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The Myth of Sisyphus

Albert Camus

Absurd Creation: Philosophy and Fiction

The Absurd Man: Conquest

Absurd Creation: Kirilov

Summary

In this, the third part of the essay, Camus examines artistic creation— fiction writing in particular—as the epitome of the absurd life.

The absurd man, as we have seen, lives out a kind of mime. Aware that his actions are absurd and meaningless, he cannot take them fully seriously. Rather than live fully caught up in his actions and interactions, he sees himself playing out a kind of mime in which he acts out his life.

If the absurd life is played out as a mime, the act of creation is the greatest mime of all. An artist invents an entire world that mimics our own. The absurd man does not hope to explain life, but only to describe it: art reflects different aspects of, or perspectives on, life but cannot add anything to it. There is no meaning or transcendence to be found in art, as in life itself, but the creative act of asserting one's own perspective on the world epitomizes the revolt, freedom, and passion of the absurd man.

Both our impulse to think and our impulse to create arise from the anxiety we feel when we face the fundamental contradiction of the absurdity of our lives. As we saw in part one, thinkers generally try to evade this contradiction by leaping into faith or hope. Camus asks if the same is true for creation: do people inevitably try to use art to escape from the absurd? Or can there exist absurd art?

Camus suggests that efforts to draw some distinction between art and philosophy are generally vague or incorrect, and he attacks in particular the assertion that, while a philosopher works from within his system, an artist creates from without. Both artist and philosopher work to forge their particular perspective on the world, and must inhabit that perspective in order to be creative.

Absurd art must be content to describe and not to explain: it does not try to signify anything greater, to point to some sort of meaning or consolation in life. Just as the absurd man cannot hope for transcendence, absurd art cannot promise transcendence. Bad art will weigh itself down in pretensions by trying to give a universal picture of the way things are. Good art accepts that it can only portray a certain perspective, a certain piece of experience, and leaves everything universal or general at an implicit level. A good artist is also good at living: he is alert to the vivid nature of experience and can share it eloquently.

The visual arts and music affect us on an experiential level, so it is not difficult for them to achieve the absurd ideal of describing without explaining. Language, however, is primed and suited to explain, and Camus wonders how absurd fiction might be possible. Like a philosopher, a good writer creates an entire world that he also inhabits. However, he communicates by means of images rather than reason because he prefers lucid exposition to any attempt to explain matters. In order to remain true, however, the absurd writer must always remain aware of the futility of his work: it will never bring clarity or transcendence to him or to others.

Analysis

A person leading an ordinary life, unaware of the absurd, is driven by hopes and ambitions. There is a sense that there are things in life that are 'worth doing.' Camus often clumsily associates the commonly accepted idea that there are things in life worth doing with the idea that life must be meaningful. This association is a bit suspect, but the initial assertion, that most people assume life is worth living, is sound. The absurd man, by contrast, lives with the awareness that nothing he does really matters.

The absurd man essentially lives free of illusions. He can see that all our deeds, passions, and thoughts are ultimately insignificant. At the same time, he has no other option but to continue living. He can see other people unconsciously playing out their roles and he chooses to play along. Because he is aware of the absurdity of existence, he is aware that he is acting out a role, while the ordinary man remains blissfully unaware.

Camus would most likely approve of Shakespeare's line that "all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." Camus would distinguish the absurd man from the ordinary man by saying that the absurd man is aware that he is merely an actor, while the ordinary man is deceived into thinking that he is something more.

Ever since (and even before) Aristotle, the idea that art imitates life has been in common usage. The Greeks used the word mimesis to describe the kind of imitation art plays on life, which is the source of the English word "mime." Camus almost certainly has the Greek concept in mind when he speaks about the absurd man as living out a mime, and about the creative act being the greatest mime of all.

Art is mimetic because it imitates real life. Camus is suggesting that life is also mimetic, that we are ultimately just actors on a stage, unconsciously playing out our roles. But what is the "real life" that this life imitates? Camus suggests that we live under the illusion that life has a meaning and that the human soul is eternal. We play out our roles, imitating a life that does indeed have meaning. The absurd man behaves similarly, but remains aware that he is only pretending. It seems then, that the heightened awareness of the absurd man gets him no further than an awareness that his life is just an act.

In his discussion of absurd art, Camus recommends that writers confine themselves to description, and not attempt to explain the world. Explanation is an attempt to impose some order on experience, to make sense of the world, and thus tries to go beyond a mere acceptance and awareness of the unreasonableness of the universe. Rather than try to explain why the world is the way it is, an absurd artist should just give as full a description of the world as he sees it. Camus says that artists should use images to fill out their worldview. His own fiction is full of rich imagery: his most famous novels are unforgettably set in the hot, dry landscape of Algeria. The Myth of Sisyphus is also rich in images. Camus is not saying that art should faithfully copy the world as it is, but rather that artists should use their art to reflect their unique perspective on the world. Any attempt to say "this is life" is bound to fail, and artists should rest content to say "this is life as I see it."

It would seem that Camus is violating his own principles in the very essay in which he sets them out. His style is exactly what he recommends for fiction, but The Myth of Sisyphus is not fiction. Moreover, though it conveys thoughts in an artistic way, The Myth of Sisyphus is also an attempt at explanation, at saying, "this is life." A possible line of defense might suggest that The Myth of Sisyphus is indeed a violation of the principles it sets out, but that it is a necessary violation. If Camus were not to attempt to explain his absurd philosophy we would not recognize that such an explanation generally is misguided. Wittgenstein follows a similar line of reasoning in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, where, at the end, he asserts that his propositions are nonsense, but that only by reading these propositions can we come to recognize them as nonsense and "see the world aright." Unlike Wittgenstein, however, Camus does not seem aware that his work might contradict itself in this way, and makes no effort to extract himself from this difficulty.

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