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New essay: Sisyphus Shrugged

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By Awet Moges (2010)

At the end of the 1949 film, Sands of Iwo Jima, after the US soldiers survive a battle, Marine Sergeant John Stryker (John Wayne) tells his fellow comrades in the trench that he's never felt so good in his life. He asks them if they want a cigarette, and then he gets killed immediately by a sniper. Later, the others find a letter on his body that contains many things John Stryker planned to say, but never did. Absurd, I thought, when I first saw this movie. I was expecting a happy ending to the movie because the protagonists always survived the climax. I couldn't help but be reminded of that scene when I read Albert Camus’ essay on the absurd, The Myth of Sisyphus. In this essay I will break down the concepts of the absurd, suicide and eluding, and make a few observations of my own.

Absurd

In 1940, Albert Camus published one of the masterpieces of the 20th century thought in The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he developed the concept of the absurd in order to grapple with the meaning of life. The absurd entails three things. First, the world is characterized as irrational1 , and secondly, human beings yearn for clarity through reason or meaning. Third, the conflict between these two irreconcilable observations is known as the absurd. Fundamentally, the world is a product of random combination of events and circumstances, and we desire it to be otherwise. To be precise: the world is not absurd itself; instead, it is absurd that we seek rationality in an irrational world. Man tries to project sanity, order, or any form of rationality, on the world but always fails – and the absurd is the incontrovertible outcome.

The feeling of the absurd can strike any time.2 We live our lives with goals and purpose, and the conviction that we're doing the right things. For the most part, we are content with this presumption of rationality. But every now and then, we become overly self-aware and horribly reminded of how much creatures of habit we all are. Our predictable actions become ridiculous, and we start to doubt whether we are free agents. The most familiar person we know suddenly becomes a stranger, and the world has become dense and strange.3

Man is inclined to impose order, yet nothing about his projects has any justification, because the world does not provide support for what he does. The world is wholly indifferent to man's schemes, irrational, although man continues to try to make sense of it. Absurdity is the juxtaposition of two incompatible things, for it is “born of this confrontation between human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”4

It seems that Camus has exaggerated the duality to the point of a paradox and called it the absurd. More importantly, the dichotomy between the world and man rests on three assumptions: the universe needs to have a “human face” or it must be divinely ordered or that science is the final word of the world. More importantly, because science is a descriptive activity, then the world must be value-free. If one can contest any of these assumptions, then the Absurd is probably not a fundamental feature of human existence.

Camus says the absurd forbids all attempts to find the meaning of life. There is no possibility for a meaning of life to be discovered, but that is not necessarily a depressing view. Life as absurdity makes sense when it is seen as a claim about the lack of compatibility between people and the world they live in. What are the consequences of living with the absurd? What logically follows from the idea of the absurd? There are two obvious options: self-destruction or self-preservation.

Suicide

The Myth of Sisyphus opens with a clear mission: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem5 and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”6 The absurd is Camus’ philosophical attempt at a solution for suicide. If life is truly meaningless, then how can anyone continue to live? What are the options for the person whose life has no meaning? He/she either commits the suicide of thought by inventing a world of meaning, of hope, of God, or commits physical suicide. Camus adds a third option: the absurd hero who accepts a world without meaning, without hope, and lives.7

There are two aspects of suicide: one is the realization that life is absurd and the other is the destruction of the attachment to life. Camus notes that the body shrinks from annihilation. In order to destroy the attachment to life, there has to be a powerful rationale strong enough to blot out self-preservation, and they can number from humiliation, debilitating disease or despondency.

Although Camus was interested in these obvious types of suicide,8 I found the metaphysical or virgin suicide far more fascinating, because “rarely is suicide committed ... through reflection.”9 The virgin suicide that lacks the aforementioned rationales is a “logically disposed” suicide because it is not motivated by some kind of emotional depression or even the fear of death. Camus devoted a chapter to Kirilov, from The Possessed, since the author Dostoevsky was also preoccupied with absurd reasoning, and how it affected the lives of his characters.

Kirilov became disenchanted with the immortality of the soul and was researching on why people did not kill themselves. Kirilov said he wanted to take his life because that was his idea. Having an idea implies a motivation. Kirilov arrived at his idea with absurd reasoning by maintaining two contradictory beliefs: “I know God is necessary and must exist... I also know that he does not and cannot exist.”10

Apparently, the paradoxical existence of God entails a logical suicide. For Kirilov, this realization was enough to kill himself, because he inferred that he was God: “If God does not exist, I am God.”11 However, Kirilov was not content to believe that he was God, for that was insufficient. To be God required Kirilov to kill himself. Absurd, indeed, but this is the crux: Kirilov realized divine freedom by bringing it down to earth. For several years he had sought the attribute of his divinity and he found it at last. The attribute is freedom. Drawing the final consequences of his divine freedom ended his slavery to immortality. He refused to maintain the universal delusion that everyone up to him in history, all men and women, had invented God in order not to kill themselves.12 Kirilov thought that was the summary of the entire history up to the moment of his metaphysical suicide.

In short, Kirilov wanted to demonstrate his suicide to show others the yellow brick road. Not only was the suicide a metaphysical suicide, it was also pedagogical. Since Dostoevsky was a Christian whose Christian beliefs forbid suicide, because it is sinful, then Kirilov’s act was intended as a lesson. In the end Dostoevsky backed away from the absurd consequences, due to his faith in God. Camus forbids suicide for different reasons and gave us a solution: maintain absurdity by not denying it or adopting metaphysical delusions.

Suicide is legitimate if the first premise of the Absurd is rejected. If the world is inescapably absurd, then to kill yourself is to act as if your suicide has meaning in a meaningless existence. Suicide confirms the absurd by agreeing to it.13 To live instead is to experience the absurd at all times, but never be reconciled with it. Camus insists that if we never reconcile with the absurd, we will never be free of it, but that will rule out suicide as the genuine experience of living an absurd life. If the absurd is not conceded, it is meaningful. Life has no meaning; it is inescapably absurd. The only thing is whether we can live with it or die with it.14

Eluding15

The instinct of self-preservation usually prevails, and although we live, we deny the absurd. Camus calls this avoidance the “act of eluding.”16 This eschewal manifests as hope: the hope for life after death or the hope that there is a meaning of life – but they both only delay the absurd. We elude the Absurd in order to avoid from being overwhelmed by it.

When we experience the absurd, we continue to live – as long we convince ourselves that there is a divine mysterious plan, or agree that this world is absurd but there is a rational world after this one, or the world is absurd but only until science finds all the answers. Religions, science, philosophies all try to provide reasons and purposes for the universe, and explain away its irrational character.

Scientists and rational philosophers favor the rational schemes of man in their nostalgia for certainties as they stand before the abyss. Religious thinkers instead point at the indifference of the world and they take a leap of faith. Camus credits existentialists like Leo Chestov, Soren Kierkegaard, and Karl Jaspers for recognizing the absurd, but in the end, they are too eager to flee towards transcendence in relief. For instance, when Chestov realized the “fundamental absurdity” of existence, he declared it to be God.17 Reason has failed, thus, we must trust God. Kierkegaard makes the same escape with his “leap of faith” from the starting blocks of the absurd. The intellect is sacrificed to an irrational God. Jaspers points at the numerous failures of reason, but only to conclude in a paradox, that this failure is transcendence itself. There is no meaning; therefore, there is ultimate meaning. These existential philosophers have raised the specter of the absurd, but they attempt to resolve this absurdity by taking a suicidal leap into transcendence.

The aforementioned comfortable solutions reinstate the absurd because they prevent us from true authenticity by misrepresenting what we truly are. These denials are all philosophical suicide. Such denials are philosophical which means they are fictitious and illusory that hides the fact that life is absurd. They are suicidal, similar to physical suicide, for they deny or renounce life as absurdity. "Doctrines that explains everything to me also debilitate me at the same time. They relive me of the weight of my own life yet I must carry it alone." 18 Since the absurd is inherently a contradiction, every attempt to ignore or explain it away only tries to elude it. “[The] important thing... is not to be cured, but to live with one's ailments."19

Camus' criticisms of the existential philosophers do not seem to be true refutations, for they seem to be complaints that their solution to the absurd only fail to meet his criteria of authenticity. This hardly persuades anyone of the cogency of his philosophy of the absurd. It seems to me that Camus does not seem as interested in their arguments, whether or not they are true, but whether one can live by them. He is more concerned with how one lives with his/her fundamental relationship with the world, the absurd. Thus, Camus avoids the more challenging task of proving the cogency of his case over rival philosophers. But that is irrelevant, as long the concept of the absurd is persuasive in itself, and whether it helps us to decide how to live.

Absurd hero

The philosophical and physical suicide both flee from the absurd. Instead, Camus insists upon a third option: embrace absurdity by refusing to commit suicide and live without a future or hope or illusion, or resignation as an absurd person. In other words, we ought to vigilantly maintain the absurd in order not to be crushed by it, and become “absurd” ourselves. He illustrated several examples as the absurd man20 and concludes the book with a chapter on Sisyphus from Greek mythology as the absurd hero. When Sisyphus was alive, he often defied and tricked the gods, and cheated even death. So they punished him by having him roll a boulder up a mountain over and over for all eternity.21

Each time Sisyphus finally reaches the top of mountain, the boulder falls back down. Camus imagines him standing there. He is thoroughly conscious of the utter hopelessness of his situation. He has a choice: give in to despair? Let gods win? Mope over his fate? Or thumb his nose at the meaningless task and refuse to see it as punishment? Camus says he is saved by his scorn. He overcomes his situation by standing in revolt of it. Given that he does not accept anything more to life than the absurd situation, Camus says he has found happiness.22

Conclusion

On one hand, I am sympathetic to the dichotomy between the hopes of man and the indifferent universe, but at the same time, I could easily envision a far more horrifying existence. We as the human species may not have arrived at a perfect understanding of our world, but what would be the consequences if that ideal did become a reality? If we knew everything, won't life be utterly boring, and consequently, intolerable? There won't be any more challenges or excitement from life. Everything is already ordered down to the last minutiae, all future events already known in advance. A bottomless, infinite, and obscure world may cost us confusion and frustration, and the impossibility of ideal knowledge. But the cost of a perfectly known world might be infinitely greater. Since Camus is not interested in possible hypotheses that are even more absurd, but whether we in our current condition can live with the absurd, then this scenario is probably irrelevant.

I am somewhat conflicted at this point. Despite the persuasiveness of Camus' arguments, I find the about-face from the Absurd as a paradox to a solution a dissatisfactory move. It seems far too similar to how the existential philosophers themselves escaped the absurd. Thus the assertion that we need to live with the absurd is an equally arbitrary move, no less another "leap of faith". The very rejection of suicide may be a compromise with the absurd, but at the same time, it seems a matter of choice, not a logical conclusion to a philosophical system. In the end, Camus stands tall as an existential thinker, despite his protests to the contrary.

Footnotes

1. Donald Crosby (1988) has characterized this as cosmic nihilism, where the universe lacks any sort of intelligibility or meaning. Camus is on the verge of making an existential nihilistic judgment that human existence is absurd, but his precise formulation of the concept of the absurd doesn't fall neatly into that category.

2. Camus lists four types of feelings of which I mention one (mechanical and routine behavior). The other three are: the burden of time and the inevitable grave, the contingency of existence and the alien nature of things, and the fundamental isolation from other people.

3. Camus, Albert (1983) p. 14

4. Ibid, p. 28

5. It's true that none of the arguments in philosophy come anywhere close in importance as finding a reason to live, or more precisely, the condition a person find him/herself in when he/she fails to find satisfactory reasons for living. This opening move has moved Camus beyond Philosophy Proper, towards theology and morality, in a religious direction.

6. Camus (1983), p. 3

7. Ibid, p. 10

8. Ibid, p. 50. Camus is less interested in philosophical suicide than he is in physical suicide.

9. Ibid, p. 5

10. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Devils, p. 690

11. Camus (1983) p. 106

12. Ibid, p. 108

13. Ibid, p. 54 “Suicide, like the leap [is not the overcoming absurdity] is acceptance at its extreme…”

14. Ibid, p. 50

15. The French term, “l’esquive” is more forceful than the English translation, “eluding,” (for it also means ‘dodging,’ ‘ducking,’ as well as ‘evading,’ or ‘escaping’) but unfortunately, there is not a better word available.

16. Camus, (1983) p. 8

17. Ibid, p. 34

18. Ibid, p. 55

19. Ibid, p. 38

20. Don Juan, the actor, the conqueror and the creator.

21. Long before I ever read The Myth of Sisyphus, I encountered an absurd hero in a video game called Chakan, the Forever Man. The main character was Chakan, a great warrior who challenged Death when it was his time to die. Death bet that if Chakan beat him, he would gain immortality. They fought, and sure enough, Chakan prevailed. However, his victory came with a curse: he would not be able to sleep, because every night, he would witness the pain he inflicted on his victims. Chakan would finally gain eternal sleep only after he had eradicated all evil. That was the game's premise, and after I defeated the game, gotten rid of all evil in the world, I awaited the final prize. Chakan tried to kill himself, only to hear the mocking laughter of Death. Death pointed at the countless stars and each of their planets was overrun with the same evil. Chakan was stuck on his world forever, alone. However, despite the absurd fate, I can imagine Chakan happy in the same fashion.

22. Camus, (1983) p. 123

Bibliography

Camus, Albert. (1983). The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage International

Crosby, Donald. (1988) The Specter of the Absurd. New York: State University of New York Press

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Tr. Katz, Michael (2008) The Devils. New York: Oxford University Press

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