Friday, May 15, 2009

The Myth of Sisyphus

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, by Albert Camus
1942, 151 pp.

I have had an affinity for Albert Camus ever since I was fourteen years old and discovered an elderly copy of The Stranger in the garage with its cover ripped off and some unintelligible pencil notations in the margins. I quite like him as a novelist and admire him as a playwright; I am in almost perfect agreement with him morally, politically, ethically, and even philosophically. I vastly prefer him to Sartre. But for all that, I have never been able to make much ground in his non-fiction work. It is not out of a problem with his ideas or out of disagreement, but instead a problem of prose. It may be that I have acquired only the worst translations, but I find his non-fiction prose almost unreadable. It seems to me poorly structured, from the level of the sentence on up: sentences will seem to contain subordinate clauses which contradict or obfuscate the dominant ones, or will list concepts which seem to me exclusive to one another. His paragraphs often seem badly organized: they never begin with a topic, proceed to examine or support it, then flow logically into the next paragraph. Often assertions are followed not by evidence but by more (and sometimes contradictory or non-sequitur) assertions. Sometimes it seems there are line breaks missing, sometimes individual sentences seem to have no relation to the ones around them, and he often appears to raise fascinating questions only to get lost in his examples and never actually get around to answering them. This is particularly frustrating since I agree with all of his central premises, and want very much to hear his solutions, but I always come away disappointed.

The Myth of Sisyphus poses the central question in Camus' thinking and of modern humanism: does the recognition that life is meaningless necessarily require suicide? To get at this, Camus spends some time investigating the concept of "the absurd," which is the condition that arises when human reason finds itself unequipped to grasp the unreasonableness of the world. But he is not always clear that "the absurd" is more than the adolescent realization that the world will not organize itself for my personal pleasure. Instead we get a curious argument about man's inability to "unify" the world and the purpose to life, but even this is hardly a justified rage against the hollowness of theodicy in the context of wartime Europe. Camus examines a few philosophers who began to deal with this: Heidegger, Jaspers, Shestov, Kierkegaard, and Husserl. This seems to me a strange combination, and his treatment of them is hardly systematic, but his point is that they commit "philosophical suicide" by taking positions that contradict their clear recognition of the absurd. Here "philosophical suicide" seems a bit of a dramatic phrase: perhaps "cop-out" is more accurate.

But then Camus argues that it is necessary to take the absurd seriously, and understand the contradiction between the human desire to understand and the unreasonable world. So far so good, but how does he reach the conclusion that suicide must be rejected, because without man, the absurd disappears? Isn't that exactly the point? The absurd is a rather uncomfortable thing, and the question of suicide, it seems to me, has been arising since Hamlet as a solution to that suffering. Camus argues instead to embrace it, and that embracing it yields the freedom and passion which comes from living without hope. This does not follow. If your spouse beats you, it does not seem to me that embracing a hopeless future of beatings is the solution, nor is it logical to argue against suicide because committing suicide will end the beatings. He seems to me to have argued against suicide by citing the arguments in favor of it, and argued in favor of living in an absurd world by citing the reasons why such a life is miserable. And what would a non-absurd world look like? Is it impossible, and if so, is it impossible because of the natural world or because of man's failings? Can it be hypothesized about, or is it logical impossibility? He doesn't say. Instead of close, methodical analysis, we seem to get off-the-cuff personal attitudes.

He moves on to discussing how The Absurd Man should live. "What counts is not the best living but the most living," he says, and "'everything is permitted' is not an outburst of relief or joy, but rather a bitter acknowledgment of a fact." The meaninglessness of the absurd man's actions are his most profound justification. Again, the logic seems flawed. Why is more meaningless experience preferred to less? Isn't the sum of ten zeroes equal to the sum of only two? And if no ethical rules apply, isn't this only adding to the already existing suffering in the world, rather than trying to live in revolt against suffering?

Camus discusses three examples of absurd living: the seducer, the actor, and the conqueror. This is an odd grouping, but Camus is prone to odd groupings. Then, apropos of the role of the artistic creator in an absurd world, he discusses Dostoevsky, particularly Kirilov in Demons, and Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. This is both the strongest and the weakest part of the book. Strongest because here Camus is chained to the form of literary analysis, which imposes more organization and coherence on him that he otherwise displays, but also weakest because the characters he chooses to analyze speak in the brilliant, overwhelming voice of Dostoevsky, and therefore seem to present a stronger and more logical case for suicide than Camus presents against it. The concluding discussion of the titular Myth of Sisyphus is not at all persuasive. Drawing a parallel between Sisyphus and the modern laborer is solid, if somewhat obvious, but concluding that Sisyphus is happy, because he is conscious of his "wretched condition" and the absurdity of his fate, that the acknowledgment of this truth "conquers it," and that Sisyphus therefore reaches a state of hopeless but contented acceptance. I do not consider Sisyphus happy, and I do not understand how hopeless acceptance creates happiness or is consistent with Camus' argument of the necessity of revolt. Furthermore, the choice of Sisyphus as an example seems to me a poor one: Sisyphus does not spend an eternity in hopeless toil because that is the natural state of the world which his reason is unable to grasp. Nor is menial wage labor or prison the natural state of the poor and the dispossessed in human society. Instead, Sisyphus is condemned to his fate by the arbitrary tyranny of the gods as punishment for his attempts to better his own life. And he is not condemned out of a matter of rationality or morality, since he and the gods were about equally depraved, but solely because their arbitrary power was greater than his. Hopelessly accepting the unaccountable abuse of power runs quite contrary not only to most of Camus' other work but against most humanist philosophy in general. It also speaks to a glaring contradiction. How is Sisyphus, as the absurd hero, to live "most," let alone "best"? He is capable of neither, due to the power of his oppressors. So too is it not a question of the most or the best living for most actual people, but a brief life of mediocrity. Camus writes as though the absurd was only a matter of man and his place in the natural world, but it is not: surely the absurd extends to man's relation to others, to the institutions man creates which end up enslaving him, and to the control of the social system in which he operates. There is none of this to be found in The Myth of Sisyphus, and Camus seems to assume as natural all manner of social relations which are not universal, not essential, and not timeless in nature. At the end of his section on the absurd man, Camus declares "Civil servants of the world, you, too, can be absurd!" but he is unclear on how exactly the absurd civil servant would differ from his non-absurd colleagues, and whether the absurd civil servant would still pay his rent and do laundry and so forth. Is it merely an internal matter of quiescent acceptance of one's life of meaningless suffering? This hardly seems the answer.

The briefer concluding essays are mostly trifles. Doubtless they are interesting to read while relaxing in the sun by the Mediterranean, but they add little in the way of philosophical or contextual knowledge. The appendix regarding Kafka is interesting, and I agree with most of Camus' analysis, though I cannot agree with his faulting Kafka for having a glimmer of hope and therefore not really being absurd. Kafka was much more interested in social phenomena and the interaction of the individual with institutions than Camus seems to have been, and his conclusions to these questions do not strike me as at all hopeful. Camus shows his keen eye for literature, though, and argues a strong case, but on the whole this volume seems a paler, less subtle, and less persuasive rendition of the themes Camus later explored so effectively in his plays and novels and in The Rebel.

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