The myth of Sisyphus and other essays

by Albert Camus

Other authorsJustin O'Brien
Book, 1991

Status

Available

Call number

ML

Call number

ML

Publication

New York : Vintage Books, 1991.

Original publication date

1942

Physical description

vi, 212 p.; 21 cm

Local notes

One of the most influential works of this century, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays is a crucial exposition of existentialist thought. Influenced by works such as Don Juan and the novels of Kafka, these essays begin with a meditation on suicide; the question of living or not living in a universe devoid of order or meaning. With lyric eloquence, Albert Camus brilliantly posits a way out of despair, reaffirming the value of personal existence, and the possibility of life lived with dignity and authenticity.

User reviews

LibraryThing member baswood
“The preceding merely defines a way of thinking. But the point is to live”

The final sentence of Camus’s “An Absurd Reasoning” which is the first and longest of this collection of essays; originally published in 1942. In a preface to his essay Camus said that it dealt with “an absurd sensitivity that can be found widespread in the age and not with an absurd philosophy which our time properly speaking has not known” The key word in all this is absurd, just what did Camus mean by the absurd?

This collection of essays along with his first novel [L’Etranger] and his play [Caligula] brought Albert Camus literary fame. He advised that for a full effect they should be read together, because they all to a certain extent dealt with his ideas of an absurd sensitivity.. It would appear that the essays are the best place to start, because they define what he meant by the absurd and although the novel and the play certainly stand alone there is much to be gained in understanding the actions and thoughts of his main characters who live in an absurd world.

The essay “An absurd reasoning starts off dramatically with:

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” .

Camus may claim that his essay is not philosophy and Jean-Paul Sartre agreed with him claiming that Camus had not read widely enough, but to me it certainly reads like philosophy. A subject that I have often struggled with, but I will attempt to give a very brief outline of the absurd…….

Camus says that the thinking man wants to understand and feel there is a meaning to his life. This basic deep seated need is in most of our hearts, however we live in an irrational and unreasonable universe and when we understand this, then our life becomes absurd, because we realise that we will never discover a meaning to our life.

“The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world”

Suicide is not the answer because when we realise that life has no meaning, we are better off for that and can get on and live our lives. We should live solely with what we know and always be conscious of the absurd and should revolt against all that we find ridiculous around us. Once we realise that we have no future and our life ends in our death and that death can happen at any time, then we should be courageous in how we choose to live.

Camus then tackles the issues where he stands in opposition to the existential philosophers particularly Jasper, Chestov Kierkegaard and Husserl. Camus claims that their reason leads them all to recognise an irrational world, but they do not leave it there to deal with the issues. They all make some kind of leap to escape from this human condition. They provide hope by deifying the forces that crush them.

In his essay The Absurd Man Camus takes his thoughts further by giving examples of absurd lives: he chooses Don Juanism, Actors and Conquerors. In a further essay he considers the creation of an absurd work of art and plays particular attention to Dostoievsky as he feels that all of Dostioevsky's heroes question themselves as to the meaning of life. The final essay is the brilliant “Myth of Sisyphus” whom Camus casts as the original tragic Absurd hero. Sisyphus who was condemned by the Gods for eternity to push a rock up a mountain only to see it roll back down to the bottom..

In my penguin Modern Classics edition there are in addition five other shorter essays and "Summer in Algiers" which was an early essay written in 1938 already contains much of Camus’s thoughts on the absurd. In fact he makes Algiers sound like an absurd city

“it is completely accessible to the eyes, and you know it the moment you enjoy it. It’s pleasures are without remedy and its joys without hope. Above all it requires clairvoyant souls – that is without solace.”

“Everything here suggests the horror of dying in a country that invites one to live. And yet it is under the very walls of the cemetery that the young of Belcourt have their assignations and that the girls offer themselves to kisses and caresses”


The importance of Camus essays on the absurd should not be underestimated in gaining further insight to his novels and plays. They are interesting and thought provoking and with the addition of the five other essays, this little penguin classic is a winner. A five star read
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LibraryThing member WilfGehlen
Camus opens with the famous line, There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. But this book is not about suicide as we usually think of it. Camus is restating Hamlet's soliloquy, To be or not to be--that is the question... Camus' answer: the point is to live. This is all about logical suicide, not suicide connected with emotional distress or noble causes.

Finding no evidence of a transcendent "meaning of life," Camus asserts: It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear, on the contrary, that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning.

That is, don't look to an Ultimate Cause to justify your life and your actions. Embrace the freedom to choose for yourself, but also take the responsibility of choice on yourself.

Camus: Everything is permitted, exclaims Ivan Karamazov, which smacks of the absurd. But, "Everything is permitted" does not mean that nothing is forbidden. The absurd merely confers an equivalence on the consequences of those actions. A mind imbued with the absurd [...] is ready to pay up.

The Myth of Sisyphus is Camus' single expository work of philosophy. He is more prolific, and generally more successful in exploring his philosophy, in his novels and dramatic works. MS is a difficult read, but gives back according to the measure of effort the reader provides. It works well as an adjunct to Camus' fiction to reveal a greater truth than can be found in a logical development of facts.
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LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
Despite not having read this b I'd been deploying it for years--at least the payoff line, "We must imagine Sisyphus happy"--for years, as wry humour and positive self-talk, so it's about time I got around to actually dipping in. The high concept here is that there is really only one philosophical problem--the "problem of suicide," whether to keep living in an absurd world--and that serves as a hook but it's really more of a red herring: Camus is trying to establish the way of being appropriate to absurdity, yes, but (it may not surprise you to hear) suicide was never really in the offing. It's more a variation on the old "happy pig/unhappy philosopher" thought experiment, except in Camus's estimation neither the pig nor the philosopher is really happy, and the first thing you gotta do, right now buddy, is let go of the idea that happiness was ever on the table.

But then how do we imagine Sisyphus that way? Fundamental here (which means "fundamental to the nature of human being" as well as "fundamental to this essay") is the distinction between the absurd and the irrational--absurdity is not the foot in hand, talking to my wall, or the bacchanal or the berserker, far from that, reason is central, we might say or at least I will say absurdity is the state of being a rational being in an irrational world. It is, of course, as a rational being, entirely unmeet (not absurd, not absurd) in such a setting to think or behave rationally, in the sense of the deductive thinker: the only thinking with integrity is not unifying, making an explanation, but the opposite--phenomenology, the description that brings the world to life. Above all, thought is nostalgia, a (lovely, vile) savouring of one's experience and situated knowledge--the garden of the mind that blossoms with sterile blooms. "Man is always a prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them. One has to pay something. A man who has become conscious of the absurd is forever bound to it. A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future. That is natural. But it is just as natural that he should strive to escape the universe of which he is the creator.
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That sounds nihilistic. And/but, Camus says, "I must admit that that struggle implies a total absence of hope (which has nothing to do with despair), a continual rejection (which must not be confused with renunciation), and a conscious dissatisfaction (which must not be compared to immature unrest)."

It's an anti-mysticism, a choice, perpetually made and made again, by the lucid mind not to look for occultic patterns in illucid being, but to roll with it regardless, to embrace the being-in-time–out-of-joint, while retaining one's lucidity. "'The only true solution,' he writes, quoting the Russian existentialist Chestov, 'is precisely where human judgment sees no solution. Otherwise, what need would we have of God? We turn toward God only to obtain the impossible. As for the possible, men suffice.' The intoxication of the irrational and the vocation of rapture turn a lucid mind away from the absurd. To Chestov reason is useless but there is something beyond reason. To an absurd mind reason is useless and there is nothing beyond reason."

The important thing is not to be cured or to circumvent this impasse, a kind of special pleading and cowardly--but to live with one's ailments.

And this is where Camus speaks to me. Most of the time, I just feel good. There's a kind of intense emotional storm or bombardment, a distress-in-my-direction, that can wear me down very quickly (if you're taking notes and want to know my weak points), but on the whole the fact that so much beauty can exist amidst so much pain just seems so self-evidently to make this "human Being" something irreducibly glorious. The existential smile, "raindrops keep falling on my head." I come across probably distracted/pushy/didactic (all at the same time!?!?!?) in these LibraryThing reviews because I'm trying to get a couple of thoughts down in the interstices between all the other things, but IRL a little gallows humour, a little hanging together because tomorrow we hang separately, is it man, the most noble and terrible beauty in the world, for me. Suicide is what I think of when I think of wanting to be cured--when it hurts too much. I imagine somehow waking up dead but still having the ability to shape what happens next, guide my legacy through ghostly text messages, see the thorny knots dissolve and everybody finally agree with me. That's a fantasy, and generally speaking an unappealing one (excepting a few moments). For some it’s the opposite, the escape or self-removal in the face of no cure—but isn’t that still the ultimate cure?

"The absurd is sin without God." Forget your perfect harmony. There is a crack in everything, and Camus would see it as an insult to the apotheosis of bravery when all is darkest that sits at the core of his philosophy to follow that up with L. Cohen's next line, "that's how the light gets in," but I think people who see it that way are in some large portion the people to whom ideas like this will appeal. It's a spectrum, I guess, of people who continue without hope, from those who get a kind of grim satisfaction out of being the last one standing to those who are happy to just weep for the beauty of this fallen world for threescore years and ten and call that a life (something amazing in that ability to keep feeling, that gets us back to mysticism in a pole-sitter kind of way) to the ones who just take thrive and wiggle their eyebrows in the face of the sin-without-God Kafkaesque. Camus sits somewhere somewhat toward the crunchier extreme of that spectrum (as do most of his readers, I'd imagine, knowing the strength of that saturnine streak in my weird and difficult species--although see also the deeply trashy other essays included in my copy of this book, where he mostly dehumanizes the Algerian Arabs in the service of glorifying the tan smooth bodies and hormones and empty heads--as he sees it--of the young pieds-noirs, inheritors of the sun, evoking a kind of sanguine animal wellbeing that is more like where I sort of see myself, on the brighter side), and would never make a statement like Cohen's. But then again, here he is on despair—“everything considered, a determined soul will always manage.”
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LibraryThing member heidilove
i love this collection. for the first time in my life, i felt as though i weren't alone.
LibraryThing member uh8myzen
Camus is first and foremost a writer, which makes all of his work, fiction and otherwise, extremely accessible. The Myth of Sisyphus is a perfect example of this. For me, it is also, by far and away, one of the cleanest and most down to earth descriptions of French existentialist philosophy available. It gets right down to the point of it all. How do you define your existence and purpose in a world without Gods or eternal truth? Why should you go on if there is no transcendent purpose or divine meaning?In this essay, Camus expertly sets forth his vision of humanity's divine purpose and counters any claim that would cite suicide as the only option available in a meaningless world. To do so, he utilizes a story from Greek mythology which is that of the cursed Sisyphus.I first read this work in high school, when I was first faced with a sense of my own insignificance in a meaningless existence, and by the end, I found myself thoroughly empowered by the essence of his argument. Since that time, I have repeatedly gone back to it, each time reveling in Camus' masterful arguments and beautiful language.This is a must read for anyone interested in existentialism or philosophy in general, and in my opinion is easily one of the most accessible works in the philosophical canon.… (more)
LibraryThing member xolotl
Just a few points: Camus articulates well what many people think or feel, whether you accept or reject those thoughts, and he follows them to their logical end; he references existential philosophers but a good knowledge of them on your part isn't necessary to enjoy or gain from the book (Camus wasn't an existentialist and much of The Myth is an argument against them); it isn't dense or difficult philosophy, in fact it borders on a manifesto or manual of living. If the following quotes from the essay intrigue you, read it:"The theme of the irrational, as it is conceived by the existentials, is reason becoming confused and escaping by negating itself. The absurd is lucid reason noting its limits.""Is one going to die, escape by the leap, rebuild a mansion of ideas and forms to one's own scale? Is one, on the contrary, going to take up the heart-rending and marvelous wager of the absurd?""[The absurd man] wants to find out if it is possible to live without appeal."The other essays, and interview, in the book are insightful and beautifully written, but the main draw is the Myth.… (more)
LibraryThing member ben_a
A book that I should spend time more with, but I find myself incapable. Perhaps "The Sickness Unto Death" has so influenced me that I keep reading that book into this one, or imagining a conversation between them.

Camus' view of Kierkegaard: Kierkegaard correctly describes despair, but wrongly seeks a way out. The truth is despair.

Kierkegaard's view of Camus: Stoic despair. Camus believes he abjures ethical commitment. But he simply rewrites his ethics as dignity, calm, or an attitude towards the world. Why should we not equally imagine Sisyphus crying like an injured child?

"The absurd is sin without God"

"The important thing is not to be cured, but to live with one's ailments. Kierkegaard wants to be cured."

"Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined"
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LibraryThing member jddunn
This might be the best and most compelling pure read of any philosophical tome I've picked up. He manages to fit as much heavy lifting into 100-odd pages as people like Heidegger do in 800. Obviously he's less technical, but he's still grappling with pretty knotty stuff here.

This is a sort of worst-case-scenario philosophy... he starts with the Absurd(the lack of external, eternal meaning to existence, coupled with the insatiable human desire for exactly that) and tries(and mostly succeeds) at building up reasons to live and create and so on from there. I don’t necessarily agree with his premises, but I do identify, and am comforted by his ability to make something green appear, even in the desert of human thought. The other collected essays are quality litcrit and miscellany as well.… (more)
LibraryThing member labrick
I know now that I'm not smart. By reading this I could tell that a smart person would love this--I did not. Here is the premise: the world is "absurd". If you believe in God, he is then that "absurdity" (bullet dodged!). If not, you should be seriously contemplating suicide--otherwise you're not living correctly. In summation, drawn from a fecundity that inexorably leads one to conclusion, life is a series of futile efforts that lead to nothing--but be content with that.… (more)
LibraryThing member TakeItOrLeaveIt
the absurd like 'woah'. Want to justify your suicide? read this!
LibraryThing member TheBentley
I think Camus's philosophy only works when he's "preaching to the converted." For all his talk of basing his philosophy only on what is clearly evident to the senses, even he is not really capable of that, and there are places where the cracks in his logic are merely plastered over by his rhetoric. That said, I think the book would work better as a philosophical treatise if the order were inverted. The "travel" pieces that follow the main essay provide better, richer examples of his philosophy than the exemplars he chooses to support his argument in the main essay. Plus, they make excellent use of Camus' real strength, which is his eye for detail and his ability to give that detail larger meaning. In short, Camus is better as an essayist than he is as a philosopher. I would also argue that this particular translation is not as fluid as it could be, which makes challenging reading even more daunting.… (more)
LibraryThing member P_S_Patrick
This certainly isn't dry philosophy, and it deals with big questions, but it is more a work of aesthetics than it is of metaphysics. The main theme is the absurdity of the human condition, God, (or the absence of God), and the meaning (or lack of meaning) of life. Camus discusses whether we ought to commit suicide, in light of our absurdity, or whether it is better to carry on living, and he reaches the conclusion that we needn't kill ourselves. Which is reassuring.
I say this is more a work of aesthetics than metaphysics, despite the main theme being existence, for the reason that all the arguments are supported with judgements of value, rather than with rigorous logic. He says we ought to live so that we can make the most of the freedom which we would not have if we were dead, the sensations that are only available to the living, and the irony of knowingly living an absurd life. He uses the illustrations of Don Juan, and the actor, and talks about the characters of Dostoievsky and Kafka.
But why classify a work, it is more than aesthetics, and metaphysics, it is art also. Not the completely rational type of art, but the type that tells us something about the artist.
Apart from the main essay, the shorter ones at the end are about places he has been to, including Algiers and Oman, and they are very atmospheric. They fluctuate between melancholy and joy, and make me want to visit the places, though I wouldn't want to live in them.
I don't necessarily agree with all of his views, but I think the main ones are sound enough. His philosophy seems to be self consistent, which is important, but I found it a touch vague.
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LibraryThing member trilliams
One must imagine Sisyphus happy, and me hammered. Really though, reading The Myth of Sisyphus is like freebasing pure Camus philosophy. It's his great novels without the narratives, and it's a great read. He also talks a bit about the works of other existential authors, making for good criticism (and recommendations). The last several essays are hit or miss, and rather like travel guides, but the preceding ones more than make up for it.… (more)
LibraryThing member dhut0042
Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus can be seen as a sort of prelude to his later essay "The Rebel," the former dealing with suicide and the latter dealing with murder. While giving a great deal of consideration to suicide and murder to both works, Camus, ever the romantic, decides that while suicide and murder should not be judged in the ways traditional religious and state morality judges them (the executioner much more strongly condemned than the murderer in The Rebel, and the passive man of apathy more condemned than the suicidal in the essay of discussion), suicide and murder are really not the best responses to the state-sponsered terrorism of totalitarian regimes. Camus' Sisyphus declines suicide, and while his fate may seem daunting, he stands in defiance of the gods as a symbol for potential, as a symbol for hope. As a future educator, my question to other educators would be as follows: Has anyone tried to work out thoughts of suicide in teens with art that in its very content addresses suicide? Post-modern society is incredibly "referential," but too often altogether skirts around topics instead of tackling them head-on in all their grit like the Moderns of the former half of the previous century attempted. I, personally, do not believe that purely by bringing up the subject of suicide in the classroom, especially as portrayed as the wrong choice by Camus, that we would see mass suicides of youth; I, on the other hand, see addressing such subjects through real communication as constructive, not only towards fighting physical suicide, but towards fighting emotional, spiritual, and intellectual suicide; In other words, apathy.… (more)
LibraryThing member Michael.Xolotl
Just a few points: Camus articulates well what many people think or feel, whether you accept or reject those thoughts, and he follows them to their logical end; he references existential philosophers but a good knowledge of them on your part isn't necessary to enjoy or gain from the book (Camus wasn't an existentialist and much of The Myth is an argument against them); it isn't dense or difficult philosophy, in fact it borders on a manifesto or manual of living. If the following quotes from the essay intrigue you, read it:

"The theme of the irrational, as it is conceived by the existentials, is reason becoming confused and escaping by negating itself. The absurd is lucid reason noting its limits."

"Is one going to die, escape by the leap, rebuild a mansion of ideas and forms to one's own scale? Is one, on the contrary, going to take up the heart-rending and marvelous wager of the absurd?"

"[The absurd man] wants to find out if it is possible to live without appeal."

The other essays, and interview, in the book are insightful and beautifully written, but the main draw is the Myth.
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LibraryThing member Michael.Xolotl
Just a few points: Camus articulates well what many people think or feel, whether you accept or reject those thoughts, and he follows them to their logical end; he references existential philosophers but a good knowledge of them on your part isn't necessary to enjoy or gain from the book (Camus wasn't an existentialist and much of The Myth is an argument against them); it isn't dense or difficult philosophy, in fact it borders on a manifesto or manual of living. If the following quotes from the essay intrigue you, read it:

"The theme of the irrational, as it is conceived by the existentials, is reason becoming confused and escaping by negating itself. The absurd is lucid reason noting its limits."

"Is one going to die, escape by the leap, rebuild a mansion of ideas and forms to one's own scale? Is one, on the contrary, going to take up the heart-rending and marvelous wager of the absurd?"

"[The absurd man] wants to find out if it is possible to live without appeal."

The other essays, and interview, in the book are insightful and beautifully written, but the main draw is the Myth.
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LibraryThing member Ramirez
The Absurd is the distressing match between man's interrogation on his ultimate questions and the silent universe.
Camus said that man must mantain this match, for closing it would be an escape or a liberation.
Though, it doesn't seem a great solution to me.
Sartre instead said that the only way to get rid of anguish was to realize that it's up to us to shape ourselves and to be responsible of our choices; compared to that, Camus' cure sounds like a dead end (and a way to -having therfore analyzed the absurd condition- assimilate it).

But what if man's question was wrong?
Douglas Adams docet.
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LibraryThing member Sean191
This was probably a waste of my time - I think this book consisting of a handful of essays by Camus should only be read when you're well-rested (which I haven't been with my work schedule for about two months). It probably would be better to read in a college classroom setting where you can bounce thoughts off peers (haven't been in that setting for over 9 years..) So, there may be good things going on here, but my head is too muddled for this level of philosophy at the moment.… (more)
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