“Do your own thing” became a motto for the 1960s – a motto rooted in existentialism.
Sometime around the end of high school or early college I began to give serious attention to a few books outside of school curricula. These books included The Rebel by Albert Camus and The Meaning of Persons by Paul Tournier. Both authors carried me well beyond the circumscribed world of a comfortable white teenager in the deep South, laid before me unexpected ideas, and urged me to respond. I’ll describe here my experience with Camus and save Tournier for the next blog.
The Rebel must have been recommended to me by my sister Cathy, 3 years younger than I – a prodigy at existentialism. The copy on my shelf has my marks and annotations, but her name inside the cover. I hope she gave it to me; otherwise I simply “cottoned onto it,” for which I now apologize.
How I persevered through The Rebel I’m not quite sure. Not until some years later did I read the shorter and more accessible essay by Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus. To be honest, both works represented a stretch for me. Together they made a strong impact.
My response to Albert Camus draws from these two philosophical works rather than his widely recognized novels and plays of the absurd. During World War II he showed courage as a journalist and participant in the French Resistance . His active, almost tumultuous personal life – of which I was largely unaware until recently – included revolving alliances with other writers and affairs with women that presaged the sexual revolution of the sixties.
Like the Cretan prophet Epimenides, Albert Camus is difficult to pin down. Though repeatedly unfaithful, he remained married to Francine Faure for 20 years until his death as a passenger in an automobile accident at age 46 in 1960. Although he dismissed imperatives from rationalism and from God whom he regarded as absent, he nevertheless espoused a public morality. These contradictions make me wonder what he might have said in later years if he had lived through and beyond the 1960s.
With French flair Camus named his philosophical themes as suicide and murder, broadly considered:
The Myth of Sisyphus…attempts to resolve the problem of suicide, as The Rebel attempts to resolve that of murder, in both cases without the aid of eternal values which, temporarily perhaps, are absent or distorted in contemporary Europe.
The old values no longer apply, said Camus. To confront the realities of life and death in the early 20th century following the failures of traditional wisdom and religion can be understood only as an exercise in the absurd. Can we come up with reasons to keep on living, avoiding suicide? Is it ever justifiable to kill someone?
Although he rarely spoke of the will as such, Camus thought deeply about personal decision. Choices, he acknowledged, are limited in scope and effect in the course of human life. Yet each person faces, first, a choice of whether to recognize individual mortal constraints with eyes wide open (with lucidity, as he put it) and, second, the option to defy limitations and develop one’s own reasons to act in the absence of meaning externally bestowed – that is, to generate from ordinary activities, pleasures, and relationships the will to pursue life passionately. Otherwise, according to Camus, a person may either passively retreat from lucidity, thus taking a common path of slow suicide, or accept nihilism and willingly repudiate life.
Ultimately death comes to every person, and thus it is absurd to value life. It is possible, nevertheless, to embrace the absurd and life also. Against death he called for rebellion. Alternatives to rebellion are forgetfulness and renunciation, which represent passive surrender to the inevitable. Thus he wrote
Consciousness and revolt, these rejections are the contrary of renunciation. Everything that is indomitable and passionate in a human heart quickens them, on the contrary, with its own life. It is essential to die unreconciled and not of one’s own free will. Suicide is a repudiation. The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself. The absurd is his extreme tension, which he maintains constantly by solitary effort, for he knows that in that consciousness and in that day-to-day revolt he gives proof of his only truth, which is defiance.
Camus found a model in the ancient story of Sisyphus, a Greek king and legendary founder of the city of Corinth. Crafty and deceitful even in his dealing with the gods, Sisyphus twice cheated death, but eventually landed in the underworld, where he was condemned daily to roll a large boulder up a steep hill. As he neared the summit each day, the boulder would slip from his grasp and roll back to the bottom of the hill. Thus he was condemned to eternal effort and futility, a paradigm of the absurd.
At the end of his essay, Camus speaks not of frustration, but of fulfillment in the task of Sisyphus.
All Sisyphus’ joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing [Son rocher est sa chose.]…. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
What I continue to find appealing about Camus and other existentialists is their claim that values can arise in the context of decisions people make in their lives. No force of pain or delirium, by their estimate, drove Sisyphus to roll the rock upward. He chose to push against it every morning. Why? “Son rocher est sa chose,” translated as “His rock is his thing,” was the only answer. I have to believe that this was the origin of the 1960s slogan “Do your own thing.”
The claim that values do not have to be imposed or granted externally impressed me greatly. The meaning of life is not transcendental in a primary sense, according to the existentialists. It can be found in the day-to-day affairs of humans (see prior blog on Everyday Life).
Is there a message for those of us who believe in God? Camus accepted lack of belief in God as a fixture of the ethos of his place and time among European intellectuals in the mid-20th century. He did not take the trouble to debate belief in God – either for or against – an omission that perplexed me when I first read him in my teenage years.
Look back at the first quote in this blog: “…without the aid of eternal values which, temporarily perhaps, are absent or distorted in contemporary Europe.” What does the parenthetic “temporarily perhaps” tell us? He seems to signal here and through other hints in his writing an openness to transcendental questions that might be broached if more basic concerns such as the value of daily life can be supported first.
In the following sentences from Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, give special attention to the words “just now”:
I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms.
If it is impossible “just now” to seek that transcendental meaning, might it be possible sometime in the future to do so?
Moreover, let’s note the obvious: the central metaphor of Sisyphus takes place in afterlife and subsists in eternal repetition. Camus highlights the endless nature of the task to magnify the lesson he is teaching. The effort endures for all time. Was this merely a rhetorical device? Does it point toward a yearning in the human heart for meaning that lasts?
Even Friedrich Nietzsche, the early existentialist who inspired Camus and declared the death of God, did not entirely avoid the allure of eternity. His mimic of prophecy, Thus Spake Zarathustra, presented the eternal recurrence – a dramatic proposal that a person’s life does not end with death, but instead recycles with exactly the same sequence of events, relationships, and decisions repeating an infinite number of times. Notice how the prophecy of eternal recurrence serves to emphasize the importance of here and now. This is the only life you will ever have, and you will have the same life over and over again endlessly. Nietzsche’s message: make the most of it.
Again let me ask whether there are lessons here for all of us, or only for those who like Camus and Nietzsche repudiate traditional religious beliefs? I have tried at times to think of God as the existential hero, bootstrapping meaning out of primordial chaos, creating us as companions for the ultimate road trip.
At the very least let’s recognize that the value claims of the existentialists bear the force of their commitment. Son rocher est sa chose.
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Header image: Modified from detail on 1892 reconstruction of the ancient painting “Nekyia” by Polygnotus. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, Carl Robert and Hermann Schenck. Photograph of Albert Camus in 1957, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, from the New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection.
 From http://www.camus-society.com/albert-camus-bio.html, accessed 10/24/2016.
 Camus, A. Preface to The Myth of Sisyphus, transl. O’Brien, J. Vintage, 1955, p. v.
 Camus, A. The Myth of Sisyphus, transl. O’Brien, J. Vintage, 1955, p. 41.
 ibid. p. 91.
 ibid. p. 38.
 Nietzsche, F. in Kaufmann, W.K., ed. and transl., The Portable Nietzsche. Viking Penguin, New York, 1954. Eternal recurrence is described in Thus Spake Zarathustra, Part 3, Section 2, pp. 332-333.