The idea that death makes life absurd is an idea that goes all the way back to the Ancient Greeks. What makes Sisyphus even more absurd is that he doesn’t die. He does the same thing over and over and over again. In Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, we are told that it is the vanity of vanities to expect our lives to add up to something in the end. All of our joys and achievements come to nothing in the end. So this idea of the absurd is also a Biblical notion.
It is natural for rational beings to ask “why”? But the problem is that when you provide an answer, there is another “why” waiting. The justification eventually runs out as does science. Our rational demands in an indifferent universe shows us that reason has problems. Also, reflection poisons experience.
We are supposed to imagine Sisyphus as an absurd hero because he takes on his task and maintains meaning through scorn and resentment. It’s a rebellion. A refusal to accept absurdity.
But there is a problem here. On the one hand, Camus says that life is worth living for life itself. But the reactive gesture and rejection is at odds with the idea of living life for life itself. It’s based on anger that the universe doesn’t meet our demands of it. Really, what Sisyphus’ passion amounts to is a desperation. It is true that in so far as you are wholly engaged in your life and you taste the experience that you have, that is the meaning. But once you elevate yourself to a philosophical level and start asking what is life’s meaning, there is no answer. It’s meaningless.
Sisyphus’ work gives him meaning, but he resents the gods who put him there – he resents his place in life. Nietzsche claims this way of giving meaning to life ultimately destroys itself.
Solomon asks: “What is the role of reason and reflection? How should we live if what we are supposed to do is somehow take philosophical charge of our lives? Can we be like Mersault in The Stranger where we simply throw ourselves back into our lives and resign ourselves to our fate?”
The Existentialists say “no”. That’s far too simple. Solomon says Camus realizes this is far too simple, too so comes at it in a totally different way in The Plague where he says we have to face the absurd together. How do we face the idea of death together? The idea becomes, “I rebel, therefore we all exist.” What we are rebelling from, primarily, is suicide and nihilism – especially philosophical suicide which is an attempt to deny the absurd by appealing to a God or an afterlife, or in defense of cruelty in the name of a future utopia.
Clamence in The Fall represents a really good man. He was a lawyer who willingly took on cases of indigent people who would not be able to pay him back. He was kind, courteous. He’s a lawyer which puts him in the middle of the justice system. As a lawyer, he is neither the judge nor the accused. But he comes to live in Amsterdam and calls himself a judge-penitent. Amsterdam is a city constructed of circles that could be said to resemble the circles of Hell and Clamence lives in the very center.
But how did he go from being an upstanding citizen to a judge-penitent? He turns all of his “good”actions around and sees them in terms of guilt. For instance, he helps a blind man cross the street and then doffs his hat to the man. He describes this gesture as selfish because the blind man can’t see it so really what he’s doing it for is to look good to those who can see it. But why would this be described as his primary motivation? If you have been doffing your hat all your life, it could easily be just a habitual action.
What Camus is trying to show is how easily we can undermine our own conceptions of ourselves. We can think too much about what it is we’ve done or haven’t done and that can be a huge problem. Clamence can’t accept himself. He can’t just say, “that’s the way I am”. All of his thinking lead to misery and guilt. It is often said that the unexamined life is not worth living. But is the examined life worth living? Clamence is very rational, but in a way, he is likewise irrational because he makes himself unhappy. He is proud which is the worst of the seven deadly sins. In Clamence, this pride is hubris because it is an arrogant pride. And wounded pride is the worst sort of self-righteousness.
In a way, what Clamence is doing is holding a mirror up for us. If this character can come to the conclusion that he is guilty, what does that say about us? The idea is that we are guilty by being human. We all find ourselves in a world of injustice and suffering and it makes us feel like we should do something about it but we know there is so much suffering and injustice that we can never possibly do enough.
There are some solutions to this. We could be like Mother Teresa who said she never thinks except in terms of the one person she is dealing with at the time. We can also turn away. What difference is my $1000 going to make anyway? People for a while overwhelmingly chose the later. What difference can I make? What Camus wanted to show is that this “compassion burnout” has been created by pride conflated with Christian self-righteousness.
Solomon says that Camus had intended to go to India to study Buddhism. He recognized the dichotomy he presents is too harsh. Buddhism teaches that reflection on your personal life will always inevitably break down, but the focus remains on a happy, compassionate life. The dichotomy doesn’t exist in Buddhism in the same way it does in the West.
The problem is, there are very few experiences that are just experience and very few reflections that aren’t about our experience. What do we do with this idea that there is experience on the one hand and lived experience on the other? The idea that somehow reflection vs. experience divides the world in a very harsh way. Is this division necessary?
Much of this thinking came about in the 18th Century through Rousseau (1712-1778). He presented the idea of the Noble Savage. People are basically good but society corrupts them. As they become more sophisticated and learn the language of good and evil, they become different -they become superficial, vain, and merely social beings. This is the transition from Mersault to Clamence. Mersault is not corrupted by society, but as soon as it gets its hands on him, Mersault is forced to rebel against the role they want to assign him. Clamence, on the other hand, totally takes on the role and this creates his “fall”.
So what do we do with this split? Is it necessary? And isn’t it kind of interesting that the West had completely ignored Buddhism up until Schopenhauer (1778 – 1860) presented his overly pessimistic views? Solomon says it was Herman Hesse in the 1900s who first started showing how Buddhist ideas could potentially resolve the split.