Sisyphus at the Summit: the Faith of Albert Camus

A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised man.  This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.  All healthy men having thought of their own suicide, it can be seen, without further explanation, that there is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death.

Albert Camus, “An Absurd Reasoning”

Albert Camus’s 1942 book The Myth of Sisyphus opens with “There is but one serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.  Judging whether life is or is not living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”  It is easy to laugh at Camus’ bold claim.  Many philosophers and artists have argued life is not worth living:  few take this claim to its logical conclusion.  But is that because they do not wish to die – or because they grown accustomed to being alive? Do they believe life is worth the trouble of living, or simply that death is not worth the muss and fuss of suicide?

For Camus absurdity is the hallmark of the human condition.  We desperately desire meaning, and yet the universe is meaningless.  For Camus suicide is a recognition that our habits and routines are ridiculous; that our daily agitation is insane; and that our suffering is useless.  There is no benevolent God who will make things right; the cancer which ate your father alive brought no redemption with its pain; the injustices you suffer and the sins you commit in this life will neither be forgiven nor punished in another.  We wander in a wilderness both insane and inane.  

Suicide may be an acknowledgement of this absurdity, but it is hardly a practical response.  In the end the suicide fails Camus’ strictest test: it is an emotional rather than a rational act.  The suicide does not make the conscious choice to die so much as they succumb to despair.  Like Marcus Aurelius (whose world was equally indifferent and whose afterlife hopes equally bleak), Camus thinks the universe meaningless but expects men to carry on nonetheless.

Camus also cautions against what he calls “philosophical suicide.”  Faced with an uncaring and unjust world, many create soothing fantasies of transcendence.  They assuage their fears of death with beatific dreams and send unheard prayers into the void:  they answer madness by throwing themselves into madness.  They have rejected reason not because they disagree with its conclusions but because they find them unpleasant.  Camus dismisses their attempts:

For in the presence of God there is less a problem of freedom than a problem of evil.  You know the alternatives:  either we are not free and God the all-powerful is responsible for evil.  Or we are free and responsible but God is not all-powerful.  All the scholastic subtleties have neither added anything to nor subtracted anything from the acuteness of this paradox.

To those Absurdists clear-headed enough to accept their fate, mortality brings a great deal of freedom.  Life is meaningless, but that does not mean it cannot be worth living.   Absurdists need no longer fear judgment or damnation.  They can enjoy all the pleasures the flesh has to offer: Camus gives legendary Spanish lothario Don Juan as an example to strive towards.  The world may not offer much, but Camus is content with revolt, freedom and passion.  All he demands of the awakened Absurdist is “He must give the void its colors.” And in place of a heavenly paradise Camus offers “a difficult wisdom and an ephemeral passion.” 

Camus gives humanity a new icon to replace the crucified Christ.  Accused of vague crimes against the gods, Sisyphus is condemned to forever roll a rock to the summit of a mountain.  Yet when he reaches the top it will come tumbling back down again.  Sisyphus labors forever without hope of salvation or justice.  And yet each time the stone falls, he trudges back down the slope and contemplates all he has lost.

If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious.  Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works   every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd.  But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.  Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition:  it is what he thinks of during his descent.  The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory.  There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.

Camus was enormously influenced by Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and acknowledged the Danish philosopher’s genius at describing the despair which was “the sickness unto death.”  But he considered Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” as a personal failing and complained Kierkegaard “lost himself in his God.”  In 1956 Camus released The Fall.  Fourteen years of rolling rocks up hills had turned a promising young writer into a worldwide celebrity.  He had been the man of whom Kierkegaard said “rather than seek help he would prefer to be himself – with all the tortures of hell if need be.” In The Fall Camus explored the consequences of his choice in a style familiar to anyone who has read Augustine’s Confessions.

Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb (detail)

We meet our narrator in a rough Amsterdam bar called Mexico City.  The bartender is a surly fellow who speaks only Dutch but our new friend, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, is both charming and multilingual.  He is a chatty fellow, who notes that “a real masterwork” used to hang behind the bar.  Later we learn Clamence was once a lawyer who specialized in “noble cases.”  Clamence is not shy about sharing his many virtuous deeds, nor does he blush at the warm feeling of self-satisfaction they gave him. “Indeed, wasn’t that Eden, cher Monsieur” he asks us “no intermediary between life and me? Such was my life.  I never had to learn how to live.”

The incidents which shook Clamence from his contentment were no great things:  an altercation at a traffic light, a suicidal woman leaping into a canal, the echoes of mocking laughter behind him.  But one cannot spit out the knowledge of good and evil. Clamence grows increasingly aware that his charity is really vanity; his love for criminals only extends to those whose crime caused him no harm; his love affairs are really shabby ego-boosting trysts.  The knowledge of good and evil has cast him out of Eden. 

Because he now sees his own weaknesses, Clamence’s relationships with the world change.  When he was secure in his own self-righteousness, he was confident.  Now that he recognizes his weakness, he begins to fear that others can see it as well

For a long time I had lived in the illusion of a general agreement, whereas, from  all sides, judgments, arrows, mockeries rained upon me, inattentive and smiling.  The day I was alerted I became lucid; I received all the wounds at the same time and lost my strength all at once.  The whole universe then began to laugh at me.

For a time Clamence considers confessing his sins to those who he has wronged, but then realizes the futility of such a gesture.  He also comes to realize how much he loathed the people he helped, and mocks humanitarianism with bombastic tirades.  But these neither provide relief for his growing self-awareness nor awaken his irritated listeners to the absurdity of their condition.  To stave off boredom he turns to debauchery:

Because I longed for eternal life, I went to bed with harlots and drank for nights on end.  In the morning, to be sure, my mouth was filled with the bitter taste of the mortal state.  But, for hours on end, I had soared in bliss … Alcohol and women provided me, I admit, with the only solace of which I was worthy.  I’ll reveal this secret to you, cher ami, don’t be afraid to make use of it.  Then you’ll see that true debauchery is liberating because it creates no obligations.  In it you possess only yourself; hence it remains the favourite pastime of the great lovers of their own person.

The War brings Clamence to Africa and to a desert prison camp where he winds up elected “Pope” by his fellow prisoners.  After the War he comes to Amsterdam.  And one night in Mexico City a drunken burglar trades the surly bartender a stolen art masterpiece (van Eyck’s “Just Judges” from his “Adoration of the Lamb”) for a bottle of gin.  Clamence gives us several reasons why he persuaded the bartender to give him the painting for safekeeping.

[B]ecause among all who file past The Adoration of the Lamb no one could distinguish the copy from the original and hence no one is wronged by my misconduct… [B]ecause in this way I dominate.  False judges are held up to the world’s admiration and I alone know the true one… [B]ecause I thus have the chance of being sent to prison – an attractive idea in a way… [B]ecause those judges are on their way to meet the Lamb, because there is no lamb or innocence any longer… Finally, because this way everything is in harmony.  Justice being separated once and all from innocence – the latter on the cross and the former in the cupboard.

“Ah, mon cher!” Clamence exclaims.  “for anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful!” The novel ends with snow falling like doves over Amsterdam.  Clamence laments the crime for which he will never be punished and waits for the policeman who will never come.  We stand with him in the vestibule of Hell. Is Clamence Adam waiting with us outside the Garden, or is he Satan re-enacting the old seduction?  Or is Jean-Baptiste Clamence (“Clamor” in French) John the Baptist crying out in our wilderness of a glorious resurrection he shall never see? 

In 2000 a 90-year old Methodist minister named Harold Mumma published a book entitled Albert Camus and the Minister.  He described several conversations he had with Camus while he was stationed at a Paris Church in the late 1950s.  The Methodist and Absurdist discussed various spiritual topics.  In their last conversation, Mumma claims Camus expressed a wish for baptism.  Mumma discouraged him, as he had already been baptized as an infant and because he wished to keep the ceremony private.  A few months, at his new Ohio parish, Mumma learned of Camus’ fatal 1960 car accident.

Mumma gives us an accounting from memory of brief and sporadic meetings that happened decades earlier.  His story has attracted no small share of skepticism.  But Camus understood sin better than many who call themselves Christians. Jean-Baptiste Clamence stands at the canal’s edge and longs to rescue the suicidal woman he watched die long ago.  Can we not imagine Camus, who spent his life contemplating philosophical suicide, diving into that water to save her or to drown in the effort? 

Entry inspired largely by this episode of Notes from the End of Time

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