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The Journal of Camus Studies
Formerly the Journal of the Albert Camus Society, the JCS is published annually and is available in print or as an ebook. For more information on purchasing or contributing visit the Camus Journal page.
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. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. 1
This is how Camus' essay collection The Myth of Sisyphus starts, when it was first published in 1942. The central essay is the eponymous portrait of the mythological figure of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was one of the wisest men on earth, extremely skilled in trickery and the founder of Corinth. After deceiving the gods, Zeus banished him into Tartarus, a prison-like waste land beneath the underworld. Here, Sisyphus endlessly rolls a rock up a hill, just to have it roll back to start anew. A Sisyphean task became synonymous with senseless work that man has to do nowadays. From the beginning on it is the very clear tone of the book, that the value of life is most important issue.
All other themes resolve about the question of suicide, mortality and faith. The term ‘faith' is burdened with a heavy religious meaning, but for the French writer it is not a matter of one believes in God or not, but rather to believe in oneself. Camus examines how an honest affirmation of life can come into existence without pinning it down to external influences. It is life that matters, the pure ability to be part of this world. The discussion of the ‘The Myth of Sisyphus' essay in the collection starts from a fairly existential viewpoint (even though Camus later distanced himself from existentialism as a whole philosophy): existence matters, all questions of essence come afterwards.
Suicide, the decision to end one's own life, is an act of despair and an inability to cope with life. Camus is aware of that, but digs immediately deeper: he looks at mortality. The pairing between mortality and the endless task of Sisyphus, that makes him immortal in his punishment, is not a stark contrast. On the contrary, with this combination, Camus presents that we are all immortal until the moment of death occurs. How is this possible? It is because death has never been experienced. This reveals to the reader why Camus fascination with suicide marks the start of ‘Absurdity and Suicide': since there is no personal experience of death (where the self has died), the fascination and curiosity prevails. It is this drive that is later needed for overcoming the absurd.
The words ‘eternal', ‘endless', ‘immortal' are made up by the human mind to fix something that is ungraspable. By naming ‘eternity' as such, the status loses a threatening quality of never-ending quality. In Camus' works, these unlimited visions like eternity are summed up in the notion of the absurd. It is also a far better word to describe how our mind processes a word but can never fully grasp the meaning behind since we always act within limits of information. Sisyphus is in the same situation and his story illustrates how man copes with the graspable world around him. His situation also shows how one can overcome the despair of the absurd through Camusian revolt.
The basic idea of revolt is largely political: to overthrow an existing and often oppressive authority. Despite the political importance of this essay for the time published, the idea of overcoming a tyrannical force is crucial. Camusian revolt consists of three steps: acknowledgement, acceptance, accomplishment. Acknowledgement of the absurd makes it first of all a part of one's own; it is not foreign and unpleasant anymore. After this step, “[y]ou have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero.” 2 Acceptance is therefore much more difficult for many people. Sisyphus cannot break his fate from the outside, but only from the inside. This inside is the attitude shown towards an issue, although it could alternatively regarded as the underworld itself or a representation of the Freudian unconsciousness.
Sisyphus has to accept the absurd around him in order to overcome it. Camus uses the lack of information about Sisyphus to create his own story about the man alone with a rock. Nothing seems to be scarier than working for no results and always starting all over again, apparently with no aim. This is the point where Camus, like a lawyer, takes position for Sisyphus and works in his theory of the absurd.
At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs of gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock. ... Sisyphus, the proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition; it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is not fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn. 3
The Myth of Sisyphus is a deeply humanistic book. Even though the word ‘fate' appears several times, it is meant in terms of fear: fear of a (wrong) decision, a situation or a life – in short, representations of the absurd. Since this is no solid soil for an individual to grow on, this state of fear is only overcome by faith in the self. Camus' essay is a celebration of the individual without falling into self-indulgence or egotism. Nonetheless, Camus puts special emphasis on the community as shown in his later works like La peste or Les justes. A strong individual creates a strong community and can change the world. This change does not have to literally move mountains from A to B but can simply be caused by a change in perception, a paradigm shift.
This is where I leave you with Camus and Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. Sisyphus, or his type later which Camus names ‘the absurd man', is the master of his own fate. It is an inner strength not comparable to today's self-help hallway books telling you how to resist biscuits. It is an attitude, an inner change that cannot be possessed, taught or bought, but achieved only through revolt, the revolt of the inner self against the absurd.
1 Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus; translated from the French by Justin O'Brien (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975), p. 11.
2 Ibid., p. 108.
3 Ibid., p. 109.