I’ve had the great joy of becoming reacquainted with Gramsci. It seems strange that a post inspired by his thinking will include very few references to his works.
Instead: Camus! One of Camus’ more famous contributions to philosophy was his construction of the Sisyphus myth. Sisyphus had angered the gods, so they punish him with a task: Sisyphus must roll a boulder to the top of a hill, then watch it roll down the other side, then rinse and repeat.
Camus wonders what Sisyphus’ punishment is. He decides that it’s not the physical labour which is the torture:
‘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?’ (Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien)
By understanding his condition, he is punished. The torture is not physical, but one of awareness.
‘Oedipus at the outset obeys fate without knowing it. But from the moment he knows, his tragedy begins.’ (ibid.)
Camus links the myth back to the real world:
‘The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks and this fate is no less absurd.’ (ibid.)
It is easy for the cynical person to recognise the truth of Camus’ point. We spend an exceptional amount of our lives at work, usually chained and caged by blind, irrational, oppressive forces which we cannot (easily) escape. Most of us are at the mercy of superiors and their whims. When we complete a task, there is little satisfaction as we realise that we have to descend in order to do the same thing yet again. Camus declares this to be the absurd: our actions are only justified by the context and setting and that the reasons we give for what we do fundamentally rest upon irrational foundations.
It’s at this point that Camus provides his salve:
‘It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd discovery. It happens as well that the feeling of the absurd springs from happiness. “I conclude that all is well,” says Oedipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile sufferings. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men. All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. […] One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’ (ibid.)
There is a stoic submission to the absurd (which itself is the act of rebellion). The workman facing the absurd who fights against it in anguish becomes a slave to it. Instead, we must all come to own our rocks and carry on with our absurd tasks. In this way, we defeat the torture.
For years and years and years, I thought this was ultimately correct. There’s something intuitively endearing about being stoic in the face of challenges. As a culture, we seem to value perseverance and, as such, it seems commonsensical that it would be an admirable trait. Conversely, the person who doesn’t submit to the absurd — who is not stoic and able to endure — appears to have some defect or flaw. No strength of character.
Consider a recent story about a Muslim immigrant being ordered to remove her hijab during French classes. Suddenly, the absurd is manifestly oppressive and unjust. The glorification of stoicism in the face of adversity now seems to be a way in which systemically prevent people from being able to voice their experiences of oppression. The happiness which springs from the realisation of the absurd is only made possible because, in some way, we recognise the absurd as being ours. We help to create it, our parents helped to create it, their parents helped to create it. Further, the absurd helped to create us through socialisation and harmonisation with others. It’s a reciprocal act of creation.
But when the absurd helps to render systemic oppression invisible, it cannot inspire happiness. In this instance, the praising of stoicism — that trait which helped us rebel against the absurd — helps to support the invisibility of the oppression.