The Myth of Sisyphus: Camus’s Absurd Prototype

the-myth-of-sisyphus-coverIn 1942, with World II raging, readers of The Myth of Sisyphus could easily identify with Camus’s absurd man. Not only is man absurd he has reduced his entire world to absurdity. Now, seventy-plus years later, Sisyphus readers are more likely to politely yawn and wonder what the fuss is about. Camus’s themes are not trivial or obvious but we, denizens of the early 21st century, are thoroughly habituated to them. Absurd is now beyond mainstream; how else can one explain facile growths like Facebook. Just like homosexuals kidnapped the word “gay” and changed its meaning Camus abducted “absurd” and changed its meaning. The old “absurd”, synonymous with ridiculous, nonsensical, ludicrous and preposterous, becomes, in Camus’s hands, something few would call absurd. But, part of a great writer’s job description is changing the meaning of words, and it’s easy to see why the best of us have become absurd men.

Camus’s absurd man is a thoroughly honorable creature. He respects reason and wants to understand all things. This is beyond his reach but he doesn’t claim it’s impossible, only that his own limits make it personally impossible. Perhaps you’ve vainly argued with scientific illiterates that assert evolution is wrong because they cannot see how it could work. If I don’t understand it then it cannot be understood. Absurd men recognize, but do not generalize, their limitations. Absurd men also see that in the long run absolutely nothing matters. In a thousand years all but the greatest of us will be forgotten, in a million years even the greatest will be forgotten, in a billion years only precision instruments will detect our remains and in a trillion years it will be like we never existed. Many red dwarf stars will still be shining long after every microscopic trace of humanity has disappeared. This is an inescapable scientific truth. It’s a terrifying banality that is often ignored or wrapped up in sky fairy nonsense. Yet, the absurd man faces cosmic futility without flinching or whining.

Instead of being crushed by a vast, difficult to comprehend, cosmos the absurd man soldiers on. He doesn’t curl up, go on food stamps, or complain about lurid Koch brother conspiracies. He gives a middle finger to his fate and then does what he can. Up yours universe: this is Camus’s revolt and, in our time, it’s a universal sentiment. This part of being absurd is easily faked; every brain-dead rapper and air-headed celebrity sports up-yours-airs, but absurd men do not play at revolt! They do their best to create without delusions and what idiot would claim celebrities are free of delusions? Many like to think cathedral masons were honoring god. Even in the Middle Ages this was delusional. Most were simply earning a living: if a pile of well-shaped rocks pleased god who knew or cared. Besides, in a geological blink, the same cathedral stones will weather to mud. Camus is very clear: absurd creation is self-consciously ephemeral.

Camus started The Myth of Sisyphus with what’s become his most famous line:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.

This is one exam question we all face. Cowards run and hide; they turn the knob to eleven and pop sweet — there’s an app for that — distractions. The religious create elaborate fantasies and declare war. Pure rationalists drag in Spinoza’s objects that long to persist in their being. They don’t commit suicide because that’s not part of their program. Ironically, only Camus’s absurd answer is remotely satisfying. In our lingo:  man-up, stop whining, pull your weight, don’t take crap, expect nothing, use your head and create. Any modern libertarian would approve.

sisyphus-rocking-itWhen casting the prototypical absurd man Camus brilliantly chose Sisyphus. Sisyphus put death in chains, claiming immortality for men, but vindictive and jealous gods freed death and condemned Sisyphus to roll a heavy stone to the top of a hill only to watch it crash down and roll it up again, and again — forever. This sounds awful but Camus saw Sisyphus’s fate as a blessing. Life sucks when you’re pushing your rock up the hill but when it rolls down you get a break. While climbing down Sisyphus has time to think, to absurdly create, and unlike poor doomed mortals, Sisyphus gets an eternity of breaks. This is an absurdly happy fate.