Camus' Dynamite

Article excerpt

"Sisyphus and the Meaning of Life" by Russell Blackford, in Quadrant (Oct. 2003), 437 Darling St., Balmain NSW 2041, Australia.

Why go on? It's perhaps the essential philosophical question, and one that has drawn philosophers like a magnet to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, whom the gods condemned to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a hill, only to have it tumble back down each time. Most famously, the myth drew the attention of the French novelist Albert Camus, who wrote about it in a classic existentialist essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus" (1942).

Camus saw in Sisyphus "a metaphor for our absurd condition in a universe that does not care for us and cannot guide us," writes Blackford, a lawyer and writer in Melbourne, Australia. Camus wrote of humanity's "incalculable feeling" of "divorce" from the universe and the painful sense that there is "no profound reason for living." He did not rule out the possibility that a rational person would commit suicide.

Two later thinkers who grappled with Sisyphus and Cantos' poetically opaque reading of him took different paths. In his 1971 essay, "The Absurd," philosopher Thomas Nagel inquired into the sources of the modern sense of absurdity. It's not our awareness of the inevitability of death or the vastness of the universe that leads us to absurdity, Nagel writes. Such arguments are really only ways of expressing the deeper anxiety bred by "the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives"--our activities, projects, and beliefs--and our deep sense that it's impossible to find any ultimate foundation for the "values and commitments" we cite to justify them.

Camus probably would have disagreed. The source of absurdity is the "psychological disturbance" that occurs when we discover that the universe is not intelligible, in Blackford's interpretation. Any "lucid consideration" of the human condition would inevitably yield the conclusion that it is "bleak and frightening. …