The Absurd Hero
by Bob Lane (email@example.com)
Copyright © 1996 by Bob Lane. (Reproduced here with the permission of the author.)
Sisyphus is the absurd hero. This man, sentenced to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain and then watching its descent, is the epitome of the absurd hero according to Camus. In retelling the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus is able to create an extremely powerful image with imaginative force which sums up in an emotional sense the body of the intellectual discussion which precedes it in the book. We are told that Sisyphus is the absurd hero "as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing." (p.89). Sisyphus is conscious of his plight , and therein lies the tragedy. For if, during the moments of descent, he nourished the hope that he would yet succeed, then his labour would lose its torment. But Sisyphus is clearly conscious of the extent of his own misery. It is this lucid recognition of his destiny that transforms his torment into his victory. It has to be a victory for as Camus says:
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. (p.91).Sisyphus' life and torment are transformed into a victory by concentrating on his freedom, his refusal to hope, and his knowledge of the absurdity of his situation. In the same way, Dr. Rieux is an absurd hero in The Plague, for he too is under sentence of death, is trapped by a seemingly unending torment and, like Sisyphus, he continues to perform his duty no matter how useless or how insignificant his action. In both cases it matters little for what reason they continue to struggle so long as they testify to man's allegiance to man and not to abstractions or 'absolutes'.
The ideas behind the development of the absurd hero are present in the first three essays of the book. In these essays Camus faces the problem of suicide. In his typically shocking, unnerving manner he opens with the bold assertion that:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. (p. 3).He goes on to discover if suicide is a legitimate answer to the human predicament. Or to put it another way: Is life worth living now that god is dead? The discussion begins and continues not as a metaphysical cobweb but as a well reasoned statement based on a way of knowing which Camus holds is the only epistemology we have at our command. We know only two things:
This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. (p. 14)With these as the basic certainties of the human condition, Camus argues that there is no meaning to life. He disapproves of the many philosophers who "have played on words and pretended to believe that refusing to grant a meaning to life necessarily leads to declaring that it is not worth living." (p.7) Life has no absolute meaning. In spite of the human's irrational "nostalgia" for unity, for absolutes, for a definite order and meaning to the "not me" of the universe, no such meaning exists in the silent, indifferent universe. Between this yearning for meaning and eternal verities and the actual condition of the universe there is a gap that can never be filled. The confrontation of the irrational, longing human heart and the indifferent universe brings about the notion of the absurd.
The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (p.21)and further:
The absurd is not in man nor in the world, but in their presence together...it is the only bond uniting them. (p. 21)People must realize that the feeling of the absurd exists and can happen to them at any time. The absurd person must demand to live solely with what is known and to bring in nothing that is not certain. This means that all I know is that I exist, that the world exists ,and that I am mortal.
Doesn't this make a futile pessimistic chaos of life? Wouldn't suicide be a legitimate way out of a meaningless life? "No." "No." answers Camus. Although the absurd cancels all chances of eternal freedom it magnifies freedom of action. Suicide is "acceptance at its extreme", it is a way of confessing that life is too much for one. This is the only life we have; and even though we are aware, in fact, because we are aware of the absurd, we can find value in this life. The value is in our freedom, our passion, and our revolt. The first change we must make to live in the absurd situation is to realize that thinking, or reason, is not tied to any eternal mind which can unify and "make appearances familiar under the guise of a great principle," but it is:
...learning all over again to see, to be attentive, to focus consciousness; it is turning every idea and every image, in the manner of Proust, into a privileged moment. (p. 20)My experiences, my passions, my ideas, my images and memories are all that I know of this world - and they are enough. The absurd person can finally say "all is well".
I understand then why the doctrines that explain everything to me also debilitate me at the same time. They relieve me of the weight of my own life, and yet I must carry it alone. (p. 41)Camus then follows his notions to their logical conclusions and insists that people must substitute quantity of experience for quality of experience. The purest of joys is "feeling, and feeling on this earth." This statement cannot be used to claim a hedonism as Camus's basic philosophy, but must be thought of in connection with the notion of the absurd that has been developed in the early part of the essay. Man is mortal. The world is not. A person's dignity arises from a consciousness of death, an awareness that eternal values and ideas do not exist, and a refusal to give in to the notion of hope or appeal for something that we are uncertain of.
In the following essays, Camus presents examples of the absurd person. We are given Don Juan, the actor, and the conqueror as examples of people who multiply their lives in an attempt to live fully within the span of their mortality. But more important is the creator who is discussed in the essay "Absurd Creation". "The absurd joy par excellence is creation." For in creating a work of art the creator is living doubly in as much as his creation id a separate life. "The artist commits himself and becomes himself in his work." Works of art become, then, the one means for a person to support and sustain a lucid consciousness in the face of the absurdity of the universe.
The present and the succession of presents before an ever conscious mind, this is the ideal of the absurd man. (p. 81)Art is for Camus an essential human activity and one of the most fundamental. It expresses human aspirations toward freedom and beauty, aspirations which make life valuable for each transient human being. Art defies that part of existence in which each individual is no more that a social unit or an insignificant cog in the evolution of history.
In The Myth of Sisyphus then we find the philosophical basis for the stranger, the doctor, and the judge-penitent. This is the starting point of Camus's thought. Camus is concerned here as in his other works with persons and their world, the relationships between them, and the relationships between persons and their history. In The Myth of Sisyphus he opposes himself to the rationalism of classical philosophy which seeks universal and enduring truths or a hierarchy of values which is crowned by God; he believes that truth is found by a subjective intensity of passion; he maintains that the individual is always free and involved in choice; he recognizes that persons exist in the world and are naturally related with it;he is deeply concerned with the significance of death, its inevitability and its finality. The absurd is a revolt against tomorrow and as such comes to terms with the present moment. Suicide consents to the absurd as final and limitless while revolt is a an ongoing struggle with the absurd and brings with it man's redemption.
One can see now why Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is conscious of his plight: it was his scorn of the gods, hatred of death, and passion for life that won him the penalty of rolling a rock to the top of the mountain forever, and he does not appeal to hope or to any uncertain gods. His is the ultimate absurd, for there is not death at the end of his struggle. All is not chaos; the experience of the absurd is the proof of man's uniqueness and the foundation of his dignity and freedom.
All that remains is a fate whose outcome alone is fatal. Outside of that single fatality of death, everything, joy or happiness, is liberty. A world remains of which man is the sole master. What bound him was the illusion of another world. The outcome of his thought , ceasing to be renunciatory, flowers in images. It frolics - in myths, to be sure, but myths with no other depth than that of human suffering and like it inexhaustible. Not the divine fable that amuses and blinds, but the terrestial face, gesture, and drama in which are summed up a difficult wisdom and an ephemeral passion. (p. 87)One could do worse than to consider the myths-retold in the works of Camus.
Robert D. Lane, Classics, Philosophy, and Religious Studies/
Institute of Practical Philosophy
Though existentialism has roots in 19th-century philosophy, it became an influential philosophical movement only after World War II. Different values have been associated with this rubric, but one theme common to them all is that human beings come to existence and then make up a purpose for themselves. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world — and defines himself afterwards.” Of all of the thinkers involved with this movement, French existentialist Albert Camus stands out for having written specifically on suicide in a way that reached average people rather than just philosophers.
Camus opens “An Absurd Reasoning,” the first essay in his collection The Myth of Sisyphus, with these words:
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”
He makes the seriousness of the question clear by essentially threatening to think through the problem, come to an answer, and then carry out that answer, even if it means to die. With a fierce wit he judges that his subject is urgent compared with other questions of philosophy, writing, “I have never seen anyone die for the ontological argument.”
Nodding toward Durkheim, Camus tells us that suicide has been dealt with only as a social phenomenon and that he is instead concerned with the connection between individual thought and suicide. The problem he lays out is the overall meaninglessness of existence and how absurd that makes our lives of sound and fury. But the absurd is tolerable. Camus writes that it is no more than wordplay to conclude that because life has no ultimate meaning it is not worth living. The lack of overall purpose or goal does not imply that there is no value to living.
For Camus, killing oneself is an unwarranted “insult to existence,” even though life is painful. He acknowledges that he is keenly aware of the sorrow and struggles of human life; he knows that it can be exhausting, repetitive, anxious, and depressing, but he concludes that once we fully recognize the absurdity of it all, a kind of love and joy arise. His philosophy sympathizes with anguish but cajoles the fellow sufferer to embrace life, all the more so because it makes no sense. We should, Camus writes, accept that our desires do not match up with the world as we know it, and yet love the unanswerable strangeness of it all.
Toward the end of the essay, Camus makes some compelling remarks about staying alive. He says that the absurd teaches us not to make the mistake of valuing certain kinds of lives and their experiences over other kinds of lives.
“For the mistake is thinking that the quantity of experiences depends on the circumstances of our life when it depends solely on us. Here we have to be over-simple. To two men living the same number of years, the world always provides the same sum of experiences. It is up to us to be conscious of them.”
There is nothing more than being aware of one’s life, whatever form it might take. For Camus, “one’s revolt, one’s freedom,” is this awareness, and it is the essence of living “to the maximum.” There is no life that is higher.
This is an unusual stance in philosophy. Philosophers are much more often found encouraging people not to worry about an early death, saying that we all die in the end and that it is of no importance how long our span of life is. Camus specifically argues with the ancient philosophers for teaching that a short, brilliant life is as good or better than a long, ordinary one. To his mind, the experience of being alive and feeling life is more important than anything in particular that life may offer. Such advice is aimed at those who have a painful fear of death and who cling so tightly to life that they forget to enjoy it as it passes.
Camus, however, is aiming his advice at those who are, to some degree, disappointed by life and entranced by the idea of death. That is why Camus gives more weight to the quantity of life than to the quality. He believes that the great gift that life offers is the same for all of us and builds up over the years, so no matter how difficult one’s life seems, it would be a terrible mistake to cut it short. That leaves premature death as a real problem to be feared, and Camus acknowledges this. It is often a matter of luck whether we have a long or short life, and Camus says that this is the one real trouble we must face.
These ideas turn philosophy on its head. Instead of wisdom consoling the mass of common people who are frightened of death, Camus sees a somewhat more hidden distress of humanity, which is being fed up with life. Instead of saying that death does not matter, Camus addresses the part of us that already believes that death might be preferable to life, and he says that once we have understood the absurdity of life and accepted it, we will see that more life is always better: “One just has to be able to consent to this. There will never be any substitute for twenty years of life and experience.” People feeling depressed and disheartened by life might feel that they are just marking time, getting through one day after another without much reason. Camus insists that there is a reason for getting through the days even when one does not feel joyous. He is certain that when we see the absurdity of the human condition, just living adds up to a rich experience that is, in its own way, joyful. In this sense Camus adds his voice to those who have said that we must not kill ourselves because of what we owe to our future selves.
Camus’s ideas are sorrowful but cheerful. No matter how much he believes in the fact of depression, he embraces life. In his words, “the point is to live.” He understands despair — “polar night, vigil of the mind” — but says,
“I draw from the absurd three consequences. Which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death — and I refuse suicide. I know, to be sure, the dull resonance that vibrates throughout these days. Yet I have but a word to say that it is necessary.”
Camus counsels a kind of revolt, which means for him that we must have knowledge of the certainty of our ultimate fate — death — but refuse to be resigned to it. It is a paradoxical revolt in the face of acceptance — a very tricky idea but one which Camus feels sure we can manage. This is why suicide is anathema to his philosophy of the absurd experience. He says that people consider suicide the ultimate revolt, but the contrary is true. Life in the face of its pain, he writes, is the ultimate revolt. Suicide “is acceptance in the extreme.” Our challenge is to be aware of death and at the same time reject it. The tension between being keenly aware of death yet not being resigned to it is what creates the absurd, and keeping the absurd alive keeps the person alive.
Camus writes that it is essential that we do not die of our own free will because our embracing the absurd leads us to take all of life and give what we have. “Suicide,” he writes, “is a repudiation. The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself. The absurd is his extreme tension, which he maintains constantly by solitary effort, for he knows that in that consciousness and in that day-to-day revolt he gives proof of his only truth, which is defiance.”
In the title essay of The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus famously describes our human lives as similar to the torture of Sisyphus, who was condemned to roll the same stone up the same hill, just to have it roll down again, over and over until the end of time. Sisyphus was being punished in part because he had escaped the underworld once and lived some years enjoying life on earth. Now he is back in the underworld at his quintessentially meaningless task. Camus finds this absurd and he finds coping with the absurd heroic. Sisyphus perseveres and resists the lure of suicide. Camus holds that suicide tempts us with the illusory promise of freedom, but the only real freedom is to embrace the absurdity:
“You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.”
Camus asks us to fully imagine the huge effort Sisyphus must make, straining his body to push the huge stone, a hundred times over. We must see his face screwed up with the effort of it, his cheek pressed hard against the stone, his shoulder fully braced against its dirty surface, his foot wedging it to keep it from falling backward. At the end of his tremendous effort, “measured by skyless space and time without depth,” he is successful. Then he watches the boulder fall back down the hill in a matter of moments. Down he goes again to restart his toil. It is during that return, that pause in concerted effort, that Sisyphus most interests Camus. That time is when Sisyphus is most conscious. He is not distracted by the work but is fully facing the absurdity of his situation. At those moments, Camus writes, Sisyphus “is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”
We are stronger than our rock. Sisyphus and the rock can be a man and his tedious, repetitive work, but the rock is also life itself, even if there is no task to perform that is as onerous as the labor of Sisyphus. Every day must be borne, and the reward for bearing it is another day. Still, Camus sees reason to rejoice as well as weep. He says that it is in the descent of our rolled-up rock that we are most aware of our predicament. “If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. This word is not too much.” The chief sorrow, he tells us, was in the beginning. Now when images of better times, like Sisyphus’s recollection of earth, become dominant in one’s mind, and when the desire for happiness becomes too much to resist, “melancholy rises in a person’s heart and grief is too heavy to bear.” Even this grief has an antidote: “Crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.”
Even Oedipus, Camus tells us, was in the end resigned to what fate had unfolded for him and concluded that all was well. Sisyphus is exhausted but continues. He even continues well.
“His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing.”
The person who understands the absurdity of the human condition is strengthened by it. He or she still has to work unceasingly to bear up under the weight of being, but it is worth it. There is no higher destiny, Camus declares. The absurd man is the master of his days. When he gazes backward over his life, he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, and like Sisyphus and his rock, the whole seemingly unreasonable effort turns out to have meaning, just because it constituted his life.
Thus, even while we are convinced that all human meaning comes from human beings, and not from outside them, we are still able to be impressed by its meaning if we allow ourselves to be. Camus says that each of us, like Sisyphus, is like a blind man who wants to see and yet knows the night has no end, but who is still “on the go.” Meaning and joy are inherent in our simple, yet heroically effortful, persistence. “The rock is still rolling.”
He ends the essay with a famous passage that combines all his strange pessimism and optimism.
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…. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
It is not a simple kind of happiness, but Camus asks us to perceive that it is happiness all the same. For those who find life hard to bear — or perhaps for all of us when we find life hard to bear — Camus is an odd but wonderful companion, entirely empathizing with our despair, yet cheering us on to live and even see a happiness in our struggle.
This is an excerpt from chapter eight of Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It. You can download a PDF of the chapter here.