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The Myth of Sisyphus [essay] (1942)

by Albert Camus

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Cycle of the Absurd (2)

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Throughout history, some books have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves - and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked and comforted. They have enriched lives - and destroyed them. Now Penguin brings you the works of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization and helped make us who we are. Inspired by the myth of a man condemned to ceaselessly push a rock up a mountain and watch it roll back to the valley below, The Myth of Sisyphustransformed twentieth-century philosophy with its impassioned argument for the value of life in a world without religious meaning.… (more)
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    Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: Reading Aeschylus's play through the lens of Camus's interpretation of the absurd hero is interesting.
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 Name that Book: possibly Dystopian about Death10 unread / 10PaperbackPirate, October 2015

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In this essay published in 1942, Albert Camus sets out his theory of the “absurd.” According to the biographer Herbert Lottman, Camus intended this essay to be published as part of a cycle. The other works were his novel, The Stranger, and his play, Caligula, both of which deal with an individual’s confrontation with the absurd. In the event, each of these works was ultimately published separately. A more contemporary work that can be fruitfully analyzed from the standpoint of the absurd is the film Groundhog Day.

The essay has four parts. The first part, an Absurd Reason, explains how an individual’s reason discovers and confronts the absurd and the various consequences that can come from that. The second part is the Absurd Man, which consists of the presentation of three types of characters who in Camus’s view live the life of an individual who recognizes the absurd without seeking to escape from or resign oneself to it. The third part, Absurd Creation, looks at the treatment of the absurd in artistic creation, specifically literature. Finally, the fourth part, the Myth of Sisyphus, presents Camus’s theory in the form of his interpretation of the Greek myth of Sisyphus. There is also an appendix, Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka. This was originally a chapter in the third part but was excluded by the censors when the essay was first published in France. In later editions it was added as an appendix. In 1942, its place in the essay was taken by a chapter on Dostoevsky.

In the first part, Camus uses Absurd Reason to analyze the meaninglessness of life and to reject suicide as a response to it. He defines the absurd as a relationship or comparison involving a contradiction or an impossibility. On the one hand is humankind with its reason and desire for clarity and on the other is the world which confronts it. The absurd arises from the confrontation of the individual and the world but also is the only thing that unites them. Examples of things that give rise to the absurd include mortal man’s revolt against time, the separation of man from nature, the mechanical or routine life of men (as Sartre portrayed it in Nausea) and death itself. The individual seeks to understand the world, to clarify it by his reason, and instead finds the world to be irrational. Reason has limits that prevent it from achieving an understanding of the irrational and unifying the world.

Camus reviews the identification of the absurd in the works of thinkers like Heidegger (consciousness of anxiety leads to anguish), Jaspers (despairs of reason transcending the world of appearances and looks for a solution in religion), and Kierkegaard (discovered the absurd and lived it for most of his life). However, these existentialists philosophers and many other thinkers (Nietzsche, Husserl, Chestov and Scheler) cannot accept the limits imposed by reason. They criticize reason for its failures and look for ways to go beyond reason. They want to escape from or overcome the absurd, rather than face its consequences.

Camus takes a different approach (and denies being an existentialist). The issue is how to respond to the absurd. In this regard, he asks if there is a logic of the absurd, which could lead to physical suicide (escaping the absurd by ending life) or philosophical suicide (escaping the absurd by means of religion as proposed by Kierkegaard and Jaspers, other irrational solutions or by pushing reason beyond its limits, such as Husserl’s project of using transcendental reason to identify the essence of experiences described by the phenomenological method). Camus rejects these escapes, which all lead to illusion. The individual must abandon hope for these kinds of solutions. However, Camus also rejects resigning oneself to the absurd or to despair.

His ideal is the absurd man who revolts against the absurd -- revolts by refusing to try to escape from it and by living and asserting his life despite the ultimate meaninglessness of existence. What are the consequences of this revolt? One dies unreconciled with the irrationality of the world. One has liberty of action in this life but no eternal salvation. One has a passion for life in the present without hope for the future.

In the second part of his essay, the Absurd Man, Camus gives three examples of character types who live their lives in revolt against the absurd and make no appeal to, and entertain no hope for, eternity beyond this life. They face life and the absurd clearly but do not despair. Because they are innocent, they are neither moral nor immoral. Although Camus was a young man when he wrote this essay, each of these types can be seen as based on his own experiences. First, there is Don Juan, who lives a life of sensuality. He seeks quantity, not quality, in love. Rather than give himself to one great love that lasts until death (and is a form of escape from the absurd), he lives his life in the moment and pursues love after love. It is not that he grows tired of his lovers, but that he wants more. He recognizes and accepts the challenges that he will face in old age. Second, there is the actor who explores many lives in the roles he takes on. He can experience an entire life in three hours on the stage. Finally, there is the adventurer or conqueror who dives into the world of his time. He picks action over contemplation; he is a man of action who thinks. His goal is to conquer life and himself. He may conquer geographic territories or he may choose to fight for lost causes. He chooses an active life over the illusion of eternal salvation. Prometheus is the model for this character, and the revolt of the individual who seeks to make himself in life begins by the rejection of religion. This character will be further examined in Camus’s work The Rebel. Camus emphasizes that these three characters are not models but rather examples. Indeed, he says any occupation or lifestyle can be lived in revolt against the absurd, including the life of the functionary, the president of the Republic and the chaste.

In the third part, Camus looks at the portrayal of the absurd man in artistic creation and in particular in literature. Camus asserts that artistic creation is the greatest joy to be derived from the absurd. The work of art marks the point where reason reaches its limits and the passion of the absurd begins. To create is to live two times. Lucid thinking recognizes the absurd but the work of art renounces the illusion that reason can explain the absurd. The absurd creator does not make the creation into the end of his life, which would be to make his creation into an escape from life and the absurd. Like Rimbaud, the creator renounces his work by going to Abyssinia, i.e., moving onto the next project. In the novel, there is a tension between recognizing the absurd and the temptation to explain it. Camus analyzes the response to the absurd in the Possessed by Dostoevsky and, in the appendix, Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle.

In the last part, Sisyphus is the absurd hero. His destiny is tragic because it consists of useless labor rolling a rock up the hill only to have it roll back down again and having to begin the work again, without hope of ever ending the cycle. It is his consciousness of his fate that makes it tragic. But by scorning his fate he also overcomes the tragedy and the absence of hope. Indeed, by defying the absurdity of his fate, he finds happiness. Happiness and the absurd go together; you cannot have one without the other, just like you cannot have shade without the sun. As he approaches his rock for the next labor up the mountain, Sisyphus realizes that his fate belongs to him. It is his rock. “The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Whatever life we choose, we will come up against the absurd. By confronting it, and not trying to escape into illusions, we can still find happiness and meaning.

Why did a young man like Camus make the “absurd” the central concept of life? Putting aside his readings of the philosophers and other sources, we obviously see the wars of the 20th century looming over him. But he also confronted the “absurd” in his own life: diagnosed with tuberculosis at age 17, he had to give up his beloved soccer and other strenuous outdoor activities as well as being foreclosed from becoming a teacher in the French school system, which would have been a clear career path for him. His response was to live by his writing, and in the result he became one of the great French literary figures of the 20th century. ( )
  drsabs | Feb 15, 2021 |
Sisyphus is an image that a good existentialist would fall upon. Camus does discuss the idea of routine, and the point of repetition, and its danger to those who view their lives as lacking in clarity and decisive action. I used it to polish my poor command of the language. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Dec 14, 2019 |
In this extended philosophical essay (not a fictional retelling of the myth of Sisyphus, as I had believed for some reason), Albert Camus addresses the "one truly serious philosophical problem": suicide (pg. 1), or, more specifically, why we don't all suicide in a world where we know (by any reasonable and logical metric) that there is no god and everything will turn to dust and suffering is plentiful in this short, thankless life we live. The title comes from the ancient Greek myth in which a man is condemned by the gods to thankless labour: rolling a boulder up a hill every day, only for it to tumble down before it reaches the top and he must begin again the next day.

It's all profound stuff – essential stuff – and Camus' responses to the philosophical dilemmas he identifies are sound and, often, inspiring. At first, I suspected the translation from the French was not particularly healthy because the prose is rather dense, but then philosophy does tend in that direction. When Camus has something important to say, the poetry of it usually comes across in English and this short little book is surprisingly quotable. Camus has good answers and ideas in response to the essential worry about life, even if his ideas are better served in his fiction (see The Plague). It must sound like heavy stuff, but The Myth of Sisyphus is uplifting at times and worth digging into. ( )
1 vote MikeFutcher | Nov 13, 2017 |
Camus gives words and thoughts and theories and literary examples to my own primitive discoveries about work and suicide. I remember waking one morning, at age 19, and thinking: "If this is all my life will ever be, then today I must either change it or end it". If I had to roll that rock up the hill one more time then that was it for me. I don't write this gratuitously or intend to treat suicide glibly, but in the context of Camus' "philosophical suicide", my experience of the absurd has informed much of my philosophy for living. I have often thought that if God does not exist, then there is no point in living. Camus twists around varieties of my thoughts, but he does so referring particularly to Nietzsche (that most famous of God's "assassins") and antitheses of my understanding. This is a short book and it seems to be an abridged version of a much larger work. Nevertheless, it is sufficient to point out a number of my reading deficits. This may require a second reading once I complete Kafka's [b:The Castle|333538|The Castle|Franz Kafka|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1331696371s/333538.jpg|17778410], and much of Nietzsche. Camus broaches many topics that tend to be completely avoided by almost any person to whom I have ever spoken. It would seem that once again Continental philosophers have a monopoly on saying what everyone is thinking but were too afraid to say. Two quotes resonated with me:
On the futility of suicide, from p. 6:
I have heard of an emulator of Peregrinos, a post-war writer who, after having finished his first book, committed suicide to attract attention to his work. Attention was in fact attracted, but the book was judged no good.

And on death as a work in progress, from p. 111:
If something brings creation to an end, it is not the victorious and illusory cry of the blinded artist: 'I have said everything', but the death of the creator which closes his experience and the book of his genius.
( )
  madepercy | Nov 7, 2017 |
Bien écrit, facile à suivre, mais finalement pas très éludicant, auto-contradictoire et un peu décevant. ( )
  Frenzie | Aug 5, 2016 |
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Voor Camus is de botsing tussen het menselijk verlangen naar eeuwigheid, duidelijkheid en zin aan de ene kant en een universum dat koppig en onrechtvaardig zwijgt aan de andere kant, het meest treffende aspect van de menselijke existentie. Hij vraagt ons deze situatie bewust te beleven, zonder gemakkelijke uitwegen, dogmatische zekerheden, of ontkenning in dagelijkse gewoontevorming. Camus weet als geen ander de menselijke existentie op de spits te drijven en verdient daarom een ereplaats in de Humanistische Canon.
 

» Add other authors (42 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Albert Camusprimary authorall editionscalculated
徹, 清水Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
O'Brien, JustinTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
O’Brien, JustinTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Il n'y a qu'un problème philosophique vraiment sérieux : c'est le suicide.
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Il n'y a qu'un problème philosophique vraiment sérieux : c'est le suicide.
La lutte elle-même vers les sommets suffit à remplir un cœur d'homme. Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux.
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Throughout history, some books have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves - and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked and comforted. They have enriched lives - and destroyed them. Now Penguin brings you the works of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization and helped make us who we are. Inspired by the myth of a man condemned to ceaselessly push a rock up a mountain and watch it roll back to the valley below, The Myth of Sisyphustransformed twentieth-century philosophy with its impassioned argument for the value of life in a world without religious meaning.

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