Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, many Americans did two things: First, they googled what it would take to move to Canada or New Zealand and second, they stumbled into their local bookstores searching for books to help them figure how their fellow Americans could have turned against all of our best interests.
I imagine what it must have looked like at any given independent book store in any given American city during those dark days following the election: A sea of tear-stained faces gathering in front of the “Politics” and “American History” sections, mournfully gazing at the book spines and looking for titles to answer their most pressing question: What the hell just happened?
In the ensuing weeks, apocalyptic fiction that we read in college and that had suddenly turned prophetic–Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, George Orwell’s 1984, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon–started flying off the shelves.
Later, a panoply of books attempting to explain the origins of American and European populism as well as the nature of the American citizens who voted for #45 (who were these people?) emerged, and progressive Democrats snapped up books with titles like Hillbilly Elegy, White Trash, Strangers in their Own Land, On Tyranny, What is Populism? and The Populist Explosion.
Perhaps you have perused all these books and you have come to a position of understanding and acceptance regarding the state of our republic. If you haven’t, though, I suggest you set aside Hillbilly Elegy, White Trash and (god help you) The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Because if you really want to find literary and political succor in these dark days of the republic, Albert Camus is your man.
Camus was an Algerian Frenchman, a pied noir, who was born in Algeria in 1913 and died in a tragic car accident in France in 1960. Camus wrote novels, short stories, plays, nonfiction and political and philosophical essays. No matter what genre he was working in, though, Camus focused on two central questions that are relevant to many of us in America today. The first was how we as individuals can create meaning in our lives in the face of an absurd, violent and irrational world. The second central concern for Camus was related to our obligation to others: given the absurdity and violence of the world, how can we create just and fair political systems that protect the vulnerable, the poor and the oppressed.
Living in France during the second world war, Camus had a first-hand look at violence and absurdity. He spent the better part of his life trying to figure out how to live in the midst of a furious, irrational world and, more importantly, how to make it more just and equitable. He did some of his best writing in the early 1940s as the dark cloud of Nazism was descending across Europe. Camus finished the manuscript of his most famous novel, The Stranger, in May of 1940 while he was also busy writing for Combat, a French magazine with an aim to defeat fascism and inspire ordinary French men and women to stand up against the dark forces that were sweeping across the continent.
When the Nazis smashed through the Maginot in June of 1940 and as their war machine sped toward Paris, Camus, along with the editorial staff of Combat and thousands of other Parisians, fled the City of Lights for the French countryside. Before he left the city, Camus threw the manuscript of The Stranger into the boot of the car and didn’t stop until he reached Clermon-Ferrang where he promptly restarted his work with Combat. After the war, Camus became deeply involved in the Algerian war for independence, taking controversial and provocative positions that managed to infuriate both the French and Algerian nationals (it was the final nail in the coffin of his tenuous friendship with Sartre) but that were always about extending the rights of French citizenship to Algerians, especially the politically disadvantaged Berbers.
I first came across Camus during my sophomore year of college in a general education class called “World Views.” Camus was presented as an existentialist, one of a loosely knit group of European thinkers who argued that humans were on their own, that there was no god to save us and that it was up to us, not a transcendental order, to create fulfilling lives and an equitable world. Nineteenth and twentieth century European existentialists from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to Heidegger held a wide range of views, but it’s probably safe to say that all of them were committed to maximizing human freedom and amplifying human agency. Although he chaffed at being called an existentialist, Camus, felt strongly that it was our duty as human beings to find ways to be free from the shackles of church, state and popular opinion, and he forged a deep and abiding faith that human beings had the power and the ability to create a better world.
Sign me up.
I came from a fundamentalist Christian home and I attended a fundamentalist Christian college, so there was no talk of existentialist thought around our dinner table and there were no worn copies of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche or Heidegger stacked up on our bookshelves. At the college I attended, Camus was presented in a fair but pitying manner: I think the professors at my college admired his attention to social justice, but they disapproved of his atheism.
That said, when Camus was pushed under my nose at 19, I was shocked, surprised and attentive.
Over the years, I’ve continued to read Camus, like a tonic. Every few years I’ll re-read The Plague, a novel that uses a plague that descends on an Algerian town as a symbol for the rise of fascism in Europe, and when I’m feeling especially bad about the state of the world, I’ll turn to Camus’ essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus.”
So, it makes sense that shortly after the 2016 American election, I returned to Camus. One cold and cloudy January morning, I cast aside the latest edition of The Nation, threw The New York Times in the recycling bin, slammed shut the open copy of The Origins of Totalitarianism, and opened a copy of Camus’ essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus.”
Sisyphus was a Greek king and, in the eyes of the Greek gods, he was a little too cheeky for his own good so the gods condemned him to carry a boulder to the top of a mountain, over and over, for the rest of his life.
Before Camus, nearly every reader saw Sisyphus as a victim of the gods’ ill and capricious will and nearly everyone read the Sisyphus story, to varying degrees, as nothing short of a tragedy.
And, it’s no wonder that most readers interpreted Sisyphus as a helpless victim of the gods. On its surface, the conventional interpretation of the Sisyphus story conveniently maps onto traditional Christian thinking: Sisyphus, a mortal, is punished by the gods for his transgressions and condemned to a life of meaningless and hard toil. So, to someone coming out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Sisyphus looks a lot like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Camus, an atheist who believed that humans are obligated to solve their own problems, was having none of the notion that Sisyphus went gently into the good night of his punishment. To put it another way, had Camus rewritten the Adam and Eve story, it would have concluded with the guilty lovers flipping off god, plotting to capture the serpent and figuring out how they could kill all those damn weeds in the garden.
By the same token, where Sisyphus distinguished himself, at least according to Camus’ interpretation, was in the manner that he refused to allow his sentence to define him. In Camus’ interpretation, Sisyphus revolted against his sentence. It’s not that Sisyphus refused to push the rock up the mountain. He had no choice except to obey the will of the gods. At the same time, though, according to Camus, Sisyphus never bends to the will of the gods. They took his body but Sisyphus refused to give them his mind.
Re-reading this on that cold January morning after the election, I found more inspiration and hope in this idea than I would have in, say, listening to “Give Peace a Chance.”
At the early stages of his sentence, I imagine Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill, over and over, and ruminating for a long time about his fate. He’s vacillating wildly between despair, anger, resentment and fear—feelings that many of us in the sane, rational, anti-fascist world feel every day. But you have to remember that Sisyphus was clever, so at some point he must have realized that while he was condemned to push the rock, revolt was still possible. In fact, I imagine he came around to thinking that revolt against the absurd position the gods had put him in was the only possible response.
Maybe it was days, maybe it was years of pushing that rock up the hill and watching it violently and mercilessly roll back to the bottom, but at some point, I imagine Sisyphus getting to the top of the mountain, standing erect, lifting his head high and regarding the gods above him. I see Sisyphus point his finger to his head and shout with all his passion and intelligence, “You don’t define me!” and bouncing his finger off his head now, screaming, “And you aren’t allowed in here! I will do your bidding because I must, but I refuse to abide!”
And that brings me back to America because if there’s anything we need right now, it’s the will and the controlled revolt of Sisyphus who refused to be defined nor cowed by his sentence and who labored on, against everything.
It’s hard to pick up a newspaper, turn on the television or just walk down the street in many American cities and not be confronted by waves of absurdity. A sitting president with a weak grasp or reality and an even weaker moral drive leading an administration that routinely trots out alternative facts. Neo-Nazis demonstrating in American cities. Elected officials who refuse to govern. Underneath it all are the rest of us, ordinary people helplessly watching the dizzying loss of cultural, political and economic capital. And, like Sisyphus, we go on almost in spite of ourselves.
Camus ends “The Myth of Sisyphus” with a powerful statement that might resonate with you in these dark days of the American republic.
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. 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.
Camus speaks to us today because, like us, he lived and worked during anxious and violent times and through his writing Camus found ways to understand, resist and make sense of a world that seemed like it was coming apart at the seams.