Myth of Sisyphus
In Albert Camus’s seminal book, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus presents us with the myth of Sisyphus so that he can attempt to answer whether one can logically deduce that suicide, and not hope, is the only solution to an absurd, cold and indifferent world. More specifically, Camus wants to know whether an absurd reasoning, in the sense of experiencing the feeling of absurdness of the world, logically leads to suicide as the only solution. By absurd Camus gives us no strict definition but characterises a few sketches by what he means by the feeling of absurdity: for example, the weariness tinged with amazement when we begin to ask “why” after performing our mechanical gestures and routines day by day. Or, for another example, the feeling of being exiled from our alien world with no home to return to or to find in the future.
I will quote prolifically from the book because Camus is a sumptuous, beautiful writer and his ideas are better understood and conveyed through the voice of the existentialist-absurdist Frenchman.
In the final chapter of book Camus attempts to answer this question by presenting us with the story of Sisyphus: “The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back on its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour.”
The gods were right. There is no punishment more severe than futile labour persisting for the duration of all eternity without respite. It may be argued that the case of Sisyphus is not entirely analogous to the condition of absurdity that modern man is his office cubical finds himself in, but this would be a misstep. Modern man in his office is driven by illusions, fancies and lights, but if we tore down the curtain guarding his world we would see that the bare harsh reality of modern existence is analogous to that of Sisyphus: it just takes mythic identification to be able to see it.
Camus goes on to state: “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 towards accomplishing nothing.” One rule of thumb to measure whether a situation is absurd is to apply the following formula: does the time engaged in and effort expended result in a worthwhile accomplishment? Consider the women who has spent her entire life building the biggest sandcastle that she can conceive. At the precise moment she is about to apply the finishing touches to her magnum opus, a strong roaring tidal wave crashes onto the beach and demolishes the castle. An absurd situation (in both senses of the word). In the case of Sisyphus, only he could have exerted so much energy yet achieved so little in recompense.
Camus finally gives us an answer to the question that we have been pondering throughout the book: is life worth living in an absurd universe? As Camus writes during the descent of Sisyphus’s stone after it has rolled back down the mountain. “I see that man [Sisyphus] going back down with a heavy yet measured step towards the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, this is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. His is stronger than his rock. “
But how Camus is Sisyphus superior to his fate in this lucid hour of consciousness? Camus writes: “[t]he absurd man says yes and his effort will be henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny or at least there is but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At the subtle moment when a man glances backward over his life … Sisyphus … contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death.”
This is a beautiful idea expressed by Camus which has clearly been influence by the “Amor Fati” of Friedrich Nietzsche. Sisyphus is, according to Camus, greater than his fate despite it being despicable and inevitable because he has the mindset of being a yea-sayer (another Nietzsche term). Sisyphus, in essence, takes responsibility for all that has happened to him and will take responsibility for all that, hitherto, goes beyond him. Even though he his only pushing a rock up a steep mountain only for it to fall and roll mercilessly to the foot of the mountain, Sisyphus will take ownership for his remaining days and for how he conducts himself for the rest of his life.
“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He, too, concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
So, Camus answer to the question is life worth living in absurd universe is that “all is good, not to worry, it’s not really futile” just enjoy the struggle of existence. But this answer is totally unconvincing. To see why, consider the following:
Earlier in the Sisyphus story Camus writes “If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him. The workmen of today is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.” This is precisely correct. The feeling of absurdity arises, even if only in a flash, and even if the thinking process that made the mind arrive at this stage was entirely an unconscious process, because consciously the subject has felt a type of alienation between him and the world, time or life. That is, the feeling of absurdity arises out of consciously noticing the discrepancy between the self and the universe, time or life resulting in an alienation that was previously ignored by habit or necessity. Since this feeling of absurdity is a conscious process arising out of the logical connection between the state of the world and the self, it seems bizarre to assert that Sisyphus, in his conscious moments, when he recognises the absurdity of existence will also be able to realise that this crushing absurd and futile punishment is really not absurd at all: I just have to enjoy the struggle and love my fate.
But once again, this type of reasoning fails to convince, Sisyphus through an act of magnificent will and mindset cannot just magically turn the alchemical absurd into alchemical gold. The absurd reasoning, and the absurd mindset, comes out of the conscious reasoning that the means never justify the end because metaphorically the stone will keep rolling down the mountain, therefore for Sisyphus to arbitrarily change his mind seems unlikely. However, Camus himself says that this is precisely the crux: “Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition; it is what he thinks of during his descent. 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.
My argument against the great Camus is that the Sisyphus’s lucidity which will crown his victory is ultimately self-defeating since it is built on the conscious recognition of absurd reasoning, and once this logical standpoint has been achieved, it is extremely hard to see how this lucidity could alchemically turn defeat into a resounding victory.
Maybe Camus secretly agrees with the following analysis since at the very end of the book he writes the following which appears to betray all that has come before it:
“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
I’ve have always been obsessed with Camus’s articulation that one must imagine Sisyphus happy. Firstly, this articulation includes the need for necessity with “must,” what happens if sometimes we don’t imagine Sisyphus happy, is the truth of our condition too hard to bear? Secondly, the notion of imagination rather than knowledge in regards to Sisyphus, we don’t know whether he is happy or not, but rather we should use the power of our imagination to believe that Sisyphus is happy. Putting these two terms together “must imagine” Sisyphus happy reveals a powerful combination of Camus pushing the agenda that the solution to the absurd is hope and not suicide. It is of the upmost necessity that we imagine that Sisyphus is happy, which if you reflect on what Camus is proposing here is frankly ridiculous. In the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus’s primary task is answering the question of whether an absurd existence is solved best by suicide or by hope, yet Camus in the final line of the book after telling us the absurd condition is analogous to the futile punishment faced by Sisyphus is best explained as hope since we have to, out of necessity, imagine that Sisyphus is happy with his wretched condition. One cannot help but think that Camus must imagine that hope not suicide is the answer.
Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (Hereafter: Wonder) is one of the most underrated, beautiful films of recent times. Considering Wonder was the first film released by Malick since his magnus opus Tree of Life, it was also going to have trouble filling the astronomic expectations of Malick fans. Not helped by the narrowed ambitions of this new film and renewed pressure from hostile critics determined that a filmmaker such as Malick stop receiving vast praise for artistic, philosophical and deep filmmaking.
To truly appreciate Wonder it needs to be viewed more than once because it can only be fully understood when the structures that underpin the film come clearly into view; it is only noticeable how individual scenes connect with other proceeding or later scenes after the film has been watched more than once. Isolated scenes begin to form a deeper whole, a philosophical and aesthetic structure is revealed.
On second viewing, and repeated viewings after, Wonder is a marvel of a movie: you just need to understand what the movie is attempting to do, and then you can objectively decide whether the movie achieves it, and whether you found aesthetic enjoyment watching the movie’s attempt to achieve its objectives.
If there is a criticism of Wonder it is this – on first viewing, the film does not do enough to force the viewer to re-watch the movie, even for Malick fans. But those Malick fans who do not take the plunge to re-watch the movie and garner the secrets the film has to offer, have ye little faith! Wonder is a film that does not radiate immediate beauty, it is not glamorous, showy, vapid or consist of sparkling objects and set pieces. The beauty of the Wonder lies in its “slow arrow of beauty”, as characterised by Freidrich Nietzsche:
“The slow arrow of beauty. The most noble kind of beauty is that which does not carry us away suddenly, whose attacks are not violent or intoxicating (this kind easily awakens disgust), but rather the kind of beauty which infiltrates slowly, which we carry along with us almost unnoticed, and meet up with again in dreams; finally, after it has for a long time lain modestly in our heart, it takes complete possession of us, filling our eyes with tears, our hearts with longing. What do we long for when we see beauty? To be beautiful. We think much happiness must be connected with it. But that is an error.”
In this article I will give an analysis of the meaning of Wonder. As I will attempt to explain, any analysis of Wonder should not focus on the limited narrative arc of the film. Wonder eschews traditional modes of story-telling such as narrative, tasks and the protagonist-antagonist distinction. There is a narrative to the film, and a train of events that can be understood from preceding causes but the film does not have a traditional narrative, story arc or development of characters.
Take a typical movie and it will deliver the standard story arc of statement of problem, proposed solution to problem, obstacles that foil solution, successful solution to problem and then attainment of the goal. Wonder does not follow this template. Wonder is primarily focused on answering the central question that is posed throughout the film, and moreover this central question is only revealed at the mid-point of the movie. This has a disorientating effect for viewers that clamour for the hand rails of narrative to understandably propel their attention through the movie as Wonder does not have a narrative as such. It is this precise aspect that makes repeated viewings of the film necessary and extremely worthwhile, even if it fails to convince movie-goers to make this plunge.
The Central Question
Any analysis of the film that refuses to highlight this central question that the film poses does not really understand the film. Understanding the central question of the film renders the film’s ending intelligible and frames the characters motivations and behaviours coherently. Wonder primarily focuses on two relationships throughout the film. The main relationship is the turbulent and mostly non-existent relationship between Marina, played by Olga Kurylenko, and Neil, played by Ben Affleck. The secondary relationship in the film is between the Priest, Father Quintana, and his tenuous relationship as to the existence of God.
As Malick denies revealing the primary question of the movie until its midpoint the viewer watches the beginning of the movie as if it were an impressionistic painting devoid of extraneous details such as an overarching narrative, antagonists, and tendentious ideologies inserted into cellouid. On a repeated viewing the structure of the movie becomes transparent, and it directly and logically leads to both Marina’s and, by proxy, Father Quintana asking the central question of the movie.
Structurally both relationships are identical, Marina – madly in love with Neil – emigrates with her daughter to America to be with him. However, once living in America the relationship sours and she returns back to France with her daughter. Lonely, she returns to America without her daughter (who has remained in France with her father) and she marries Neil in a rushed, hurried, civil wedding without friends and family with prison inmates as witnesses. Although newly married, the couple immediately skip past the honeymoon and intimacy stage of their relationship and fast forward to an icy, insecure relationship; despite this, the marriage does have its odd moments of romantic passion to Marina’s delight. In the case of Father Quintana, his relationship with God can be characterised by his internal statement:
““Everywhere you’re present and still I can’t see you. You’re within me, around me, and I have no experience of you. Not as I once did. Why don’t I hold onto what I’ve found.”
Father Quintana is in the midst of a crisis of faith. Father Quintana, a priest that has lost faith in the existence of God of whom he once believed in. It would be a mistake to say that Father is an atheist. His statement does not reveal that he does not believe in God, rather it is the more nuanced statement – I once had an experience of God, but now I can’t see Him or find a trace of him anywhere. Father Quintana is seeks to find another experience of God, and not being able to see the presence of God anywhere begins to erode his belief that he ever experienced him.
If anybody needs the experience of God it is the Priest. I do not mean this in the trivial manner that a Priest should have the experience of God if he wants to profess his belief in God’s existence, rather I mean that the Priest needs an external agency to redeem the suffering that he experiences daily in his priestly duties. For instance, Father Quintana frequently visits jails to spiritually pardon convicts, visits poor socio-economic communities to provide psychological relief to those suffering from crippling illnesses, mental illness and abuse. Father Quintana frequently – as is his duty – preaches sermons of transcendental concepts, such as, divine love and forgiveness, but his daily interactions are those stuck in the grim of the world. However, this it would seem is the duty of the Priest, the duty to redeem the pain, suffering and misfortune of the world through the sacred gospel. But what if the Priest – after his words, belief and faith fail him – cannot see the presence of God in the world and therefore cannot redeem the fallen aspect of the world.
So, as we can see, both Marina and Father Quintana have this same structure: exuberance or love for the relationship with the other and then the fall of the relationship
Before I state the central question that motivates the film and its directorial choices, Marina poses the central question after Marina and Neil have just reawakened the passionate sexual desire in their relationship following a period of prolonged “marriage trouble” between them.
The central question of the film is stated by Marina in a whispered monologue as the symbolic image of a turtle is swimming towards the surface of the ocean where a beam of light is piercing through the ocean:
“Where are we when we are there? Why not always? “Which is the truth?” What we know up there? Or down here?”
The idea that Marina is expressing here is that in love and in life, what is the more true and essential state of the thing? In romantic love, what is the true expression? Is it the periods of intense romantic and intimate love between couples or is it the periods of miscommunication, arguments and not wanting to be together? If it’s the periods of intense romantic love, why can we not stay there forever?
It is clear to see that Father Quintana is facing from a structurally analogous predicament to the issue facing Marina. Which is the truth? The experience of God in the world in the less glamorous aspects of the world? Or is the world godless and suffering, pain and destruction reign supreme? If God does exist, why can’t we stay up there with the experience of God forever?
To the Wonder
Early in the film, the initial lovers, Neil and Marina, visit the delightful Mont St. Michel in Normandy. During this visit the couple manage to reach the blissful ecstatic experience of love as they observe the cathedral’s premises. This experience is the essential aspect of the film. This is the type of experience that the Priest is yearning to find again through religion and the experience that Marina is seeking through the union of love.
The film visually demonstrates that the couple have ascended to the peak blissful experience. During the visit to Mont St. Michel, Marina in a voice-over states as they are climbing some steps “we climbed the steps … to the wonder.” The “to the wonder” she is expressing here is the metaphorical feeling of wonder. The feeling of amazement, admiration, and also the blissful ecstatic experience of love. This is further confirmed when climbing the steps Marina and Neil tightly and passionately embrace in an affectionate hug. To stimulate this mystical feeling of wonder in the audience the director Terrence Malick purposefully overlays the images with the stirring music of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal Overture.
After climbing the stairs the following image is presented in the movie:
Notice the obvious resemblance and reference to this famous image:
This is a metaphorical image displayed in the movie that states the same point as my exposition. The lovers have ascended from the realms of lower “earthly” experience and have climbed to the higher experience of wonder through blissful ecstatic love. This is explained contextually by reference to the famous image of God reaching out to Michelangelo in the “creation of Adam” painting, where a higher being reaches out to a lower being in an embrace of unions.
Starting with Father Quintana, earlier in the movie, a cleaner persuades the Father to touch the stained glass windows and tells the Priest that through these windows comes normal light and spiritual light. The idea expressed here is that God’s presence – a type of invisible spiritual light – lays through the world like a higher-order property supervienient on a lower-order property in a non-reductive manner. This is a metaphysical explanation why the Priest cannot see the presence of God in the daily suffering of the world. Ironically, the cleaner not only instructs the Priest of this explanation but demonstrates a crucial difference between them: he feels the presence of this spiritual light whilst the Priest does not.
After tending to an individual suffering from downs syndrome (I assume, forgive me), the individual tells the Priest that he is thankful for such people like him in the world. This sense of purpose and recognition in those unduly struck by suffering and disease proves to be the catalyst for the affirmation of the Father’s faith in God.
The movie demonstrates that the Father has transcended his crisis of faith and has once again seen the wonder of existence when he revisits the suffering, the ill, and the poor in the dilapidated housing and run-down neighbourhood when he begins to recite the prayer of St. Patrick. This is an obvious reference that the Priest can now see the presence of God throughout the world and in all things.
Father Quintana: Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Finishing with the protagonist Marina, her relationship with Neil continues to deteriorate to such an extent that she has a romantic tryst with a carpenter. Racked by guilt she tells Neil of this encounter and this eventually leads them to getting a divorce. Out of the romantic encounter with the carpenter, she gives birth to a baby boy.
Divorced and a single mother to a baby boy (her other daughter remains in France with her father), she begins to find pleasure spending time with her child (now a toddler) playing with the ducks. In another brief micro-vignette she is seen in delirious happiness running in the direction of a flock of birds as they traverse harmoniously across the sky. Marina, it appears, is finding happiness in the freedom of nature, rather than being dependent on other human beings. This realisation is the catalyst for her ecstatic experience of wonder.
Marina hits the height of “religious” ectascy when we meet her alone in a pastoral setting running, dancing and exploring the nature within it. Feeling the beauty of life, Marina becomes visibly blissful and ecstatic. She is experiencing the wonder, the wonder of life, and as she does so, a golden light shines over her face, which is a visual reference to attainment of higher experience. Symbolically this is the spiritual light that pursing through the stained windows at the church, the sunshine breaking the surface of the water when the turtle swam from the depths. This spiritual light that furnishes its participants with an intense feeling of ecstasy is also metaphorically symbolised in higher experience by climbing the stairs – in the context of this movie – at the Mont St Michel and the striving towards higher transcendent experiences, as confirmed by the ending.
During Marina’s ecstasy the stirring strings of Wagner’s Parsifal’s overture is loudly playing and recreating for the audience that feeling of ecstasy. The image fades out to the final image of the film, Wagner still playing, to the sumptuous image of Mont St. Michel, with its cathedral rooted to the beach but its spire reaching towards the heavens and transcendence. The final visual reminder that the central question of the film has been about the conflict between the two: the cathedral on the Earth and the seeking for those higher transcendent moments of ecstasy