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The myth of Sisyphus and, in particular, Camus’ reading of that story, are obviously on my mind. Having mentioned the story in my last post, I want to say more about it here, only in the context of process metaphysics.

And cats.

Red Dit

Cats, you see, are either the worst or the best existentialist philosophers. The difficulty in answering this question is not because they are cats, but because of all the labored verbiage that goes into saying what existentialism is. Indeed, where I want to take this argument is in the direction of undermining that last phrase. Existentialists say that the world is absurd, but much of that claim turns on the use of that annoying little verb “is”. Sartre, for example, named his magnum opus Being and Nothingness, with the first half of that title emphasizing the root verb (“to be”) from which all forms of “is” emerge. If the focus of existentialist thought is directed upon “being” and forms of “is-ness,” then much of existentialism’s claims of absurdity stand or fall upon the priority given over to the word “is.” If so, then even asking the question, “what existentialism is” could well be a fundamental error that many existentialists themselves commit. So the direction of our discussion here is this: to gloss Camus’ famous essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” illustrate some salient points using cats, and segue finally into how the whole thing gets reimagined in a process metaphysics.

Now, I make no pretense of being an expert on existentialism. I’m sure that more than a few folks in black berets and black sweaters, puffing clove cigarettes, will go into apoplectic ennui over what I have to say here. But I’m cool with that. These are very general comments on a very broad subject, so it is not possible for me (or anyone!) to cover every detail to anyone’s satisfaction. But I can make a few general observations that satisfy me.

There are several versions of the Greek myth of Sisyphus; the one that Camus focuses on is where Sisyphus dies and is taken to the underworld, but then slyly tricks the gods of the underworld to permit him to return to the world of the living, supposedly for just a brief time to settle certain affairs. But once back among the living, Sisyphus enjoys himself so much that he reneges on his bargain. Eventually, the gods of the underground have to come up and forcibly drag Sisyphus back, where he is then punished by being compelled to push &/or roll a heavy boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down as soon as he nears the top. In contemporary parlance, a Sisyphean task is one that is pointless and unending. But Camus’ existentialist reading of the story was that all human actions are essentially pointless (the “absurd” element of existentialism), so Sisyphus isn’t all that different from anyone else. Indeed, according to Camus, Sisyphus is in a position to fully embrace his condition in a manner and with a conscious awareness that few of us ever achieve. Sisyphus’ situation is absurd, but all of situations are; Sisyphus has the virtue now of being a man heroically in command of his own absurdity. Camus famously concludes his essay saying, “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Which brings me to cats – or, at least, my cats.

It has become tradition in my household that, just prior to (my) bedtime I bring out the laser pointer, and a game of “chase the red dot” ensues. Now, for those of you who are not familiar and friendly with cats, first of all, shame on you. But more important for our topic here, cats – from the youngest kitten well into advanced adulthood – go absolutely nuts chasing the red dot of a laser pointer. (Old cats generally have no time for your silly shit, and will often go no further than watching the dot with a measured degree of attention.) And if you pay any attention to the cats body language, it is clear this chase is not about fear, or food, or anger. Rather it is the purest, most joyful predatory savagery imaginable. But the thing to emphasize here is the joy. Cats are predators first and last, with the habit of playing with their food – bad news for mice, but it hones the cat’s hunting skills. And they like being cats. They find themselves in one aspect of their truest nature chasing things with unbridled, predatory zeal. This is all a matter of direct observation. There is no issue of mystification about “knowing what my cats are thinking,” because my cats do not have the human capacity for lying; as a result, they “wear their minds”, as it were, on the surface of their skin. (Part of the bogus character of the so-called “mind/body” problem is that it begins with an indefensible, yet absolute, separation of “mind” and “body” and then has the vapors over how to reassemble what it gratuitously tore apart in the first place.)

Moreover, there is good reason to believe that what interests cats is not the prospect of catching the dot (or any other distraction) but rather the joy of chasing it. Nothing loses a cats interest faster than a caught toy/mouse. (That said, my neighbor’s cat notoriously swallowed a mouse whole that it had just caught and, ideally, already killed.) Now, my cats (for example) have their favorite “static” toys, but even here it is the process, the chase that matters to them, not the object “had.” Thus Jazzy likes to bat his favorite around like a dribbling soccer player, while Bluesy prefers to bring hers up to my work desk and drop it so that I’ll throw it, giving her the thrill of the chase. Even with the red dot, the cats display relatively little interest unless it is jittering and dancing around on the floor.

So recall the earlier statements about existentialism finding the absurdity of human existence in the nature of our being – our static “isness.” But Camus finds a kind of triumph in a process – even a seemingly empty and meaningless one – if it is nevertheless a process that one owns fully as one’s own truest self and destiny, committing (also a process) to it fully and consciously. (One might wonder how uplifting Camus might find Sisyphus’ lot if, instead of eternally rolling a stone uphill, he was condemned for all eternity to a cubicle farm. But that’s a matter for a different discussion.) The general point is that the existentialists found naught but absurdity in the attempt to center all of meaning in the fixed and changeless, but the business, the process, of living was the “place” (rather, the path) of authentic human reality.

Now, there is no ultimate reconciliation of existentialism with process philosophy, since the latter takes a kind of “rationalism” as a cornerstone of its thought, while existentialism remains wedded to the idea that there is a surd (at least) of unintelligibility in the very basis of reality (hence ab-surd). Process philosophers like myself reject this notion of absurdity for (among other reasons) one must first presuppose the rational, intelligible nature of the world in order for any argument in favor of the absurd to have any traction qua argument. Paraphrasing Whitehead, absent any empirically effective reason for doing so, there is no basis for rejecting this hypothesis of rationalism.

All of which wildly oversimplifies the arguments behind existentialism, of course. For one thing, it is not as though existentialism was a single line of thought; at best it is a broad family of ideas that roughly overlap around notions of human existence and lived philosophy. And even that last is a bit of a misnomer, in that one must qualify “lived philosophy” by saying it is about living philosophically. And it is this shared emphasis on life as living that gives us that other collection of rough overlaps with process philosophy. Whitehead, for example, sub-titled his process philosophy as “the philosophy of organism,” where “organism” must be understood in a manner that is not reducible to simple biology. Rather, “organism” in this sense is about the organic generation of meaningfulness in the world. And that meaningfulness is not discovered in some fixed or static “thing,” anymore than the joy of the red dot is to be found in some impossible “having”. It only exists – or, more properly, becomes – in the chase.