Camus on Wall Street

As a young man, angry as I was, Albert Camus spoke to me. Many described him as an existentialist who focused on the absurdity of life, which was true, but I think it missed the point. At the very least, it missed the main point I took away from his work. After going through some periods of despair, I found “The Myth of Sisyphus” to be uplifting and inspiring. Camus offered the surprising revelation that Sisyphus could be happy. Actually, Camus said we must imagine Sisyphus happy. If Sisyphus is happy, surely anyone can be.

But Camus does not tell us to choose to be happy in spite of our circumstances. He does not tell us to turn inward in a meditative trance to achieve happiness. He does not tell us to live in the moment. No, it is a defiant spirit that keeps Sisyphus happy. Sisyphus has the misfortune of not only having a dreary existence but also of being all too aware of it.

Many people appear to go through life without ever realizing they are living a pointless and dreary existence that would be torture if they thought about it for one second, but they do not think about it. Or they try not to, but Sisyphus does think about it. Camus says, “The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” It is scorn for his masters that gets him through the day. Even if he cannot change the situation, his hatred for his masters is a victory over them.

So some of us continually rail against the state of the world, and we are counseled to accept our reality, count our blessings for what we do have, be productive, and live in the moment. Our rage, we are told, prevents us from being happy, but I think our rage, our scorn, our repudiation of injustice is what sustains us and gives us meaning. It gives us happiness.

Our scorn and anger sustain us because they declare that we are something of worth, even if we are worthy only to ourselves. In The Rebel, Camus says, “In every act of rebellion, the rebel simultaneously experiences a feeling of revulsion at the infringement of his rights and a complete and spontaneous loyalty to himself.” Rather than being a negative, rebellion is a positive expression of one’s humanity. To do otherwise is despair, which is silent. Camus says, “To remain silent is to give the impression that one has no opinions, that one wants nothing, and in certain cases it really amounts to wanting nothing.”

Bewildered pundits, reporters, political observers, and sedated citizens ask what the protesters on Wall Street hope to accomplish. They have already accomplished something important. They have said, “no.” They have begun to live. They have chosen to want something.

5 thoughts on “Camus on Wall Street

  1. Lumnicence 29/10/2011 / 3:47 am

    I'd like to point out the major difference between Sisyphus (at least as presented because I'm unfamiliar) and the Wall Streeter's; the primary difference between them is essential. Sometimes it's not enough merely to harbor discontent (although I don't discount it as a major stepping stone). Sometimes one must get off their ass and do something about it. To me, that's the best part of the Wall Street Protests, that people are finally doing something, even if it won't change everything overnight. Have the anger, for certain, but don't be afraid to let that anger encourage speech.

  2. Randall Horton 31/10/2011 / 8:53 am

    Of course, I agree. But even if they accomplish nothing practical, they have accomplished something.

  3. Anonymous 31/10/2011 / 12:57 pm

    the American people have set on their thumbs for so long that i thought that we would just disappear,but thank God ,the American spirit and determination of our fore fathers is still alive and well.sick ;em!

  4. Daniel Goldberg (@prof_goldberg) 13/09/2013 / 9:22 am

    Did we ever discuss this essay during our overlapping time?

    Because this too is one of my favorite pieces of writing; truth be told, it is one of the most important writings in my life.

    Love your analysis of it, too.

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