Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sisyphus Reimagined

I posted about this several years ago.   It's an idea I'm thinking about again, and an excerpt from article I'm hoping to complete someday soon, so I'm (re)sharing it here and now.

                In The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Albert Camus writes, “One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness” (122).  In his national bestseller, Stumbling on Happiness (2006), Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert initially appears to have succumbed to this existential temptation; however, Gilbert is quick to warn his readers that “this is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy” (xvi).  Instead, what Gilbert offers is “a book that describes what science has to tell us about how and how well the human brain can imagine its own future, and about how and how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy” (xvii).

                The ability to predict happiness and the options available for an enjoyable future are central concerns in Albert Camus’s early fiction and philosophy.  In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus invokes the famous Greek myth of a man condemned to pointless labor as an index against which to measure the possibilities for human ecstasy in the face of existential agony.  In The Stranger, Meursault’s flat emotional affect masks a profound enjoyment of the nuances of everyday existence: in his prison cell, he remarks with his characteristic simplicity, “Maman used to say that you can always find something to be happy about.  In my prison, when the sky turned red and a new day slipped into my cell, I found out that she was right” (113).  In The Plague (1947), Dr. Bernard Rieux confronts the horrifying abstraction of the plague’s random and senseless decimation of human life with the realization that, whenever such abstractions appear stronger than human happiness, one must simply become a bit of an abstraction oneself.  Rieux realizes that in these moments, human imagination can only harm those who try to envision the possibility of future happiness; in such situations, one finds strength only by remaining grounded in the source of one’s pain.

                In much of his thinking about happiness and its possibilities, Camus overtly reconsiders and reconfigures one of the pessimistic conclusions of Arthur Schopenhauer, namely, that we are all fellow-prisoners in the penal colony known as life.  At stake is the question of how we can—or should—imagine ourselves and our circumstances if we want to be happy.  Should we operate in a state of blissfully determined ignorance and delusion, or should we renounce the comforts of such illusory optimism for a clear-sighted confrontation of life’s all-too-frequent pain and sorrow?  Our potential answers will ultimately determine the interrelationship of past, present and future in the explanatory continuum that we construct.  If we are pessimistic and refuse to hope, such pessimism is more often than not a testimony to our unwillingness to let go of the past—we prefer to learn from experience and, more importantly, to apply that learning to our present and future states so that it not only shapes who we are, but who we are willing to envision ourselves becoming.  If we remain optimistic, we look to the future, unwilling to grant either the past or the present a decisive influence over who we could one day become.  In both cases, imagination plays a crucial role in what we do with—and to—the time of our life.

                According to Gilbert, however, imagination is a flawed predictor of past, present and future realities, for three reasons.  In the first place, imagination tends “to fill in and leave out without telling us”—because we cannot “imagine every feature and consequence of a future event … we must consider some and fail to consider others” (247).  The consequences of what we leave out when imagining the future can be enormous.  Thus, nearly everyone imagines what life would be like after winning the lottery, but very few imagine life in the wake of a diagnosis of terminal cancer—even though the number of people who will succumb to the latter far outweighs the number of those who will experience the former.  This leads to what Gilbert identifies as the “second shortcoming” of imagination: it tends “to project the present onto the future,” to use current realities to fill in the details that are missing from our imagined tomorrow (248).  Lastly, imagination fails “to recognize that things will look different once they happen” and, even more interestingly, that “bad things will look a whole lot better” than we might imagine precisely because we have failed to imagine the changing circumstances and emotional adjustments that will necessarily accompany them (250).  According to Gilbert, evidence shows that “inescapable circumstances trigger the psychological defenses that enable us to achieve positive views of those circumstances, but we do not anticipate that this will happen” (202). 

This psychological adjustment to inescapable circumstances is repeatedly represented in the situations of Camus’ besieged protagonists and their respective searches for happiness: in fact, it is essential to the definition of happiness that Camus connects with his definition of the absurd.  As he suggests in The Myth of Sisyphus, “[h]appiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth” (122).  This adjustment is central to the wisdom of Meursault’s mother (“you can always find something to be happy about”), and it is a truth that Meursault will find confirmed in the circumstances of his life as a man condemned to death.  It is also the logic behind Rieux’s slow adjustment to the horrors of the advancing plague: as he notes, “[o]ne grows tired of pity when pity is useless,” and thus, “[i]n the sensation that his heart was slowly closing in on itself, the doctor found the only consolation for these crushing days.”  

                For his part, Gilbert suggests that the solution to the problem of individual happiness is “surrogation”: a willingness to defer to the perceptions and experiences of others as a benchmark against which to measure the possibilities for our own future enjoyment.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Gilbert acknowledges that this potential solution to the problem of predicting future happiness flies in the face of our inclinations precisely because it challenges our overwhelming need to think of ourselves as incredibly unique individuals.  As Gilbert suggests, we know our own mental states—our thoughts and feelings—in a way that is vastly different from the ways in which we know or infer the thoughts and feelings of others.  Moreover, “we enjoy  thinking of ourselves as special” and “prize our unique identities” to such an extent that “we tend to overestimate our uniqueness” because we “overestimate everyone’s uniqueness—that is, we tend to think of people as more different from one another than they actually are” (254). 

                In the characters of Meursault and Rieux, Camus represents individuals who eschew imagination when examining the possibility of happiness in the face of inordinately difficult circumstances.  In effect, Meursault and Rieux represent Sisyphus reimagined.  In envisioning the unending ordeal of Sisyphus, Camus focuses on the moment when, having momentarily completed his labor, Sisyphus watches as it is once again undone, as it always will be—as the rock rolls back downhill, Sisyphus knows that he must descend in order to begin the struggle all over again.  Camus ultimately argues that, “[i]f the descent is … sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy” because Sisyphus owns his own fate (121): thus, Camus insists, “[o]ne must imagine Sisyphus happy” (123).

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."