Albert Camus, best known for his masterpiece novel The Stranger, wrote an entire book (believe it or not) on The Myth Of Sisyphus. Camus’s point is that Sisyphus is happy because he’s accepted his life. This is exactly what Woody Allen’s existential philosophy professor in The Irrational Man can’t find a way to do. He lives in despair until he commits an irrational act. Is his act an existential one? I don’t think so. Camus’s Sisyphus is the true existential man. Woody Allen’s Abe Lucas is not.
Myth of Sisyphus
For those of you who don’t know the myth, Sisyphus is a man condemned to pushing a rock up a mountain only for it to immediately roll back to the bottom forcing him to start all over again. He will do this, endlessly, for the totality of his life. For any of us who know the myth, have we ever considered Sisyphus happy? Frustrated. Trapped. That’s more like it. Camus disagrees.
Sisyphus is what Camus calls the absurd man. The man who has accepted, “without appeal”, the absurd conditions of life: that we die and can’t escape that fact. Given those limits to our existence, if we’re like Sisyphus, we make the best of it. For Camus, there’s no God to rescue us. There’s no life after, life. No escape from the confines of our limited existence. We must accept this tragedy in order to truly live.
For Camus’s Sisyphus, the rock is the limit of his existence. As it rolls down the mountain once again, he has a choice. He doesn’t give up when presented with life’s frustrations. Living in revolt: he lives in spite of life’s limits. He makes of his life all that he can. And in this revolt, Sisyphus is free from despair.
What Camus’s Sisyphus Offers
As a therapist and psychoanalyst, I have to agree with Camus to a great extent. What other choice do we have, but to overcome our personal forms of despair? To fight whatever gets in the way of living our individual life to its fullest. This is what I help people do – to find happiness in reaching as far as they can while coming to terms with the imperfections in life and in themselves.
Getting there is not so easy. I don’t think Camus would say it is either. There are Sisyphus’s in real life who struggle with despair, trapped in unwanted and frustrating circumstances, unable to see a way out. Fighting something without success or merely resigned. No such Sisyphus is happy.
The Irrational Man Isn’t An Existentialist
Abe Lucas, in The Irrational Man, commits an irrational act to break free of his despair. Sure, he takes some action. He gets unstuck from his obsessive thinking and disparaging self-doubts. But, Abe’s act is an action against someone else and not within himself. No true existentialist would consider such an act (murder in Abe’s case) an existential one. It’s only a delusion of freedom.
What, then, is a true existential act? It’s one that helps you face the reality of the forces within you, for you and against you. If you feel like Sisyphus, caught in old scenarios, again and again, head straight for therapy.
With a good therapist who understands how and why you’re trapped, you can get those personal obstacles out of your way. You don’t have to be condemned to repeat old patterns. You can be freed to embrace who you are and live a happy life.