Camus and the Death of Eros

A few of us are lucky to live in the countryside, and we can do things like walk up the hill on a winter’s morning to gather wood from the forest. It is a habit, but it doesn’t deserve the sort of denunciation that habits get in Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”. Habits, according to Camus (and others) are supposed to deaden and conceal. By contast, my wood-gathering walks enliven and reveal. I guess the reason has to do with the erotic character of the experience – the profound pleasure of walking up the hillside in all weathers and gathering fuel in a way that feels more like an act of respect than one of abuse.

From Camus’ perspective the repetition of the act could only have a negative effect, allowing “the ridiculous character of habit” to set in. But this is wrong. The result is actually a positive one of establishing an identity between myself and this small expanse of countryside. The phrase “I know it like the back of my hand” hints at the way the land almost becomes an extension of the body.

Affirmative experiences like this throw a critical light on developments in modern urban society, where ugliness tends to prevail between the sheen of the shopping malls, and however often someone visits the latter I doubt whether they establish an erotic extension the self. In the city, both the shiny functional order of the palaces of commerce and the chaotic ugliness beyond¬† are equally alienating, and any discussion of alienation (going back to Camus’ starting point in “The Myth of Sisyphus”) would have to include them.

But where does Camus stand with respect to the de-eroticisation of everyday life? Sadly, he ends up affirming it. The problem goes back to the horrible lucidity that Camus insists on – a lucidity for which all meaning (including the significance of my favourite mountain paths) has to be seen as mere illusion – a whimsical nothingness projected onto bits of inhuman alterity. Meaning falls away, and we are left with a lucid gaze falling on an utterly meaningless, and unerotic, inhuman otherness – reality, according to this unappealing metaphysic.

And nothing could be less erotic than the world of Sisyphus. He, too, has a path up the hillside, but we are led to understand that the ascent of it can never be a pleasure. He has his rock – the perfect placeholder for Camus’ de-eroticised inhuman reality. Those of us who handle rocks know how sensuous they can be, but there is none of that in the myth of Sisyphus. So if we identify with Sisyphus (as I guess Camus wants us to) we end up saying “Yes” to the diminution of the erotic in everyday life, which means affirming an aspect of our alienation.

Why? What’s the pay off for the loss of a more profound engagement with the world we live in? Camus’ answer: lucidity. In other words: our lives are diminished, and we (with our Sisyphean acts of self-denial) have diminished them further, but we still have the Truth. Ah, what a consolation that is!

One-Dimensional Camus?

When all is said and done, despite a penetrating cultural self-consciousness that sees through all the inducements of modern society, does Camus not end up lending support to Herbert Marcuse’s one-dimensional man?

To recap: Marcuse’s one-dimensional men are perfectly adjusted to the status quo – they see nothing beyond the horizons of the given. Of the two dimensions – actuality and potentiality – one-dimensional people miss the latter, and do not see that a very different order of things is both possible and desirable.¬† In short, they are happy cogs in the social machine.

Admittedly, Sisyphus is far from being an archetypal happy shopper – someone utterly lost in the gaudy play of our commercialised social imaginary – and if such a happy shopper picked up “The Myth of Sisyphus” by mistake he would realise the error before getting to the end of the first page and put the book down again.

That being said, what is the Sisyphean world if not uni-dimensional? If, as Camus says, we are to imagine that Sisyphus is reconciled to his fate, that can mean nothing other than a resounding “Yes” to the alienating social reality that Camus seemed to be so critical of at the beginning of the book.

Following Camus, we end up back with the happy shoppers. Scowling, we will look a bit out of place, but we will go along with the crowd since it seems there is nothing better to do.

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Note: See this article for a good summary of Marcuse’s key idea.