Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essay by Albert Camus

CW: Discussion of Suicide

I’ve been an admirer of Camus for a while. Years ago I read the title essay from this collection, but more recently I read The Plague a couple times and consider it one of the great 20th Century novels. I’ve enjoyed the other works of his I’ve read (The Stranger, Rebellion Resistance and Death, and The Fall) a little less, but still thought they were somewhere on the scale between good and great. Given how much I loved his other books I was a little surprised how difficult I found it to make progress in this book. I read the first couple pages several times before I actually got through it. That’s not because I thought it was bad or didn’t make sense. It’s because the first sentence of the first essay in the collection stopped me in my tracks each time and I spent so long thinking about it that I moved on to other books. His most famous line is “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” but that makes much more sense in the light of the first line in the collection: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." Whether or not one should choose to continue living.

I haven’t ever attempted suicide, but there were a couple of periods of time in which I had serious suicidal ideation every day for months at a time. So this is a question that really hit home with me. This is a theme I’ve appreciated in other works as well. As I read this, I was reminded of Walker Percy’s bit (from Lost in the Cosmos, I think) about being an ex-suicide, that is someone who had fully considered it as an option and decided to keep living. It’s one of the reasons I love Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood, one of my yearly rereads. It’s in the subtext of the whole book, but near the end it’s more explicit when the fictional version of Isherwood says of the director Bergmann who is the other main character of the book: “There is one question which we seldom ask each other directly: it is too brutal. And yet it is the only question worth asking our fellow travelers. What makes you go on living? Why don’t you kill yourself? Why is this all bearable? What makes you bear it?” I appreciate the approach of facing the idea squarely and deciding to continue on. I don’t know what a therapist would make of these treatments of the topic, but I found them helpful over the years. It’s bleak and somehow hopeful at the same time.

Camus takes as his starting point what he sees as the endpoint of a lot of the “existentials” as he called the philosophers he’s usually grouped with; that life is absurd. In Camus’s telling they are attempting to prove that absurdity. He takes absurdity as obvious on its face. Given that, he wants to see if it is possible to live “without appeal” to transcendence or hope. In setting up this he talks about the phenomenologists, existentialists and proto-existentists (like Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard). I found this 60 page opening essay very bracing. Rather than trying to offer hope per se, his argument, to the extent that I understand it, is that living despite the meaninglessness of life is more meaningful than an appeal to transcendence.

The next couple of essays, The Absurd Man and Absurd Creation were also insightful, though I connected to them less. And then the first section closes with The Myth of Sisyphus which is the thing most people are apt to have read by him. In the context of the earlier essays, the idea of Sisyphus’s task being more onerous because he knows the absurdity of it and continuing on happily takes on more weight. I think one of the best expressions of this I’ve heard comes from an episode of the show Angel, “If nothing you do matters, the only thing that matters is what you do.”

And this is where the rest of the essays in the collection make more sense. The first four, dealing with absurdity and suicide seem to have been collected together previously. Three of the next four are nostalgic looks back at his time in Algeria. On first glance these seem glaringly out of place given the heaviness of the themes in the first section. But looking at them as an example of him trying to live well despite the absurd and it really makes sense. There’s a good essay about greek philosophy as well. And it closes with an interview of sorts in which he talks about art and what people should do in an absurd world, which takes the heady material of the earlier sections and makes it a little more practical.

For my money Camus would have earned his Nobel on the strength of this collection and The Plague alone. I’m not sure the extent to which I agree with everything he says here, but this and The Ethics of Ambiguity make the strongest cases I’ve read for existentialism. I think the closest I can get to defining my own ideology is to try to split the difference between existentialism whatever Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard are onto. There is a huge paradox there, I know, but it’s the closest I can get. This is a seminal book which I will be returning to, or at least returning to sections of again.

Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 42/75

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