by Kushal Choudhary.
An exploration of the ideas pertaining to the 1942 seminal essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ by Albert Camus. The exploration expounds the ideas of what we mean by creating something and what purpose creation of any kind serves. It also alludes to the idea ‘the absurd’ and how it affects creations and stifles their very purpose. The ideas explored in the essay penetrate the various foundations of society including Art and Science…
Dissonance by Creation
Creation interests the intellect, it is a product of a thought’s yearning for material existence. While I write this, I have thoughts running swiftly through my mind. My ideas catch hold of them, palisade them in the court of reason and logic. They fall short of logic sometimes, or they just seem unreasonable. Some qualify or escape this scrutiny and continue but they hit a roadblock. They desire to be put out in shameless words, the thoughts perhaps demand critique and introspection in the collectivity of other people and their minds, intellects that can consume these thoughts in forms of literature, art, theatre, science and perhaps even cooking. Hence I put forth these thoughts in a ruthless society but it might just fleetingly pass by the people. People need to be aware of these fleeting images, and introspective of their meaning, a lucid state of mind is demanded all creation. All creation is fleeting, ephemeral in existence and creates dissonance when consumed. Dissonance is a moment of epiphany, a realisation of something never thought before by the consumer. A feeling of awe or a realisation of false values and hopes. It is thus closely related to disillusionment, but it is aided. The creation itself is an aid for it triggers epiphanies and realisations consistently. If one notion is broken down, another builds up, to again be broken down when the consumer of creations consumes yet another piece of creation. Consumption of creation is like attempting to cross a fenced border and find new horizons. The fence door is wide open but instead, one deliberately attempts to climb over it, through the barbed wire for a challenge, and of course, the resulting scars might just be of some value. Dissonances are caused only by taking up this challenge. The scars from the barbed wire must remind one of the past values and notions abandoned in the wake of new and better ones.
Such dissonances are usually avoided as consumption of many creations is done without much introspection. Dissonances may also be avoided by having a preconceived notion of creation. By tagging, setting up a philosophical, geographical location for creation for oneself, one limits themselves. If Albert Camus’ The Outsider is tagged as ‘absurdist literature’, one is hindered to look beyond. When I read it, I wanted to understand absurdism as an extension of existentialism; I tried to look for absurdism as a philosophy in the work and hence I restricted myself. There was no significant dissonance. It seems like a story of a man perhaps bored in his life, who couldn’t find meaning in anything. Neither in his past nor the future, he desired to just live in the present, with no consequences to face and burdens to bear (of relationships with the society, responsibility). It was simply a question of relating to the text, to find the ideas in the text that can question mine. The book finished and I just crossed the fence door. But it did instil a thought in my head, a question: What is the absurd anyway? (Dissonances are not questions but epiphanies. The flavour of ‘hey, so what is the absurd’ is certainly very different from ‘holy moly is that the absurd!’). I pursued that thought and read Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Stimulating as it is, it assaults the false hopes infested in existentialist thought and literature when the existentialists confronted the question of the finality of thought and reasoning and meaning of life. Camus puts the philosophies of reasoning, hope, creation and science to the test and defines ‘the absurd’ in contradiction to the falsity of hope and futility in searching for a single meaning of life. The text may or may not be a case for absurdism, but I refused the fence door this time and attempted to climb over instead. Though focused on the idea of what is absurd, or an absurd lifestyle, the text genuinely stimulates the cores of one’s heart and puts them on trial. The profundity of the dissonance created by this text is sometimes unbearable, one of the biggest dissonances it creates is done by capturing the idea of hope and beating it to its moral, rightful death in the face of an absurdist lifestyle. It gives strength to our everyday struggle to search for meaning by knowing and understanding the world and demands lucidity: the ability to see things clearly and objectively (which is similar to being introspective of their meaning and cross the fence over and not through the fence door). Camus is mostly in the realm of philosophers (mainly existentialists), for half of the essay, and then he comes out of it and enquires examples away from philosophy (but is nonetheless a philosophical enquiry) such as theatre, the act of conquest, etc. Camus derives The Absurd Man from these examples (theatre actor, conqueror), someone who has embraced an absurd lifestyle. The lifestyle is governed by his understanding of the indifference of the universe to human existence, his lucidity, repudiation of any hope in the future and a constant struggle through his lucidity in the face of the absurd.
Creation, the Artist and the Absurd
Philosophies tend to breathe life into an individual’s thought while being at the foundation of it. They are the founders as well as the carriers of our creations, which manifest themselves in umpteen number of forms. Art, for instance, is the culmination, the final frontier of the lucid endeavour the human mind continuously takes. It is by the virtue of exploration and a longing to unify thoughts that a single piece of the creation is manifested in a piece of art. A painting materializes when exploration is sufficiently enclosed in passionate desires and a struggle is made to materialize, to portray the value of the thought that one cherishes so much. This essay itself is an example of creation, my thoughts fuel my desire to put forth interpretations of my readings and conversations. My lucidity is defined by my sagacity expressed against well-established worldviews. An assaultive demeanour corrodes the conditioned self, the self that has cherished the pre-existing values but is now disillusioned by consumption of creations. The self is a dynamic entity that is rapidly changed by the dissonances caused by consumption of creations. This creation builds around the walls that were meant to be destroyed for far too long, by the means of this dynamic self. This essay is hence a creation made out of the dissonances that occurred while consumption.
The characteristics of creation mentioned reside in Camus’ Absurd Man. He finds such a man in a theatre actor, for instance, a personality within personalities enacted on stage. The actor living thousands of lives in one of his own adheres to the principles of the absurd. The bedrock of diversity against a singular form of expression is in adherence, while an attempt to unify existence goes against the principles. The actor is naturally a creator and is capable of it only because of his sensitivities to observe, to diversify emotions in his characters. Camus says ‘Always concerned with better representing, he demonstrates to what a degree appearing creates being. For that is his art—to simulate absolutely, to project himself as deeply as possible into lives that are not his own.’
Projecting oneself into different lives, the actor finds the diversity of lives portrayed contradicting the unity of the ensemble of the play, his soliloquy seems to be the purest expression of his individuality. He might find his hope in the soliloquy of a few minutes on stage (hope here is solely related to unification, unification breeds identity of being, in contradiction to the diversity of roles an actor plays and gives meaning. It might be understood by the act of understanding which I will elaborate on in a while), but little does he know that his real, individual being has become a silhouette overshadowed by his umpteen personas that he enacts and keeps repeating his whole life. He dies and is reborn multiple times with a new persona after every script and after every ensemble with no solace of being. The contradiction of ‘same and yet so various, so many souls summed up in one body’, the constant switching of lives and the sole realization of no unification in the diversity of personalities that he has played all his life leads him into the absurd realm.
The realization is a daunting one, the creation of his characters that emerge out of the culmination of his thoughts, the expressions and the portrayal of his body are the result of his mind building an understanding of the characters’ desires, motives and regrets. The dissonances by the repeated revaluation of his characters and adding the extra touch of a wink or a fading smile is tantamount to attempting to perfectly become the beings of fictions or of histories in all their depths, but all amounts to the contradiction of the actor’s own existence. Camus argues:
‘[…] to understand is, above all, to unify. […] the mind that aims to understand reality can consider itself satisfied only by reducing it to terms of thought.’
‘[…] If thought discovered in the shimmering mirrors of phenomena eternal relations capable of summing them up and summing themselves up in a single principle then would be seen an intellectual joy […]’
The attempt to unify is at the very core of any form of any creation. The actor’s reflections for a character might create a single embodiment for his character, a unification. That embodiment constitutes all the thought the actor has put in to create it. But if he takes his lucid demeanour a step further and looks at all his creations, all the characters he has created since the inception of his absurdly fated profession, it all boils down to the contradiction of the absurd. He is now in direct confrontation with the absurd. There is no unification of his own being and he is stuck in the dilemma of a perpetual expanding of creations and diminishing of self, he dwells in the diversity of beings but also the struggle of his endeavour. All this is not to say that all actors are absurd men, but the profession is fated to fall into the absurd realm if a lucid demeanour is sustained and a realization of contradictions occurs.
Alluding to Science
The confrontation of the absurd, and how to deal with it has its own nuances and I shall not go into it (maybe in another essay). Sticking to the main context of this essay, I go back to the idea of creation. As stated, creation of any kind is an attempt to unify ideas, build an understanding and do away with contradictions, but nonetheless, the attempt might fail as the absurdity of any endeavour one takes reveals itself as he takes one step towards clarity. Logic and reasoning applied to understand either life or material, natural phenomena cannot provide one the ultimate unification but remains a mere attempt at it. Specifically taking natural phenomena into account, Camus alludes to science and its failures a little romantically:
And here are trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes—how shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel? Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine. You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge, I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage, you teach me that this wondrous and multi-coloured universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories.[…]
Camus might be alluding specifically to the advent of quantum mechanics (QM) and post-positivism (positivism in contradiction to QM is inclined to create an understanding of the world through observables and just that and propounds a deterministic attitude. Theories should be predictive of phenomena and predictions establish understanding. QM muddles around in indeterminism at the quantum level, the electron’s behaviour can neither be directly observed nor be predicted fully by experiments and hence we have a loss of understanding in a positivist sense. Hence the advent of QM does away with positivism). The post-positivist understanding of the world puts a limit to understanding and hence the idea of unification because we will always have a loss of understanding for a given observation of phenomena. The loss of understanding cannot be overcome as it is propounded that nature works like that and that’s how it is. The Myth of Sisyphus was published years after quantum mechanics was established and accepted, but that is just an extended interpretation, almost to the point of misinterpretation. What is not an extended interpretation (in the above and other parts of the text where Camus alludes to science) is the idea of creation merging with doing science. A man of science has the capabilities to explore, understand and explain the world by the virtue of the foundational philosophies of science. He delves in questions of whys and hows of nature, the mechanics explaining the phenomena is birthed out of the first steps of observation and intuition, a hypothesis is born. The hypothesis, taking into account certain factors that affect the phenomena, sets the foundation of the scientist’s creation. The hypothesis might be based on certain assumptions, or facts observed and accepted as knowledge before his observations and intuition kicks in. He expounds his hypothesis, nature tests his rigour and he tests nature’s consistency with his hypothesis. He observes new details with every calculation he makes, laws of nature help him to not deviate but unify the phenomena under observation in his equations and explanations. His writings and observations, the rigorous attempt to unify results in his astounding creation; a theory is propounded out of his hypothesis, a full-fledged creation. He has decoded nature, the power of his equations and explanations govern the future, he can now mend nature to his ways. The theory has become a creation on par with art and literature (each of these being just different forms of creation, trying to unify different things). He perseveres to know more, derives more nuances and feed his equations to comply, to express more and more. He builds a field of study and others of similar fervour join his venture. The venture to lucidly create keeps them going on, they construct an ever so a complex set of apparatus, and they test and test, reach the deepest of layers and test their theories again. The commune seems to flourish but in time, it hits a roadblock; opposing views and theories divide the community (similar divide occurred due to the advent of quantum mechanics opposed to the positivist theories of classical mechanics), and the mysteries remain unresolved. The unification remains a myth as their creations cannot sketch the full picture, there are just missing colours or the colours themselves dully fit the beauty of the phenomena. The scientist finds himself—in the heated debates, in interpretations of different creations—not stripped off of his power to create. He propounds newer interpretations and theories, trying to outdo others and the status quo with more thoughts meeting their ends. Logic, reasoning and philosophies pushed to the extreme, he hopes to explain every inch, but he forgets about the limits of thought and its ends, depth in the colours brings with it an abyss. His logic and reasoning seemingly fail as he reaches a boundary similar to an event horizon of a black hole. Beyond the horizon, one approaches the breakage point of the physical laws, the centre of the black hole, the singularity. The laws of nature that helped him unify his creations no longer hold in this abyss, on the contrary, the inexplicability of the breakage of the laws tends to break down his creations: the scientist faces the absurd, just like any other creator. Now he must float in the diversity of understandings that diverge after a train of thought collides with the absurd and not a single understanding. Camus helps us understand this: ‘Science, having reached the end of its paradoxes, ceases to propound and stops to contemplate and sketch the ever-virgin landscape of phenomena. The heart learns thus that the emotion delighting us when we see the world’s aspects comes to us not from its depth but from their diversity. An explanation is useless, but the sensation remains and, with it, the constant attractions of a universe inexhaustible in quantity.’ Another Absurd Man is found, aiming pointlessly at the stars, the signal demanding an explanation never returns, only the transmission in the infinite celestial sphere defines his fate.
Science and Dissonance
Do the creations of a scientist cause any dissonance? The answer is not found in any abyss too deep to penetrate. The geographical, philosophical tagging is a culprit to look for if dissonances do not occur. Science, an institution, a stream of education, a profession, a creation filled with too much sciency-ness, too many technicalities, requirements of the rigour of experimentation and perseverance which is not seen in any other acts of creation: all this amounts to scientific creation being bubbled into an elitist sphere in which only certain people can reside, introspect, relate to, and choose it as a challenge and not go through the fence door. Scientific literature is becoming hard to read, pseudoscience is on the rise in public universities, pseudoscientific practices still linger in the society, scientific temper is questionably reduced to just scientists, and a false temper is created by superficial research reporting in newspaper columns and textbooks. Science remains in its bubble and scientists only come out on the streets, portray science as the sole carrier of truth and a weapon against superstition when they experience a research funds crunch. Scientific creations couldn’t create dissonances or haven’t created enough of them to engender a sense of acceptance and easiness of consumption as compared to art and literature in society. Both art and literature are foundational to society, they are actually so foundational that they might be the clearest representative of any society. Science being unable to be at core foundations is leading to the aforementioned and is tantamount to confronting absurdity at the very basic level itself. Most people cannot have a scientific outlook of phenomena, cannot understand how science has implications on human knowledge and society and do not see it as an attempt of unification: such a failure deems science to not be a creation, but a useless entity that is not worthy of any consumption.
It is similar to my failure to entertain The Outsider lucidly, for I put forth the agenda to understand absurdism, and didn’t embrace the diversity of the text at hand. My personal fallibility in reading a piece of text is somehow analogous to a universal ignorance in the institution that science has become. The ignorance is the false sense of exclusiveness science signifies, because of its singular agenda and unapproachability when portraying itself in society. Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems can be taken as a case to defend the heliocentric theory of the solar system against the geocentric theory. That was its major interpretation and led to the persecution of Galileo by the Church. But if one strips away the tagging and read it as something that interests the intellect, one could find commentary on argumentation and debate, Aristotelian philosophy of nature as questionable, and historical contexts that tells us how science evolves is celebrated and is rich in electrifying debates between three of its characters. It can be considered a work of fiction, the characters have their own essence of being and didn’t exist but they serve the purpose of Galileo’s creation: his observations and the resulting dissonances are put forth in rhetoric. Though the question shall not be reduced to only science writing, the bigger problem here is the outlook of science as an institution, as a form of education etc. Science writing acknowledging the tagging, and done with keeping the potential diversity of thought that science can delve into in mind can be a way to create the desired dissonances and change this outlook, just like Galileo did in his text.
The scientist and the actor, they face the absurd. Their knowledge becomes their ‘ultimate tension’ and they realize the pointlessness of hope in unification. In this state of turmoil, what could they do for relief, a drop of water in the desert they wander?