prevailing through contempt II

There is no necessity like the necessity of the past, and there is no compulsion like the clock that hurtles us away from it. The certainties surmises within the moment are pale shadows of its irremediable regrets.
    Michael thinks about the Cartesian reasoning of the cogito:

6. Quid autem nunc, ubi suppono deceptorem aliquem potentissimum, &, si fas est dicere, malignum, datâ operâ in omnibus, quantum potuit, me delusisse? Possumne affirmare me habere vel minimum quid ex iis omnibus, quae jam dixi ad naturam corporis pertinere? Attendo, cogito, revolvo, nihil occurrit; fatigor eadem frustrà repetere. Quid verò ex iis quae animae tribuebam? Nutriri vel incedere? Quandoquidem jam corpus non habeo, haec quoque nihil sunt nisi figmenta. Sentire? Nempe etiam hoc non fit sine corpore, & permulta sentire visus sum in somnis quae deinde animadverti me non sensisse. Cogitare? Hîc invenio: cogitatio est; hacc sola a me divelli nequit. Ego sum, ego existo; certum est. Quandiu autem? Nempe quandiu cogito; nam forte etiam fieri posset, si cessarem ab omni cogitatione, ut illico totus esse desinerem. Nihil nunc admitto nisi quod necessario sit verum; sum igitur praecise tantùm res cogitans, id est, mens, sive animus, sive intellectus, sive ratio, voces mihi priùs significationis ignotae. Sum autem res vera, & vere existens; sed qualis res? Dixi, cogitans.
8. Sed quid igitur sum? Res cogitans. Quid est hoc? Nempe dubitans, intelligens, affirmans, negans, volens, nolens, imaginans quoque, & sentiens.
6. Mais moi, qui suis-je, maintenant que je suppose qu’il y a quelqu’un qui est extrêmement puissant et, si je l’ose dire, malicieux et rusé, qui emploie toutes ses forces et toute son industrie à me tromper ? Puis-je m’assurer d’avoir la moindre de toutes les choses que j’ai attribuées ci-dessus à la nature corporelle ? Je m’arrête à y penser avec attention, je passe et repasse toutes ces choses en mon esprit, et je n’en rencontre aucune que je puisse dire être en moi. Il n’est pas besoin que je m’arrête à les dénombrer. Passons donc aux attributs de l’âme, et voyons s’il y en a quelques-uns qui soient en moi. Les premiers sont de me nourrir et de marcher ; mais s’il est vrai que je n’aie point de corps, il est vrai aussi que je ne puis marcher ni me nourrir. Un autre est de sentir ; mais on ne peut aussi sentir sans le corps : outre que j’ai pensé sentir autrefois plusieurs choses pendant le sommeil, que j’ai reconnu à mon réveil n’avoir point en effet senties. Un autre est de penser ; et je trouve ici que la pensée est un attribut qui m’appartient : elle seule ne peut être détachée de moi. Je suis, j’existe : cela est certain ; mais combien de temps ? A savoir, autant de temps que je pense ; car peut-être se pourrait-il faire, si je cessais de penser, que je cesserais en même temps d’être ou d’exister. Je n’admets maintenant rien qui ne soit nécessairement vrai : je ne suis donc, précisément parlant, qu’une chose qui pense, c’est-à-dire un esprit, un entendement ou une raison, qui sont des termes dont la signification m’était auparavant inconnue. Or je suis une chose vraie, et vraiment existante ; mais quelle chose ? Je l’ai dit : une chose qui pense.
8. Mais qu’est-ce donc que je suis ? Une chose qui pense. Qu’est-ce qu’une chose qui pense ? C’est-à-dire une chose qui doute, qui conçoit, qui affirme, qui nie, qui veut, qui ne veut pas, qui imagine aussi, et qui sent.
6. But [as to myself, what can I now say that I am], since I suppose there exists an extremely powerful, and, if I may so speak, malignant being, whose whole endeavors are directed toward deceiving me? Can I affirm that I possess any one of all those attributes of which I have lately spoken as belonging to the nature of body? After attentively considering them in my own mind, I find none of them that can properly be said to belong to myself. To recount them were idle and tedious. Let us pass, then, to the attributes of the soul. The first mentioned were the powers of nutrition and walking; but, if it be true that I have no body, it is true likewise that I am capable neither of walking nor of being nourished. Perception is another attribute of the soul; but perception too is impossible without the body; besides, I have frequently, during sleep, believed that I perceived objects which I afterward observed I did not in reality perceive. Thinking is another attribute of the soul; and here I discover what properly belongs to myself. This alone is inseparable from me. I am ― I exist: this is certain; but how often? As often as I think; for perhaps it would even happen, if I should wholly cease to think, that I should at the same time altogether cease to be. I now admit nothing that is not necessarily true. I am therefore, precisely speaking, only a thinking thing, that is, a mind (mens sive animus), understanding, or reason, terms whose signification was before unknown to me. I am, however, a real thing, and really existent; but what thing? The answer was, a thinking thing.
8. But what, then, am I? A thinking thing, it has been said. But what is a thinking thing? It is a thing that doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses; that imagines also, and perceives.
― Renatus Cartesius, Meditatio II: De natura mentis humanae: quod ipsa sit notior quàm corpus. ― René Descartes, Méditation Seconde : De la nature de l’esprit humain; et qu’il est plus aisé à connaître que le corps ― René Descartes, Meditation II: Of the nature of the human mind; and that it is more easily known than the body

The first person reasoning that infers substantial existence from thinking may be glossed as follows: “I am fallible. In the past I have observed my own errors, and whether I should have erred in that observation, or should I now err in this recollection thereof, I still remain susceptible to error. Moreover, I am fallible multiply and consistently. For in my dreams I err in ways that fit together into a seamless tissue of self-consistent sensory deception. And since I can dream of anything I can perceive, all of my perceptions can belong to a dream, both jointly and severally. Thus I am susceptible to error, but also capable of doubt. Error is an obstacle for my capacity to know, whereas doubt is my means of overcoming that obstacle. As a creature of limited mental capacities, I am susceptible to madness and dissolution of rationality; I am likewise susceptible to systematic deception, even in the simplest of matters. I am however capable of an equally systematic doubt of all of my opinions, and it is this system that renders me capable of overcoming all error. This reasoning proceeds from observing that we must be susceptible to error, by entertaining the possibility that our recollections of errors past were themselves erroneous. Similarly, we must be capable of doubt, having just exercised our faculty of suspending beliefs about our surroundings, and even our own existence. But in suspending that last belief, we effect a change of cognitive attitudes that is itself susceptible to error, and hence must be amenable to rational revision, subject to the same authority as governs these very thoughts. And since authority must be constantly open to rational scrutiny, it must reside in a locus of responsibility for reasoning from doubt to knowledge. So long as in articulating the cogito, I identify myself as the thinker so responsible, I shall not be reduced to nothing, by dint of my entitlement to identify with this authority, and my obligation to accept this responsibility.”
    This is a lovely argument, and anyone looking to hold onto something for his sense of the self, would be hard pressed to find any comparable alternative to the nexus of responsibility transcendentally deduced from the interaction of thought with doubt. Only two crevices undermine it: one carved by mockery, the other gnawed by grief.
    In extolling Nietzsche’s crusade against morals, Lev Shestov struck the right note regarding his idealist contemporaries:

Вместе с Кантом они утверждают, что закономерность не свойственна явлениям внешнего мира, что ее туда привносит с собой человеческий разум, но привносит не потому, что по неисповедимым судьбам он принужден волей-неволей выступать в этой, быть может, и очень низменной и двусмысленной полицейско-административной роли, а потому, что эта роль есть высшая, самой моралью оправданная и освященная роль. А раз мораль появилась на сцену ― шапки долой, дальнейших разговоров не полагается. Along with Kant they insist that lawlike regularities are not realized in the phenomena of external reality, that human reason smuggles them therein, but that it does so not because unfathomable fate compels it willy-nilly to play this, perhaps all too contemptible and ambivalent, constabulary and administrative part, but because it is the highest part confirmed and consecrated by morality. And if morality has appeared on the stage ― hats off, no further discussion is permitted.
Лев Шестов, Апофеоз беспочвенности (опыт адогматического мышления) ―Lev Shestov, Apotheosis of Groundlessness (An attempt of adogmatic thinking), translated by MZ

In the accursed image of irony, misological mockery lurks behind mortal grief. Michael is seeking to redeem it with coins counterfeit in reverse, howsoever authentic they might seem in obverse. His limitations as a lucky witness to the fatal suffering of his loved ones coincide with his conditions of survival. Their pain could not be digested in a thousand lifetimes. But that is the least of the problems besetting his memory.
    In his Rhetoric I.15 13-25, Aristotle describes two kinds of witnesses bearing proofs. The ancient witness (παλαιός μάρτυς) is a poet or a man of repute whose judgments are known to all. Thus the Lacedaemonians, acting as arbitrators between Athens and Megara, who were fighting for the possession of Salamis, decided in favor of Athens on the strength of the two lines in Homer’s Iliad, which were taken to show that Salamis belonged to Athens. By contrast, the recent witness (πρόσφατος μάρτυς) is a well-known person who has given a decision on any point useful to those who are arguing about similar cases. Such witnesses only serve to establish whether an act has taken place or not. They are not competent to address the question of the quality of the act, whether it is just or unjust, expedient or inexpedient. But ancient witnesses can resolve questions of justice and expediency. The ancients are the most trustworthy of all witnesses, for they cannot be corrupted.
    As a recent witness to fatal suffering, Michael lacks the authority to attest to his own character, let alone the characters of his ancient predecessors. He barely musters the repute to establish his credibility as to testimony of fact. The manner of his coming to know the substance of his testimony is peculiar. Its logical connection is reflected in another language. Émile Benveniste points out the numerous Latin terms for witness. The first term is testis, as derived from terstis, standing for the position of an impartial third party bringing forth an account of personal observation bearing upon a trial or lawsuit between two adversaries. The second term is superstes, standing for a person who bears witness to an event in virtue of having lived through or experienced it from beginning to end, and speaks with the authority of a survivor. The third term is arbiter, in the original sense of attending at some event. Finally, auctor is the reputable guarantor, like the ancient witness of Aristotle. (See Émile Benveniste, Vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes, Paris, Editions de Minuit, 1969, pp. 119-121, 173, 276, 277.)
    Michael attests to his grief in the capacity of a superstes, the surviving party that witnesses others through his own contuguous life and opinions. This standing compromises his testimony from the start. The superstes makes no guarantees of quality. He lacks the impartiality of the third party. The logical boundaries of his witnessing are obstructed by the body and its biases. The social limitations of his testimony are more damning. It is compromised by the facts of surviving an event to speak of it from the position of having undergone it:

    Lo ripeto, non siamo noi, i superstiti, i testimoni veri. È questa una nozione scomoda, di cui ho preso coscienza a poco a poco, leggendo le memorie altrui, e rileggendo le mie a distanza di anni. Noi sopravvissuti siamo una minoranza anomala oltre che esigua: siamo quelli che, per loro prevaricazione o abilità o fortuna, non hanno toccato il fondo. Chi lo ha fatto, chi ha visto la Gorgone, non e tornato per raccontare, o è tornato muto; ma sono loro, i « mussulmani », i sommersi, i testimoni integrali, coloro la cui deposizione avrebbe avuto significato generale. Loro sono la regola, noi l’eccezione. Sotto altro cielo, e reduce da una schiavitù simile e diversa, lo ha notato anche Solzenicyn:
    Quasi tutti coloro che hanno scontato una lunga pena e con i quali vi congratulate perché sono dei sopravvissuti, sono senz’altro dei pridurki o lo sono stati per la maggior parte della prigionia. Perché i Lager sono di sterminio, questo non va dimenticato.
    Nel linguaggio di quell’altro universo concentrazionario, i pridurki sono i prigionieri che, in un modo o nell’altro, si sono conquistati una posizione di privilegio, quelli che da noi si chiamavano i Prominenti.
    Noi toccati dalla sorte abbiamo cercato, con maggiore o minore sapienza, di raccontare non solo il nostro destino, ma anche quello degli altri, dei sommersi, appunto; ma è stato un discorso « per conto di terzi », il racconto di cose viste da vicino, non sperimentate in proprio. La demolizione condotta a termine, l’opera compiuta, non l’ha raccontata nessuno, come nessuno è mai tornato a raccontare la sua morte. I sommersi, anche se avessero avuto carta e penna, non avrebbero testimoniato, perché la loro morte era cominciata prima di quella corporale. Settimane e mesi prima di spegnersi, avevano già perduto la virtù di osservare, ricordare, commisurare ed esprimersi. Parliamo noi in loro vece, per delega.
    ― Primo Levi, I sommersi e i salvati, Einaudi, 1986, pag. 65
    I must repeat: we, the survivors are not the true witnesses. This is an uncomfortable notion of which I have become conscious little by little, reading the memoirs of others and reading mine at a distance of years. We survivors are not only an exiguous but also anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they are the “Muslims”, the submerged, the complete witnesses, the ones whose deposition would have general significance. They are the rule, we are the exception. Under another sky, and returned from a similar and diverse slavery, Solzhenitsyn also noted: “Almost all those who served a long sentence and whom you congratulate because they are survivors are unquestionably pridurki or were such during the greater part of their imprisonment. Because Lagers are meant for extermination, this should not be forgotten.”
    In the language of that other concentrationary universe, the pridurki are the prisoners who, in one way or another, won a position of privilege, those we called the Prominent.
    We who were favored by fate tried, with more or less wisdom, to recount not only our fate but also that of the others, indeed of the drowned; but this was a discourse “on behalf of third parties,” the story of things seen at close hand, not experienced personally. The destruction brought to an end, the job completed, was not told by anyone, just as no one ever returned to describe his own death. Even if they had paper and pen, the drowned would not have testified because their death had begun before that of their body. Weeks and months before being snuffed out, they had already lost the ability to observe, to remember, to compare and express themselves. We speak in their stead, by proxy.
    ― Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, translated by Raymond Rosenthal, Vintage International: New York,1989: pp. 83-84

Michael’s dilemma is between honoring the silence of the drowned victims and proffering his testimony of the saved pridurok, a trusty granted special privileges for collaborating with the jailors. He feels stumped in facing this choice. His father’s self extinguishing in a morphine coma, his mother’s self dissolving in the onset of senility, convey him to the twin realization that the hoped for identity is both insubstantial and irrelevant. It is insubstantial because the responsibility of reason does not and cannot suffice to cope with the frozen enormity of the past, fixed in every detail and foreclosed to his mind’s eye. It is irrelevant because their story is not his, because they have been martyred by gazing into the face of the Gorgon, while he disported with his mirrors. In his cold combinatorial mind that his friends and lovers find so deficient, Michael finds himself reduced to impotent rage at his inability to redeem their pain with any available sacrifice. He differs from Pelagius in not expecting his duty to entail his ability. Nonetheless, he cannot regard this gap as excusing him from striving for consummation. He agrees with Augustine in his starting point of the fatal deficiency of having been born. He cannot follow him in his reliance on the causa gratiae. Only one solution remains.

    Les dieux avaient condamné Sisyphe à rouler sans cesse un rocher jusqu’au sommet d’une montagne d’où la pierre retombait par son propre poids. Ils avaient pensé avec quelque raison qu’il n’est pas de punition plus terrible que le travail inutile et sans espoir.     The gods had condemned Sisyphus to rolling a rock without respite to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than useless and hopeless labor.
    Si l’on en croit Homère, Sisyphe était le plus sage et le plus prudent des mortels. Selon une autre tradition cependant, il inclinait au métier de brigand. Je n’y vois pas de contradiction. Les opinions diffèrent sur les motifs qui lui valurent d’être le travailleur inutile des enfers. On lui reproche d’abord quelque légèreté avec les dieux. Il livra leurs secrets. Egine, fille d’Asope, fut enlevée par Jupiter. Le père s’étonna de cette disparition et s’en plaignit à Sisyphe. Lui, qui avait connaissance de l’enlèvement, offrit à Asope de l’en instruire, à la condition qu’il donnerait de l’eau à la citadelle de Corinthe. Aux foudres célestes, il préféra la bénédiction de l’eau. Il en fut puni dans les enfers. Homère nous raconte aussi que Sisyphe avait enchaîné la Mort. Pluton ne put supporter le spectacle de son empire désert et silencieux. Il dépêcha le dieu de la guerre qui délivra la Mort des mains de son vainqueur.     If Homer is to be believed, Sisyphus was the wisest and most prudent of mortals. According to another tradition, however, he was disposed to practice the trade of a robber. I see no contradiction there. Opinions differ as to the causes of his becoming the useless laborer of the underworld. To begin with, he is blamed for a certain levity in regard to the gods. He betrayed their secrets. Aegina, the daughter of Asopus, was carried off by Jupiter. The father was shocked by that disappearance and complained of it to Sisyphus. He, who knew of the abduction, offered to tell about it to Asopus on the condition that would give water to the citadel of Corinth. To the celestial thunderbolts he preferred the blessing of water. He was punished for this in the underworld. Homer tells us also that Sisyphus had put Death in chains. Pluto could not endure the sight of his deserted and silent empire. He dispatched the god of war, who liberated Death from the hands of her conqueror.
    On dit encore que Sisyphe étant près de mourir voulut imprudemment éprouver l’amour de sa femme. Il lui ordonna de jeter son corps sans sépulture au milieu de la place publique. Sisyphe se retrouva dans les enfers. Et là, irrité d’une obéissance si contraire à l’amour humain, il obtint de Pluton la permission de retourner sur la terre pour châtier sa femme. Mais quand il eut de nouveau revu le visage de ce monde, goûté l’eau et le soleil, les pierres chaudes et la mer, il ne voulut plus retourner dans l’ombre infernale. Les rappels, les colères et les avertissements n’y firent rien. Bien des années encore, il vécut devant la courbe du golfe, la mer éclatante et les sourires de la terre. Il fallut un arrêt des dieux. Mercure vint saisir l’audacieux au collet et l’ôtant à ses joies, le ramena de force aux enfers où son rocher était tout prêt.     It is also said that Sisyphus, being near death, rashly wanted to test his wife’s love. He ordered her to cast his body without a burial in the midst of the public square. Sisyphus next found himself in the underworld. And there, annoyed by an obedience so contrary to human love, he obtained from Pluto his permission to return to earth in order to punish his wife. But when he had revisited anew the face of this world, tasted water and sun, warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to return to the infernal shadow. It was of no use to recall him, to rage at him, to warn him. Many more years he lived before the curve of the gulf, the sparkling sea, and the smiles of earth. A decree of the gods was necessary. Mercury came and seized the impudent man by the collar and, snatching him from his joys, lead him forcibly back to the underworld, where his rock was ready for him.
    On a compris déjà que Sisyphe est le héros absurde. Il l’est autant par ses passions que par son tourment. Son mépris des dieux, sa haine de la mort et sa passion pour la vie, lui ont valu ce supplice indicible où tout l’être s’emploie à ne rien achever. C’est le prix qu’il faut payer pour les passions de cette terre. On ne nous dit rien sur Sisyphe aux enfers. Les mythes sont faits pour que l’imagination les anime. Pour celui-ci, on voit seulement tout l’effort d’un corps tendu pour soulever l’énorme pierre, la rouler et l’aider à gravir une pente cent fois recommencée; on voit le visage crispé, la joue collée contre la pierre, le secours d’une épaule qui reçoit la masse couverte de glaise, d’un pied qui la cale, la reprise à bout de bras, la sûreté toute humaine de deux mains pleines de terre. Tout au bout de ce long effort mesuré par l’espace sans ciel et le temps sans profondeur, le but est atteint. Sisyphe regarde alors la pierre dévaler en quelques instants vers ce monde inférieur d’où il faudra la remonter vers les sommets. Il redescend dans la plaine.     It is already understood that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is that, as much through his passions, as through his torture. His contempt for the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life, have earned him that unspeakable ordeal wherein the whole being exerts itself to accomplish nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth. We are told nothing about Sisyphus in the underworld. Myths are made to be animated by the imagination. As for that, one sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it, and to push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face creased, the cheek stuck against the stone, aided by the shoulder bracing the mass covered with clay, the foot wedging it, the recovery by arms outstretched, the altogether human assurance of two hands full of soil. At the very end of his long effort measured by space without a sky and time without depth, the goal is reached. Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward that lower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain.
    C’est pendant ce retour, cette pause, que Sisyphe m’intéresse. Un visage qui peine si près des pierres est déjà pierre lui-même! Je vois cet homme redescendre d’un pas lourd mais égal vers le tourment dont il ne connaîtra pas la fin. Cette heure qui est comme une respiration et qui revient aussi sûrement que son malheur, cette heure est celle de la conscience. A chacun de ces instants, où il quitte les sommets et s’enfoncé peu à peu vers les tanières des dieux, il est supérieur à son destin. Il est plus fort que son rocher.     It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is itself already stone! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet even gait toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing space that returns as surely as his misfortune, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the summits and gradually plunges toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.
    Si ce mythe est tragique, c’est que son héros est conscient. Où serait en effet sa peine, si à chaque pas l’espoir de réussir le soutenait? L’ouvrier d’aujourd’hui travaille, tous les jours de sa vie, aux mêmes tâches et ce destin n’est pas moins absurde. Mais il n’est tragique qu’aux rares moments où il devient conscient. Sisyphe, prolétaire des dieux, impuissant et révolté, connaît toute l’étendue de sa misérable condition : c’est à elle qu’il pense pendant sa descente. La clairvoyance qui devait faire son tourment consomme du même coup sa victoire. Il n’est pas de destin qui ne se surmonte par le mépris.     If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works every day of his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But he is tragic only at the rare moments when he 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 consummates his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by contempt.
    Si la descente ainsi se fait certains jours dans la douleur, elle peut se faire aussi dans la joie. Ce mot n’est pas de trop. J’imagine encore Sisyphe revenant vers son rocher, et la douleur était au début. Quand les images de la terre tiennent trop fort au souvenir, quand l’appel du bonheur se fait trop pressant, il arrive que la tristesse se lève au coeur de l’homme : c’est la victoire du rocher, c’est le rocher lui-même. L’immense détresse est trop lourde à porter. Ce sont nos nuits de Gethsémani. Mais les vérités écrasantes périssent d’être reconnues. Ainsi, Œdipe obéit d’abord au destin sans le savoir. A partir du moment où il sait, sa tragédie commence. Mais dans le même instant, aveugle et désespéré, il reconnaît que le seul lien qui le rattache au monde, c’est la main fraîche d’une jeune fille. Une parole démesurée retentit alors: « Malgré tant d’épreuves, mon âge avancé et la grandeur de mon âme me font juger que tout est bien. » L’Œdipe de Sophocle, comme le Kirilov de Dostoïevski, donne ainsi la formule de la victoire absurde. La sagesse antique rejoint l’héroïsme moderne.     If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also be performed in joy. This word is not too much. Again I imagine Sisyphus returning toward his rock, and the sorrow was in the beginning. When the images of earth cling too tightly to memory, when the call of happiness becomes too insistent, it happens that sadness rises in man’s heart: this is the rock’s victory, this is the rock itself. The immense grief is too heavy to bear. These are our nights of Gethsemane. But crushing truths perish from being discovered. Thus, Oedipus at first obeys fate without knowing it. But from the moment when he knows, his tragedy begins. Yet at the same moment, blind and desperate, he realizes that the only bond that connects him to the world, is the cool hand of a young girl. Then an enormous remark rings out: “Despite so many ordeals, my advanced age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well.” Sophocles’ Oedipus, like Dostoevsky’s Kirilov, thus gives the recipe for the absurd victory. Ancient wisdom joins modern heroism.
    On ne découvre pas l’absurde sans être tenté d’écrire quelque manuel du bonheur. « Eh ! quoi, par des voies si étroites… ? » Mais il n’y a qu’un monde. Le bonheur et l’absurde sont deux fils de la même terre. Ils sont inséparables. L’erreur serait de dire que le bonheur naît forcément de la découverte absurde. Il arrive aussi bien que le sentiment de l’absurde naisse du bonheur. « Je juge que tout est bien », dit Oedipe, et cette parole est sacrée. Elle retentit dans l’univers farouche et limité de l’homme. Elle enseigne que tout n’est pas, n’a pas été épuisé. Elle chasse de ce monde un dieu qui y était entré avec l’insatisfaction et le goût des douleurs inutiles. Elle fait du destin une affaire d’homme, qui doit être réglée entre les hommes.     One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness. “What! by such narrow ways…?” However, there is but one world. Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. The mistake would lie in saying that happiness necessarily springs forth from the absurd discovery. It happens as well that the felling of the absurd springs forth from happiness. “I conclude that all is well,” says Oedipus, and that remark is sacred. It resounds in the fierce and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it along with dissatisfaction and a liking for useless suffering. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.
    Toute la joie silencieuse de Sisyphe est là. Son destin lui appartient. Son rocher est sa chose. De même, l’homme absurde, quand il contemple son tourment, fait taire toutes les idoles. Dans l’univers soudain rendu à son silence, les mille petites voix émerveillées de la terre s’élèvent. Appels inconscients et secrets, invitations de tous les visages, ils sont l’envers nécessaire et le prix de la victoire. Il n’y a pas de soleil sans ombre, et il faut connaître la nuit. L’homme absurde dit oui et son effort n’aura plus de cesse. S’il y a un destin personnel, il n’y a point de destinée supérieure ou du moins il n’en est qu’une dont il juge qu’elle est fatale et méprisable. Pour le reste, il se sait le maître de ses jours. A cet instant subtil où l’homme se retourne sur sa vie, Sisyphe, revenant vers son rocher, contemple cette suite d’actions sans lien qui devient son destin, créé par lui, uni sous le regard de sa mémoire et bientôt scellé par sa mort. Ainsi, persuadé de l’origine toute humaine de tout ce qui est humain, aveugle qui désire voir et qui sait que la nuit n’a pas de fin, il est toujours en marche. Le rocher roule encore.     All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his anguish, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, rises up the myriad of astonished little voices of the earth. Unconscious and secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and the night must be known. The absurd man says yes and his efforts will not cease henceforth. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is but one whereof he judges that it is inevitable and contemptible. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, contemplates that series of unrelated actions that become his fate, created by him, combined under the gaze of his memory and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man who is eager to see, and who knows that the night has no end, he is always on the go. The rock is still rolling.
    Je laisse Sisyphe au bas de la montagne ! On retrouve toujours son fardeau. Mais Sisyphe enseigne la fidélité supérieure qui nie les dieux et soulève les rochers. Lui aussi juge que tout est bien. Cet univers désormais sans maître ne lui paraît ni stérile ni futile. Chacun des grains de cette pierre, chaque éclat minéral de cette montagne pleine de nuit, à lui seul, forme un monde. La lutte elle-même vers les sommets suffit à remplir un coeur d’homme. Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux.     I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always regains one’s burden. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too judges that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each particle of that stone, each mineral splinter of that mountain full of night, to him alone, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. Sisyphus must be imagined happy.
    ― Albert Camus, Le mythe de Sisyphe, 1942, E, pp. 195-198     ― translated by MZ

Sisyphus suggests the solution to the first hand experience of surviving pain and boredom. He has no remedy for witnessing and remembering the faces of the drowned. The search continues.

2 thoughts on “prevailing through contempt II”

  1. Thank you for putting up texts, images and thoughts of interest. Especially
    appreciated are parallel English-Russian texts. Having no learning of French,
    I find that just by reading them in parallel I begin to understand.

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