Descent in Joy

The continued protest by Native people against the DAPL leads me to Camus and his Myth of Sysiphus:


You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth. Nothing is told us about Sisyphus in the underworld. Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them. As for this myth, one sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it, and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands. At the very end of his long effort measured by skyless space and time without depth, the purpose is achieved. Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward tlower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain.

It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.

If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that can not be surmounted by scorn.

Happy [reading] Friday.

Taking Sides

The New Year is as good a divide to consider this question as any. After the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Albert Camus gave an interview, which is included in his collection, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. This question and his answer are included under the sub-head, The Intellectual Must Take Sides:

3) If the contrary is true, what can the intellectual do today? Does he have a duty, in each and every circumstance, to express his feeling and opinion publicly and to anyone at all? Or else, because of the seriousness of events and the lack of valid political forces, do you feel that one can do no better than to carry on one’s own work as well as one can?

It is better for the intellectual not to talk all the time. To begin with, it would exhaust him, and, above all, it would keep him from thinking. He must create if he can, first and foremost, especially if his creation does not sidestep the problems of his time. But in certain exceptional circumstances (Spanish civil war, Hilterian prosecutions and concentration camps, Hungarian war) he must leave no room for doubt as to the side he takes; he must be very careful not to let his choice be clouded by wily distinctions or discreet balancing tricks, and to leave no question as to his personal determination to defend liberty. Groupings of intellectuals can, in certain cases, and particularly when the liberty of the masses and of the spirit is mortally threatened, constitute a strength and exert an influence; Hungarian intellectuals have just proved this. However, it should be pointed out for our own guidance in the West that the continual signing of manifestoes and protests is one of the surest ways of undermining the efficacy and dignity of the intellectual. There exists a permanent blackmail we all know and that we must have the often solitary courage to resist.

Subject to these reservations, we must hope for a common rallying. But first our Leftist intellectuals, who have swallowed so many insults and may well have to begin doing so again, would have to undertake a critique of the reasonings and ideologies to which they have wreaked the havoc they have seen in our most recent history. That will be the hardest thing. We must admit today conformity is on the Left. To be sure, the Right is not brilliant. But the left is in complete decadence, a prisoner of words, caught in its own vocabulary, capable merely of stereotyped replies, constantly at a loss when faced with the truth, from which it nevertheless claimed to derive its laws. The Left is schizophrenic and needs doctoring through pitiless self-criticism, exercise of the heart, close reasoning, and a little modesty. Until such an effort at re-examination is well under way, any rallying will be useless and even harmful. Meanwhile, the intellectual’s role will be to say that the king is naked when he is, and not to go into raptures at his imaginary trappings.

In order to strike a constructive tone, however, I shall propose as one of the preliminaries to any future gathering the unqualified acceptance of the following principle: none of the evils that totalitarianism (defined by the single party and the suppression of all opposition) claims to remedy is worse than totalitarianism itself.

In conclusion, I believe (as people say: I believe in God, creator of heaven and earth) that the indispensable conditions for intellectual creation and historical justice are liberty and the free confronting of differences. Without freedom, not art; art lives only on the restraints it imposes on itself, and dies of all others. But without freedom, no socialism either, except the socialism of the gallows.

DEMAIN, 21-27 February 1957

Translation by Justin O’Brien.

It takes place every day

Nietzsche said, “He who has a strong enough why can bear any how.” The primary force of the vague tautology that we must be able to do certain things (simply because of the inherent need to do them), weighed against the true probability of any outcome, helps us get a handle on the most current odds-making on the question of global climate change. In addition, we might ask as we often do, what is the smart money doing?

This is what we usually can see first – the motion of resources – when the top of the chain begins to move, if not thrash about. The impetus to go green remains at its fashion stage, though many venture capitalists have started to put their money into some interesting niche ideas. But the popular uprising remains in its gesture phase. We may prefer this because everything else would seem like panic, and no one really wants that.

Perhaps this fear of panic is holding back the phenomenon from becoming the full blown existential crisis that it portends, on which its sunnier moments are truly based if the full scenario is to make any sense whatsoever. Mr. Gore’s movie terrified many people, but again, our ability to tell ourselves certain things permitted us to move on. There is a dissonance about conditions being severe enough to act, though not just yet. It seems a sort of patrician patience in the service of good form, prudence based on perception in a kind of “Just so, old chap,” way.

We have been here before, however, though in the heights of the Cold War we were also yet able to foster that remove from ever-encroaching oblivion. It didn’t prevent us from lining up for nuclear bomb drills in school (!), but we went on making long term plans just the same, maybe factoring in the odds of annihilation, maybe not, but living with the specter all the same. Maybe we just haven’t gotten comfortable with the idea yet; I even have trouble writing about it because everything sounds like such dooms-saying when all we’re really talking about are big, big changes.

Yet even these are simply about returning to more sensible dimensions in the way we live. When we talk about green this or sustainable that, these are just transitional codes for simple things that used to be common place like knowing where your food comes from or walking to work. To the extent we don’t want or care to do these things, well, they’re that much easier to shroud in Greenery.

I’ve always loved how Camus in L’Homme Revolte explained that Communism was a sickness, a system predicated on the elimination of absurdity in our daily lives. He knew that wasn’t possible and in so many ways, we’ve returned there, struggling to explain and justify some of the absurdities we’ve been living with and on. We can change what we call them, tweak the edges and continue to tell ourselves certain things. But they can’t just be explained away. They are there. And we simply must change them.