“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”
With that unambiguous, declarative broadside right between the eyes and ears of his readers, Albert Camus opens his brief, haunting and still relevant The Myth of Sisyphus, a 1955 essay that explored the implications of his opening line for modern humanity.
It’s a bracing statement, as if from Moses on the mountain, a bold proclamation designed to grab readers’ attention with its sense of no-B.S. certitude.
I remember how deep I sounded to myself when I parroted the line to anyone who would listen when I first came across it some 40 years ago.
“Whoa, so that’s it? If I want to be serious about my life, I have to consider whether the best and most logical and philosophically consistent thing to do is just go ahead and kill myself? Well, I was thinking of going to graduate school or the Peace Corps or trying to get a semi-serious girlfriend, but maybe I’ll just off myself instead. Let me read this Camus fellow and decide.”
These bees buzzing busily in my front yard as I brush by them while mowing my lawn are living that meaning in every flap of their wings; they would not have been birthed if they didn’t carry within them the wholly unambiguous instruction code for: “NOW GO LIVE! LIVE! LIVE! UNTIL YOU CAN’T ANYMORE!”
The Myth of Sisyphus reads these many years later as an odd book, the anti-philosophy philosophy book, a rational defense of the limits of rationality, a meaningful examination of absurdity, which is to say, life’s lack of inherent meaning.
Camus was nothing if not a serious man, one of the leading literary and cultural lights of the twentieth century. There wasn’t an unsober bone in his body, which made him a restless, relentless and courageous explorer in addressing the existential dilemmas begat by modernism. He has been, in many ways, a hero of mine.
But at various points in returning to this Sisyphus essay that I had admired over many years, I couldn’t help thinking he was only being serious after a fashion, in an abstracted way, from the very mountaintop from which he was posing the question.
I don’t think Camus was suggesting that all people should think about actually committing suicide if they can’t wrest sufficient meaning from their lives. So it is perhaps a kind of affectation to pen a deeply contemplative treatise on whether the logical thing to do in the face of life’s absurdity is to kill oneself. Cold, detached logic is, after all, the very last thing on any truly suicidal person’s mind.
People who are actually on the brink of suicide are neither philosophical nor rational, but only desperate and depressed. They don’t need philosophical conundrums; they need a hospital and meds and a helping hand.
Camus asks his question from rarefied heights of philosophical detachment, turning over the prism of life’s elusive meanings from a position of intellectual and—I daresay, in full acknowledgement and even agreement with Camus’s atheist views—spiritual privilege.
There is no evidence of which I am aware that Camus himself was ever suicidal. Indeed, ironically enough given the content of The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus elsewhere wrote movingly of his love for this world, its seashores and sun and the pleasures of incarnate life. Perhaps Sisyphus should have come with a warning label: If you’re actually suicidal in a real-life way, put this book down immediately and call your doctor!
There’s another element to the odd detachment of this otherwise deeply serious work. Even though Camus finally answered the “Shall we all just kill ourselves?” question with a definitive “No,” the question itself strikes me as not only an intellectual affectation, but as looping back to become absurd itself, the question’s mere asking containing within it more than a tinge of the ridiculous.
Because of the statement that life makes about itself in being lived.
Because of birth.
Because of the gift and the drive and the gumption and the desperate quest for more! and more! and more! that accompanied us through that birth and has sustained us ever since.
Because of the life force in every living thing, the life that wants participation, that is compelled to go about its appointed rounds, that wants to extend itself and battle against or somehow elude all the forces that would seek to end it for whatever reason.
Intentionally ending it would thus appear to be deeply irrational and antithetical to the natural factors that gave us and every other living thing birth.
Kill yourself as a rational response to the reality that the meaning of life is elusive?
The meaning of life is that it is to be lived according to one’s dictates, imperatives, interests and dreams, and no matter what those are, life comes with its own forceful meaning right through your mother’s pregnancy and your passage down the birth canal. Everything birthed carries its meaning within itself in its fierce wanting of life and more life.
These bees buzzing busily in my front yard as I brush by them while mowing my lawn are living that meaning in every flap of their wings; they would not have been birthed if they didn’t carry within themselves the wholly unambiguous instruction code for:
“NOW GO LIVE! LIVE! LIVE! UNTIL YOU CAN’T ANYMORE!”
Truly, questioning whether we should end it because we know we will someday die is far more absurd than any lack of meaning we can cobble together while poring over a book of philosophical ruminations.
Philosophers tend to make much of human self-consciousness, that we are the only species with the self-reflective tools to torture ourselves psychologically with questions of meaning and eternity. All lesser creatures exist in the eternal now (such good and accomplished little Buddhists they are!), but only humans fret about ultimate fates and meanings, grasping futilely at the ungraspable and then turning against themselves for their failure. (Or else turning to imaginary gods.)
So we are different in this way. But I want to throw this question back on Mr. Camus, who posits no God or eternal verity but implores us to courageously face the reality of our absurdity by the simple act of rebellion, by saying, “Hell no, we won’t kill ourselves, rebellion is the only meaningful act in a meaningless world; that’s how we’ll finally wrest some meaning from it!”
But if there is indeed no God, no inherent meaning, nothing, truly, that separates us from the raw animal life that lives and dies and rots, then how dare we separate ourselves from those very animals by indulging in logical, armchair debates over whether to kill ourselves?
No other animals do, and if we are, in the end, doomed to the same ultimate and absurd fate as those animals, then it seems imperative for us to live with just as much integrity as they do, just as much willingness to face our lives and live them out, as our genetic and evolutionary programs are dictating that we should.
Isn’t that the very least we owe all the life that has been lived and lost over the eons in order to make ours possible?
I suspect Ol’ Man River figured out the meaning of life a long time ago and has just kept rolling along ever since, with a big and deep-voiced assist here from Samuel Ramey:
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Great job Andrew. I liked the wrestle you took us through. Courageous!
Another “meaning of life” writer, Will Durant, was asked during the high suicide rate of the Great Depression to write an article for Cosmopolitan Magazine about the meaning of life to help stop the high suicide rate of the times. See p.43 of Corporate Healing to see what he found through his research and his surprise conclusion. Thanks for taking on a difficult topic. m
Thanks, Mary, wasn’t aware of that book and appreciate the impetus to look into Durant a little more—most intriguing! The relevant quote taken from him: “The secret of significance and content is to have a task which consumes all one’s energies, lifts the individual out of himself and makes human life a little richer than before.”
Poking around a bit more, I found the always memorable H.L. Mencken’s response to Durant’s question, beginning with:
“I go on working for the same reason that a hen goes on laying eggs. There is in every living creature an obscure but powerful impulse to active functioning. Life demands to be lived.”
Thanks for reminding me of the Mencken essay. I have always liked it, even saved a copy from my senior English class. I always enjoy your musings.
Camus’ opening line made me think immediately of the Hamlet soliloquy opening of To Be, or not to be . . . ” I went back and read that piece for the first time in many years. In the end, Hamlet concludes that the hardship and despair we know may just be worth “suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” rather than to “bear those ills we know not of.” In essence, then, the struggle seems worth it to Hamlet due to the uncertainty and fear of what lies beyond. Not exactly a joie de vivre, burning “must-live” proclamation, but perhaps worth considering in the mix.
Oh jeez, Jay—now it’s time for “Hamlet” redux? Another one that I haven’t read or seen performed for far too many years. Was reading something by Wendy Lesser (“Threepenny Review” editor) this morning in which she was urging folks to re-read books from earlier in their lives, with all the surprise & depth & freshness that entails. Sometimes I think I could dedicate this blog strictly to such an endeavor. But oh, all these new books coming out every day, with all their enticing reviews!
On that note, It may also be time to dust off Ernest Becker and The Denial of Death.