The Myth of Sisyphus

by

Albert Camus

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The Myth of Sisyphus: 9. Philosophy and Fiction Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Camus reserves an entire section to examine the relationship between the creative act and the absurd life. As a fiction writer himself, most of his focus lies there. Camus sees creation as the “absurd joy par excellence” in terms of “breathing” with the absurd and “recognizing its lessons.”
As Camus has stated earlier, he does not consider himself to be a philosopher and is more concerned with the practicalities of living with the absurd. Accordingly, it makes sense in the trajectory of the book for him to incorporate something as close to his own life as literature.
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Creating, says Camus, is a kind of “living doubly,” in which the creator attempts to re-create their reality which, at the same time, “signifies nothing else.” Such men, says Camus, examine, enlarge and enrich their “ephemeral island” even though they know they can solve nothing. The creator can only experience and describe, not explain and solve. Art is a symptom of the absurd, not a cure.
The creator is similar to the scientist mentioned earlier in the book, whose work can describe but never explain. That is, both can examine how the world works—in smaller and smaller parts—but never answer the overarching question of why it exists. An artist lives doubly because he invents another world just as meaningless as the one he lives in.
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Camus wonders if it is possible to create “an absurd work of art.” A good artist must operate in the constant knowledge that his work signifies nothing outside of itself; he must be as capable of repudiating art as making it. Camus cites the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, as an example.
The artist, then, must not consider his work too precious—he must be as ready to denounce it as to make it. Arthur Rimbaud was a prodigious French poet who gave up poetry while still a young man.
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Camus praises the art that works to reflect just a part of the human experience, instead of those that try to explain the entirety of experience. Camus praises music as a form, because it is “devoid of lessons” and based on “sensation.” Camus suggest that fiction is the art form most tempted to “explain” reality, and intends to see if it can truly embody the absurd.
Writers feel most inclined to “explain” reality because language is the mode of explanation. Music, on the other hand, is more ephemeral, existing only in the listener’s ears at the time of listening. Camus’ preference for work that reflects a “part” of experience contrasts with the common project of philosophers: to construct a unifying system that makes sense of the world.
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To think, says Camus, is either to create a world or limit the one being lived in. Even philosophers are creators, he says, in that they rely on characters, symbols, and “plot-endings.”
Philosophy and art have much in common, but Camus believes philosophy is especially prone to trying to “explain” reality.
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Camus believes that the novel has taken “the lead” over “poetry and the essay,” representing a “greater intellectualization of the art.” That said, he reminds the reader that he is only talking of “the greatest” novels—there is plenty of “trash” out there too. The novelist is a kind of world-builder. The best novelists, like Balzac, Sade, Melville, Dostoevsky and Kafka, are distinctly “philosophical novelists.”
Camus likes these writers because they show characters in their relationship to the absurd. The word “greatest” implies a value system that judges the worth of books according to their relationship to the absurd; arguably, this violates Camus’ principle that life should be lived for quantity, not quality. Once again, the writers Camus mentions are all men, with books predominantly populated by men—the reader might well wonder if a vast “part” of human existence, that of women, is missing from Camus’ discussion.
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These writers, says Camus, demonstrate a rejection of “any principle of explanation” and instead use “images” as their way of philosophizing. Work like theirs justifies what Camus calls “an old theme”: “a little thought estranges from life whereas much thought reconciles to life.”
Of course, The Myth of Sisyphus should be considered on Camus’ own terms. Though Camus is primarily a novelist, this particular book seems like a direct attempt to explain the world: the world is absurd, here’s why, and here’s what can be done about it.
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Camus asks whether, in accepting a life “without appeal,” an individual can then agree to “work and create without appeal.” It is imperative that the artist remains aware of the “gratuitousness” of their work. Camus resolves to investigate “a favourite theme” from the work of Russian novelist, Dostoevsky, which “denotes awareness of the absurd.”
Camus believes that art must offer no false hope, and only serve to demonstrate the absurd in its rich variety of forms.
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