2002/08/05

It still makes me wince to realize how patronizing I sounded at almost-seventeen. I wonder if I would understand Camus better now if I were to read the essay again.

[The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus (trans. Justin O'Brien)]

I am still in the middle of The Myth of Sisyphus, by Camus, or rather I returned to the book after a week of avoiding it. The subject matter is probably way over my head. After reading for three pages without really understanding what was going on, a sentence finally clued me into what the last section was about. You see, Camus is describing in languid analogies the paradoxical state of expecting a rational world and living in an utterly irrational reality, in the context of the uncertainty of all empirical experiences. He then goes on for quite some time about how this describes the state of the absurd, the “desert” as he calls it, and what is one is forced to accept and not accept about it. Except what he is really doing is exploring every nook and crevice of the same paradox, and I didn’t even realize that he was describing a paradox until now! Oy vey! I mean, I was trying to understand why he was saying one thing and then something else which completely contradicted it! He could have simply said, explicitly, “I am discussing a paradox,” instead of letting me suffer. You probably won’t understand why I had no clue for three pages, unless you’ve been reading the same translation I have. And unless you’re as dense as I am. But seriously, I don’t think I’m that dumb. I was paying attention! I think Camus was being too obscure! Okay, I’ll stop ranting.

But now it’s getting pretty interesting. He is saying that all the existentialists before his time chose to escape the absurd through religion, by deifying and surrendering to the utter irrationality of the universe, but in the same moment denying and rejecting the absurd, because the absurdity of the irrational world does not exist if we no longer struggle to see it rationally. And BTW, irrationality is not simply refusing to argue logically or leaping to unfounded conclusions. Irrationality is the inherent inability for us to know anything about ourselves or the world around us. In that sense, it is the complete opposite of the empiricists who claimed that we can only know through experience, because it says that we cannot know, but it is also the consequence, the child as it were, of empiricism. Isn’t that weird? Come to think of it, that was what Camus was discussing in the third section, even though I didn’t get it at the time. Anyway, M—, if you’re reading this, this means that the irrationality we’re discussing here is not your type of irrationality, but a confrontation with the possibility of nihilism which you completely refuse to acknowledge. Or at least I hope you refuse to acknowledge it.

So according to Camus, the previous existentialists were caught up in the paradoxical state of escaping the absurd by embracing it. He says that this is unacceptable, because he can only be certain of one thing and that is the absurd. (If you look at that statement closely, it’s another paradox: certainty of only uncertainty.) He must seek a new way to live with the absurd without ending up denying it and without ceasing to struggle against it. Yeah, I know, you must be thinking, “Eh?” How on earth is that possible? Well, one of the options is suicide, which we know only because Camus opened up by considering the “problem of suicide,” as he calls it. But because in the introduction, he says that he ultimately concludes that suicide is not legitimate after all, we’ll just have to wait and see what the other option is.

Anyway, I didn’t realize that he was talking in paradoxes in order to discuss the paradox of the absurd until now.

One thing came to mind while I was reading on the subway. All those existentialists prior to Camus, Sartre, and the rest of their generation are indeed the “theistic” existentialists, as my mother’s philosophy professor told her in college. And Camus, Sartre, Beauvoir and the rest of them, whoever they were, are considered the “atheistic” existentialists, precisely because of what Camus says in The Myth of Sisyphus: they are unable to accept religion as a way to live with the absurd because they see it as an escape and a denial of the absurd even though it is also an acceptance. Kierkegaard with his leaps of faith into the irrational, religious stage of existence is what Camus refuses to accept. I was wondering whether historians of philosophy recognized this split between the “theistic” and “atheistic” existentialism simply because Camus pointed it out first or whether because it is obvious.