Saturday, 17 January 2015

Existentialism and housework

You may well have heard that, following the unfortunate demise of God and the failure of any other absolute source of value, life is ultimately meaningless and absurd. I am not your go-to guy for exegesis of existentialism but I do at least know that Jean-Paul Sartre notably compared the essential condition of man to that of Sisyphus, the baddie in Greek myth punished by having as his task for all eternity to push a boulder up to the top of a hill, only to see it roll down again (the Ancient Greeks having been every bit as inventive as French philosophers in the depressing ideas department). Human existence is similarly meaningless and futile, but the solution suggested by Sartre is for us to embrace the futility and absurdity of our struggle against an uncomprehending and uncaring universe: we must, in his words, imagine Sisyphus happy.

This is precisely the sort of cheerful thinking that philosophers are paid to provide and all kudos to Sartre for coming up with it. But I think quite differently about Sartre and the Myth of Sisyphus having just seen that Simone de Beauvoir wrote: "Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day. The housewife wears herself out marking time: she makes nothing, simply perpetuates the present." (That's from The Second Sex.) 

The Sartre-de Beauvoir household was an unconventional one. Perhaps one manifestation of this was that a private argument between them was thrashed out through some of the major philosophical works of the 20th century. Is it too fanciful (as a philosopher might say, at least on the other side of the Channel) to read that passage in the Second Sex as Simone saying to Jean-Paul: "if you want to embrace the fundamental absurdity of human existence then you can start by doing the dishes"?

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