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camus - From The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays by...

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Unformatted text preview: From The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus, 133ml O’Brien, ”311313“ tor, 1955 The French existentialist, Albert Camus (19134960), a novelist as well as an essayist, won the Noble Prize for Literature. Along with Jean—Paul Sartre, Camus led the existen- tialist movement in the forties and fifties until his death in a car accident. Camus ’s existentialist themes are revolt and freedom within an absurd universe, the social universe as well as the natural. He stresses the radical contingencies of life and a presumed inability of science and philosophy to explain human awareness. He is skepti- cal of any externally imposed system of values, and attacks science, as well as religion, when either would tell us who or what we are or what should be our values. Sartre insists that each of us makes our own meaning, and Camus views this as part and parcel of free dom. Choice is central in the existentialist view; it is our existence. Thus the existentialist slogan, “Existence before essence,” means choice over ideam-personal, arbitrary, individ- ual choice before any explanation or imposed set of ideas or values. Camus sees atheism as a matter of deep honesty and good faith. Near the end of his first novel, The Stranger, the central character, M eursault, who is about to be executed, dramatically banishes a priest from his cell, refusing an offer of spiritual expiation. Camus sees the religious existentialist, who like himself views the world as absurd, but who unlike himself makes a leap of faith ( see the selection from Kierkegaard under Faith Against Reason), as selling out, as abandoning the existentialist attitude because absur- dity is too hard to live with. Camus ’s counsel is instead: “Everything considered, a deter— mined soul will always manage.” The selection here is excerpted from Camus ’s essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, and is mainly occupied with what is wrong with the so—called religious existentialist, who arbi- trarily leaps to God. For Camus, the titan Sisyphus of Greek mythology, condemned to push a rock up a hill only to have it roll back and to have to do it all over again, for an unforeseeable eternityfis the model of the true existentialist who triumphs in an inner at- titude against the absurdity of his/her situation. If I accuse an innocent man of a monstrous crime, if I tell a Virtuous man that he has coveted _ his own sister, he will reply that this is absurd. His indignation has its comical aspect. But it also has its fundamentalreason. The virtuous man illustrates by that reply the definitive antin— omy existing between the deed I am attributing to him and his lifelong principles. “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 his act to be absurd. But it is so solely by virtue of the disproportion between his intention and the reality he will encounter, of the ine Areligious Existentialism contradiction I notice between his true strength and the aim he has in view. Likewise we shall deem a verdict absurd when we contrast it with the verdict the facts apparently dictated. And, similarly, a demonstration by the absurd is achieved by comparing the consequences of such a reasoning with the logical reality one wants to set up. In all these cases, from the simplest to the most complex, the magnitude of the absurdity will be in direct ratio to the distance be- tween the two terms of my comparison. There are absurd marriages, challenges, rancors, si- lences, wars, and even peace treaties. For each of them the absurdity springs from a comparison. I am thus justified in saying that the feeling of absurdity does not spring from the mere scrutiny of a fact or an impression, but that it bursts from the comparison between a bare fact and a certain reality, between an action and the world that transcends it. The absurd is es— sentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation. In this particular case and on the plane of intelligence, I can therefore say that the Ab- surd is not in man (if such a metaphor could have a meaning) nor in the world, but in their presence together. For the moment it is the only bond uniting them. IfI wish to limit my- self to facts, I know what man wants, I know what the world offers him, and now I can say that I also know what links them. I have no need to dig deeper. A single certainty is enough for the seeker. He simply has to derive all the consequences from it. The immediate consequence is also a rule of method. The odd trinity brought to light in this way is certainly not a startling discovery. But it resembles the data of experience in that it is both infinitely simple and infinitely complicated. Its first distinguishing feature in this regard is that it cannot be divided. To destroy one of its terms is to destroy the whole. There can be no absurd outside the human mind. Thus, like everything else, the absurd ends with death. But there can be no absurd outside this world either. And it is by this ele— mentary criterion that I judge the notion of the absurd to be essential and consider that it can stand as the first of my truths. The rule of method alluded to above appears here. If I judge that a thing is true, I must preserve it. IfI attempt to solve a problem, at least I must not by that very solution conjure away one of the terms of the problem. For me the sole datum is the absurd. The first and, after all, the only condition of my inquiry is to preserve the very thing that crushes me, consequently to respect what I consider essential in it. I have just defined it as a confrontation and an unceasing struggle. And carrying this absurd logic to its conclusion, I must admit that struggle implies a total absence of hope (which has nothing to do with despair), a continual rejection (which must not be confused with renunciation), and a conscious dissatisfaction (which must not be compared to immature unrest). Everything that destroys, conjures away, or exercises these requirements (and, to begin with, consent which overthrows divorce) ruins the ab surd and devaluates the attitude that may then be proposed. The absurd has meaning only in so far as it is not agreed to. There exists an obvious fact that seems utterly moral: namely, that a man is always a prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them. One has to pay something. A man who has become conscious of the absurd is forever bound to it. A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future. That is natural. But it is just as natural that he should strive to escape the universe of which he is the creator. All the foregoing has significance only on account of this paradox. Certain 237 238 Chapter 4 Religion Debunked men, starting from a critique of rationalism, have admitted the absurd climate. Nothing is more instructive in this regard than to scrutinize the way in which they have elaborated their consequences. Now, to limit myself to existential philosophies, I see that all of them without excep- tion suggest escape. Through an odd reasoning, starting out from the absurd over the ruins of reason, in a closed universe limited to the human, they deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them. That forced hope is religious in all of them. It deserves attention. I shall merely analyze here as examples a few themes dear to Chestov and Kierkegaard. . . . . . . To be sure, it is hard to outline clear propositions in so elusive a writer [as Kierkegaard]. But, despite apparently opposed writings, beyond the pseudonyms, the tricks, and the smiles, can be felt throughout that work, as it were, the presentiment (at the same time as the apprehension) of a truth which eventually bursts forth in the last works: Kierkegaard likewise takes the leap. His childhood having been so frightened by Chris— tianity, he ultimately returns to its harshest aspect. For him, too, antinomy and paradox be- come criteria of the religious. Thus, the very thing that led to despair of the meaning and depth of this life now gives it its truth and its clarity. Christianity is the scandal, and what Kierkegaard calls for quite plainly is the third sacrifice required by Ignatius Loyola, the one in which God most rejoices: “The sacrifice of the intellect.”1 This effect of the “leap” is odd, but must not surprise us any longer. He makes of the absurd the criterion of the other world, whereas it iasimply a residue of the experience of this world. “In his future,” says Kierkegaard, “the believer finds his triumph.” It is not for me to wonder to what stirring preaching this attitude is linked. I merely have to wonder if the spectacle of the absurd and its own character justifies it. On this point, I know that it is not so. Upon considering again the content of the absurd, one understands better the method that inspired Kierkegaard. Between the irrational of the world and the insurgent nos— talgia of the absurd, he does not maintain the equilibrium. He does not respect the relationship that constitutes, properly speaking, the feeling of absurdity. Sure of being able to escape the ir- rational, he wants at least to save himself from that desperate nostalgia that seems to him ster~ ile and devoid of implication. But if he may be right on this point in his judgment, he could not be in his negation. If he substitutes for his cry of revolt a frantic adherence, at once he is led to blind himself to the absurd which hitherto enlightened him and to deify the only certainty he henceforth possesses, the irrational. The important thing, as Abbe Galiani said to Mme d’Epinay, is not to be curéd, but to live with one’s ailments. Kierkegaard wants to be cured. To be cured is his frenzied wish, and it runs throughout his whole journal. The entire effort of his intelligence is to escape the antinomy of the human condition. An all the more desperate effort since he intermittently perceives its vanity when he speaks of himself, as if neither fear of God 1 It may be thought that I am neglecting here the essential problem, that of faith. But I am not examining the phi- losophy of Kierkegaard or of Chestov or, later on, of Husserl (this would call for a different place and a different attitude of mind}; I am simply borrowing a theme from them and examining whether its consequences can fit the already established rules. It is merely a matter of persistence. Areligious Existentialism nor piety were capable of bringing him to peace. Thus it is that, through a strained subterfuge, he gives the irrational the appearance and God the attributes of the absurd: unjust, incoherent, and incomprehensible. Intelligence alone in him strives to stifle the underlying demands of the human heart. Since nothing is proved, everything can be proved. Indeed, Kierkegaard himself shows us the path taken. I do not want to suggest anything here, but how can one fail to read in his works the signs of an almost intentional mutilation of the soul to balance the mutilation accepted in regard to the absurd? It is the ieitmotiv of the Journal ‘What i lacked was the animal which also belongs to human destiny... .But give me a body then.” And further on: “Oh! especially 1n my early youth what should I not have given to be a man, even for six months. .what I lack, basically, IS a body and the physical condi- tions of existence.” Elsewhere, the same man nevertheless adopts the great cry of hope that has come down through so many centuries and quickened so many hearts, except that of the absurd man. “But for the Christian death is certainly not the end of everything and it implies infinitely more hope than life implies for us, even when that life is overflowing with health and vigor.” Reconciliation through scandal is still reconciliation. It allows one perhaps, as can be seen, to derive hope of its contrary, which is death. But even if fellow-feeling inclines one toward that attitude, still it must be said that excess justifies nothing. That transcends, as the saying goes, the human scale; therefore it must be superhuman. But his “therefore” is super- fluous. There is no logical certainty here. There is no experimental probability either. All I can say is that, in fact, that transcends my scale. If I do not draw a negation from it, at least I do not want to found anything on the incomprehensible. I want to know whether I can live with what I know and with that alone. I am told again that here the intelligence must sacrifice its pride and the reason bow down. But if I recognize the limits of the reason, I do not therefore negate it, recognizing its relative powers. I merely want to remain in this middle path where the intel- iigence can remain clear If that' 13 its pride, I see no sufficient reason for giving it up. Nothing more profound, for example, than Kierkegaard’s view according to which despair 13 not a fact but a state: the very state of sin. F01 sin is what alienates from God. The absurd, which 18 the metaphysical state of the conscious man, does not lead to God.2 Perhaps this notion will be- come clearer if I risk this shocking statement: the absurd is sin without God. It is a matter of living in that state of the absurd. I know on what it is founded, this mind and this world straining against each other without being able to embrace each other. I ask for the rule of life of that state, and whatI am offered neglects its basis, negates one of the terms of the painful opposition, demands of me a resignation. I ask what' 1s involved in the condition I recognize as mine; Iknow it implies obscurity and ignorance; and I am assured that this ignorance explains everything and that this darkness IS my light. But there is no reply here to my intent, and this stirring lyricism cannot hide the paradox from me. One must therefore turn away. Kierkegaard may shout in warning: “If man had no eternal consciousness, if, at the bottom of everything, there were merely a wild, seething force producing everything, both large and trifling, in the storm of dark passions, if the bottom- less void that nothing can fill underlay all things, what would life be but despair?” This cry is not likely to stop the absurd man. Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable. 1 I did not say “excludes God," which would still amount to asserting. 239 240 Chapter 4 Religion Debunked If in order to elude the anxious question: “What would life be?” one must, like the donkey, feed on the roses of illusion, then the absurd mind, rather than resigning itself to falsehood, prefers to adopt fearlessly Kierkegaard's reply: “despair.” Everything considered, a deter- mined soul will always manage. . . . All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rockis his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the neces- sary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is but one which he con— cludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still ori the go. The rock is still rolling. ' I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the' mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too con- cludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither ster— ile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. ...
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