There are two books that I am perpetually midway through, no matter how many times I pick them up. One is the diaries of Paul Klee and the other is Laurence Durrell’s Justine. These two books are labyrinths of inspiration, and I am both unwilling and unable to find my way out of them.
When I was a teenager – and far into my twenties too – there was another book that perpetually entangled me, and that was Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.
I’ve heard it said that Albert Camus is one of those writers people read in order to impress others, that young men with aspirations of charisma carry him around with the front cover facing outwards.
It as not quite the same for me – I found I was impressed with myself. I got hooked on Camus after reading his best known work The Stranger. The paired down style of the writing and the obscure motivations of the central character caught my imagination, and I read the book quickly and confidently.
I turned to the Sisyphus book with a trotting glee – a sense that here was a writer whom I could “devour” in that way I’d heard other people talk about their best reading experiences.
I actually came to know the The Myth of Sisphus after once reading the final chapter reprinted in a textbook on morality I was studying at university.
The writing was different to The Stranger, and the mode of Camus’ argument – poetic rather than strictly rational – suited my sense of truth through aesthetics. So I purchased the whole essay in paperback, and after nearly eight years of reading it, I still had not got to the end.
It is not a long book, but the arguments are fragrant, thick and greasy, the sort that are liable to slip through your fingers.
Around about the time I was reading this book, perhaps midway through, I took myself off on a short traveling spree around southern France and Spain. I went by train, through Paris and down to Avignon. I discovered that Camus once lived in the south, and was buried in a cemetery in a small village southeast of Avignon, Louramin, after he was killed in a car accident, aged forty-seven, in 1960.
I took Sisyphus with me and declared, somewhat haphazardly, that this would be a pilgrimage for me, and maybe the chance to finally finish the book and move on to something new.
The main reason I couldn’t escape it’s pages was simply that I found it’s central premise – that life is a sad farce charged with absurdity – to be utterly irresistible.
Against this bleak diagnosis, Camus nonetheless concludes the work with a redeeming vision. Perhaps a couple of excerpts from the final pages of the essay will be of help here:
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. […]If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? […]His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing, likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torture, silences all the idols. […]If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
A few years before I’d been studying Philosophy at university, yet I was unable to say if Camus’ text was logically sound or not. It was a new type of philosophy than those I was used to. Different to Descartes, Hume and Kant. Or perhaps it was simply that I didn’t have my tutors there to guide me through a critical response.
In truth I didn’t want to be critical. When I recently read Slavoj Žižek describe the book as “hopelessly outdated” I balked. Hence the simple reason I could never quite finish the book: I didn’t want to. When Camus defines the Absurd Life as the ‘human need for meaning and the unreasonable silence of the universe’ I understand what he’s talking about. You find a writer who speaks with a voice you understand, that’s reason enough to keep listening to its echo.