρειάζεται μια ισορροπία θα έλεγες, ιδού λοιπόν ένας ρόλος του λυρισμού, να αραιώνει το φάρμακο!” Ναι, έτσι θα έλεγα..

        Liked by 2 people

      • Υπόσχομαι ότι θα διαβάζω περισσότερο Λειβαδίτη στο μέλλον Beatrice.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. efge63 says:

    Nice post!!! Have a nice day!!!!

    We are Sisyphus. author
    Chris Peers

    In worlds beyond the midnight stars,
    they are reading the last pages of our memoirs,
    looking at us with sadness and sympathy,
    and listening to the echoes of our last symphony,
    in a world where empathy has the greatest potential,
    the sanctity of life is no longer essential.

    Its a world where humans spontaneously combust,
    and all past greatness has turned to dust,
    we wake up each day to sadness and tragedy,
    and a little fear that today we’re going to die,
    no point in wishing upon the early morning star,
    angels of mercy cannot hear and dwell too far.

    Along meandering streets we stay lost,
    dead ends are leading to our holocaust,
    how long will these troubled times last,
    we don’t want to learn from our past,
    in deep sleep our souls are crying,
    madness within humanity is forever raging.

    Normalcy will adapt and shrug its shoulders,
    as we’ve become Sisyphus pushing the boulder,
    round and round this circle of madness,
    developing new normal’s with perpetual sadness,
    getting over the pain and living the personal dream,
    waking up each day and wanting to scream.

    Is happiness real in a land so sour,
    the air we breathe is filled with paranoia,
    agitated dreams in our sleep,
    mothers of children continue to weep,
    Lonestar state suffered death in its church,
    while god looked down from his golden perch.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the little poem – I gather that it was written as a tribute to the massacre in Texas last November. The absurd, or better our tolerance towards insanity, has grown disproportionately in the US (in Greece too but for another premise). Understanding that we are Sisyphus, as described in the essay, leads to revolt. In this sense ut provides more an ontological attitude -why we are, than a pragmatical attitude -what exactly we are doing. Yet the fact that we are Sisyphus, this lucid consciousness of the absurd, should not imply acceptance thus complicity to the calamities happening all around. Being such a Sisyphus would mean not rolling stone up, it would mean resigning.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. MichaelK says:

    Very interesting discussion of this subject! The last paragraph brought to mind Kavafi’s Ithaca. Of course I may be mistaken but I am not an expert.

    Liked by 2 people

    • There is no mistake coming from a man’s heart. Artists, like Kavafis -my mind goes to Kazantzakis, have a philosophy instilled in their work (“contrary to the thesis-writers who are often inspired by a smug thought”) for they illustrate those stirring consequences of the absurd. This is why we read them I believe lest we forget what is masked behind the sweeping curtain of habit.

      Liked by 2 people

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