“If [the myth of Sisyphus] is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?” writes Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he grapples with whether–and if so, how–it’s possible to exist in a life that is without meaning.
However, it’s in the following that it becomes apparent that Camus’ modernity differs somewhat from our own:
“The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.”
Camus’ use of “rare” to describe our awareness of the absurdity of our experience rings a warning bell for me; it seems to flag a significant shift in our social identity and ideology since the publication of this essay. Contexts change, and so too, it seems, does the applicability of the Camusian argument.
(Perhaps this is an odd little counterpoint to Haruki Murakami’s claim that “while there are no undying works, on principle there can be no undying translations“. It’s not just the linguistic side of things that shifts over time, but also the sociolinguistic element. Maybe “translations” here could be expanded to mean “interpretations”.)
Though I take many of Camus’ points about the absurd experience of life, I would suggest that the way in which the Camusian “revolt” against this very thing has played out in the present day world differs from the case he has argued for it.
I speak, of course, of the rise of the hipster.
I’ll get to that in the moment.
Camus argues that absurdity arises, and is acknowledged, when spiritual dimensions are stripped away and we are left to face life purely on its own terms. With the egress of organised religion from the western world (the exception, perhaps, being the weirdly puritanical USA), the emphasis on the individual over the collective, and the shift towards a society that emphasises intellectual labour, it’s surely the case that although existence is no less absurd, our awareness of such absurdity is on the rise.
We’re a society primed to recognise the absurdity of our existence. Hence, no doubt, the ubiquity of terms such as “quarter-life crisis”, “mid-life crisis”, “identity crisis” and so on.
But acknowledgement is only the beginning. Far more profound is the way in which people respond to this recognition of the absurd nature of life. Camus highlights several representative exemplars of possible such reactions, all of which really entail the same thing, an idea summed up in the following: “What counts is not the best living but the most living.” We have the Don Juan character who loses himself in passionate affairs, the actor who lives myriad lives in quick succession, and the warrior who sacrifices thought for action.
It’s not hard to see contemporary equivalents in the commercial Don Juanism that is the drive for the consumption of goods, or the extraordinary amounts of media that we take in, or the tendency towards over-scheduling and dabbling.
There’s an ephemerality in all of these examples, an existential lightness that at first glance seems to conflict with the fate of our titular Sisyphus, a man who suffers beneath the indignity of endless, backbreaking labour, a man cursed to strive forever towards a goal that cannot be obtained. Sisyphus’s task, after all, is one imposed from without, unlike those engaged in by the characters Camus describes. Sisyphus is further distanced from these individuals by the fact that he is immortal, and his fate is an eternal one. This would seem to set the Sisyphean case at odds with Camus’ argument of the absurdity of life, which can’t exist without the prospect of death.
But immortality is, by its very nature, all about death. By removing it from the equation it looms even larger than before: it’s there by virtue of its not being there. It’s a chilling notion, because by removing such an important boundary from life, it’s hard to imagine what’s left. When everything becomes infinite, everything becomes nothing. Given that he is cursed to repeat his boulder-carrying task for all eternity, it would seem that Sisyphus’s possible responses are few. All that is possible is an emotional response. Happiness, Camus puts forth, is one.
Fear, brought about by this ontological (dear nonexistent God, did I just write “ontological”?) crisis, is the other. It’s an emotion that I think can manifest in a variety of ways, including the Camusian examples I’ve reprised above–although these, I suppose, might well be motivated by happiness as well.
My thought is that in today’s world, or at least amongst my moustachioed, chai latte-sipping contemporaries, this fear doesn’t manifest itself in the sort of engagement we see in the aforementioned examples, but rather the opposite. It shows up in disaffection, disengagement, and that oh-so-hipster sense of irony. Camus touches on this when he writes: “for the absurd man it is not a matter of explaining and solving, but of experiencing and describing. Everything begins with lucid indifference.”
But while Camus argues for “revolt” in the form of railing against the absurd life by throwing oneself into the moment, we rail against our absurd existence through withdrawal and irony. While it’s suggested in the essay that there is something profound to be found within the Sisyphean existence, something that can arise out of the redefining and re-envisaging of failure, an ironic existence further narrows the sphere of our experience. Rather than “the most living”, we seem to seek out the opposite.
Curiously, an ironic stance is both defeatist and nihilistic, but is also retrospectively oriented as well: though Camus’ absurd person lives in the moment, an ironic existence seeks to disconnect from the present, and necessarily uses the past for a point of comparison.
But I can’t help but wonder whether that’s the point of it. Where Sisyphus embraces the absurd life, the ironic response seems to try to deny that the acknowledgement of the absurdity of existence ever occurred in the first place. Is our revolt one of fearful non-revolt and the revocation of acknowledgement? This would seem to jive with Camus’ assertion that “living an experience, a particular fate, is accepting it fully.”
But is it too late? Is irony enough to provide us with the existential time-travel that we need to wipe clean the absurdist slate once we’ve chalked all over it? It would seem not, according to Camus, who writes:
“A man is always a prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them. He must pay something. A man who has become conscious of the absurd is for ever bound to it.”
And yet, we are told: “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”
Like it or not, we are all the modern day Sisyphus. But we are an army of Sisyphuses who are more likely to ironically Instagram our boulders than carry them up a hill.
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Other books by Albert Camus: