Today is the birthday of the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960). Camus was born in Algeria, a French colony, and was active in the French resistance in World War II, writing for an underground newspaper. Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 for his fiction, specifically his novels: The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1947), and The Rebel (1951).
Though he never called himself an existentialist, Camus is often associated with the post-World War II philosophical movement which places the individual struggle for meaning above any other meaning that might be found in religion or society. The major theme of Camus’ writing was the absurd — or the paradox of the absurd: the idea that individuals have an innate desire to live a life that has meaning while at the same time realizing that ultimately life has no meaning.
To help his readers understand these somewhat abstract ideas, Camus wrote a philosophical essay in 1942 entitled “The Myth of Sisyphus,” where he retells the ancient Greek myth as a way of making meaning of the plight of modern man.
Sisyphus, the King of Corinth, was condemned by the gods to an eternity of rolling a huge rock to the top of a mountain. Once the rock reached the top, it would then roll back down to the bottom, where once again Sisyphus would commence the fruitless and futile task of rolling it back to the top. Camus calls Sisyphus “the absurd hero” because, although he knows he must forever push his rock up the hill and then watch it roll back down the mountain, he embraces his fate. By doing this “he is superior to his fate.” In this way Sisyphus exemplifies the nobility and courage of the individual who even in the face of a hostile universe, strives for his own purpose. Camus parallels Sisyphus’ labor with that of the modern worker:
The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.
Today’s Challenge: Modern Meaning in Myth
What characters from mythology would you say tap most clearly into a universal theme of human existence, such as love, hate, change, evil, or freedom? How do the characters’ story relate to the themes, and how do the characters’ story parallel the plight of modern humans? Brainstorm some names of characters from mythology. To get you started, here are a few characters from Greek mythology:
Select one character from your list, and identify a universal theme which can be extracted from the character’s story. Then, like Camus did with Sisyphus, give meaning to your myth by retelling the character’s story in your own words, explaining the universal theme that is found in the story, and paralleling the character’s experience to the lives of modern humans. (Common Core Writing 2 and 3 – Expository and Narrative)
Quotation of the Day: Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them. -Albert Camus
1-Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus”