As always, in chronological order of finishing.
Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus” in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage International. 1991.
What could be more uplifting than an entire essay on suicide? After all, one can imagine that a Nihilist like Camus was often shouted at by exacerbated interlocutors, “You don’t believe in anything?! Fine, then why don’t we all kill ourselves, then?!” No, Camus writes in The Myth, suicide is wrong.
All of life, Camus believed, existed in the absurd confrontation between an unreasonable world and the human longing for clarity. One must live in this tension and never seek resolution for it. It is an act of suicide, either physical or philosophical, to try to relieve it. That’s why it is important for Camus that one should die suddenly and unaware, if at all possible. One should stay patient in this tension for as long as one is alive because it never resolves.
But the rest of the essay focuses on what it means to live in this tension between a cruel world and a heart that cries out for meaning. The posterchildren for this Nihilist living are the lovers, the actors and the conquerors, as they freely inhabit the present with passionate disregard for the future. But, above all, it is writers who live in the unresolved tension the best. Camus believes that writers show that nothing in life has any real meaning – thanks a lot, Albie!
He finishes with the Greek myth of Sisyphus. Camus is concerned when Sisyphus reaches the top of the mountain, only to watch the rock tumble down. Sisyphus cannot commit suicide, he must be live in the absurdity of this tragic moment of realization. Yet, at some point, he realizes that he is now master of his own fate: the rock becomes something he can master, he can handle. Why shouldn’t we, then, think that Sisyphus wasn’t happy? Indeed, Camus’ final line haunts me: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” (123)
I struggle with Camus’ Nihilism and my own Christian faith. Yet, whenever he would pause to describe “the absurd man”, I couldn’t help but see myself, my own experience, in parts of his description. I see the truth of Camus’ world that is ultimately meaningless, yet I also believe in the resurrection of the dead that buds with meaning.
Perhaps, this is what Camus meant by living in absurdity. Some days, I’m okay to let Camus be Camus and let Jesus be Jesus – they don’t have to be resolved. I don’t have to be resolved to either, too, I suppose. I can live in this tension and let God sort it all out. I don’t have to know the meaning of my life. Perhaps I’m more of a Nihilist than I thought?
“I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.” (51)
“Living is keeping the absurd alive. Keeping it alive is, above all, contemplating it.” (54)
“If it were sufficient to love, things would be too easy. The more one loves, the stronger the absurd grows.” (69)
“A profound thought is in a constant state of becoming; it adopts the experience of a life and assumes its shape.” (114)
Camus, Albert. The Plague. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage International. 1991.
What’s more uplifting than a fictional tale of an Algerian town that gets struck with the Black Plague and follows a team around as they try in vain to heal the dying? Or tells the story of lovers parted by the enforced containment of the city? As I understood it, this is a fictional account of what it means to be exiled into the absurd (remember, the tension between want of clarity and unreasonable world). Basically, it sucks, but you can do a lot of good while you’re there.
Yet, in many ways, it seemed to be a response to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Let me save you eight-hundred pages of glorious torture: The Brothers Karamazov basically says that Atheists will whine all day long about how God allows children to suffer, yet when suffering actually happens around them (like, say, their dad is going to get killed) they’re the first to skip town. Basically: Atheists suck. Yes, eight-hundred glorious pages to say that.
Camus, in The Plague, seems to say that it ain’t necessarily so. First, it is the separated lover who wants to skip town the most; he doesn’t want to help the dying. His love his an abstraction and has no real bearing on the situation. Same thing with the local priest who thinks one should simply accept death without a fight. For much of the book, he doesn’t try to heal anyone, either. Heroics and sanctity became disembodied aspirations to escape the absurd.
Yet, Camus doesn’t respond with, “O RLY, well Christians suck more!”. No, he takes the high road and points out that both Christians and Atheists (Nihilists, whatever) are stuck on this absurd world together, so we might as well work together to fight against death as best we can. We might as well work together to heal.
The Plague, as you might expect, had some real terrifying moments, like the play-by-play description of a dying child. Yet, it also had some moments of great beauty. I was moved to tears several times: Rieux’s thoughts on death in the darkened staircase; the night swim; Rieux’s conversation with the priest; among others. Although I enjoyed the philosophical overtones, the story was riveting and the writing was beyond reproach.
“But if you refuse to be beaten, you have some pleasant surprises.” (157)
“Man isn’t an idea, Rambert.” (162)
“It may be shameful to be happy by oneself.” (209)
“Perhaps,’ the doctor answered, ‘But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with the saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man.” (255)
Žižek, Slavoj. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. London: Verso. 2009.
Oh-em-gee, look, a living writer! Don’t worry: his name is actually a lot of fun to say, though it looks intimidating, slah-voy zshee-zsheck. I first encountered Žižek in an RSA animation of a lecture that he gave on First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (see above). From there, I watched several interviews/lectures of his and, while not agreeing with everything he said, I enjoyed the way he said it. His name just kept popping up. So, I finally decided to read him.
First and foremost, you must realize that Žižek is a Communist and he thinks the solution to today’s social injustices is Communism. And, yes, he thinks that Stalinism and Leninism were unmitigated disasters. Appropriately, the title comes from Marx, describing the worst tragedy of the last ten years, 9/11, and the farce that was the following global financial meltdown. Basically, he believes that the global financial meltdown was a commentary on the failures of modern, feel-good, pseudo-spiritual Capitalism. Plus, in a highly entertaining passage, he writes that he’s out to castrate this Capitalism.
I did agree with most of his attack on “cultural Capitalism”, where companies are suddenly getting eco-conscious and the like. Consider Starbucks who advertised, “It’s not what you’re buying. It’s what you’re buying into,” in order to justify a higher price of coffee by using fair trade coffee and providing “community” in their cafes. So, we purchase expensive coffee and organic food, not for the product itself, but for the experience and the way it makes us feel. For Žižek, this is just like the nice slave owner whose kindness hides the horror that a human being is being owned. It’s the slave-holders who treat their slaves the best that are actually the worst. “Cultural Capitalism” makes us feel good, while subjugating us all the same.
I am not accustomed to reading economic or political thought – it’s not really what interests me. So, parts of Žižek’s expansive arguments left me in the dust. Plus, you never really knew where his examples would come from, be they Freudian psychology or a bad Hollywood movie. But about every five pages or so, I’d come to a clearing and it would all make sense. Still, I much prefer to watch or listen to him on YouTube, because his nervous mannerisms, excited tone, thick lisp, and sweaty brow keep me far more focused than his wandering prose. I’ll probably read more at some point.
For you, Comrades:
“Capitalism is a system which has no philosophical pretensions, which is not in search of happiness. The only thing it says is: ‘Well, this functions.’ And if people want to live better, it is preferable to use this mechanism, because it functions. The only criterion is efficiency.” (25)
“This is indeed how ideology functions today: nobody takes democracy or justice seriously, we are all aware of their corrupted nature, but we participate in them, we display our belief in them, because we assume that they work even if we do not believe in them.” (51)
Dostoevsky, Fydor. Notes from Underground. Translated by R. Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage. 1994.
This is my second Dostoevsky. I had much the same reaction to it that I had to The Brothers Karamazov several months ago: I never wanted to pick up a pen or touch a keyboard for the rest of my life. I mean, really! What can I say that Dostoevsky hasn’t already said – and said it so much better than I ever could?!
Notes from Underground is told entirely in the voice of the Underground Man. By his own admission, The Underground Man is despicably wicked and spitefully alone. He is the kind of guy that seeks destruction simply because he can, because that’s the only way to preserve yourself, sometimes. He quickly picks fights, then he apologizes for them, almost as quickly. He’s a man whose mind is not made up. He suffers from what a friend of mine calls “analysis paralysis”. Is there any wonder, then why this short novel is considered to be one of the first studies in existentialism?
Yet, while a lot of people hate the Underground Man, I can’t help but be a bit sympathetic to him. I have thought many of his most despicable thoughts. I’d even go so far as to say that if I wrote down every thought I had in the course of an hour, most of it would sound like the Underground Man — I’m ashamed to admit it, but it is so. I also have a sneaking suspicion that it would be the same for most of us if we’re honest.
After several beautiful pages, the book comes to a shocking end. I won’t give it away. But, since it’s Dostoevsky, I’m sure you can imagine it involves love, selfishness, hate – you know, all the things that make for great literature. Just go back and read the first part after you’ve finished the book; it will explain everything. This book will haunt me for weeks – where’s the vodka?
“I swear to you, gentlemen, that to be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness.” (6)
“Oh, gentlemen, perhaps I really regard myself as an intelligent man only because throughout my entire life I’ve never been able to start or finish anything. Granted, granted I’m a babbler, a harmless, irksome babbler, as we all are. But what’s to be done if the sole and express purpose of every intelligent man is babble–that is, a deliberate pouring from empty into void.” (18)
“I think the best definition of man is: a being that goes on two legs and is ungrateful.” (29)
Coming up in the month of June: Trash! I’m going to take a break from all this Existentialism and Nihilism and read some good ole’ fashioned terrible literature. For two reasons: my soul could use it and I could use a little bit of writing ego boost, as it were. Don’t lie – you read crappy fiction to feel better about your writing, too!