on 26 April 2007
Albert Camus, who will not call himself a philosopher, who will not "sit on a judge's bench" here, in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, describes an "absurd sensitivity" he feels prevalent in this age. He is concerned with the principle that "for a man who does not cheat, what he believes to be true must determine his action." Consequently, how should someone, in finding the world absurd, find resource to continue in that world. Indeed, for Camus, "there is but one truly philosophical problem and that is suicide."
He clubs philosophers, scientists and religious acolytes together for their leap into construction and the world of their belief; "the leap does not represent an extreme danger, as Kierkegaard would have it. The danger, on the contrary, lies in the subtle instant that precedes the leap. Being able to remain in that dizzying crest - that is integrity and the rest is subterfuge."
Aware of the dangers of ignorance and enthusiasm, Camus propounds a life of self-exhaustion and permanent revolution, concerned not only with the quality of life, but with its quantity; "a man's rule of conduct and his scale of values have no meaning except through the quantity and variety of experiences he has been able to accumulate." But this is not a blank cheque for violence, "one must not be a dupe", it is the means for art to realise its ultimate importance; "the great work of art has less significance in itself than the ordeal that it demands of the man and the opportunity which it provides him of overcoming his phantoms and approaching a little closer to his naked reality." Absurdity provides us with a justification for authentic creative effort.
Technically, Camus does not impress, as Sartre's or Heidegger's analyses do. But we have to appreciate him on his own terms, he even asks for our "indulgence" in his preface. He is not concerned with drawing up irreproachable ontological walls, building closed systems or universes, but with providing some light by which to see how everything we do is already contained within walls which we only have to create within to be free. Less impressive than his fiction, yes, but still immensely influential.
The five other essays in this collection, especially Summer in Algiers and The Minotaur, both lyrical eulogies to the cities and the country in Africa, provide counterweight to the main essay; uneasy as a philosopher, here Camus shows his true colours, simply those of a great writer.
Firstly, I think the central reasoning behind Absurdism is absolutely fantastic. I used to think I was an existentialist, but always felt it a little too earnest, or humourless, and leant too near Nihilism. To say Camus dresses this work in a cloak of impregnability, though being a little harsh, is true enough. If you are not totally familiar with either the ideologies or the language of philosophy, then this will be a hard read. It`s not a weighty tome, it`s a small paperback, a collection of various essays and short stories, and this version is smaller than A5. It does become more easy to follow as it progresses, perhaps as the reader becomes used to the style. Anyway, I take this from it:
Camus is acknowledging that logically, in a universe that man can never know the point of, suicide is the sensible option. We will never know why we are here, or if there is reason, so should stop looking now, and end it all. But that rather cuts short the chance of future fun, doesn`t it? Even the bleakest of days can have something to recommend them. As Dawkins wryly notes in "The God Delusion", a friend of his was "rather looking forward to a good lunch", for example. Personally, I wouldn`t want to die without hearing the new Van Halen album, or wondering if England can become the No.1 ranked cricket team (doubtless some of you have an answer to that one already). It might be taken out of our hands at any time anyway, so why rush things along?
A leap of faith might be the answer. Hmmm...not for me I`m afraid. Whilst blindly believing something contrary to all logic appears to be of comfort to billions worldwide, this is, Camus observes rightly, philosophical suicide. Ignoring all logic and reasoning and evidence cannot be easy to do. If you can, and it harms no one, why not? (It does of course harm people everyday and has since time began, but that is a different subject).
The solution then? Well, like Sisyphus, just enjoy the boulder pushing. Sure - it will roll back, and you know it will - which I interpret as meaning you won`t be any nearer any particular purpose, whatever it is you are doing, because the true absurdity of life will undo your hard work sooner or later. Embrace the pointlessness, create a personal meaning, ideally within the confines of a modern, intelligent society where the emphasis is on personal responsibility, and try and have a little fun. Don`t try and look for anything else...that would just be absurd.
Camus's Le Mythe de Sisyphe written to accompany his 1st novel L'Etranger is a philosophy as a branch of literature rather than philosophy in itself.Camus never claimed(a la Sartre)to be a philosopher,he claimed a novel was a philosophy expressed with images.Just as reason is subservient to nostalgia,philosophy is subservient to art.This provides the ballast to his fictional works,with a felicity of style they share. We have the major essay The Myth of Sisyphus and the series of essays based upon places in Algeria,Summer in Algiers,The Minotaur,Helen'sExile and Return to Tipasa,where what concerns him is a passion for the present moment.Camus states he deals with a description,not a metaphysical belief,of an `intellectual malady',an absurd sensitivity citing certain contemporary thinkers,not a philosophy.Camus immediately states the meaning of life deals with the most urgent of questions.The only philosophical problem in an absurd world devoid of eternal values is suicide.We're all mortal,allcondemned to death,we must live in the present,for the here and now,not some imaginary future or other world.Is lifetherefore worth living?Suicide can be due to the ridiculous habits,gestures of existence,"a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights,man feels an alien, a stranger".One learns the truth about the absurd through everyday banal experience, that can hit you on the street corner.
Camus's aim is not to overcome a sense of alienation or separateness from the world. In The Outsider Meursault takes a defiant pleasure in this condition. Sisyphus, the `absurd hero', feels a `silent joy' in living in a world where `man feels an alien, a stranger...his exile...without remedy.' Camus was by his own admission not interested in weighty philosophical topics of a systematic kind like existentialism,being neither a philosopher norsystematic. According to Camus,man has a fundamental `longing for reason',especially for a world as a unitary whole within which everything has its demonstrable station and value.Unfortunately people have recognized the `irrationality ` of reality and hence `despair of true knowledge'.Yet a `nostalgia' for reason remains,and it is the confrontation between this and reality,rather than the latter's irrationality alone,which constitutes absurdity.From the `encounters' between a `human need and the unreasonable silence of the world',the absurd is `born'.Reality is irrational because it is `chaotic',and shot through with paradoxes.Existentialism starts with an attempt to `overcome' people's sense of alienation from the world.But it is precisely this `divorce' between ourselves and the world that Camus revels in,why he is not an existentialist,closer to Neitschze's nihilism,the self-overcomer. But he wants to live with absurdity not overcome it.
The route Camus takes here is committed to shunning philosophy. He purports to be interested only in whether a certain proposition is livable, not whether it is true. If he were to try to assert his own metaphysical position, if he were to try to claim that such-and-such is the case, he would then be burdened with the responsibility of proving the superiority of his metaphysical position over those of other philosophers. All this is relevant because Camus comes dangerously close to metaphysics when he asserts that the absurd is our fundamental relationship with the world and that our need for reasons and the silence of the universe are the two basic facts of human existence. Camus's essay rests on faith, though faith of a negative kind. Camus is determined to believe that there is no God and that life is meaningless more than he is determined to argue for that meaninglessness. He is not presenting a philosophical system so much as he is diagnosing a certain way of looking at the world.To Camus enduring theworld's absurdity is a metaphysical honour.He posits a metaphysics of non-belief:"Even men without a gospel have their Mount of Olives".
Camus identified with the idea that a personal experience could become a reference point for his philosophical and literary writings. Although he considered himself an atheist, Camus came to the idea that the absence of religious belief can simultaneously be accompanied by a longing for "salvation and meaning".His thesis on neo-platonism at university: for Plotinus, philosophy was not only a matter of abstract speculation but also a way of life and a religion. The devotional nature of Plotinus' s philosophy may be further illustrated by his concept of attaining ecstatic union with the One:he turned reason away from contradiction into the magic of participation. Camus describes the absurd man as `innocent',free of `guilt' and `sin',free according to impulse and desire but not respecting human rationality,living in the present.In The Outsider we get the acte gratuite,in the murder of the Arab. Meursault the model existentialist hero,free from morality. In the absence of a moral code, there is nothing to stop people from behaving in a criminal or harmful manner, but Camus does not take this to be much of a problem, even though perhaps he should .He describes what living with absurdity entails.
The Myth of Sisyphus is beautifully written,metaphor takes the place of syllogism,the aesthetic comes before the ethical.Rather than choose suicide or belief in God,man chooses to live life to the fullest.The only sin against life(not despair of life but hoping for another)is eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.Camus uses reason rather than intellectual argument,can he live simply with just what he knows? Suicide, like hope, is just another way out of this conflict. Living the absurd is more akin to the predicament faced by the man condemned to death yet who, with every breath, revolts against the notion that he must die.The absurd man is determined to reject everything we cannot know with certainty,free from metaphysics,meaning,prejudices and preconceptions,free to think and act as he chooses,taking each moment of life as it strikes him.He wants to live with the certainty he has just now and nothing more.The consequences of living with the certainty that there is no certainty are "revolt,freedom and passion".The revolt without hope is the myth of Sisyphus;free from theconstraints of normal society,living in the present moment(passion).His interest is the art of living,a way of life.The question is does Camus go beyond a use of metaphor,describe a way of life that goes beyond the figurative,are we truly living or just playing a role? The great work has a limpid classical style,a homage showing man's thought is his nostalgia
on 19 August 2002
If you are at all interested in Camus' philosophy you must read these thoughts on the Human Condition based around the story of Sysiphus who was condemned to pushing a great boulder to the top of a mountain only to see it rolling back to the bottom again. Camus' thoughts are not as bleak as pessimists might first imagine. Essential reading for insights into 20th century takes on the absurdity of out condition.
on 28 October 2013
I loved this book, the Plague too. Found Camus 'honest'. I believed him. Return to Tipasa is one of my favourite pieces of writing (ever). it represents the direction 'west' for me somehow. Happiness. In some copies there is the question and answer session from when Camus won the Nobel prize and that I liked very much too. He talks about how being an artist is a visceral intolerance for things, he talks about taking the bitterness without becoming bitter and returning to life having won that light. In my early 20's he was the 'best' I had found.
Important to separate the man from what he writes perhaps (tho here he really says he would have liked to have been someone of stature). But still!
When they published The First Man in the 90's I asked my french teacher is it any good is it any good?! And she laughed and showed me a sunday times article where people came up to the reviewer reading it in Charles de Galles airport and asked him - 'is it any good is it any good?'
These days Ursula le Guin's writings 'hit the spot' for me - lucid simple too and (perhaps) even more humanly profound. Voices. The Other wind. Completely impressed!
on 14 October 2005
I am a huge fan of Camus, and absurdism is a view of life that has a lot of meaning for me, so I had high hopes for this collection of essays, famed for being the definitive absurdist statement. Unfortunately I was left hugely disappointed.
The first half of the book is given to a series of essays discussing the implications of absurdism for our reasoning, for the priorities we choose in life ('The Absurd Man') and the purpose of art ('Absurd Creation'). These essays are dense, wordy and obscure, and Camus' unusually verbose prose and vague language served only to confuse his message. I think that I understand Camus' ideas reasonably well from his fiction, and these essays clarified very little. The essay 'The Myth of Sisyphus' is tiny by comparison, only four pages, but it succeeded for me where the others fail. It is vintage Camus, beautifully setting up his ideas simply and directly. The rest of the book can be left aside, but this one short essay is essential for Camus fans. The rest of the book is given to essays that are part absurdist philosophy, part prose poem about life in Algeria. They are strangely compelling, and show where I think that Camus' strength lies, in subtly combining philosophy and art. The early essays are too self-consciously pompous. The later ones are Camus on top form.
In short, I found that I didn't gain much from reading this collection that I hadn't already got from Camus' vastly preferable fiction ('The Outsider', 'The Plague', 'Exile and the Kingdom'), and would really recommend reading the latter in preference to this collection. Having said that, 'The Myth of Sisyphus' does have some excellent moments, but I found too much of it to be hard work.
on 14 November 2006
Parts of this book are revalatory. The account of someone "awakening to absurdity" - the sense of meaninglessness which render everyday gestures and actions seem unreal, staged - is masterly. But it is how he expands upon this that makes this book consructive - can 'man' find away out of this malaise towards new connection's or is suicide the only free act left to him? Camus' says that concomitant to the feeling of absurdity is a loss of hope - instead of projections into the future, all that man can possibly do is effect a revolt in the present against "his obscurity". It is the possibility of establishing a "new way of seeing" through which (ermm...) redemption could come.
on 26 April 2016
I sincerely hope Penguin only reissued this version in 2005 in order to raise cash for a new translation of these essays. The prose, as has been remarked elsewhere, is truly dreadful. The translation dates back to 1955, so maybe different standards applied, maybe Justin O'Brien was a mate of the publisher and needed some cash, but it doesn't excuse why no subsequent editor looked at these manuscripts and went 'eh'? It's embarrassing. At times, you can make out a hint of what Camus was getting at, but mostly you need to sift through the sludge of what's, I suspect, a word-for-word translation. The English is incoherent and obtuse. It'll be less of an effort to learn French and read the original than do what I did and struggle through its English 1955 translation. Avoid until a new translation is out.
on 12 July 2010
This is a lovely little thesis on the meaning (or lack of meaning) of life. Camus (pronounced Kamoo) is clearly an intellectual giant and the first half of this work will be far too difficult for most readers (including me) because it is written in the technical language that only philosophers seem to understand. Parts are akin to trying to run through a lake of treacle. It can be as opaque as the infamous ginger beer bottle that hid the decaying remnants of a snail in the Donoghue legal case. Only Schopenhauer's prize winning essay on free will was harder to read.
Happily, Camus's essay gets simpler half way through where he adopts normal prose rather than complex logical arguments.
Sisyphus is my favourite metaphor for modern life: endless repetition and back-breaking drudgery with occasional tragic moments of self realisation that all this striving will end in tears - decrepit old age and then death!
Camus concludes that all we can do is enjoy the fleeting moments of happiness and live life as fully as possible. He suggests that quantity of life is as important as quality. I suppose the overused 'carpe diem' is what he is saying.
It's great to read such an intelligent dissertation and in keeping with the tragedy of Sisyphus it is a similar tragedy that Albert Camus died in a car crash at just 47 years old. A great loss to mankind.
on 7 October 2013
I read this long essay on my daily commute and the commuter life is a Sisyphean task and I must say this book allowed me to view life differently. His views about Kafka and Dostoevsky are a special treat to read. Like all works of philosophy, it can be hard going but the rewards are always immense. One of those books to read again because there is always more to it than one thinks.