Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Decoding Sisyphus in a review

“The Myth of Sisyphus” is not simply a book with a message. It is not only an inspirational book too. It is a book that has the power of awakening the rebel in you. It is a rebellion not against the world rather it is a rebellion against the absolutism of the received notions, borrowed ideas and stolen philosophies. Sisyphus is a character who shuns the dependence of all sorts; even the dependence of any futuristic hope. To him, the hope means persistence in the action that he is chosen to pursue. The entire thought process of the writer is apparently moving towards a goal but on a close view, we can feel that he builds his logic to deny the validity of any goal; his method is to decentralize the truth-building process from societies, institutions and traditions and relocate it in the individual himself. He raises fundamental questions about morality and role of society. He does not deny their importance; in fact, he urges to derive the actual morality not from a given structure rather he urges humans to build their definitions from an internal struggle because the freedom is realized in moments not in the promised lands.
It is quite important to understand that an Indian mind may not easily understand the individualistic and existentialist mindset which a western mind is so accustomed to. Perhaps, a 21st century urbanized and cosmopolitan mind may share that kind of feeling but for an average traditional Indian person who lives and breathes in a family, it is really difficult to identify the philosophical context of such a masterpiece. The present India is flush with so many ideologies and changes that to divide or mark any feature of Indianness in a single definition shall be really unjustified but the role of the myth is as important for a mind both Indian and western. That is why there develops a natural convergence of philosophical curiosities between geographically divided readers.
When Peter Brook produced a theatrical version of Mahabharata in the West with a multi-racial and multi-continental cast, the Indians were obviously a bit surprised at such a mega-venture. One such Indian theatre personality went all the way to Paris to see into this complex civilizational challenge. The production, though, could not increase that mind’s respect for Brook but the question of taking up Mahabharata kept on perturbing him. After some attempts, he could get some respite not from Peter himself rather his scriptwriter Jean Claude Carrier who confessed that he, like his peers, regards European Myth very thin. The depth of their memory does not go beyond the canvas painted by the New Testament, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The relationship of continuity between the ancient and the modern is lost somewhere midway. The middle ages are not a historical gap rather a disjunction of creativity. A legend and a myth dissolve more subtly with the masses than the history but the sheer sub-conscious and weightlessness of myth-making process has been by the conscious but weighty process of history-writing. The West was modernized in an absolute sense. The cultural faultlines were subdued as well as erased in a nearly successful manner. The civilizatinal echo of the creative performance did not sound to come from far behind. It was a kind of deep-rooted incapacitation for a western mind. So, they decided to venture out of Europe into the most mythically dense land of India. Mahabharata was chosen because of anti-structural and multi-textual layering weaved into its mythology.
The Myth of Sisyphus is a book that struggles successfully with this thinness of Western mythology. The 20th century human being has attained the heights of scientific, industrial and military power yet his actions lack the cultural rootedness and universal benevolence. At this juncture of unimaginable power not over the peoples but also over the entire earth, he feels unhappy and helpless. He feels alienated from both from his vocation and avocation. Out of the remaining repertoire of mythological treasure he has, he is haunted with only one mythological figure, Sisyphus. The prose which Albert Camus builds out of this myth is a charter of human creativity and unrelenting desire to live despite all odds. Sisyphus is the symbol of a man who has realized the futility of all aimed efforts. He is also an absurd hero. He can be safely compared to Arjun just before the war or to Yuddhishtra just after the war. One is disinterested in fighting and the other is disinterested in ruling. It can also be nearly regarded as Western Nachiketa who finds true company in Yama, the god of death.
This book deals with the problem of suicide. The author questions the notion of livability itself. To him, “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest……… comes afterwards.” It was a general acceptance that philosophy begins in wonder but Camus thinks rather differently that it begins in despair. This despair is primarily that of a 20th century urbanized, anglicized and automated man. Family is broken, religion is debased, ideology is corrupted and tradition is lost. The promise of paradise is belied and future is doubtful. The notion of anchor is doomed. In such a human condition, the question becomes quite relevant- “Why should one live?” Camus begins his philosophical quest from this standpoint. His basic premise right from the beginning is that fate and god are like many other imagined constructs.
Even the absurd is being interpreted in terms of a myth. The irrelevance of memory, in 20th century automated life, is denoted by the memorable hero of absurd, Sisyphus who takes the rock up the hill only to find it rolling back. He is a human who has been punished by the Gods to pursue a meaningless and futile enterprise for ever. Albert Camus was quite pertinent in relocating the fundamental question of livability in terms of such a myth. Why a person should live at all- was the most important and the primary problem that bothered him more than any other. His meditations on suicide aim to identify the existential ground of a human being. He dropped all notions of rights and privileges of living and tried to handle the fruitlessness of our actions. He denied the validity of all those preferences and assumptions which create the notion of reward. He concluded that suicide is simply preponing death and lust is only postponing death rather the fact of matter is that death does not delete Sisyphus; it revitalizes him. He is identified only with his action despite his limited mortal frame. The Promised Land, if there is any, lies only in the setting of his performance. The sustenance of this truth is built every time Sisyphus starts his journey upwards as well as when he begins his descent. His myth is not shattered rather built every time and through every generation. Though we might have forgotten this rebuilding phenomenon during a particular phase of history yet their capacity to haunt every successive version of human species does not die.
This book deserves to be studied in a manner that cannot be different from rediscovering your own life. Writing about it means to develop your meaning of life. Its strength is that it takes you back to the fundamental questions of life. It strengthens you but does give any anchor; it empowers you but does not provide you any hope; it gives you a critical world-view but it does not leave your own thinking beyond criticism. Albert Camus is a genius but he does not expect to be honoured. All original works deserve such a status and Camus has regenerated the power and relevance of myth in even today’s life.

Some Important Quotes from the book:-

v The first sentence
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest…………………… comes afterwards.
-Albert Camus at P-3 in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus and other essays’, 1st Vintage International Edition, March 1991

v Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. Society has but little connection with such beginnings. The worm is in man’s heart. That is where it must be sought. One must follow and understand this fatal game that leads from lucidity in the face of existence to flight from light.-
P-4, 5
v His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.

v Does the absurd dictate death?

v I shall examine merely the theme of “the Intention” made fashionable by Husserl and the phenomenologists. I have already alluded to it. Originally Husserl’s method negates the classic procedure of the reason. Let me repeat. Thinking is not unifying or making the appearances familiar under the guise of a great principle. Thinking is learning all over again how to see, directing one’s consciousness, making of every image a privileged place. In other words, phenomenology declines to explain the world, it wants to be merely a description of actual experience. It confirms absurd thought in its initial assertion that there is no truth, but merely truths.
v Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide.
v “My field,” said Goethe, “is time.” That is indeed the absurd speech. What, in fact, is the absurd man? He who, without negating it, does nothing for the eternal. Not that nostalgia is foreign to him. But he prefers his courage and his reasoning. The first teaches him to live without appeal and to get along with what he has; the second informs him of his limits. Assured of his temporally limited freedom, of his mortal consciousness, he lives out his adventures within the span of his lifetime. That is his field that is his action, which he shields from any judgement but his own.
v All systems of morality are based on the idea that an action has consequences that legitimize or cancel it. A mind imbued with the absurd merely judges that those consequences must be considered calmly. It is ready to pay up. In other words, there may be responsible persons, but there are no guilty ones, in its opinion.
v 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 P-119
v 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.
v Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable…………..It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile sufferings. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men. All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols…………..There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. P-122

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