Camus implores his readers not to try to eliminate the absurd, but rather to bring it into daily life as an ever-present reality. Philosophy, the book argues, has so far been incapable of doing so because, though capable of diagnosing the absurd, its practitioners have relied on illogical leaps of faith to try to “solve” it. Art, on the other hand, plays a more tangibly useful role because it can help provide examples of the absurdity of life without the extra (irrational) stage of seeking a resolution.
Camus is keen to stress that The Myth of Sisyphus is categorically not philosophy. Philosophy is portrayed throughout the essay as an intellectual activity that has sometimes touched on the absurd, but always fallen short of responding appropriately. Camus characterizes philosophy as fundamentally reliant on self-constructed systems that implicitly claim to explain the world; Camus strives to be anti-systematic and keep the world unexplained. Camus believes this to be important as there is a question more pertinent and urgent than any of philosophy’s considerations—that is, whether the absurdity of life necessitates the act of suicide. Philosophy, as Camus admits, has certainly tried to address these concerns—but even the greatest philosophers are guilty of committing “philosophical suicide.” That is, while philosophers like Heidegger, Jaspers, Chestov, Kierkegaard, and Husserl did manage to identify the absurdity of life, they each, in their own way, were too afraid to accommodate it. Instead, they relied on some extra element to resolve the absurd—a leap of faith. Kierkegaard, for example, takes humankind’s inability to truly understand the world as proof of its irrationality, which he in turn uses as evidence of God’s existence.
Camus, then, fills The Myth of Sisyphus with references to philosophy while also claiming its failures. This works as a device for him to differentiate his ideas of the absurd with those of other writers, allowing him to position his absurdism as somehow beyond the realm of philosophy. It’s up to the reader how effective Camus is in this regard—whether this positioning of the absurd is accurate or represents an avoidance of philosophical inquiry. It’s also worth noting that this strategy allows Camus to bring in certain ideas under the radar, without having to hold them up to great scrutiny. For example, the concept of the “soul” is a given throughout The Myth of Sisyphus, its existence never questioned as it might be in a more explicitly “philosophical” essay.
Camus sees more use for art than philosophy, turning to literature to investigate whether it can be more effective in accommodating the absurd (not falsely “solving” it). Implicit within this turn is the suggestion that art has something to offer that is lacking in philosophy. Early in the book, Camus hints that “Perhaps we shall be able to overtake that elusive feeling of absurdity in the different but closely related worlds of intelligence, of the art of living, or of art itself.” That is, perhaps, art, in tandem with a particular way of living and thinking can help individuals accommodate the absurd in their everyday lives. After dismissing the philosophers of the past for their leaps of faith (while admitting their ability to demonstrate the absurd), Camus turns to writers like the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, William Shakespeare, and Franz Kafka for an alternative.
Literature (and art more generally), so Camus’ theory goes, can incorporate specific examples of the absurd into its world without feeling the need to necessarily explain them. As an example, Camus cites the character of Kirilov in Dostoevsky’ The Possessed. Kirilov commits a so-called “logical suicide,” tied up in the idea that life is either worth living because there is life after death or it is entirely meaningless. Kirilov can’t bring himself to make the leap to belief in God, and so kills himself. His last words are “all is well.” Camus, here, isn’t advocating suicide, but looking at the way in which art can accommodate the absurd by showing examples of its function in everyday life. Art can embody the absurd, without feeling the need to solve it—unlike philosophy. Finally, Kirilov’s example is doubly good in Camus’ opinion because of the way the character approaches his death. His comment that “all is well” represents the ultimate acceptance of the absurd and is what Camus feels is necessary on a day-to-day basis. That is, the absurd should never be let out of sight and instead ought to be welcomed into the fabric of life. “All is well,” then, is a dictum for every day—up to and including death.
Camus, then, asks his readers to weigh art and philosophy side by side, to investigate how they differ in their ability to provide humankind with an effective strategy for living with the absurd, which he believes is the most important philosophical problem of all. Perhaps his wider argument that art responds to the absurd better than philosophy is useful for interpreting The Myth of Sisyphus as a whole: to view it as a work of literature, accommodating the absurd, rather than an answer.
Philosophy and Art ThemeTracker
Philosophy and Art Quotes in The Myth of Sisyphus
Does the Absurd dictate death? This problem must be given priority over others, outside all methods of thought and all exercises of the disinterested mind. Shades of meaning, contradictions, the psychology that an "objective" mind can always introduce into all problems have no place in this pursuit and this passion. It calls simply for an unjust—in other words, logical—thought. That is not easy. It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end.
Kierkegaard wants to be cured. To be cured is his frenzied wish, and it runs throughout his whole journal. The entire effort of his intelligence is to escape the antinomy of the human condition. An all the more desperate effort since he intermittently perceives its vanity when he speaks of himself, as if neither fear of God nor piety were capable of bringing him to peace. Thus it is that, through a strained subterfuge, he gives the irrational the appearance and God the attributes of the absurd: unjust, incoherent, and incomprehensible. Intelligence alone in him strives to stifle the underlying demands of the human heart. Since nothing is proved, everything can he proved.
Creating is living doubly […] Creation is the great mime.
The great novelists are philosophical novelists—that is, the contrary of thesis-writers. For instance, Balzac, Sade, Melville, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Proust, Malraux, Kafka, to cite but a few.
But in fact the preference they have shown for writing in images rather than in reasoned arguments is revelatory of a certain thought that is common to them all, convinced of the uselessness of any principle of explanation and sure of the educative message of perceptible appearance. They consider the work of art both as an end and a beginning. It is the outcome of an often unexpressed philosophy, its illustration and its consummation. But it is complete only through the implications of that philosophy.
All of Dostoevsky’s heroes question themselves as to the meaning of life. In this they are modern: they do not fear ridicule. What distinguishes modern sensibility from classical sensibility is that the latter thrives on moral problems and the former on metaphysical problems. In Dostoevsky’s novels the question is propounded with such intensity that it can only invite extreme solutions. Existence is illusory or it is eternal. If Dostoevsky were satisfied with this inquiry, he would be a philosopher. But he illustrates the consequences that such intellectual pastimes may have in a man’s life, and in this regard he is an artist.
Any thought that abandons unity glorifies diversity. And diversity is the home of art. The only thought to liberate the mind is that which leaves it alone, certain of its limits and of its impending end. No doctrine tempts it. It awaits the ripening of the work and of life. Detached from it, the work will once more give a barely muffled voice to a soul forever freed from hope. Or it will give voice to nothing if the creator, tired of his activity, intends to turn away. That is equivalent.
To the celestial thunderbolts he preferred the benediction of water. He was punished for this in the underworld. Homer tells us also that Sisyphus had put Death in chains. Pluto could not endure the sight of his deserted, silent empire. He dispatched the god of war, who liberated Death from the hands of her conqueror.