Live your myth

By Harry van Versendaal

Albert Camus admitted that he preferred soccer to theater, but that’s not the only thing that makes him a great thinker.

January 4 marks the 50th anniversary of the Algeria-born French writer and playwright’s death in a car accident. In the mud near the crashed Facel-Vega, driven by his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard, lay an unfinished manuscript of “The First Man” and, in Camus’s coat pocket, an unused train ticket. It was a tragic death, one which justified Camus’s description of the human predicament as “absurd.”

Man, a meaning-seeking creature, must squeeze value out of a universe that is basically godless, meaningless, and doomed to extinction. This, Camus held, makes this world an absurd place.

Camus would no doubt have had a great deal to say about the Greece of today. It truly is becoming increasingly difficult to make any sense of this proud yet troubled nation that appears well on its path to extinction.

And the gods do not appear to be answering any prayers either.

It’s absurd-overdose: Unchecked spending is digging Greeks ever deeper into a black hole of deficits and debt. Meanwhile the country is stubbornly stuck at the bottom of Europe’s transparency table. “Greece’s prime minister, George Papandreou, wrote a new page in the inglorious history of his nation’s public finances this week by acknowledging to his European Union peers that the Greek public sector was riddled with corruption,” the Financial Times commented on Saturday.

Political credibility has hit rock bottom. The younger generations are exhibiting a strong anti-political, if not nihilistic, streak as demonstrated by the recurring outbursts of vandalism and physical violence racking the capital. A series of uncomfortably earthly sins, such as the scandalous land swap between a monastery and the state, have cost our high priests their (metaphysical) claim to benignity.

City streets are packed with cars, and so are the narrow sidewalks when they are not blanketed with heaps of trash. Education is a mess; public universities are caught up in a spiral of vandalism and thuggishness. The judicial system is riddled with graft and corruption. And so too is Camus’s favorite pastime, soccer.

Greece is whirling in the direction of the absurd.

Unlike the majority of his hysterical doom-and-gloom peers, the author of “The Stranger” and “The Guest” did not see the absurd as a cause for despair. He went as far as to see hope in the person of one of those cursed ancient heroes of Greek myth: Sisyphus. After trying to cheat Death, Sisyphus, the cunning king of Corinth, is condemned by the gods to an eternity of rolling a boulder uphill, only to watch it roll back down again.

Sisyphus, the quintessential absurd man, keeps pushing only to see his pain and effort come to nothing. He then drags himself back down to the plain. Camus is intrigued by that very moment, the pause: “I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.” It is the lucid awareness of his destiny that transforms Sisyphus’s ordeal into victory.

The modern-day workman performs that same mundane task each day – and his fate, our fate, is no less absurd. “But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.” Does the realization of the absurd dictate suicide? Camus ponders. “No. It requires revolt.”

And modern-day Greeks do protest against their situation. Too much, perhaps. Athens is after all paralyzed by an average of more than two protests per day. Revolt here comes with a self-destruct button.

Stuck in traffic for hours behind the steering wheel of your flashy car, watching your life pass by as you snail your way to the office cubicle – those states of consciousness become uncomfortably ordinary. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” Camus said. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

But for some reason, it doesn’t quite work.

“Live your myth in Greece,” the catchy tourism slogan urged. Modern Greeks do, in fact, live their myth. Too bad it’s the myth of Sisyphus.


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