Alison first met Peter Heller on an arts discussion group in 1997 and since then has corresponded daily with him. Peter was born in Germany in 1929. Peter's father was Jewish and a composer, and his mother a pianist. In late 1931 they fled Nazi Germany and Peter was raised in France until 1946 when the family arrived in New York with a letter from Albert Einstein as their guarantee for entry. Arriving with no money to pay the airport tax, the letter was greeted by customs as their absolute and unconditional entry into the country. Peter went on to study for an art degree at Columbia University. It was 1952 before he actually got to meet the cousin to his grandmother and his great aunt Emma, who was killed in the concentration camps. Einstein was walking through the grounds at Princetown Institute when Peter stopped him and thanked him for getting his family into the US. They spent an hour together talking about their family and the Nazi devastation of Germany. After that, Einstein grilled Peter on the reasons for making art and discussing with him the mysteries of the world and the destruction of world morality.
After leaving art shool, Peter worked various jobs and finally taught painting in a Vermont college for 25 years. He retired in 1985. After painting everday for 60 years, he continues daily to work from his studio in Vermont and has always resisted the art market and the effect of it on the artist believing it to be symptomatic of creative decay. In all senses of the word, Peter has stayed true to his art. In his words, he intends to "die at the easel". He is also a member of the online International group of artists run by Alison, known as Artlives.
Postscript: Peter died on September 1st 2002 aged 73. On the easel in his studio was a newly stretched canvas. One must believe him to have been happy - very happy.
As a result of their encounter in cyberspace, Alison and Peter have exchanged a number of art works and thousands of letters over the years. They have also discussed the work of Camus since they first met and the following is an excerpt of a letter from Peter to Alison (12th March 2002) in regard to the Myth of Sisyphus:
email from firstname.lastname@example.org to email@example.com 12/3/02
Alison: You don't mention the most important reason for the Absurd: it's disillusionment. I think you will have to bring that into the discussion--because everybody--or almost everybody--is disillusioned: in the failure of the god to 'right what is wrong', and in the inability of man to replace the god--socially, intellectually, spiritually. Sartre says that we are 'condemned to be free'. But that sort of thing, the absolute commitment to acting as free, and therefore as authentic human beings has not created a new order in which justice triumphs over 'evil'. The Absurd man is one who lives his life normally--despite his inability to find meaning in the random universe--and yet--this is crucial--is NOT surprised at his fate. This lack of surprise is not an acceptance of fate, on the contrary, the Absurd man fights ferociously (Rieux in La Peste) against the plague even as he understands that, once vanquished, it, the plague, 'will wake its rats again and send them to die in a happy city'. (La Peste). This, I think, is the crux in a nutshell.
I used to do seminars on Camus and only on the rarest occasions did anyone understand the meaning of the Absurd. Camus hated the jargon, as we were saying last night. So, to understand the complexities, one must, I think, refer to the everyday lives of the people. In othe words, Sisyphus is not unusual: he is just a mythical figure who represents man's fate. Well, so am I! Except that I am not mythical! But I fight, every hour of every day, against the apparent meaninglessness of an ununderstandable universe, and create its meaning in the work. In other words, I do not need to understand in order to create. The creation becomes the meaning, and the work, whether it is to push a rock up a mountain or make paintings anonymously, endlessly--only to see them gather dust after their completion--is what I would call meaning in itself.
So, if I were you, I would suggest that Sisyphus must be seen as ordinary man. Not only must we 'imagine him happy', we need to see him as the Rebel. Ok, here it is: do the students in your seminar fight against injustice even as they know that their fight is doomed to ultimate failure? If hope is the measure of our despair what do we do as we lose the metaphysical hope? This is an enormously uncomfortable argument because meaninglessness transforms most people into passive individuals. These are the disillusioned. They are the ones who remain forever surprised at their own fate. Absurd man, on the other hand, is never surprised at his fate, even as he feels the deepest mental, emotional and spiritual pain as he realizes that he is alone in a 'benign, and uncaring, universe'. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. And so it is with us, yes? or rather, so it CAN be with us. But in order to be 'happy' we must attain 'authenticity'--which is innocence. (this last, the meaning of authenticity, is MY interpretation of a very complex process). By the way, just to set the record straight, I am NOT Absurd man. The preceding is just an attempt at deciphering the Camusian concept. An attempt at making some sense out of a NON sense. Peter.
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