on October 24, 1999
Sartre said this book should be read as you read The Stranger, and I have found that advice to be valuable to my students. My kids are always a bit bewildered about the scene where Mersault kills the Arab, but when they read, "The greatest good is the greatest consciousness," they begin to see why the Stranger was so strange. And when he "awakens" just before dawn of the day he is to die, and the students read, "You must live your life as if you have been condemned to die and sun is beginning to rise," they begin to understand. The title essay for the book argues what I think is the final argument in the Ontological question raised by the Greeks: Since life is absurd, where the meanings should be is a vacuum, and we desperately want meaning when we recognize our necessary death, then we are free to make our own meanings, and it is the making of meaning that is the point of living; that is, the growth of individual consciousness. Camus, then, is the great optimist in a time of great pessimism.
on January 6, 2003
The Myth of Sisyphus is more of a literary essay than a philosophical one, and most of the thoughts in it aren't too original. Camus notes numerous times that he is merely trying to clarify a modern "climate" of thought so that his generation might be able to build from it. The nature of the book is incredibly original, and this unique essay is a remarkable testimony of the human condition, a key to understanding Camus's other works, and a beautiful definition of what I suppose is loosely termed "existentialist" thought.
What is daunting about the book is that Camus seems to be a little uneasy about where to start describing his philosophy of the absurd. The style of writing is swift, energetic, and lyrical, but frustratingly inprecise and vague (a little like Grand in the Plague who can't seem to find the right words). Camus creates in the book his own unique vocabulary that takes some getting used to, and often the book sounds repetitive. Words like lucid, nostalgia, fecund, and ephemeral are repeated ad nauseum. The upshot is, if one bothers to read the whole work, these words do begin to take on new meanings.
The best bits of the book are those in which Camus can find definite examples that illustrate or describe his point. When, for instance, he describes what it feels like to be overwhelmed by a feeling of absurdity, what it feels like to long for "oneness" (nostalgia), and what its like to return from abstraction to distraction. These are things that almost every human being encounters at least once in their life, and Camus never touches so close to his reader as when he faces, with great intellectual courage, these all-too-human feelings.
His examples of absurd heroes also make for great reading and much food-for-thought. The weakest is probably his essay on "Don Juan," which at times sounds a bit too much like a notorious womanizer justifying himself in his philosophy. Still, after revisiting the story of Don Juan, one is forced to reflect on Camus's message -- maybe this absurd hero, who defied God and loved in such quantity really IS something noble. Better, however, is his essay on Dostoyevsky's Kirilov and his philosophical suicide. Kirilov's absurd logic, which makes him God in an illogical circumstance where God does not exist, is a definitive piece of absurd thought.
The essay "Myth of Sisyphus" is a reiteration of the books themes in a more literary format, and since Sisyphus is the quintessential man-in-revolt, it makes a perfect capstone for the book. The appendix on Kafka (presumably left out in the original book, published in occupied France, because the author was Jewish) has given me a new perspective on his work. Camus points out, perfectly, the natural reaction of humanity to absurdity that defines Kafka's work, and in fact man's current condition. The idea of the Castle as a response to the Trial had never occured to me, and I enjoyed Camus, an athiest, delving into the religious points in Kafka's novels.
The other essays are a mixed bag. Some from "Summer" (L'Ete) which is collected in its enitirety in the volume "Lyrical and Critical Essays." A few other stray pieces and a questionaire are included. "The Minotaur" -- the longest of the additional pieces -- is a torturously long lyrical adventure through Oran that is a necessary evil to be visited before reading The Plague. One essay, recounting a 1953 visit back to Algeria, is moving in its emotional intensity, but the thought of Camus's mammoth failure during the Algerian crisis is unfortunately close to mind. The questionaire is brief and reveals a lot about Camus's temprement -- his mistrust of ideologies in particular. It is notable for some appreciated comments about the "true left" not being removed from its passionate humanism. These assorted pieces seem a little bit like junkyard scraps after finishing the essays of The Myth of Sisyphus. Still, they are worth looking at.
Very relevant, and one Camus's most remarkable achievements (along with the Stranger and The Fall). A must read for all Camus fans.
on May 8, 2003
I have read this essay several times and I have to say that the ideas here can be dangerous.
If the ideas that have been written in this book i.e. the meaningless state of existence, its absurdity in the light of atheism and the point of it all have not been raised independently by the reader, then the reader is likely to get caught in a dangerous maze.
The essay is beautifully written, the ideas are wonderfully interwoven and there is a sense that Camus is facing those important questions dead in the face. But aside from all that the greatest thing about Camus' essay is his directness. Every sentence in this book has some depth in it, there is not one superficial idea. The quotations leave the reader deep in thought and stay carved in the mind.
But as I mentioned and perhaps because of these reasons the book is dangerous. From the point of view of Camus, a man that looks at the world logically, he cannot help but come to the conclusion that it is absurd. Hence despair reigns, and then there is the necessary existential choice that the individual is faced with.
To me these questions are far more important than any others. When man knows that at the end of this great struggle he is faced with the nothingness, he wonders what is the point of it all. But is there? Camus answers positively that there is a point in living. By keeping the struggle alive and being absorbed in the finite condition that existence brings forth, in the mutation of consciousness an alternative set of values is introduced and everything is seen in a new light.
I know that many of the ideas here have already been covered by other thinkers in the past. Camus admits this and further mentions them in their struggle and ethics.
Camus has done a wonderful job, and this is a great introduction to his other novels, which illuminate the absurd and mans struggle.
on August 21, 2000
This is probably, in my estimation, Albert Camus' greatest work in that it explains in detail some of the similar underlying feelings that appear in some of his other books. On the surface, the book is an investigation into an answer of the question "what for?" posed in the face of what seems as being an absurd and senseless universe. Beneath that, it is a sensitive and well-thought out account through a particularly lucid (although not as bleak as one supposes-- especially if one has negelected Camus in favor of Sartre....) mind...
Camus' would have been a philosophy teacher had not his childhood tuberculosis rendered him incapable of recieving his degree in it in Algeria. He shows how good of one he would have been in this work. I love this book because it comes to a hopeful conclusion in the face of an absolutely terrible world (this book was finished in the middle of WWII-- along with the Rebel and Caligula (plays). It is a definate must-read.... especially for a late high school student or early college student who thinks too much and wonders why (that's when I read it!!!)
on May 18, 2001
Since your review was not completely that per se, but also your philosophy, it seems appropriate to respond to that philosophizing. The main question one comes away with after reading your article is: "why are morals necessary?" It is true that existentialist philosophy has trouble trying to establish morals. One could in fact say that it is impossible. But the existentialist would respond that the moral system in place right now is completely arbitrary and meaningless. "God" does not exist; there is no absolute, to fool ourselves becomes self-delusional. Ok, so that might be desirable. But most would desire the pursuit of truth. Most want to understand their existence. Some Christian myth or otherwise will not help propel humanity towards truth. Additionally, the myth of the absolute does not really always help direct human behavior in a manner that most would deem desirable. Case in point: the current state of affairs in the Middle East. These people, motivated by myth, are killing each other left and right. The animosity, in the name of the ABSOLUTE, results in homicide. Now, Camus' and other existentialists' attempts to establish a replacement for this absolute cannot be justified either. It does not work to justify the relative with the relative because, as you stated, everything is permitted. The relative allows for everything. But is this really so bad? Can it be relatively inferior to a world full of people fooling themselves? And can anyone actually say? Well, I suppose that there is intrinsically no coherent answer here. But it is a riposte and it is food for thought...
on September 23, 2001
The Myth of Sysiphus deals with what Camus calls the most important question a philosopher can ask: "is life worth living?" The possitive answer is to continue living, while the negative is to take one's own life. Camus discusses the relation of the "absurd world" to a person's decision to live. He also describes, in some legnth, what he means by the term "absurd world." Basically, he's talking about the world as having no meaning by itself. Man attempts to give meaning to the patterns, and chaos that he sees. So, the absurd is humankind attempting to relate to, and explain an inexplicable existence.
He says that a person (at least those who are willing to think about their world) will inevitably be faced with a situation in which the world seems to become meaningless. This is what brings up the inevitable question... "is life worth living?" Camus comes up with his own answer to this question.
This isn't as accessable as his fictional pieces ( e.g. The Stranger, or the Plague), however, it does give you excellent insight into the philosophies that run throughout his other Novels. So, if you are already a Camus reader, I would highly suggest reading The Myth of Sysiphus --and then reading his other works again. However, if you haven't been exposed to him yet, I would recomend starting with The Stranger before reading this.
on November 1, 2001
camus' writing has a unique, very personal beauty to it, but in some ways i find it tame and (his essays in particular)boring. for all of his talk about how we can find beauty in everyday life despite it's lack of coherence, intention or purpose, the realization that everyday life and the world of appearance is the only reality still is a very devastating one. his stubborn and stoic insistence to celebrate only the trivial, sensual pleasures of life comes off so well only because of his considerable talent, but when you actually take sensuality of any kind to it's limits in your own life you discover that it is actually quite hollow and deceptive. i'm not trying to make an argument for religious belief or a return to a non existent ethic of transcendence or metaphysical meaning here, but this whole crock about existentialism being essentially creative and rosy is just untenable. camus himself said several times in different interviews that he was "quite obviously not an optimist". he is not nearly as pessimistic as sartre and i firmly believe that his work is infinitely more valuable (not to mention a hell of a lot less useless and gloomy) than sartre's, but at bottom the message is the same and predominantly horrific. there is no ultimate justice in the universe and our lives are ephemeral dreams destroyed forever by death.
on October 2, 2000
The collection of stories published as Le Mythe de Sisyphe in 1942 was the second of the absurds. The work has been cited by critics as refined and carefully crafted. The collection stands as more literature than philosophy. Camus spent at least five years writing and editing the work. The polish is clear with the very first sentence: "There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide."
According to Camus, suicide was a sign that one lacked the strength to face "nothing." Life is an adventure without final meaning, but still, in Camus' eyes, worth experiencing. Since there is nothing else, life should be lived to its fullest and we should derive meaning from our very existence. For Camus, people were what gave life meaning. However, in the moments following the realization that one will die, that one's descendants will die...in fact, that the earth will die, one senses a deep anxiety. And, as an atheist, Camus doubted meaning beyond this life.
"A world which can be explained, even through bad reasoning, is a familiar one. On the other hand, in a world suddenly devoid of illusion and light, man feels like a stranger." Isolated from any logic, without an easy explanation for why one exists, there occurs what some call "existential angst." While Camus did not use the phrase, it adequately describes the sensation. Even existentialists of faith struggle with creation, wondering why humanity exists when a Creator would not need mankind. Merely wanting to create something seems like a curious reason to create life. So, even for those of faith, the initial creation can be puzzling.
How does one exist without any given purpose or meaning? How does one develop meaning? Le Mythe de Sisyphe addresses this directly in the retelling of the famous tale. Considering the plight of Sisyphus, condemned to roll a stone up a mountain knowing the stone will roll down yet again, it is easy to declare his existence absurd and without hope. It would be easy to believe Sisyphus might prefer death. But in Camus' myth, he does not.
"Living the absurd...means a total lack of hope (which is not the same as despair), a permanent reflection (which is not the same as renunciation), and a conscious dissatisfaction (which is not the same as juvenile anxiety).
For Camus, Sisyphus is the ultimate absurd hero. He was sentenced for the crime of loving life too much; he defied the gods and fought death. The gods thought they found a perfect form of torture for Sisyphus. He would constantly hope for success, that the stone would remain at the top of the mountain. This, the gods thought, would forever frustrate him.
Yet, defying the gods yet again, Sisyphus is without hope. He abandons any illusion that he might succeed at the assigned task. Once he does so, Camus considers him a hero in the fullest sense of the word. Sisyphus begins to view his ability to do the task again and again--to endure the punishment--as a form of victory.
"The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. We have to imagine Sisyphus happy."
on November 18, 2000
It seems to me that one of the central tragedies of the 20th Century is the failure of faith that assailed good men like Albert Camus. It is tragic in the sense that it made their own lives miserable, but also in that someone like Camus used his genius to propound a philosophy that is enormously dangerous in the hands of men who are, unfortunately, not as decent as the author. The danger, as Dostoevsky said in The Brothers Karamazov, is that: If there is no God, everything is permitted. Try as he might, and I believe that his career was essentially one long attempt to do so, Camus was never able to disprove this dictum.
Camus begins his essay by stating the proposition that:
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.
This indeed is the essence of Existentialism when turned inward upon the self; if there is no point nor purpose to our existence, then why should we continue? Now if it should turn out that there is no good answer to this question, there's not much danger to the rest of us, existentialists can all just kill themselves. But there's a more insidious corollary to this question, one that arises when you turn Existentialism outward upon others : if human life is purposeless, isn't it also valueless? And if human lives have no value then what reasonable basis is there for morality? Why should we refrain from killing each other? Camus unceasingly sought to answer these questions, but, given existential assumptions, his answers are necessarily feeble and therein lies the danger. A philosophy that relies on the inherent goodness of man's nature, and fails to posit absolute laws of behavior, is completely inadequate. And the absolute, by it's very nature, assumes something--some being, some power, some law--external to man. If man is the measure of himself, then everything is relative and anything goes.
Existentialism though, does not merely require that it's adherents deny the possibility of the divine, it also requires them to deny reality, by failing to acknowledge human progress. The famous eponymous metaphor that Camus uses to explain existence is the myth of Sisyphus. Like his better known compatriots Atlas and Prometheus, Sisyphus challenged the gods of Greek mythology and for his temerity was sentenced to push a huge boulder up a hill every day and every day as he reached the top, it would roll back down. Camus draws a parallel here to the human condition, that we, like Sisyphus, toil away at senseless and ultimately futile tasks. But to believe that this is true, one must willfully ignore the enormous strides that we have made as a species in the realms of science, medicine, and social justice. Though our lives may seem at times to be as difficult and unproductive as Camus maintains, at the end of each day we've moved that boulder a little further, and though some slippage does occur, even the most pessimistic among us would have to concede that it's pretty far up the hill at this point and shows virtually no likelihood of ever rolling back to the bottom. In fact, it even seems possible that the summit is in sight.
It may be that Camus was simply a victim of time and place; being French and living through two World Wars would be enough to whip the optimism out of most anybody. It's probably hard to be too upbeat when you spend all your time with one ear cocked, listening for the roar of German guns coming to pummel your nation into submission, again. We, on the other hand, certainly live in a time when it is easy to be optimistic--everything from the cosmos to the genetic code seems to be yielding to our inquiries these days. But it is important not to let Camus off the hook quite that easily. Like Orwell, he should be remembered as a man of great moral courage, character and intellectual honesty, one of the key figures (post Darwin, post Freud, post Nietszche) in trying to preserve ethical standards of conduct for Man in the absence of God. But it should also be recalled that had his philosophy prevailed, enormous harm would have resulted. For the ultimate, inevitable result of his philosophy is to destroy the foundation upon which moral standards must be built. The Myth of Sisyphus is an admirable attempt to rebuild those foundations, but it's real significance lies in it's very failure to do so. Existentialism, which starts out by denying God, ends by denying Man, and is, therefore, anti-human.
on February 24, 2001
It is to my great misfortune that, as I am only twelve, I lack the ability to really appreciate the sheer beauty with which Camus writes. While intellectually stimulating, the true joy to be found in this work lies in Camus' prose. Unlike most philosopher/novelists, Camus' writing is not muddied and heavy, but rather it is light and clear and conducts the reader over the page rather than dragging him. Camus' style is an expression of his thought and his philosophy: it is pure and exuberant and wonderful. He proposes a life worth living despite all, and because of the precision, clarity, and beauty of his prose we can see this for the truly wonderful and simple thing it is. From the prose of the Myth of Sisyphus I received the same feeling as that I took from the material of The First Man; it is difficult to describe, perhaps, though, it is best described as clarity and strenght, as a polish which does not remove texture, which does not scour but rather elicits that which was already there. When I think of Camus writing Sisyphus, I cannot help but be reminded of a line by Cummings: nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands. Camus does not create the objects of his prose, but he renders each with such clarity that he seems almost like a child, adrift in his own universe, with everything to discover.