“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 afterward.”The Myth of Sisyphus
For most of us, the driving force behind our life is our passions – the passion to fulfil our purpose in the world, or the passion to find that purpose. Imagine: you wake up one day, and suddenly see the futility of it all. Suddenly it stops making any sense why you were pursuing what you were pursuing. That awakening would be your introduction to what Camus terms as “The Absurd”.
We expect the universe to have some transcendental meaning, but the universe is painfully silent and indifferent. The very fact that we seek meaning in a meaningless world is what absurdity is. When a person becomes irreversibly convinced of this futility, and totally accepts it as a way of life, he becomes the true “Absurd man”. The central theme of this essay is whether such a man can continue living – or, whether recognition of the absurd logically leads to negation of the will to live.
Camus notes that most existentialist philosophers like Chestov, Jaspers, Kierkegaard had acknowledged this gap between human expectation and reality. Yet, they all failed to accept the absurd, and instead attempted to reconcile the lack of meaning by invoking god, or religion. Camus asserts they have “eluded” the whole argument by taking this leap of faith, and therefore have failed to embody the philosophy of “The Absurd Man”. He goes so far as to call this their “Philosophical suicide”.
Acceptance of absurdity entails the ability to live with it. You recognize the futility, but stop questioning why it is futile. You accept the fate as is, and do not try to reconcile by finding an alternate dimension. Camus concludes that it is possible, and he gives the example of Sisyphus.
Sisyphus is condemned by the gods till eternity to push a rock up a mountain, only to have it roll back down every time he reaches the top. This is the perfect punishment, Camus says, because it is an allegory to the human condition. Yet, when Sisyphus is done pushing, and he is walking down the mountain after the rock, Camus imagines him to be in total acceptance of his fate. He thinks that the only way Sisyphus can carry on is to embrace the fact that all his efforts are pointless, and yet he has to start doing the same thing over again. He doesn’t question it, or try to find a reason, because there is none. This is the truly Absurd Man, whose happiness is not derived from some form of self-deceit, but in acceptance of the absurdity of life. Camus ends the essay by saying:
“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
I have a litmus test for whether this book is for someone – Read Camus’ “L’Étranger” (The Stranger) or Kafka’s “The Trial” first – If you enjoy them, then it is a must read for you. If not, proceed with caution. No philosophical treatise worth its salt is ever a light read. And “The myth of Sisyphus” is particularly dark, considering this is one of the seminal explorations of Absurdism.
One should also note while reading this that Camus is more of a novelist than a philosopher. He doesn’t provide sound arguments to why he thinks the reality of life is absurd. Nor does he attempt to refute the philosophies of other existentialists who he claims to have committed philosophical suicide. He admits that he has no way of knowing whether or not the universe bestows any transcendental meaning. He asserts that the only thing he can claim with certainty is the lack of certainty, and that is all an absurd man is expected to accept and live with.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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Review by: Deeparnak Bhowmick, India
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