Camus, the Literary Genre, and a Life of Value

For those who are unfamiliar with Albert Camus’ essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, he begins by describing how the “gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” The hero-worship, for Camus, is Sisyphus as the “absurd hero”; his very “scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life,” are the foundational qualities to be admired; as heroes go, it is the sustained perseverance in the face of an absurd life, and especially in “that pause” as he returns, knowing that the eternal toil that faces him will not drain the passion for life that Sisyphus will retain. His scorn for such absurdity is what marks the worthiness of hero-worship status, for Camus.

Thus, Sisyphus represents man’s state in and of the absurd; the rock that he toils for represents the existential historicity of the absurd; and the monotonous eternality of the up-down landscape represents the day to day episodic encounters of a life lived in the absurd. This is merely one viewpoint. The Myth of Sisyphus, however, can be viewed quite differently; from a perspective aside from the absurd; perhaps not with as much drama or poetry; but with greater logical clarity, befitting man’s sense of an ordered, rational universe.

The essential problem with being critical of Camus is not so much the substantive lack of logical coherence in his work (for Camus cares not for such pedantic details); rather, the problem is that Camus is so thoroughly eloquent and poetic in his writings, that any criticism of his work is immediately repulsed based on aesthetic reasons alone (yes, an oxymoron). Indeed, Camus chose the perfect genre for existentialism (read the utter failure and lack of systematic consistency in Sartre’s attempt at serious philosophical pedagogy in Being and Nothingness); for literature allows for lack of structural consistency, and is naturally protected by poetic default – for who can seriously criticize the romanticism of the detached loner-hero?

But such a myth must be stripped; and a different perspective is necessary; for if all truth is relative, and all relative truths can be equally embraced by a sheer power of one’s will; as such, a different story may be proposed as an alternative to Camus, and one which can assert its value with as much force: Sisyphus does not represent man’s state; rather, Sisyphus is not merely the hero, but a god. Man is not the one who toils in vain; rather, he is represented by the rock; it is this god who directs the individual by pushing him where necessary; by assisting him in uphill climbs; by letting him go that he may fall when necessary. Further, when first he was born, the individual thus being pushed was merely a pebble; as the pebble/man matured over time, he made independent choices along the way, and picked up various debris in the course of his journey; the pebble became compacted with junk and jewels alike; and as conceptual frameworks, moral choices, and noetic structures which determined the very choices in life were being formed, accepted, believed and acted upon, the pebble became a rock, and then a boulder. And all along, god pushed, paused at the pinnacle, let go for the individual to fall; and helped him up when needed.

For Camus, of course, such an alternate reality would be repulsive because of the implied determinism of such a perspective – to be directed by a god would strip man of his total freedom of will. But Camus sacrifices a greater value for man’s freedom – that of a purpose-driven life; and that is where his literary genre fails him; for the snowflake without design; a child’s wonderment in the question why; the daily toil for which man lives; the sacrifice of life by man for his fellow man; the love of a child; the love of a man; and the ends for which one will strive to reach that ultimate destination – a life of servanthood, a life well-lived, and life worthwhile; a life of value.

It is a different view; it is not nearly as aesthetically pleasing, or poetically structured as Camus; but alas, nor is it as absurd.

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