1 October, 2020

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A Farewell, Precise & Planned

By Sarath de Alwis –

Sarath de Alwis

In his novel ‘The Plague’ existentialist philosopher novelist Albert Camus writes about a virus that destroys half the population of the very ordinary money centric town of Oran in French Algeria. 

During the two-months of a total lock down I fetched my ancient copy of the novel and read it and reread it. In several essays I wrote during the lockdown I referred to some of his trenchant observations. It is considered one of the finest pieces of post-world war French Literature. 

Camus ponders on our very human psychological response to the plague. “At the beginning of a pestilence and when it ends, there’s always a propensity for rhetoric. In the first case, habits have not yet been lost; in the second, they’re returning.”

Just when the lockdown eased, I learnt of the suicide of a person whom I had known for the past forty years. Suicide is the ultimate retreat from life.  

How strange I thought. For sixty odd days, I was contemplating on the meaning and purpose of life. And here was a person who had patiently waited for the lockdown to ease so that he could make his retreat on his own terms. 

The philosopher Camus believed that the ‘Absurd’ arose out of the conflict between our search for meaning and the random nature and the utter meaninglessness of the universe. 

A lifeless body discovered on the manicured lawn of independence square  testified to our painful proximity to mortality and our struggle to maintain self-esteem in a constant state of existential angst.  

The lockdown that turned our lives upside down was all about the idea of overcoming death. Defeating death has been the quest of mankind since the discovery of ignorance and the beginning of science.  Despite the scourge of the pandemic medical science is in a relentless march to make life more secure.

As the futurist Yuval Harari observes the 21st century human agenda considers death, decease and old age to be technical problems that science could and should overcome.  

Two genetic engineers, who have recently published ‘The Death of Death’, claim that by year 2045 human beings will only die in accidents and not due to natural causes or illness. A Spanish scientist Jose Luis Cordeiro and Cambridge (UK) mathematician David Wood assert that immortality is a real scientific possibility and it is time to consider old age as an illness that calls for a cure! 

If overcoming death is a primal human instinct, why do people commit suicide?  Sheer senselessness of this act of despair compel us to ponder this question. 

Did the pressures of the present and fears of the future precipitate this agonized cry of enough is enough? 

The dismissively smartass expression is that Suicide is a permeant solution to a temporary problem. It ignores the profoundly tortured world of the person who has finally succeeded in leaving behind something deep and lasting. 

A person’s suicide often takes the people it leaves behind by surprise. If you knew the person well enough and close enough, and you still possess normal human emotions, you are bound to experience some faint traces of a survivor’s guilt for failing to see it coming.

Some unknown, ghoul who had access to the very personal note left behind by the person has released its contents. Any reference to the contents in that communication would be ethically reprehensible.

Assuming that suicide is a fleeting impulsive aberration, or an avoidable side effect of a mental disorder ignores reality. 

It is a reality check in the murky world of vulgar wealth. It is a protest addressed to the affluent class that has avoided the painful task of being human. Of the failure to behave as normal beings who are willing to share and reach out.   

The subject of Suicide, the point of departure of this essay, prodded my memory about another provocatively original collection of essays Camus published as ‘The myth of Sisyphus’ – drawing on the moral fable about Sisyphus – the Homeric character in Greek mythology. 

Sisyphus outwitted the gods. For that impudence he was condemned for all eternity to push a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll to the bottom again and again. Sisyphus fully recognizes the futility and pointlessness of his task. But he willingly pushes the boulder up the mountain every time it rolls down, for he was taking on the gods!   

In his first essay “An Absurd Reasoning” Camus opens with these extreme lines. 

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. 

All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”

Who is Sisyphus? What was he like?  Sisyphus was the king of Corinth at times very humane and at times unbelievably cruel and obstinately arrogant. He was regarded as the cleverest of all humans and a methodical man of the world. But he was also a psychotic tyrant who lured travelers into entering his city, where he had them killed. He did not earn his punishment for these lapses.

He committed the greatest of all sins. He became so proud as to believe he could outsmart the gods.

Sisyphus dared to steal secrets from the gods including the whereabouts of the nymph Aegina whom Zeus the king of Gods had already abducted. 

Zeus ordered Thanatos the god of death to put Sisyphus in chains. Sisyphus outsmarted the god of death and chained his captor instead. With that ingenious feat, no one on earth could die. 

That meant that no one on earth needed to appease the gods to heal the sick or treat the wounded. Finally, all gods united, and Sisyphus was condemned to the eternally humbling punishment of pushing the boulder up the hill for it to roll down again. The condemned hero would continue on and on.   

Camus portrays Sisyphus as the absurd hero. Instead of accepting the chore of pushing up the boulder as a punishment, he makes it a routine of life. He is reconciled to the absurdity of the world and the absurdity of what is expected out of his existence. 

What Camus suggests is rather simple. Human beings must make up the purpose for their existence. 

Should we live our lives or allow life to make us live? Do we allow external events or other people to push us in to negativity from which there is no escape?  

In the ultimate analysis, is it the individual who determines the experience of life? What would you do if you cannot control external events? Many things in life are imposed on us whether we like it or not.

What Albert Camus suggests is something that we already know but reluctant to  concede but we are already unconsciously complying with. All the sound and fury of life serve to coverup the meaninglessness of our existence. The absurd is tolerable and livable. We live the absurdity every day.  

The lack of an overall purpose or an immediate meaning does not suggest that there is no value in living. 

When you read the Myth of Sisyphus you learn that killing oneself is an “insult to existence,” even though “life is painful”. 

At age 78, I should know. Life is exhausting, repetitive, anxious, and absurd. But the trick is to learn to laugh and find joy and humor in the absurd. We must all learn to thrive in the absurd. Just watch what happens on 5th August. Sisyphus will be rolling the boulder up the hill and the boulder will be down again. On 6th August Sisyphus will be at it again.    

In ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, Camus compares the average human existence  to the torture of Sisyphus, condemned to roll the same boulder  up the same hill, just to have it roll down again, over and over until the end of time.

He is punished because he escaped the underworld once and lived some years enjoying life on earth. Now the gods have condemned him to this meaningless task. Camus finds it absurd but real and heroic. Sisyphus does not contemplate suicide. Suicide is an illusory promise too. 

“You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.”

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Latest comments

  • 6
    2

    Sarath,
    Noting the gloomy notes in your essay, I do hope you aren’t considering any “permanent solutions to temporary problems”. Chin up !

  • 21
    1

    A brilliant piece of art, your article. Persons with some literary background are becoming rather rare in Sri Lanka. In their place are ugly, opportunistic vulgar trash that often view with disdain, the knowledgeable or decent as being contemptuous and unworthy of respect. Wishing you many more years of enjoyable life..!

  • 9
    1

    Thank you Sarath, for a poignant yet beautiful essay. It is a masterly talent and an art form to say so much by saying so little.

    I wish our local Sisyphus will read these words, take heed and change his ways while he can:

    “He committed the greatest of all sins. He became so proud as to believe he could outsmart the gods.”

    “We must all learn to thrive in the absurd. Just watch what happens on 5th August. Sisyphus will be rolling the boulder up the hill and the boulder will be down again. On 6th August Sisyphus will be at it again. “

  • 3
    3

    A beautiful essay.
    I wish I could be mentally active like Sarath Alwis at 76.
    Great.
    (I never wished I could write like him for it is as absurd as wishing to be selected to the Olympic team. Joyfully I am lymping around. )
    x
    Whatever we conjecture over suicide this desire to not be a burden to others is very compelling. An element of selfishness is required to resist that which in itself is a bad feeling. Blessed are those who are struck with dementia.

    Soma

  • 2
    0

    Easton Scott , Sisyphus is not alone in Lanka. There are plenty with , around , follow and against Sisyphus , who are all into it (condemned to meaningless task). Then there are very few like Sarath who learn to thrive in that absurdity.

  • 11
    8

    This is an astonishing write up that seems to have prompted a review of one’s own existential vulnerabilities in the light of someone else’s (suicidal) act.
    The heavy emphasis on the so-called philosophy of Albert Camus on the analysis of Jayaweera’s death however, demands a response. While there is no beef about Mr Alwis extracting what he can and wants from Camus’ work, some truths need to be brought home.
    Albert Camus was primarily a Jewish, French-Algerian journalist in his native Algeria, dabbling also as a playwright and a novelist. Later, while living in German-occupied France during WWII, he became active in the Resistance media.
    Camus being a Jew, the Nobel Prize for literature naturally found its way to him in 1957, just as it found Bob Dylan in 2018! Camus died in a car accident in January 1960, at the age of 47.
    It is a mistake to elevate Albert Camus to the philosopher grade so glibly, because he was not a philosopher by advanced training or profession. The overrated feeling among many in the Third World (including Mr De Alwis) of Camus as being a writer of philosophical insight and moral truth is a product of the Jewish propaganda machine that rewards pro-Jewish services of Jews and Goyium, no matter how trivial they could be.

    • 0
      3

      Ct, A key sentence appears to have disappeared from my earlier post.

      [Edited out]

      @Helios -Follow the guidelines and the word limit – CT

    • 2
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      Helios,

      Camus wasn’t Jewish but he had many Jewish friends and teachers, and his wife was probably Jewish. What you say is just nonsense.

  • 7
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    Your ending sentence : “This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth” – reminds of one of the Second Noble Truth.
    The note he is supposed to have left behind shows disappointment and disillusion and consequent stress that drove him to suicide. Unfortunately, family and friends did not discern this in time. If he could have been counselled to show that suicide is not the answer but that it was because of his craving for the worldly desires and not getting them – disappointment, and thinking suicide – disillusion, that he was in this frame of mind, may be we would have had a different outcome.
    However, now it is RIP.

  • 7
    5

    Sarath de Alwis

    A Farewell, Precise & Planned

    *** When I first red the Title I thought you were paying tribute to RAJEEVA . Although I detested his racist views he didnt deserve to die a violent death.

    Then I turned to this and I thought what a waste of time reminiscing in Poetry when the World is in a sombre mood.

    In his novel ‘The Plague’ existentialist philosopher novelist Albert Camus writes about a virus that destroys half the population of the very ordinary money centric town of Oran in French Algeria.

    *** But then the thought went through mind and rememberd your famous words . ” Whatever the faults and killing record of Gotha which is for another time post Easter he is the man.” Sarath the time has arrived for you to speak out Gotha is a MONSTER KILLER. The modern day Hitler

  • 1
    0

    Mr. de Alwis,

    “…assert that immortality is a real scientific possibility and it is time to consider old age as an illness that calls for a cure! “

    There are some billionaires who, when they cannot think of nothing better to do, are funding research into expanding the human lifespan. It is just a dream of theirs, but genetic engineering’s boastful claims remain just that. When terminal illnesses lead to a stage where there is no quality of life for the patient, doctors will still advise relatives of the patient to consider palliative care. That is not going to change. So suicides due to illnesses are not surprising.

    The people who say otherwise are not talking about dangerous side effects and unintended consequences that always result from such genetic ‘engineering.’

    • 0
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      Sorry: It should read “when they cannot think of anything better to do…”

  • 4
    3

    It looks like things are not going well for Gotha the CRIMINAL. War between India and China hotting up. with 20 Indian Soldiers dead with 44 Chinese fatalities. China will try to set up bases in Sri Lanka to attack from Sri Lanka . Sri Lanka owes China $12 billion and cant be neutral Let us see what Modi made of and what Gotha is made of.

    • 0
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      Kali is the name of goddes of evil.
      Am I right? You comments made me to suspect so and search internet to confirm.

      Soma

  • 3
    1

    Meaningless task ????? 85 Technos supposedly came from Iran to complete Uma Oya project out of which 10 tested positive for Covid says news paper. Kali you may be right. Situation between China , India and Pakistan is heating up and it appears Lanka will be dragged into their mess. China already has got Nepal into it. (came up with new official map with borders to dispute )

    • 0
      1

      Chiv
      Keep away from kali.
      Kali is the goddess of evil.
      Restrain yourself from evil wishes.
      Sri Lanka has no border with India. If you don’t believe me look at the world map.

      Soma

  • 0
    0

    Soma, Kali is NOT the goddess of evil (read again). Not surprised to see, how you misunderstood my comment too (read again). YES “Lanka has no borders with India. Though it was not at all mentioned, good that you know your limitations , sorry borders.

    • 0
      0

      Chiv
      From google:
      /
      Kali is the Hindu goddess (or Devi) of death, time, and doomsday and is often associated with sexuality and violence….
      Kali – Ancient History Encyclopedia
      /

      Soma

  • 1
    0

    This lockdown has also made Sarath de Alwis a Philosopher.

    Jean- Paul Satre the French Philosopher,arguably the best known Philosopher of the 20th Century, believed that human beings live in constant anguish,not solely because life is miserable,but because we are condemned to be free………

    Did the pressures of the present and fears of the future precipitate this agonised cry of enough is enough asks Sarath de Alwis.
    THE ANSWER IS THE QUESTION ITSELF!
    Funny, Suicide is not class based.

  • 1
    0

    Soma, you wrote “Kali is the goddess of evil”. NO , Not at all. . Kali is DESTROYER of evil forces . My comment was Nepal has officially come up with a new map where the borders claim land within India. Not Lanka.(Where as Katchatheevu was donated free at cost)

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