Life's absurdity is a cause for happiness

Camus and why we must consider Sisyphus happy

Sisyphus is forced to push a heavy boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down; for all eternity. Camus famously compared Sisyphus’ condition to the human condition. We too are fated to complete mundane, meaningless tasks, to chase desires and achieve goals only for them to be replaced by new desires and goals; always returning back where we started. Ronald Aronson argues it is our awareness, our human self-consciousness, of this condition that makes us superior to it.

 

“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”[1]

What does this mean as the final line of an essay that “attempts to resolve the question of suicide” [2] - which for Albert Camus was a natural corollary of squarely facing life’s meaninglessness? How does the, at the time of writing, 27-year-old’s often chaotic and always startling essay on absurdity end with happiness and joy, after urgently posing suicide as the alternative to living amidst absurdity? And what does it mean to us today, eighty years later?

  related-video-image SUGGESTED VIEWING Dostoevsky vs Nietzsche With Niki Seth-Smith, Janne Teller, Oliver Ready, Kathleen Higgins

Unlike Jean-Paul Sartre, in whose Nausea Camus discovered a kinship a couple of years earlier, and who saw absurdity as a founding property of existence, Camus regarded it as an essential feature of our experience of the world, our relationship to it. Absurdity is the fact that we die and cannot do anything about it. It is the tension between our impulse to ask ultimate questions and the impossibility of achieving any adequate answer. It is absurd to try to know, understand, or explain the world because, Camus asserts, our efforts to gain rational knowledge are futile. In these assertions Camus pits himself not only against everyday life and religion but also against science and philosophy, dismissing the claims of all forms of rational analysis: “That universal reason, practical or ethical, that determinism, those categories that explain everything are enough to make a decent man laugh” [3]. Camus does not present this skepticism as a philosopher, arguing for the truth of his conception, but talks rather about the “absurd sensibility”[4] behind it. He points to a widespread “intellectual malady,” and he asserts this alongside, perhaps as an alternative to, systematic philosophical thought.

Starting from this mood of the times, Camus asks how - and, strikingly, whether - one should live in the face of it: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide”[5]. In other words, “Does the absurd dictate death?"[6] After sharply posing this question, the main concern of The Myth of Sisyphus is to sketch various ways of living life that nevertheless seek to make it worth living.

___

Sisyphus reminds us that we cannot help seeking to understand the reality that transcends our intelligence, striving to grasp more than our limited and practical scientific understanding allows, wishing to live without dying.

___

What about his fellow discoverer of absurdity, Sartre? Does the ultimate futility of Sartre’s philosophy, the famous “useless passion,” parallel the “despair” Camus describes?[7] After all, if Sisyphus’s labor is ultimately futile, so is the project to become God described in Being and Nothingness. But Sartre will reach far beyond the “classical pessimism” and “disillusionment” he finds in his first reading of Camus, and instead, with a profound confidence in reason, goes on to understand and explain not only the god-project but virtually all of the human world. He does so philosophically, then politically, socio-economically, psychologically, and historically. The result was his Promethean intellectual project, reaching with immense energy in every possible direction.

In contrast, I have written that Camus is the foremost thinker of the absurd, not its philosopher, and expresses a worldview rather than a coherent philosophy. Although the range and depth of his work at long last led to his inclusion in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Camus himself denied being a philosopher, insisting that he did “not believe sufficiently in reason to believe in a system.” [8] More, as Sartre’s acolyte Francis Jeanson had already written in the 1940s, Camus’s philosophy is a contradiction in terms, because it contests philosophy itself. He asserts objectively valid truths while denying the very possibility of doing so.[9] The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel are systematically skeptical of conclusions about the meaning of life, although both works assert, but at the same time refuse to argue, objectively valid answers to key life-questions. And, although Camus seemed modest and disdained labels when describing his intellectual ambitions, he was confident enough to spend years articulating not only his own worldview but also a critique of religion and a fundamental critique of modernity - an alternative to the existentialism of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir - along with a determined anti-Marxist case for a moderate left-wing politics. While rejecting the very idea of a philosophical system, he constructed his own edifice of ideas - around his assertion of the key terms, absurdity and rebellion.

  Untitled 39 SUGGESTED READING Camus and the absurdity of freedom By Harry Carlisle

Camus fittingly launched it not with an elaboration of concepts, but with a story, built of unforgettable images. It is the story of Sisyphus, based on life’s absurdity, its “futility and hopeless labor”[10]0. And it shows Sisyphus’s triumph over a life in which “the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.”1[11] The last few pages of The Myth of Sisyphus condense the entire line of thought into a vivid image of a life lived with full consciousness but without resignation: Sisyphus reminds us that we cannot help seeking to understand the reality that transcends our intelligence, striving to grasp more than our limited and practical scientific understanding allows, wishing to live without dying. Like Sisyphus, we are our fate, and our frustration is our very life: we can never escape it.      

___

“Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable.”

___

Yet Sisyphus does not despair. “His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life have won him that unspeakable penalty” in which, according to the story, we see “the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it and push it up a slope a hundred times over . . . . Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward that lower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain.”[12]

This “is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”[13]3 Why the words “superior” and “stronger” when he has no hope of succeeding the next time? 

This story of overcoming frustration is about becoming conscious of one’s fate, Sisyphus’s keen awareness of his life’s tragedy “crowns his victory.” “Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent.”[14]

Albert Camus Coffee or Suicide SUGGESTED READING Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee? By Skye C. Cleary

This is tragic consciousness, the conclusion of “absurd reasoning”: living fully aware of the bitterness of his being and consciously facing his fate. If he neither overcomes life’s absurdity nor defeats death, Sisyphus’s fate is still his own, “created by him.” Lucidly living the limits of the human condition, Sisyphus “knows himself to be the master of his days.” By becoming conscious of it, Camus is saying, he takes ownership of it, reshaping his fate into a condition of “wholly human origin.” Certainly, death is “inevitable and despicable,” but even when acknowledging this, Sisyphus consciously lives out what has been imposed on him, remaking it into his own end. This is why it is possible, within and against these limits, to speak of happiness. “Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable.”[15] Acknowledging the absurd thus means accepting our human frailty and understanding our limitations.

___

If it resonated widely eighty years ago, it continues to resonate today, in a world that is no less absurd. We live within a deepening and wider sense of incoherence and meaninglessness, generations later.

___

Above all, with all its limitations, Sisyphus is living his life. Maybe one cannot hope to understand the world, or to be directed to the right path by a supreme being, or find a deep meaning in life, or indeed to avoid death. Still, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”[16] Our limits and mortality are not reasons to despair, or to give way to nihilism. but, as Camus reflected about The Myth of Sisyphus years later, the book is meant as a “lucid invitation to live and create, in the midst of the desert.”[17]

And now, much later, we continue to be fascinated by Camus’s essay, and his story of Sisyphus. Why is this? Published in the midst of World War II, indeed, during the German Occupation of France, Camus claimed above all to be describing “an intellectual malady.”[18] If it resonated widely eighty years ago, it continues to resonate today, in a world that is no less absurd. We live within a deepening and wider sense of incoherence and meaninglessness, generations later. No wonder Camus remains on our agenda, offering one way to negotiate the desert.

 

References

  1. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York, 1955), 123.
  2. 2.
  3. 21.
  4. 2, tr. changed.
  5. 3.
  6. 9.
  7. Ronald Aronson, Jean-Paul Sartre - Philosophy in the World (London, 1980), 89-102.
  8. Albert Camus, “Interview à Servir,” in Essais, 1427.
  9. Francis Jeanson, “Albert Camus ou le mensonge de l’absurdité,” Revue Dominicaine no. 53, 1947..
  10. Camus, 119.
  11. 120.
  12. 12-21
  13. 121.
  14. Ibid.
  15. 120-21..
  16. 123.
  17. Intro, v.
  18. 2.

Continue reading

Enjoy unlimited access to the world's leading thinkers.

Start by exploring our subscription options or joining our mailing list today.

Start Free Trial

Already a subscriber? Log in

Join the conversation