To read the beginning of this 4-part Text and Meaning series by Aberjhani on Albert Camus’ 100th birthday please see the links below. Part 4 begins now:
“The artist forges himself to the others, midway between the beauty he cannot do without and the community he cannot tear himself away from. That is why true artists scorn nothing: they are obliged to understand rather than to judge.” ––Albert Camus, 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature Acceptance Speech.
Camus uses the Greek myth about Sisyphus in a manner similar to the way modern spiritual leaders employ the texts of the Bible, Quran, the Tanakhor other works considered sacred. That is to say it provides him with the ideological and inspirational touchstone for the classic essay in which he refutes nihilism and aspects of existentialism.
To be clear, he does indeed go toe to toe philosophically with the likes of such classic minds at that of Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Friedrich Nietzsche. He carefully sidesteps direct confrontations with his friend Jean Paul Sartre but confronts him indirectly by pointing out the failings of existentialism (most philosophers have no problem with agreeing to disagree). He also skillfully aligns his own sensibilities to some extent with the ideological instincts of literary masters like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Marcel Proust, and Franz Kafka while preparing to deliver his definitive interpretation of Sisyphus’ absurd dilemma.
Stronger Than His Rock
In the original story (of which there are several versions) Sisyphus is the king of Corinth who makes the all-powerful god Zeus so angry that Zeus sends death, known as Thanatos, to capture and kill him. Sisyphus not only manages to escape from death but puts him in chains. At the same time, he conspires with his wife and tells her not to hold a proper funeral for him. This gives him an excuse to return from the underworld and demand some kind of satisfaction, or compensation. He ends up remaining among the living and enjoying himself until dying a natural death at an advanced age. In essence, he has managed to cheat death twice. For this, Zeus punishes him by condemning him to repeatedly roll a huge stone to the top of a hill, only to watch it tumble back to the bottom, and then have to start rolling it uphill all over again.
For Camus, the story of Sisyphus symbolizes much of the human condition and the need for humanity to grapple with the absurdity and meaninglessness he sees inherent in that condition. By joyfully claiming ownership of his misfortune, Sisyphus can avoid becoming a tragic figure and approach something close to the heroic. As Camus put it:
“At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”
It is difficult to resist wondering how much of Sisyphus Camus saw in himself. Or vice versa. Certainly he had to feel at times like much of his life had been just like Sisyphus’ fate. Having been born to parents who were largely illiterate, made fatherless by war when barely a toddler, and caged in by poverty throughout his youth, maintaining the discipline and determination necessary to improve his circumstances could easily have felt like rolling a boulder up a hill. So could battling his way back to health after an attack of tuberculosis. Or promoting ideas and alliances that could make one a political target on either the right or the left. Or: simply striving to produce work substantial enough to endow the apparent meaninglessness surrounding him with its more empowering opposite.
Some have speculated that the way Camus died made his theories on absurdity a self-fulfilling prophecy. Others would say it was the triumphant meaningful way he lived that allowed him to rise heroically above absurdity.
co-author of ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love
and Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
More on Albert Camus and Aberjhani’s Text and Meaning Series
- Text and Meaning in Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus Part 1
- Text and Meaning in Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus Part 2
- Text and Meaning in Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus Part 3
- Albert Camus Society Centennial Conference
- Celebrating Albert Camus on Facebook
- Why is Camus Still a Stranger in His Native Algeria?
- Text and Meaning in Langston Hughes’ The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain Part 1
- Text and Meaning in Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance Part 1
- Text and Meaning in Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance Part 3
- Text and Meaning in MLK’s I Have a Dream Speech Part 1