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Slapping Camus

My friend Yahia asked me not to do this, because the man is dead and can’t defend himself, but my other friend Ayoub detects a certain racism in his ideas, and anyway, dead atheists don’t feel any pain….

Here is an example of a line of thinking that seemed, in its day, to be revolutionary in its lucidity, a major advance in our understanding of the human condition, yet sixty years later it strikes me as completely outmoded, little more than childish stubborness masquerading as intellectual heroism. In The Myth of Sisyphus, which Albert Camus wrote when he was in his late twenties, he lays out his theme at the start of the section “Absurd Freedom.”

    I hold certain facts that I can’t pull away from. What I know, what is sure, what I can’t deny, what I can’t reject, that is what counts.

Fair enough, almost a truism.

    I can deny everything in that part of me that lives on uncertain longings, except the desire for unity, the appetite for resolution, the insistence on clarity and cohesion.

Here I want to ask him, “If you’ve managed to get rid of your sentimental illusions, why do you hold onto your ‘insistence on clarity and cohesion’? Might that be an illusion too?”

    I can refute everything in the world that surrounds me, that shocks or elates me, except this chaos, this reign of chance and this divine equivalence that are born out of anarchy.

Here he uses heroic language to describe the struggle of intelligence against blind, anarchic forces. I want to respond, “Oh really?” because when I go out and face the world each day, I don’t have these feelings. I recognize elements of chaos in the world around me, but there is also a connectedness, a balance and harmony that seem obvious to me. The trees breathe carbon dioxide and release oxygen; humans breathe oxygen and release carbon dioxide. A balance of gravity and momentum keeps the planets in orbit. All this may be random, but I evolved here and am adapted to it. My intelligence is at home in it. So I don’t get his point. What he is expressing is merely a feeling, the feeling of being estranged from his surroundings, which is no more or less valid than my feeling of belonging to a unified whole. The stubborness with which he insists on this implies that without it, his entire system would unravel.

    I don’t know if this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I don’t know that meaning, and that for now it is impossible for me to know it.

Again, fair enough. But to imply that such knowledge is impossible for all humans at all times and places would be pushing the point too far. Yet that is precisely what he proceeds to do.

    What does a meaning beyond my condition mean to me? I can only understand in human terms. What I touch, or what resists me, is what I understand.

This strikes me as willfully ignorant. It denies the human capacity for imagination, which is what allows us to understand each other’s feelings, or the birth of the stars, or the fall of the Roman Empire, all things we are unable to touch.

    And I know I that can’t reconcile these two certainties, my appetite for the absolute and the irreducibility of this world to a rational and reasonable principle.

If I’ve shown that his two “certainties” are nothing of the sort, then the contradiction he proposes here is either false, or exaggerated.

    What other truth can I recognize without lying, without bringing to bear a hope that I don’t have, and that means nothing within the limits of my condition?

I don’t like this phrase “limits of my condition.” Camus is imposing his limits artificially, while failing to notice that the “other truth” he seeks is within reach. It is the power of his imagination. This is not a false hope, it is an established fact, one that has led humanity to our greatest philosophical, scientific and technological discoveries, as Karen Amrstrong points out in my last post.

Camus was the product of an overly rationalistic era. This was understandable as a response to the horrors of World War II, but I’m glad those days are gone. After all, the rationalism of the 1950s and 1960s did nothing to spare the world another round of horror and war, this time in the name of rational progress. So perhaps imagination, emotional intelligence and a sense of play will give humanity a better answer to our long-range dilemma, “What are we doing in this labyrinth of symbols, about which we know so much and yet so little?”

    If I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning, or rather, the problem wouldn’t even arise because I would be part of that world. I would be that world against which I oppose myself now with all my consciousness….

Camus provides the answer here, perhaps without realizing it. To make sense of things, all we need to do is participate. Reason tells us, “I can’t fall in love unless I know the rules,” but we will never learn to love until we try. So there are times when reason gets in the way. Fortunately, when reason builds a wall, imagination is there to open the door. As humans we are blessed with them both.


Comment from Bill Day
Time: July 31, 2007, 22:48

It’s been a long time since I read the Myth of Sisyphus. Isn’t part of the point, however, that so long as we are “conscious” we can never fully immerse ourselves in the moment in the way, say, a cat does? Moreover, the fact that we can imagine the Roman Empire does not necessarily provide a true sense of what happened; reality is more complex and less coherent than our imaginings. Finally, our sense of order is in constant peril of being reduced to absurdity by the violence in the world.

Comment from Mohamed
Time: September 14, 2007, 05:14

“…wrote when he was in his late twenties,…”

Well, I for one am glad I didn’t publish what I wrote at that age.

Comment from eatbees
Time: September 17, 2007, 08:18

@Mohamed — I hear you, but on the other hand, The Myth of Sisyphus and the novel Camus published around the same time, The Stranger, are considered classics that are still widely read 60 years later.

What I’m impatient with here isn’t the quality of the work, which is elegant and tightly argued (almost too much so) but the rationalistic spirit of the times in which Camus was living. Reading Sisyphus means watching a very bright man paint himself into an intellectual corner, then valorise it as a kind of heroism or toughness, as if he were the philosophers’ Humphrey Bogart. I want to tell him, “C’mon, cry a little! Trust your feelings! Fall in love!”

I’m reading another book now, A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong, in which she makes the point that the stories we tell about other worlds or spiritual experiences may not be true on a literal level, but they are still true because humans are able to imagine things, so that is part of our experience that can’t be denied. Without imagination we wouldn’t have nuclear physics or genetic medicine, and some understanding of this is what I find missing in Camus’ book.

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