A. Jay Adler, a New Yorker always, is Professor of English at Los Angeles Southwest College. He blogs at the sad red earth. His latest poetry appears in the current issue of BloodLotus, and his essays on film in Bright Lights Film Journal. His article 'Aboriginal Sin', in Tikkun, on the state of Native America, was the kickoff to a just completed year of travel, with documentary photographer Julia Dean, researching the in-progress Native Now. Another work in progress is a memoir of his father's life, entitled The Twentieth Century Passes. Below Jay writes about Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus.
A. Jay Adler on The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
All of my grandparents and my father were Ukrainian-born Jews. My mother held out for New York City, where I grew up, through literature and film, on the lore of New York, and of the American Revolution and West. I read even more English literature than American, and was, through our television screen, lured into the sentimental England of Golden Age Hollywood. As much as any filial string in me quivers at the open chords of Aaron Copland or Howard Hanson or Gershwin, so, too, do Elgar, Finzi, Parry, and Vaughan Williams evoke a pastoral longing for which I have no objective correlative. I am, by Eliot's lights, a failed text, but all of which makes me, I suppose, appropriately (not typically, there being none such), American. Fitting then, that my writer's choice should be the work of a French Algerian.
A request to contribute to the Writer's Choice series is bound to send one to the bookshelves. Living away from my books as I currently am, the shelves are mental and disarrayed. What came to mind? So fundamental and vital a tale of love and war as A Farewell to Arms, enjoyed, when it should have been, when young. At the same time, the Carlos Baker biography of Hemingway, my first huge life, read over such duration that I felt the shape of the life. What novelist, able to create a character so large, so flawed and fascinating, would not think a life's work justified? I read Vanity Fair when I wished to be Dobbin – read Jude the Obscure, so many times, when I thought myself Jude. I shivered with recognition, encountering Renata Adler's short story 'Brownstone', when in cocktail conversation a voice spoke, 'How I envy you, reading The Magic Mountain for the first time'. I rode the Leviathan back of Faulkner's sententious gloom: 'When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight o'clock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather's and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire...' I can relish in my mouth the liquid roundness of 'Stately plump Buck Mulligan' for hours at a time.
When, finally, the flitting mind landed on The Myth of Sisyphus, it came to its stop. There was no question.
There is little trace today of how existentialism once bestrode even the popular intellectual scene. In the 50s, 60s, even 70s, it was the dark, continental challenge to the conquest of evil and the hopefulness of the American century. Of course, like any philosophy entering the popular conversation, it was misunderstood, simplified, bastardized, derided. Its two most famous figures, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, were little distinguished by those who had not read them, or perhaps read only Camus' novel The Stranger. Life, those existentialists said, was meaningless, even absurd. It was Nausea, a random murder, not to be observed crying at your mother's funeral.
I first read Sisyphus in college, at twenty, in a summer session class called Philosophy and Literature at the City College of New York, during the final years of its decades as the European immigrant institute, educator of generations of poor, aspiring Jewish intellectuals. On hot sunny summer mornings, before class, I sat beside a window in the quiet cafeteria, over omelette and coffee, and read about Absurd Reasoning, Absurd Creation, the Absurd Man, while the smoke of my cigarettes curled in the air above me. (Spy the unformed, unsuspecting undergraduate, book in hand, sitting under a tree, on a park bench, gazing at the river current. Note the invisible happening there.) At a time in my life when it mattered to me, I read these words of Camus': 'There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide'.
It isn't that my life hung in the balance in quite that way. It didn't once. But there were more than a few days when, having retreated to the single corner seat of a crowded Manhattan subway train, the sweaty mass of riders hanging over me, and my stop approaching, I saw no reason, ever, to rise. I rose. Amid my general despair, the dark mental forces that oppressed me, I knew, intellectually, that the problem of suicide was a problem to which I needed a response.
Sartre was the philosopher who wrote literature; Camus was the literary man who philosophized. This was a choice that I would not make for over a decade, but my affinity was quickly established. For Sartre, existence preceded essence, and was absurd in itself. 'Hell is other people,' says Roquentin, made ill by the physical world, in Nausea.
In contrast, Camus wrote in Sisyphus:
I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world.
That longing, then, it must be said, is without objective correlative. The absurd for Camus was not an ontological condition, but a human paradox 'born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. This must not be forgotten'.
But, of course, it was.
So Sartre went on to form his allegiances with Marxism, and with Mao, and Camus refused to abandon the human for the idea of the human. He wrote The Rebel, which examined the tendencies of mass revolutionary movements toward the utopian and totalitarian. He pursued human solidarity in confronting the unjust and intolerable circumstances of life, not from ideological system, he said in 'The Artist in his Time', but 'through a sort of almost organic intolerance, which you feel or do not feel'. And the standard was set very high, in The Rebel, for taking irretrievably from another what one sought for oneself. If Camus was ultimately wrong, politically, in opposing the Algerian war for independence - Algeria needed to be so, and France was not offering it - he was also true to the very human commitments that those who consequently spurned him would many times betray.
Camus portrayed the need for solidarity – in a common struggle against The Plague, for instance – in lyrical, sensuous prose that celebrated the joys of the physical world, as when two new friends, Rieux and Tarrou, in a Godless or God-forsaken world, match strokes as they swim, a respite from the struggle, in the Mediterranean night. But solidarity is nonetheless a bond among individuals, all of whom need to confront their fundamental condition alone.
'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.' Sisyphus, then, is the absurd hero. Camus, sensualist that he always was, helps us envision his labourer as almost one with his rock:
one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands.
And then Sisyphus watches the rock roll back down the hill. How must we imagine his despair? How must we live it? What have we created in this world that does not hang in some such balance? How do we not, some midnight hour, hear the voice of Ozymandias? Sisyphus pauses just before, once more, he begins his descent. Says Camus, 'It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me.'
'I do not want to found anything on the incomprehensible,' Camus writes. 'I want to know whether I can live with what I know and with that alone.'
As I made my way through my difficult twenties, I would reach often for my copy of The Myth. For Sisyphus, 'The boundless grief is too heavy to bear. These are our nights of Gethsemane. But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.' But why do they perish and not crush? Because Sisyphus is conscious of his fate, and consciousness is freedom, and 'A fate is not a punishment':
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 can not be surmounted by scorn.
Camus imagines Sisyphus happy. Happy! 'His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing... convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.' I had engaged the world with success, made it to my thirties, and while life would still deliver, as it does for all, the pains and losses that are among its features, the sorrow that had seemed to seep into me at birth had passed. Along that way, The Myth of Sisyphus – as philosophy and literature were always meant to do – gave me a way to live.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]