Existential Echoes: Toward a Genealogy of Ideas in Albert Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus”

Existential Echoes: Toward a Genealogy of Ideas in Albert Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus”

by Okla Elliott

In the decades since their deaths, much has been made about the rivalry between Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, but it would be a mistake to forget that before this rivalry—which has become the subject matter for numerous articles, books, and at least one documentary—Camus and Sartre were collaborators and friends. And Sartre at first played the role of mentor for Camus, a fact that comes through in Camus’s work, both when he is offering positions that align with Sartre’s own and when he is responding negatively to them; in both instances, Sartre is the origin of much of Camus’s thought. To illustrate this, let’s look at Camus’s essay-cycle “The Myth of Sisyphus” and attempt to delineate where his thinking is either an echo of Sartre’s or a direct negative response to it.

Sartre’s stature as the most famous French intellectual, and perhaps the most famous public intellectual of the twentieth century, is practically undisputed. His work as a novelist, a philosopher, and a playwright were equally well-known and dominant in the culture of occupied France and in the post-war years. It is therefore almost impossible not to hear the echo of Sartre’s famous description of tree roots from his 1936 novel La Nausée (Nausea), when Camus writes in his essay, “An Absurd Reasoning,” that “[t]he primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us” (11) and that “here are the trees and I know their gnarled surface” (15). As Sartre writes:

So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. (126-127)

It is worth noting also that Camus is taking up the Sartrean as opposed to the Heideggerian view of being-in-the-world. Heidegger, in Being and Time, will have Dasein interacting with objects as tools and with care or concern (both of which are inadequate translations of the German Besorgen or Sorge). Sartre’s position is that we do interact with the objects of the world in a ready-to-hand fashion (to use Heideggerian language) but that we initially encounter them as blunt objects, as the en-soi (in-itself) beings they are, before we comprehend them as ready-to-hand tools (or as elements of our projects, to use Sartrean language); and after we are done with them, they revert to blunt meaningless stuff.

We can find several such echoes of Sartre’s thought in Camus’s essay-cycle, and Camus makes several references to Sartre’s work without directly naming him, though anyone in the intellectual milieu of France at the time could not have missed them. For example, Camus writes that “[t]his discomfort in the face of man’s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this ‘nausea,’ as one writer of today calls it, is also the absurd” (11). Of course Camus is referencing Sartre here, even though he does not name him directly.

Camus also writes that “[i]t can be seen at this point that the initial themes of existential philosophy keep their entire value. The return of consciousness, the escape from everyday sleep represent the first steps of absurd freedom” (44).  Isn’t this passage an excellent rephrasing of Sartre’s notion of mauvaise foi (bad faith)? And what are these initial themes of existentialism? It is perhaps both Sartre and Heidegger whom Camus has in mind here. Heidegger’s notion of inauthenticity and Sartre’s notion of bad faith have much in common, in that they are both attitudes of truth-avoidance. There are subtle differences in the two ideas, but for our current purposes, it will suffice to say that Heidegger’s inauthenticity and Sartre’s bad faith are forms of self-deception or existential falsity that are to be avoided by keeping one’s eyes open to the facticity of one’s situation and on the possibility/necessity of our death.

Furthermore, on the quite crucial issue of God and how God’s existence affects the considerations of existentialism, Camus and Sartre seem to be in close alignment. Camus writes:

The absurdity peculiar to this problem comes from the fact that the very notion that makes the problem of freedom possible also takes away all its meaning. For in the presence of God there is less a problem of freedom than a problem of evil. You know the alternative: either we’re not free and God the all-powerful is responsible for evil. Or we are free and responsible but God is not all-powerful. All the scholastic subtleties have neither added anything to nor subtracted anything from the acuteness of this paradox. (41-42)

This is not the exact wording as Sartre uses on the subject, but it’s not far off in terms of content. In Existentialism and Human Emotions, Sartre writes:

Existentialism isn’t so atheistic that it wears itself out showing that God does not exist. Rather, it declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing. (51)

But even though they do not use the same wording and Sartre’s claim is bit stronger and clearer in regard to his overall purpose, the basic move by both thinkers is to dismiss the question of whether God exists, because it is not essential to their projects. It is hard to single out whether Camus is echoing Sartre or whether they just happen to hold quite similar views on this subject, but whatever the case may be, their shared dismissal of theological hairsplitting and their shared lack of interest in proselytizing for atheism (despite both being atheists) ought to be noted.

But Camus’s relationship to the work of Sartre is, as I mentioned previously, often one of a negative response; not one of intersection but rather divergence. Later in “An Absurd Reasoning,” he writes the following:

In order to remain faithful to that method, I have nothing to do with the problem of metaphysical liberty. Knowing whether or not man is free doesn’t interest me. I can experience only my own freedom. As to it, I can have no general notions, but merely a few clear insights. The problem of “freedom as such” has no meaning. (41)

This statement is in clear contradistinction to Sartre’s position:

When I declare that freedom in every concrete circumstance can have no other aim than to want itself, if man has once become aware that in his forlornness he imposes values, he can no longer want but one thing, and that is freedom, as the basis of all values. (45)

Sartre is positing a universalist position on the nature of freedom as such here, as opposed to Camus’s position, which has a more individualist or particularist bent to it. This, in fact, is a key difference in their methodologies—Camus often privileging the particular and individual, whereas Sartre privileges the universal and humanity as a whole (a difference that grew more pronounced over the course of their careers, but which can already be found in these early works on which I am focusing here). For example, Sartre makes the classic Kantian move of making the universalizability of an action or choice the measure of its ethical status:

When we say that man chooses his own self, we mean that every one of us does likewise; but we also mean by that that in making this choice he also chooses all men. In fact, in creating the man that we want to be, there is not a single one of our acts which does not at the same time create an image of man as we think he ought to be. (17)

Here again, Sartre is making the move of universalizing what it means to make a choice, to be free and human, whereas Camus wants to focus solely on the individual and the choices and desires of the individual. Sartre clearly states, however, that “[w]e may say that there is a universality of man; but it is not given, it is perpetually being made” (39). Sartre is not attempting to define a fixed or stable human nature by any means, but he does want to define the pour-soi (the for-itself, which his rough equivalent of Heideggerian Dasein)—that is to say, he is very much interested in man as such and freedom as such, which Camus explicitly states do not fall under the purview of his own project. This is a distinction that in many instances is a purely academic one. Whether there are many free men, or whether it is in the nature of man to be condemned to freedom and there exist many instantiations of man, is a matter of mere hairsplitting in most daily matters, but not in all. It does, as we saw above with Sartre’s Kantian move, change the ethical import of human action if we view it as constituting universal man (as Sartre has it), as opposed to a particular man’s actions in the face of an absurd wall (as Camus has it). It is harder to derive an ethics from Camus’s position, which is why he claims that “there can be no question of holding forth on ethics” (66). A final distinction ought to be made in regard to our comportment toward others. For Sartre, we are at least in part defined by and against others, whereas Camus conceives of his “absurd man” as more atomistic. This is ironic, given Camus’s habit of defining himself by or against Sartre.

My purpose here has not been to reduce Camus’s work to a purely derivative status vis-à-vis Sartre’s, but rather to show how Camus incorporates the philosophical insights of one of the twentieth century’s most famous and productive thinkers. There is also something of a genealogical impulse at work here, insofar as I have attempted to show where Camus, one of the best-known and most important public intellectuals of the twentieth century, found the ore and the refinement of his ideas. The initiated readers of the time knew precisely when Camus was appropriating a Sartrean concept and precisely when he was defining a position against Sartre’s stance on a matter. Camus often rephrased Sartre’s ideas into his own language, or when he disagreed with Sartre (which he did more and more frequently as their lives went on), he disagreed specifically with Sartre; that is, one can find traces of Sartre in Camus’s attempts to define himself against Sartre as much as one can find traces of Sartre in those instances where Camus is directly or indirectly echoing his ideas.

***

Bibliography

Camus, Albert and Justin O’Brien. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. New York: Vintage, 1955. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human Emotions. New York: Philosophical Library, 1967. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul, Lloyd Alexander, and Hayden Carruth. Nausea. New York: New Directions Paperback, 1964. Print.

About Okla Elliott

I am currently an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania. I hold a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a legal studies certificate from Purdue University. My work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, The Hill, Huffington Post, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, as well as being listed as a "notable essay" in Best American Essays 2015. My books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a coauthored novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), and Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide (nonfiction).
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3 Responses to Existential Echoes: Toward a Genealogy of Ideas in Albert Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus”

  1. belgacom says:

    I live in Niederwil, Switzerland and my work in fact deals with this area.
    Passion in what you believe and in putting it into words is a real gift.
    Your enlightening article possesses the perfect combo of
    passion and well-written, interesting content that I’ve grown to appreciate and respect.

  2. Matt Waggoner says:

    Reblogged this on Contemporary Philosophy.

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