The Myth of Sisyphus

“Man simply invented God in order not to kill himself. That is the summary of universal history down to this moment.” (Dostoevsky) 

Though not similarly poetic in its meaningfulness, reading Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus as I conclude my time with the children from Kampiringisa prison in Uganda resonates with my experiences as did Walden as I wandered alone through the Himalayas. After so many weeks here, I feel at a loss. With the exception of five days in this time – rafting in Jinja and a few trips to Kampala – I spent every single day at the home with the children who have been removed from the prison (these are children without a home to go back to) or at the prison itself, or both. Despite this, I’m not sure I’ve made any kind of difference for the children. I am only one person, and I don’t have extraordinary means at my disposal. I worked and spent most days on my own. The hygiene at the home, where I spent the most time, is despicable. I started a regime of washing the (younger) children and putting them in clean clothes, cleaning the floors and sheets and squatting-holes, but once I’m gone there is no one around to make sure it continues. I cleaned wounds and bound infections and removed fungus from hair and extracted now countless worms from heads, stomachs, legs, ears, and arms. Each day I came back to a new wound, a new worm, a new infection.

I am Sisyphus. I am rolling the rock endlessly up the cliff only to watch it roll back down. But as missionaries find comfort in the ‘calling of God’ to do such work, so I found comfort in the concept of the absurd in Camus’ philosophy. I might be Sisyphus in my efforts, but so are you and so is everyone else. Every one is living a Sisyphean life – a life of absurdity, a life without meaning. Everyone is pushing his rock up the hill only to watch it roll back down. Those who believe otherwise seek what is desirable over what is true.

Kierkegaard wrote, “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 bottomless void that nothing can fill underlay all things, what would life be but despair?” But Camus is not concerned with finding meaning in life, nor does he resign us to despair. By acknowledging that God doesn’t exist and that life is absurd, he has asserted, and not in melancholia, that there is no meaning to life.  Not only is life meaningless, but it is nothing: “In [the] psychological experience of nothingness, it is by the consideration of what will happen in 2,000 years that our own nothingness truly takes on meaning. In one of its aspects, eternal nothingness is made up precisely of the sum of lives to come which will not be ours.” Camus rejects Kierkegaard’s retun to that which caused despair but now gives life its truth and clarity: “…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‘” (emphasis mine). Kierkegaard returned to God. For Camus, “the absurd, which is the metaphysical state of the conscious man, does not lead to God… the absurd is sin without God.” What is sin without God? (Perhaps we should ask Sophocles – Camus appears satisfied by Oedipus’ answer.)

Our prescription is to live a life of passion and of revolt: “One of the only coherent philosophical positions is thus revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity.” No one escapes this meaningless; Camus offers Jesus as an example in his consideration of Dostoevsky’s works – Christ as the ultimate example of the absurd: “Kirilov, in fact, fancies for a moment that Jesus at this death did not find himself in Paradise. He found out that his torture had been useless… Solely in this sense Jesus indeed personifies the whole human drama. He is the complete man, being the one who realized the most absurd condition.”

The explicit question Camus addresses in the Myth of Sisyphus is, if we acknowledge that there is no meaning in life, that there is no God – why not commit suicide? It is a question that Kirilov’s gun answered with no lasting impact. When we reach the point where we have to pose the philosophical problem of suicide to ourselves seriously, we have realized the absurdity of the world. “The mind’s deepest desire, even in its most elaborate operations, parallels man’s unconscious feelings in the face of his universe: it is an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity… This very heart which is mine will for ever remain indefinable to me.” The absurd life addresses the desire for lucidity while simultaneously accepting its impossibility: the “absurd is the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.”

We are wrong to look to science for answers (perhaps we shouldn’t be looking for ‘answers’ at all): “Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine. You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multi-colored universe can be reduced to the electron. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know.” Science does not give meaning or sense to life, at least not in the way Camus means.

Nor are we to look to God – we are to look to ourselves as god: “‘For three years,’ says Kirilov, ‘I sought the attribute of my divinity and I have found it. The attribute of my divinity is independence.’ Now can be seen the meaning of Kirilov’s premise: ‘If God does not exist, I am god.’ To become god is merely to be free on this earth, not to serve an immortal being. Above all, of course, it is drawing all the inferences from that painful independence. If God exists all depends on him and we can do nothing against his will. If he does not exist, everything depends on us. For Kirilov, as for Nietzsche, to kill God is to become god oneself; it is to realize on this earth the eternal life of which the Gospel speaks.” Religion operates often as the refuge of cowards. It is seeking the desirable over the true.

I take comfort, though my life is inescapably Sisyphean, as is yours. “But Sisypus teaches us the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He, too, concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

~Much to my delight, Camus has a clear appreciation for metaphysics, which is not at all what one would expect from someone so concerned with the reality, revolt, and passion. But he remarks that “great revolutions are always metaphysical,” and, “even the most rigorous epistemologies imply metaphysics. And to such a degree that the metaphysic of many contemporary thinkers consists in having nothing but an epistemology.”

The volume I read of Camus was (besides obviously an English translation – Camus-approved) a collection of some of his short stories in addition to the Myth of Sisyphus, and I highly recommend them. They are a literary or artistic expression of the ‘philosophy’ you can find in MoS.

3 thoughts on “The Myth of Sisyphus

  1. I’ve been following your blog now since India, and I really enjoy your personal philosophy, as well as your outlooks toward other thinkers. You’ve inspired me to pick up Camus again. I’ve read a few of this other works – The Plague, The First Man and the Stranger – but I’ve yet to read The Myth. I was wondering what publisher this volume of Camus’ work is that you read? All the best to you on your travels.

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