Thursday, November 7, 2013

The View from the Hill

My two favorite writers are George Orwell and Albert Camus. Orwell was born in 1903 and Camus a decade later, in fact a hundred tears ago today.(1) There are a few interesting similarities between them. Both were born in colonies, outposts of empire: Orwell in British India and Camus in French Algeria. Both were teachers for s short time, long enough to learn that they hated the job. Both were Leftists who tried to avoid its orthodoxies. Both contracted tuberculosis - Camus was cured, but the disease killed Orwell. Both created striking parables on totalitarianism, The Plague in 1947 and Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949. And both of them died at the age of 46.

Because I encountered him when I was a very young man, Camus has been with me the longest time, and I think I cherish him more because of this. Through the years, the truth in his writings has been continually confimed: "Le monde est beau, et hors de lui, point de salut." (The world is beautiful, and there is no salvation beyond it.) Despite having lived - so far - nine years longer than he, these words seem to me more true than ever.

His seminal, and central essay was The Myth of Sisyphus, published in 1942 concurrent with his first brilliantly serious and sensuous novel, The Stranger (2). Jean-Paul Sartre, who had been a mentor for Camus, was critical of the essay because of its lack of philosophical rigor. Sartre may have been a better philosopher, but Camus was by far the better artist. Sisyphus is a fascinating treatise because of its highly imaginative, personal and emotional content.

It was this work, with its metaphor of a contented - even a happy - Sisyphus fulfilling his Sisyphean task of pushing a giant rock to the top of a hill, only to watch as it rolls all the way back down to the bottom, that introduced to literature Camus's concept of the Absurd, insisting that all human endeavors are ultimately as fruitless and profitless. "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."

Faced with knowledge of the futility of his life, Man must inevitably contemplate suicide. "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." Camus himself had attempted suicide. "At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face." How can he possibly be happy, knowing what he knows of the futility and hopelessness of his life? What would stop someone from suicide if he possessed such knowledge? Even thus punished for eternity by the Gods, Sisyphus's triumph lies in his rebellion - his refusal to be damned by his labors. "But in the end one needs more courage to live than to kill oneself." Camus concludes in his essay that, even if this tedious effort is his only reality, the condition of being a man, he must accept it, embrace it, ceaselessly throw himself into the effort. "What is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?"

"I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

The image that Camus leaves us with is indelible: Sisyphus on the hilltop, turning to descend down the hill to where the rock - his rock - has rolled once again. Is it a faint smile I see on his shadowy face? "In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back."

For me, this is Camus's greatest achievement - making words and abstract concepts into flesh. "In the beginning was the Word," the gospel of John begins. "And the word was made flesh." And it's what distinguishes Camus the artist from Camus the philosopher. It is only because they convince one as works of art that his most philosophical essays live on.


(1) My father was born the same year, on March 13. 3-13-13. Needlessly to say, my father was a gambler all his life.
(2) The word "stranger" is a better equivalent to the French l'√Čtranger than "outsider," which is also gauche.

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