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Creek Running North

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January 04, 2006

One must imagine Sisyphus happy

He represented in this century, and against History, the present heir of that long line of moralists whose works perhaps constitute what is most original in French letters. His stubborn humanism, narrow and pure, austere and sensual, waged a dubious battle against events of these times. But inversely, through the obstinacy of his refusals, he reaffirmed the existence of moral fact within the heart of our era and against the Machiavellians, against the golden calf of realism. — Jean Paul Sartre, from his obituary of Albert Camus.

46 years ago today, on January 4, 1960, Albert Camus – veteran of the French Resistance, editor, philosopher, anticolonialist - died at age 46 in a car accident in the small town of Villeblevin. Camus was the author of, among many other notable works, Le Mythe de Sisyphe, in which he offered the notion that acceptance of the futility of life is the only healthy alternative to the suspension of critical thought required to accept a religious point of view.

"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 towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Incongruously, I've spent much of my life deriving meaning from the fact that Camus died on the day I was born.

Posted by Chris Clarke at January 4, 2006 09:41 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Happy birthday!

Posted by: Stephanie at January 4, 2006 10:19 AM
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Happy Birthday, Big Brother! Hope you are having a good one!

Posted by: Carrie at January 4, 2006 10:34 AM
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Happy Birthday to a fellow Capricorn. As you honor Camus, i have always appreciated Albert Hoffman for sharing birthdates. One of my dearest and closest friends was also born on this date(1/4); we shall celebrate her birthday tonight. Such good people are Capricorns, congrats.

Posted by: spyder at January 4, 2006 10:47 AM
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Oh, happy Happy - I wish I'd have known! Here's hoping you, Becky and the menagerie celebrate in the way that makes you the happiest.


Posted by: Space Kitty at January 4, 2006 11:10 AM
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a funny synchronicity---The Edge World Question Center announces the publication of its book filled with responses to the 2005 question: What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" Among the 120 respondents was Howard Gardner, a hero of mine in some ways. His response:

Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, Changing Minds

Following Sisyphus, not Pandora

According to myth, Pandora unleashed all evils upon the world; only hope remained inside the box. Hope for human survival and progress rests on two assumptions: (1) Human constructive tendencies can counter human destructive tendencies, and (2) Human beings can act on the basis of long-term considerations, rather than merely short-term needs and desires. My personal optimism, and my years of research on "good work", could not be sustained without these assumptions.

Yet I lay awake at night with the dangerous thought that pessimists may be right. For the first time in history — as far as we know! — we humans live in a world that we could completely destroy. The human destructive tendencies described in the past by Thomas Hobbes and Sigmund Freud, the "realist" picture of human beings embraced more recently by many sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, and game theorists might be correct; these tendencies could overwhelm any proclivities toward altruism, protection of the environment, control of weapons of destruction, progress in human relations, or seeking to become good ancestors. As one vivid data point: there are few signs that the unprecedented power possessed by the United States is being harnessed to positive ends.

Strictly speaking, what will happen to the species or the planet is not a question for scientific study or prediction. It is a question of probabilities, based on historical and cultural considerations, as well as our most accurate description of human nature(s). Yet, science (as reflected, for example, in contributions to Edge discussions) has recently invaded this territory with its assertions of a biologically-based human moral sense. Those who assert a human moral sense are wagering that, in the end, human beings will do the right thing. Of course, human beings have the capacities to make moral judgments — that is a mere truism. But my dangerous thought is that this moral sense is up for grabs — that it can be mobilized for destructive ends (one society's terrorist is another society's freedom fighter) or overwhelmed by other senses and other motivations, such as the quest for power, instant gratification, or annihilation of one's enemies.

I will continue to do what I can to encourage good work — in that sense, Pandoran hope remains. But I will not look upon science, technology, or religion to preserve life. Instead, I will follow Albert Camus' injunction, in his portrayal of another mythic figure endlessly attempting to push a rock up a hill: one should imagine Sisyphus happy.

Posted by: spyder at January 4, 2006 12:14 PM
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Happy Birthday, indeed...and what Space Kitty said.

I was a teen when Camus died; I'd read "The Stranger," which I didn't entirely understand, but which left me deeply troubled, haunted even, and yet wanting to go to Algeria, to be in that place which had such spellbinding presence in the novel. Then I read his great essay on Capital Punishment, and promptly fell in love, so his death affected me the way James Dean's had others. I say this with a wide smile, thinking of my dashed American teen-ager hopes of going to France and finding a way to meet Camus, and well, who knows what might have happened? In case that makes anyone snicker, go take a look at any photograph of Camus. I felt the same way about the great actor, who also happened to be oddly handsome, Gerard Philipé; two reasons, then, for getting myself to France, but Philipé died unaccountably young, too, quite a bit before I managed my own arrival.

For years, I always lit a candle for "Albert" on this day. I completely lost track this year.

So, thank-you, Chris, for such a lovely reminder. That Satre piece is among the best he ever wrote, each word, perfect.

For anyone who hasn't read that essay on capital punishment, I urge you to; it is among the greatest examples of a moral imagination at work that we have.

And Chris, as a devoted reader, let me observe that you are a worthy inheritor of Camus's "stubborn humanism;" the happy results of your incongruous derivation of meaning from this common date you share is everywhere present here, at Creek Running North.

Posted by: Leah A at January 4, 2006 12:47 PM
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You win, Chris. I share my birthday with Kipling and two of the Monkees.

Posted by: Angus at January 4, 2006 02:02 PM
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Don't forget the Gadsden Purchase, Angus.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at January 4, 2006 02:10 PM
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Happy Birthday Chris--May you keep writing, sharing, pondering, futilizing, and being. Cheers~

Posted by: Sean at January 4, 2006 02:14 PM
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Happy Birthday, Chris! Hope yours was as good as mine; perhaps even better.

Posted by: Nikki at January 4, 2006 02:18 PM
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I share a birthday with Shaun Cassidy and Avril Lavigne. I don't think there's any meaning to be derived from that.

Hope yours was meaningful, or at least happy.

Posted by: MAL at January 4, 2006 02:31 PM
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Happy Birthday, Chris. I think we more often ponder those who drew their first breath on the day we did, than those who exhaled their last. Interesting company in which to share the ethers.

Hope you have a celebratory day, and that at least for the day the rocks are lighter.

Posted by: Rexroth's Daughter at January 4, 2006 02:39 PM
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Nikki, I'm betting yours was more exciting.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at January 4, 2006 03:40 PM
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Although not the same year, this Wikipedia entry for my birthday merits a necktie adjustment:

Saddam Hussein took over as President of Iraq, succeeding Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr.

Posted by: Auguste at January 4, 2006 04:37 PM
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Happy Birthday, Chris!

Posted by: Buffalo Gal at January 4, 2006 05:12 PM
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Thanks for the reminder. Odd things,the beginnings and the endings. A bit more on Camus here.

Oh, and happy birthday.

Posted by: The Heretik at January 4, 2006 05:24 PM
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I was born the day of the Roe v. Wade decision. Heh.

Happy birthday, Chris!

Posted by: the_bone at January 4, 2006 06:02 PM
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Happy Birthday 8-).

It's astounding to me that some people derive dread from the concept that life is "empty and meaningless". I delight in the concept that it's a wide open and empty palette - I can add colours and textures that I love, that somehow matter to me.

I used to suffer from "existential dread", the misconceived notion that an empty and meaningless life *meant that* (note the inherent paradox!) life was cruel and terrible and I was unloved.

You evidently share your bday with Louis Braille (thanks, Google!). I share my birthday with two life friends: one of whom died of exposure in Boulder CO a dozen years ago, the other who suffered his fourth divorce a couple years back and who has probably figured out that he cannot maintain close relationships. I'm probably making that mean something. 8-)

Posted by: elissa at January 4, 2006 07:04 PM
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happy birthday indeed chris. may life continue to be good for you and becky. the kindness and literate erudition of your (other) commenters is testimony to the quality of your heart and your writing. i struggled to understand camus when i was in high school. his work would probably be more accessible to me now. maybe i'll try.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at January 4, 2006 08:01 PM
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Oh, Chris. Happy birthday.

I love Camus absurdly, and you, too. Eleven months and you'll have outlived the bastard.

Life may be futile, but it's wonderful having company when you're shoving rocks uphill.

Posted by: Siona at January 4, 2006 08:58 PM
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Happy birthday, Chris!

Posted by: coturnix at January 4, 2006 09:28 PM
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Happy Birthday, First-Born!

Posted by: Rita Xavier at January 4, 2006 10:29 PM
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