Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Myth of Sisyphus

One of my funniest memories from college is having a final paper returned to me with no grade. The professor, it seemed, saw my jumbled essay more as art than writing and complained in his summary that it was impossible to evaluate someone obviously going through an "existentialist crises". In his defense, my "paper" was an abstract audio compilation with footnotes. I suppose that's what happens when you place an impressionable student in a course on Nietzsche.

Well, that class wound up being a big influence on my thought; the implications of living, and dying, without God--the tremendous resulting freedom and responsibility--struck me very deeply. For some time I tried to face Nietzsche's Godless death, but in the end it was too hard. It was during this time I became familiar with other existentialist thinkers: Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Sartre, and Camus. The religion in Kierkegaard and the Marxism in Sartre turned me off to them. How can you be an existentialist and believe in historical determinism? Anyway, now armed with my big three of Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Camus, I felt I had found a body of literature with a strength and fearless insight to live by.

The Myth of Sisyphus did not disappoint. Camus writes in his signature style, something of a poetic pamphlet intended for the public. There is an urgency and public concern that fills the pages. I imagine the essay as a kindred spirit to Thomas Paine's "Common Sense". Both have a revolutionary spirit and democratic respect for the reader. And while Paine deals with how responsible men should respond to unjust governance, Camus examines how an absurd man responds to life.

For those unfamiliar with the admittedly akward term "absurd" in Camus' works, it is simple, really. Camus sees as absurd the futility between man's desire to understand and the world's undecipherability; between man's desire to live and knowing we must die. It is not that the absurd man is not rational. No, the absurd man reaches these conclusions through reason. At the same time, reason is not deified in absurdism. The Enlightenment led many, whole cultures, to believe rational thinking somehow "held the key". The gift of thinking clearly is more grounded in absurdism. Birds can fly, but not to the moon. Men can think, but not know everything.

I believe that Camus recommended reading The Myth of Sisyphus at the same time as The Stranger. That makes sense. His non-fiction and his novels are drastically different and I could see the ebbs and tides of both works working well in combination. On its own, the Myth provides a forceful and lyrical examination of existentialism. The problem is, the style could be too poetic for someone not already versed in this philosophy (Nietzche's writing is also very creative, but I think the message comes across clearer). Overall, a strong recommendation. But Be Warned: Reading Camus can change your life.

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