Re-Examining Sartre's Reading of the Myth of Sisyphus
Lamb, Matthew, Philosophy Today
One of the main obstacles in approaching the work of Albert Camus nowadays is the prevalent notion that his fictional works are somehow an illustration of a philosophy contained in his nonfiction writings. This is an idea which may be traced back to 1 942, to an influential review written of his debut novel, The Stranger. The review was written by Jean-Paul Sartre soon after completing Being and Nothingness, and while awaiting its publication. Recently, David Carroll has stated: "Sartre's "existentialist" interpretation The Stranger had an important influence on readers of the novel and the essay [The Myth of Sisyphus] for decades. It only began to be abandoned, although rarely if ever directly questioned, long after Algerian independence, with the growth postcolonial cultural criticism in the last few decades."1 The purpose of this essay is to directly question how Sartre constructed his interpretation of Camus's novel, and to show that the structure of this initial review has not been so easily abandoned.
In order to appreciate the prevalence Sartre's interpretative strategy over the reception of Camus's early work, it will be necessary to briefly survey some of the more recent scholarship, and some of the more prominent scholarship from the past. Richard Kamber, for example, bypasses almost all of the text of The Stranger in his analysis of it, and goes straight to the final pages, where Meursault converses with the priest:
The meaning of this passage is critical for a philosophical critique of The Stranger, since it is the only place in the novel where Meursault, the speaker and main character, attempts to give a philosophical explanation for his beliefs about the human condition. Yet the explanation presented in this passage seems incomplete in several respects. Let us examine what is missing in this formulation and try to determine how it should or could be completed.2
This is how Kamber completes the novel: "The text of The Stranger suggests these questions, but it does not provide the answers," he states: "For Camus's reflections on the importance of life itself, one must turn to The Myth of Sisyphus"3
Likewise, John Foley states:
although we do not of course read them as a single text, if we are to read The Outsider as a novel of ideas, then the severe limits imposed on the meaning of the absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus need to be taken into account.
For Camus, Meursault is the absurd hero par excellence4.
The novel is thereby circumscribed by the perceived philosophical concerns of the essay: "For Camus, Meursault represents the modern Sisyphus, the authentic man in a world bereft of transcendent meaning."5
The work of Robert C. Solomon is a much more extreme case. He seems to bypass both the novel and the essay and goes straight to imposing a narrowly Sartrean philosophy onto Camus's work:
To state my interpretation baldly, Meursault is a philosophically fantastic character who, for the first part of the novel, is an ideal Sartrean pre-reflective consciousness, pure experience without reflection. . . . But then, in the second part of the novel . . . [the] threat of imminent death finally forces him into a Heideggerian celebration of the "privilege of death" and the "happy death," which is a constant theme in Camus's novels.6
It is from this position that Solomon can then comfortably trace the relationship between novel and essay: "It is the movement from pure unreflective experience to reflection and philosophy. It is the second part of the book [The Stranger] that carries us into the realm of The Myth of Sisyphus."1
David Sherman, drawing heavily from Solomon (a former teacher, then colleague), is likewise determined to contain Camus with certain categories of philosophy, existentialism in particular. As Sherman states: "Although The Myth of Sisyphus was published shortly after The Stranger, its exposition of the Absurd sets the philosophical stage for virtually all that follows. …