Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Archive of the Day

From The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus:

Of whom and of what indeed can I say: "I know that!" This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. For if I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers. I can sketch one by one all the aspects it is able to assume, all those likewise that have been attributed to it, this upbringing, this origin, this ardor or these silences, this nobility or this vileness. But aspects cannot be added up. This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me. Between the certainty I have of my existence and the content I try to give to that assurance, the gap will never be filled. Forever I shall be a stranger to myself. In psychology as in logic, there are truths but no truth. Socrates' "Know thyself" has as much value as the "Be virtuous" of our confessionals. They reveal a nostalgia at the same time as an ignorance. They are sterile exercises on great subjects. They are legitimate only in precisely so far as they are approximate.

And here are trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes -- how shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel? Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine. You describe it to me and teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multicolored universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories. So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art. What need had I of so many efforts? The soft lines of these hills and the hand of evening on this troubled heart teach me much more. I have returned to my beginning. I realize that if through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot, for all that, apprehend the world. Were I to trace its entire relief with my finger, I should not know any more. And you give me the choice between a description that is sure but that teaches me nothing and hypotheses that claim to teach me but that are not sure. A stranger to myself and to the world, armed solely with a thought that negates itself as soon as it asserts, what is this condition in which I can have peace only by refusing to know and to live, in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls that defy its assaults? To will is to stir up paradoxes. Everything is ordered in such a way as to bring into being that poisoned peace produced by thoughtlessness, lack of heart, or fatal renunciations.


Blogger Dezmond said...

I appreciate the transcription efforts, I like that one.

I have a funny old video tape called "Presidential Bloopers", and it is exactly what it sounds like. Clips of our former presidents making verbal blunders on camera (and this came out way before G.W. Bush even took office). One of my favorites is Reagan giving a speech and saying: "in the words of the great thinker Albert Camus...", but pronounced it something like: cay-muss.

10:13 AM  
Anonymous pf said...

In light of recent pet topics here, what I find interesting in this is that the limits Camus finds in scientific knowledge apply to any system that claims to establish an all-encompassing truth, such as, say... a religion. Or, to be more specific, religion should be confined to the same limits Camus is ascribing to science. It's one thing -- a natural and necessary and often beautiful thing -- to believe, and another thing altogether to claim you know.

3:42 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Agree completely, pf. And I think Camus does, too. Thus: "And you give me the choice between a description that is sure but that teaches me nothing and hypotheses that claim to teach me but that are not sure." (I'm under the impression that the second part of that sentence applies to non-scientific belief systems. Do you disagree?)

4:41 PM  
Anonymous pf said...

Well, I think both the description and the hypothesis in this context come from science. The description is the strictly physical information; the hypothesis is the conclusion drawn from the description. But either way, the point holds. I'd just add a note of clarification, or maybe elaboration: of course the concrete facts are worth learning. It seems to me that in Camus's formulation, the more trees and stars and grass you "know", the more little truths you can gather in your arms, the more refined the concrete knowledge you amass, the more varied and brilliant the uncertainties they engender will be. (Maybe the fact that I can read Camus this way explains why he doesn't depress me. Possibly an elaborate form of denial.)

5:10 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

True enough about the science, but that's why I purposefully didn't say "religion" about the second part of the sentence. I meant it more about psychology, which he takes on earlier in the excerpt (the nod to Socrates' "Know thyself," etc.) and which, in his day, I don't think had the same kind of evolutionary-psychology steel to it. It was softer, more artsy. Not religious, surely, but...

Anyway, it's a good point you make in your original comment. Still, you're right to wonder about your reading, but you should be glad you see it that way. Given that "Sisyphus" was Camus' extended, and painstaking, answer to why we shouldn't kill ourselves, I take it as a bit gloomier than you do. In fact, I had to put it down for several extended periods and go back to it, when I read it years ago.

In any event, I'll have to post an archive soon that clearly kicks religion in the shins. I don't want you thinking I've turned the corner or anything!

5:19 PM  

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