In the eyes of any other writer, Albert Camus had an intimidating talent for opening his books. In his 1942 novel The Stranger, he begins with the unforgettable “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.” In English, “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” Camus stood out from his French existentialist classmates thanks to his desire to smile often and his ability to smile well. Photographed with his Mad Men hair, a cigarette and an iconic upturned collar, Camus could easily have been a film noir detective. (If James Dean had lived beyond the age of 24, he would have looked quite similar to Albert Camus.) When asked what he would do if he were forced to choose between the stadium and stage, he was alleged to have picked football “without hesitation”. As a goalkeeper, he won the North African Champions Cup in 1935. Unsurprisingly, this devastatingly handsome philosopher lamented loneliness between the beds of multiple women and rarely had fewer than three girlfriends. Sadly, like James Dean, he perished in a car crash at a relatively early age. The year was 1960. It was the dawn of a decade that could have been divinely designed for his enjoyment, he was only 46 years old.
Aside from seducing the uninitiated, it is worth indulging in the classic myth of Camus if only to reiterate the romantic idea that not every existentialist was sitting in the cafe as a refugee from the popular world. Camus may have been an emissary from Dostoevsky’s underground, but he wasn’t a full-time inhabitant, and so when he wrote the momentous opening sentence of his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, he did so with the often elusive authority of relatability. “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,” he wrote “and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” For Camus, life was defined by its absurdity. We live in a frustrating twilight between our expectations and reality. We strive in the hope for a better future and yet every passing day brings us closer to the end of life itself. As the old Slovenian saying goes, “the light at the end of the tunnel is the light of an oncoming train.” This scenario would have been acceptable if God existed, but he probably doesn’t and, according to Camus, a secular world would have to reexamine the nature of mortality and find new reasons to justify it. “The subject of this essay,” he wrote, “is precisely this relationship between the absurd and suicide, the exact degree to which suicide is a solution to the absurd.” To do this, Camus evoked Sisyphus, the mythical king of Corinth. According to one legend, Sisyphus had temporary detained Thanatos in chains, putting a brief halt to all death on earth. As punishment for defying the deities, Zeus forced Sisyphus to spend the rest of eternity repeatedly pushing a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down again when he approached the top, at which point he would have to walk back down the hill and start the futile process all over again. To Camus, Sisyphus is the paragon of human mortality. Without God, life can easily be considered as a pointless, repetitive and self-perpetuating struggle. So why do so many of us, including you and I, still put up with it?
In a pensive discussion with Interview Magazine, the author and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips attempted to shed some light on the sustainability of the human experience. In his new collection of essays, Unforbidden Pleasures, Phillips explores the ways in which we prioritise unattainable desires while neglecting those that are readily available to us. “Being preoccupied by mourning and loss,” he remarked “is a fear of the future, that doesn’t mean it isn’t real or valuable as a human experience, but it can also be a refuge from the future. So (Oscar) Wilde’s interest in pleasure is an interest in how you keep the future open and alluring.” What interests Phillips is the unspoken deals we cultivate which allow us to carry on living without the need to justify the meaning of life every evening:
“I think it comes down to the question of whether the suffering in one’s life makes one’s life bearable or not. Whether it actually feels worth being alive. Because there’s a kind of enforced consensus that life is the thing. Life can be unbearably painful for a lot of people and indeed has been for most people who have ever lived. So the question is: what keeps us going? And are we being bribed to live when actually we’d rather not be alive? Or if it’s not that way around, then what can we do to make life actually worth living to ourselves and to other people? You could think that that is what culture is partly about. That culture is about keeping the show on the road.”
Here, Phillips ponders the idea of “being bribed to live”, which suggests that the lack of an ultimate justification for existing is unimportant enough to be dismissed in favour of life’s enduring emotional and material perks. Once the bribes dry up or diminish in their appeal, the individual becomes disinvested and is capable of destructive behaviour. Phillips is merely musing, but what if we were to extend his train of thought to the wider social and political landscape? In Europe and the USA, the established post-cold war political consensus has found itself under siege. Consider two prominent examples of populist ascent. Firstly, the climax of British eurosceptics and secondly the enduring appeal of Donald Trump. Both cases represent a threat to the global economy and the geopolitical world order envisioned in the 1940’s for the sake of preventing war between industrialised countries. What the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and Donald Trump have in common is the reliable support of millions of working class white males who didn’t go to university and now consider themselves as outcasts of a modernity that has stripped them of their predominant social status. There is nothing remarkable about these anti-social beliefs, and it is still possible that by the end of 2016, Britain will have voted to stay in Europe and America will have voted to keep Trump out of the White House. And yet, both are bound to have profound and long-lasting political legacies. Those who voted for the middle finger won’t be going away anytime soon.
Donald Trump has raised the prospect of a religious test for entry into the United States, the forceful deportation of millions of immigrants, the torture of those who happen to be related to terrorists (in defiance of the Forth Geneva Convention) and the termination of NATO. He has also threatened to instigate a global trade war while bragging about his denial of climate change. As Paul Krugman puts it, in 2016 “the planet is on the ballot.” Meanwhile, there are no international organisations with anything other than pessimistic things to say about a British exit from the European Union. With the notable exception of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, there are no world leaders and almost no economic experts who believe that such a decision would be a good idea for Britain. A vote to leave the EU would deprive Britain of influence on the continent and starve the country of scientific research funding, investment and talent. Across the world, the public sphere has been ruptured and replaced by an archipelago of ideologically siloed online communities impervious to accountability as well as each other’s perspectives. People almost everywhere are now voting for disruptive candidates and ideas, from the newly elected authoritarian government in the Philippines, which is now urging the public to murder criminals, to the far right Austrian populist who came within 30,000 votes of becoming his country’s president.
Some commentators, such as Andrew Sullivan, writing in New York Magazine, have argued that we may be witnessing the symptoms of “late stage democracy.” Sullivan describes the rise of Trump as “an extinction level event.” In a recent essay, he cites Plato’s Republic and the morbid idea that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.” For Plato, the freedom and liberty of late stage democracy would be so great that respect for authorities and institutions would inevitably wither away over time, leaving nothing and nobody to restrain the bully and the tyrant. It could be argued that the economic crash of 2007-2008 was the first time in living memory when standards of living dropped while a majority of voters around the world had no direct of experience of the second world war. It was the moral disarray of Nazism and the Holocaust that informed the ideas of Albert Camus and every political architect of the modern western world including the authors of the Geneva Convention, the European Union, and NATO. All three were crafted as insurance policies against the worst kind of man-made disasters and all three now find themselves as the victims of populist applause lines. The questions that most divide those on the left and the right between each other are no longer about how to improve national and international institutions, but increasingly about whether or not they should simply be torn up and discarded with. For many of the world’s angriest people, the one truly serious political problem is strikingly similar to Camus’ one truly serious philosophical problem.
Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, globalisation and increased mobility has had a swift, chaotic, and in some cases, catastrophic effect on communities in every part of the world. Industries have fallen, jobs have been lost, and incomes have been frozen as cultures have homogenised at the expense of their historic identities. Liberals are often correct to point out that cultures, communities, and economies are always, and have always, been in a constant state of transition, but what they often fail to recognise is that it has never happened this quickly and on such a scale without resulting in political and economic instability. As this tide of globalisation occurred, politicians appeared to lose power and influence as they fell into the shadow of a dominant free-market global economy. (Those on the right often did so with palpable enthusiasm.) In the process they descended from the status of leaders to that of mere managers of public life, their job was to find ways of bribing the benefits of the global market back into their country’s and constituencies with varying degrees of success. The result is a wide-spread perception that the elites everywhere are useless careerists and that an interconnected world is a chaotic competitive mess and that nobody is holding the steering wheel. This perceived lack of control – which is relatively unsurprising on a planet which we all have to share with 7 billion other people – has tempted voters in Turkey, Russia, Hungary, Poland and apparently the USA, back into the arms of the so-called ‘strongman’ leader. To millions of the iconoclastic voters now standing behind the anti-establishment political movements across the world, one question might be to ask whether they regard the future as “open and alluring” or whether the future anticipated by the world’s besieged political elites, is something that needs to be controlled and restrained.
If, as Phillips speculates, we are all of us being “bribed to live” and suicide is what happens when the bribes lose their appeal, then what would happen if this idea was realised in regard to the preservation of our political institutions and on a global scale? If suicide is the loss of faith in the pleasures life, what would it look like if we lost faith in the benefits of constructive multicultural collaboration? If there is no positive international narrative and internationalism comes to represent little more than the consequences of the unfettered global profiteering of a tiny unreachable elite, then what will we tell ourselves to preserve the institutions and values that fostered the civilisation that most of us still take for granted? For Camus, the meaning of life was whatever you tell yourself to stop yourself from killing yourself. Every liberal democracy is mortal, without the right bribes in place to peddle their appeal, what can we hope for that might prevent them from destroying themselves?
The moment in the endless cycle of Sisyphus that captivated Camus more than any other was the slow march down the mountain, the rest between heaving before he has to start all over again. In these moments, an unengaged Sisyphus has time to contemplate his incorrigible condition. At that moment, “with a heavy yet measured step towards the tournament of which he will never know the end”, Sisyphus becomes an absurd hero as he enters what Camus describes as “the hour of consciousness.” Camus concludes his essay by denouncing suicide as an evasive act which teaches us nothing, before rescuing Sisyphus by asking the reader to envision a subject at peace with the absurdity of his situation. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” writes Camus, because “his fate belongs to him.” Once the nature of absurdity has been recognised and reconciled, the subject is free to proceed with emotional impunity. For centuries, dissatisfaction and frustration have acted as the engine of social progress, and yet progressive theories of political, economic and social justice rarely consider the dangers of complacency or Plato’s somewhat Sisyphean theory of mortal democracy. Perhaps if we could arm ourselves with the knowledge, and even the enjoyment of, our inherent collective weaknesses then we might be able to employ a more constructive tone of political and social frustration. Our aim should be to see the world as Camus would see it, a planet ruled by chance, indifference and the petty prejudices of an imperfect species. Like Sisyphus, taking ownership of his repetitive plight, we all have the ability to take pride in the world as it is and not just the worlds we wish we could live in.