Camus' Dynamite

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“Sisyphus and the Meaning of Life” by Russell Blackford, in Quadrant (Oct. 2003), 437 Darling St., Balmain NSW 2041, Australia.

Why go on? It’s perhaps the essential philosophical question, and one that has drawn philosophers like a magnet to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, whom the gods condemned to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a hill, only to have it tumble back down each time. Most famously, the myth drew the attention of the French novelist Albert Camus, who wrote about it in a classic existentialist essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942).

Camus saw in Sisyphus “a metaphor for our absurd condition in a universe that does not care for us and cannot guide us,” writes Blackford, a lawyer and writer in Mel­bourne, Australia. Camus wrote of humanity’s “incalculable feeling” of “divorce” from the universe and the painful sense that there is “no profound reason for living.” He did not rule out the possibility that a rational person would commit suicide.

Two later thinkers who grappled with Sisyphus and Camus’ poetically opaque reading of him took different paths. In his 1971 essay, “The Absurd,” philosopher Thomas Nagel inquired into the sources of the modern sense of absurdity. It’s not our awareness of the inevitability of death or the vastness of the universe that leads us to absurdity, Nagel writes. Such arguments are really only ways of expressing the deeper anxiety bred by “the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives”—our activities, projects, and beliefs—and our deep sense that it’s impossible to find any ultimate foundation for the “values and commitments” we cite to justify them.

Camus probably would have disagreed. The source of absurdity is the “psychological disturbance” that occurs when we discover that the universe is not intelligible, in Blackford’s interpretation. Any “lucid consideration” of the human condition would inevitably yield the conclusion that it is “bleak and frightening.”

In Good and Evil (1970), philosopher Richard Taylor found in Sisyphus a “paradigm of meaninglessness” akin to human life, “essentially a cycle of reproduction from which nothing more ever comes.” Still, Taylor thought it possible that Sisyphus somehow enjoyed what he was doing, that all of us, just by “doing,” may create meaning for ourselves. The process may not be rational, Taylor said, but it can work.

Camus would have had none of that, says Blackford. Sisyphus could not have found any purpose or enjoyment in his pointless labor, only alienation and anger at his punishment. Yet it is that very alienation, in Camus’ view, that provides the liberating mechanism for humanity. “An impersonal universe sets no limits on our values, and Camus describes this as ‘the reason for my inner freedom.” Without guidance—without a divine presence in the universe—we are left “free to live in accordance with our own values and create a life that has personal meaning,” Blackford writes, and he says Camus portrays this inner revolt in heroic terms: “Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom to the maximum, is living to the maximum.”

There’s something attractive about Camus’ vision, Blackford concedes, but perhaps more for the intellectual engaged in creative work than for, say, a tax attorney or a farmer or even a postman on his perpetual rounds. Indeed, whether or not one accepts the existential view may define one of the great divides in contemporary society. The existentialism of Camus and Jean Paul Sartre is often dismissed as “old hat,” says Blackford, but it’s still “philosophical dynamite.” Those who uphold more traditional views of humanity’s place in the universe have yet to find a response that defuses it.

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