Sisyphus and his myth – as enduring as his task II

I was writing on the literary or philosophical use of the Sisyphus myth. The most definitive is by Camus in his 1942 work  “Le Mythe de Sisyphe” or “The Myth of Sisyphus” (translated into English in 1955).

Camus is often cited as a proponent of existentialism with which he was associated in his life, but rejected this tag, and instead fostered the rise of the more current philosophy known as absurdism – which contends the efforts of humanity to find meaning in the universe ultimately fail (and hence are absurd), because no such meaning exists, at least in relation to the individual.

“The Myth of Sisyphus” was written in 1942 – and it was a product that much owed its genesis to those desperate times. It was 1942 and 1943 when the outcome of the second world war was still in balance that some of the most important works of the existentialist philosophy were published – two by Camus and one by Jean-Paul Sartre, arguably the most influential exponent of existentialism in the 20th-century. Sartre’s “Being and Time” (1943) is a quite remarkable expression of optimism and human freedom in the midst of meaninglessness and despair.

Camus’ “L’Etranger” (The Stranger) and “The Myth of Sisyphus” both came out in 1942.

In the first – his first major work,  Camus propounded a rather more defiant model of existentialism. Whilst adopting Sartre’s essentially optimistic view of existence, Camus went much further, contending although human life could be made meaningful in the way that Sartre described, death made all actions ultimately futile.

What can we do? Accept that we are all “condemned to death”. Once this occurred every one should rebel against this “ultimate negation”, throw themselves into life and with every choice affirm their existence in the face of death. He described this human battle with ultimate meaninglessness and indifference as the Absurd.

He carried his thesis further in “The Myth of Sisyphus”, using the example of the mythological Greek King and his punishment. But first he develops the idea, though beginning with a shocking proposition.

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. (pg 3).

However,  Camus argues forcefully that there is no meaning to life, and refutes and disapproves the many philosophers who “have played on words and pretended to believe that refusing to grant a meaning to life necessarily leads to declaring that it is not worth living.” (pg 7)

He stresses life has no absolute meaning. In spite of the human’s irrational “nostalgia” for unity, for absolutes, for a definite order and meaning to the “not me” of the universe, no such meaning exists in the silent and utterly indifferent expanse of the universe. and it is the confrontation of the irrational, longing human heart and the indifferent universe brings about the notion of the absurd.

The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (pg 21)

and

The absurd is not in man nor in the world, but in their presence together…it is the only bond uniting them. (ibid)

But it is when he gets to Sisyphus, does Camus really come into his own. He says: 

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

Camus then cites references in mythology on Sisyphus’ life and activities, which I will not reproduce here. Let us come to what matters… see the highlighted part.

You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the aburd hero. He is as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.

To be continued…..

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