Thursday, September 23, 2010

"The Myth of Sisyphus" and Other Non-Myth Related Essays of Camus

I'm not an existentialist. I've never read Satre, which I'm pretty sure is antithetical to considering yourself a party to the school of French existentialism. I have read de Beauvoir and she's great. I've also admired the fiction of Albert Camus for quite some time, and he's the philosopher poet of that particular derivation of, well, philosophy. But that said and perhaps bewilderingly considering what he's best known for, I've never thought of Camus in terms of his philosophical background until recently, having read his book of essays, "The Myth of Sisyphus." And now it will probably be difficult to think of him in any other light than that of existentialist, although he's certainly more than the imposition of limits inherent to such categorization.

The posts of the last month or so preceding this one are, I know, rife with allusions if not outright mention of Camus' existentialism. He's a fascinating person, from all I know of his background. His childhood in Algeria, which would color his world view for the rest of his life. His reporting from troubled parts of the African continent. His eventual tragic death in a car accident at age 46, which provided a strange sort of abrupt, exclamatory punctuation to the transience of his own life, and ephemerality being an eventuality which he attributes unflinchingly to all life in his philosophical musings.

To Camus, it was necessary to accept the fact that life was ephemeral, a quick breath above the endlessly deep waters of non-existence. It was also true, to Camus, that life was necessarily absurd, because of the inextricable bond of one's own human consciousness to the world in which (s)he resides, and that neither could exist to the exclusion of the other. ". . . [T]he Absurd is not in man . . . nor in the world, but in their presence together," as Camus himself puts it in "An Absurd Reasoning." Adding also, in the same essay, "I know on what it is founded, this mind and this world straining against each other without being able to embrace each other." These thoughts seem, likewise, similar to certain tenets of those philosophical theorists who preceded the existentialists. I'm thinking of Nietzsche most specifically, but also Kierkegaard of whose philosophy Camus makes a special critique.

For instance Nietzsche sez:

Only very naive people are capable of believing that the nature of man could be transformed into a purely logical one; but if there should be degrees of approximation to this objective, what would not have to be lost if this course were taken! Even the most rational man from time to time needs to recover nature, that is to say his illogical original relationship with all things. [emphasis Nietzsche's]
As Camus endeavors to explain the Absurd in "An Absurd Reasoning" the first essay of the collection, he notes something similar to Nietzsche's above aphorism, to wit:
"It's absurd" means "It's impossible" but also "It's contradictory." If I see a man armed only with a sword attack a group of machine guns, I shall consider this act absurd. But it is solely by virtue of the disproportion between his intention and the reality he will encounter, of the contradiction I notice between his true strength and the aim he has in view.
And being a fiction writer of a certain caliber in his own right, Camus had some thoughts on fiction writers both prior and contemporaneous to him. This I thought was most interesting, his consideration of his peers. His thoughts on Kafka not so much. Kafka, to Camus, was an author whose work betokens a sense of hope, specifically in "The Castle," which does not in the end turn away from "subterfuge." Which then Camus kind of speciously goes to some lengths to argue this and other points, written with the turgid verbosity that only philosophers can conjure. He takes issue with the fact that Kafka has made ". . . this hideous and upsetting world in which the very moles dare to hope." Hope is verboten to Camus' artistic vision, or a kind of hope is, the kind that eschews the reality of the Absurd. And I think that's where Camus' own trouble begins.

Camus also says, "For if nostalgia is the mark of the human, perhaps no one has given such flesh and volume to these phantoms of regret." Further adding, "But at the same time will be sensed what exceptional nobility the absurd work calls for, which is perhaps not found here." I find Camus' aesthetic abstraction troubling here, in part because it seems to come from a place of passion I don't fully understand, but also because it feels so insincerely reasoned. It is this way because this is the way it is, he seems to say with empty question begging that has little else to defend it. And I do believe I really like the nebulous quality of Camus and Kafka's works equally, along with so much else, so this is not an attempt to defend the honor of Kafka or something so puerile. If I felt Kafka were being justly criticized I'd admit this was so. I hope I've got that much credibility here. But instead Camus' exposition in this essay seems a good example of what happens when too much philosophy invades the thinking of the individual. Indeed, Camus is inextricably bound to the Absurd, which may harm his fiction to some small extent in my eyes, although probably it won't at all.

Still, there is so much to like about what he expounds upon. "Don Juan" is thoughtfully reconsidered in his essay, "Absurd Creation."

A man wants to earn money in order to be happy, and his whole effort and the best of a life are devoted to the earning of that money. Happiness is forgotten; the means are the end. Likewise, the whole effort of this conqueror will be diverted to ambition, which was but a way toward a greater life. Don Juan in turn will yield to his fate, be satisfied with that existence whose nobility is of value only through revolt.
You may call Don Juan a libertine, and on that point you may well be correct, but he is living outside of the rules society has mandated and outside of a false morality whose truth it assumes, when who is Don Juan harming? Women must know he cannot be chained down, since his behavior suggests nothing less than that he will not be. If this is so and still they cannot refuse him, that is their choice, as his is to be a libertine. I think the aforesaid is what Camus is essentially saying in this passage, and to that extent, I agree with him.

I don't always agree with him, but I always find him interesting, that Camus.


  1. Hmm. I've been thinking along just these lines lately, reflecing on a scene in Chekhov's Gooseberries vis a vis Camus' notion of the absurd, which I think he botches fairly badly. His intuition is right, but his argument faulty, or so I need to argue. Maybe soon... Cheers, K

  2. I suspect Camus got a little too wrapped up in his certain kind of thought, but I haven't abandoned the possibility that this might be some fault of the translation. This is the slack I cut all authors whom I've needed to read translated. Dubious likelihood, however.

    As always, looking forward to reading your own thoughts on Camus, Kevin. He is a beguiler, that Camus.