51 – Sisyphus

So… let’s talk about Camus.

My mother is of the opinion that there is no such thing as “age-appropriate reading,” and of her many strong opinions on childrearing, this is one I agree with. My experience has been that I’ve only benefited from being given books to read that were beyond my ability to understand fully; I grasped more than you’d think, and I got to reread those books as I got older, understanding more deeply each time. So I’m not MAD that my mother gave me existential philosophy books when I was seven years old, exactly… but it did absolutely warp my brain for life.

I started with Sophie’s World, which I highly recommend; it’s a very accessible runthrough of the major beats in the history of philosophy, in the form of a charmingly uninhibited meta-textual joke. I had a brief period where I flirted with girls by reading them Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, which worked out exactly as badly as you’re imagining. (Turns out if you want to seduce girls by reading aloud, you want the Hitchhiker’s Guide.) After that, I moved on to Alfred Jarry, during which time I was very fun to be around, and then to Camus, during which time I became totally impossible to be around.

Camus is an absurdist, and he made me one. I talk around my peculiar worldview a lot here, so I’m going to try to explain it head-on for once, as clearly and concisely as I can. I’m certainly mangling the pertinent philosophy, don’t @ me; this is my version of absurdism, informed by a lot of much smarter people and over-salted by me.

Absurdism is a permutation of existentialism. Existentialism centers around the idea that existence has no inherent meaning, and that creating meaning is the work of consciousness. There are various ways you can react to the lack of meaning, and those reactions describe the different permutations of existentialism. An existentialist starts with, “there is no meaning” and concludes, “therefore, I must spend my life searching for or creating meaning.” A nihilist starts with, “there is no meaning” and concludes, “therefore, to search for meaning or create it is foolish and pointless.” And an absurdist starts with, “there is no meaning,” and concludes, “therefore, to search for meaning or create it is foolish and pointless… and that is precisely why I must do it anyway.”

My favorite Camus book is The Stranger, but probably his most famous work is The Myth of Sisyphus. The basic idea there is that the meaninglessness of existence demands, not nihilism, not surrender, not suicide… but revolt. The purpose of consciousness is to look its purposelessness straight in the face and choose to behave as if it doesn’t exist. Let me be more clear:

Absurdism is starting a game knowing for a fact that you can’t win it, and making your enemy fight you for the last inch of the map anyway.

It’s knowing you’re going to die, everything you’ve done will be forgotten, and everyone who knows you will also be swallowed by time… and yet you go ahead and make art or raise a child or do your work anyway, pretending that it matters.

The burning feeling in my chest, the pain it causes me to search for meaning, purpose, understanding in the world – that has to be enough. The pain, not the answers. It has to be enough that I am a being that can need this, that can feel this yearning, that can imagine form and narrative and order in the chaos around me and, for just a moment, assert that delusion hard enough that you can see it too. The meaning of life is our stupid, bloodyminded, beautiful insistence, against all evidence, that there can be meaning.

“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

– Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”

And so I swear it: I will love this stone.
Each time I am hindered, I will rejoice,
call it an opportunity for choice,
a chance to show that I want what I own.

I swear that I will never have my fill.
I swear that I will never see the top.
Neither loss nor victory will make me stop.
I swear that I will die upon this hill.

I won’t chase your mechanical rabbit.
I won’t let you leave the losers behind.
If you get the trophy you can have it –
I’ve still got all these Easter eggs to find.
I’ll make rolling down this hill a habit.
Got more stones? Like Giles Corey, I don’t mind.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

One thought

  1. Pingback: 59 – Empty Mirror | A gentle cult

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