Camus: The Forest, the Mountain, the Panther

Article by Amiri Rivers-David, Pomona ‘24
Artwork by Ugen Yonten, Pomona ‘21

    As difficult as it might be to map the terrain of existential crisis, such an endeavor is owed to every victim of the ailment – for in our investigations we may find not an immediate cure but a prescription, grounded in some restful method or praxis through which they may find respite. This landscape may be divided into three areas: la selva oscura, il colle, and la lonza, each representing some stage of progression or ideal within the existentially-lost journey. Though novelist and philosopher Albert Camus has attempted to map these lands, his prescription fails at being restful; though with help from others, namely John Dewey and Dante Alighieri, a much clearer and more agreeable portrait of existential crisis and its reasonable prescriptions forms.

        Midway upon the journey of our life
           I found myself within a forest dark,
           For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

        Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
           What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
           Which in the very thought renews fear.1

    For some inexplicable reason, sometimes spontaneously, other times gradually, a deprived few among us find ourselves in la selva oscura, the dark forest. For them the sun shines no more, as the thick carpet of canopy overhead smothers its rays. The path that had once offered some guidance, some solace, is now lost, and without it a deep fear takes root within them. And some, too, decide the only way out of la selva oscura is through death itself. So they plunge their hands through their own chest, freeing themselves from the world.

    Countless thinkers have conjectured about what precipitates these peoples’ descent into la selva oscura, and about what they should do to escape. In our time, the answer is frequently concerned with self-care; someone in a dark place ought to take some time outside of their lives to relax, or to treat themselves to something nice. They have been too busy and have not had time to appreciate the goodness of life, it is said, and so slowing down is prescribed as a remedy for their predicament. But this answer is unsatisfying. It fails to ascribe a fundamental quality to their suffering, choosing instead to attribute it to external forces like “hustle culture” or “rigid socio-economic structure.” While these outside factors have an effect, to speak only of influences outside the individual and nothing of the human condition is to paint only half of the picture.

    No philosopher, living or dead, has addressed this second, more inherent aspect as Camus has. He infuses his structured approach with beautiful poetic quality in The Myth of Sisyphus, as in his own words, “Solely the balance between evidence and lyricism can allow us to achieve simultaneously emotion and lucidity. In a subject at once so humble and so heavy with emotion, the learned and classical dialectic must yield, one can see, to a more modest attitude of mind deriving at one and the same time from common sense and understanding”2. It would be inappropriate, he argues, to discuss suicide and its causes in a strictly analytical manner, for it is a deeply emotional subject. Here he is absolutely correct, and as such I have chosen to preserve some of that style.

    To dissolve the very big phenomenon of suicide into a streamlined form, Camus introduces the notion of the absurd and builds from it an explanation of how la selva oscura comes to present itself. He writes, “In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.”3 The absurd, for Camus, represents fundamental disillusionment. The realization that true disillusionment is the feeling that sets in motion the dark chain of events in question is shocking to many, and only becomes more shocking when one acknowledges that this disillusionment is an inescapable facet of the human condition. We are so deeply separated from everything that the morbid epiphany could, in fact, be lying in wait inside each of us.

    We simply cannot rely on rationally explained processes for an understanding of our world. Camus writes of how, “the mind's deepest desire, even in its most elaborate operations, parallels man's unconscious feeling in the face of his universe: it is an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity… the mind that aims to understand reality can consider itself satisfied only by reducing it to terms of thought”.4 As such, we find it immensely difficult to stick to such an incomplete description of our surroundings. This “nostalgia for clarity,” as he calls it, goads us into the beyond-rational, or the theological. The conclusion that we have no idea what matter is fundamentally made of is painful--what are quarks made of, and what is that made of? – as it means we cannot understand the nature of things. The phenomenologist notion that things’ essence can be known truly, or that God created all with His hands and vision, however, are not painful. They promise us that a true understanding of the nature of things is possible, and as such they assuage the absurd feeling of disillusionment with the universe.

          But after I had reached a mountain’s foot,
             At that point where the valley terminated,
             Which had with consternation pierced my heart,

          Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders,
             Vested already with that planet’s rays
             Which leadeth others right by every road.

          Then was the fear a little quieted
             That in my heart’s lake had endured throughout
             The night, which I had passed so piteously.5

    These theological beliefs often serve as an escape for those stuck in la selva oscura. They are the mountain, il colle, that penetrates through the oppressive leaves and branches of its dusky trees. Il colle provides a new pathway to replace that which the deprived have lost, a path that once again can guide them to a place drenched in sunlight and warmth. It is not rational, but rather stems from cultural narratives that tempt with completeness. While the most obvious candidate is organized religion, nearly everyone – including self-proclaimed atheists – subscribes to one doctrine or another. Any narrative that asks its followers to believe the unproven is a stone on il colle. Each of us cling to it, as these promises of success and happiness are the only things that prevent our fall into la selva oscura.

    Camus calls this act of turning away from reason and towards the theological “the act of leaping.” He goes from philosopher to philosopher, from Heidegger to Chestov to Kierkegaard, showing how each of them have leapt, creating from some notion their illuminating God that explains all and reveals all. He criticizes them for not “sticking to their guns,” if you will, and for escaping to answers that are comfortable rather than embracing the lack of an answer itself. While such analysis is useful for professionals, the vast majority of people have no idea what Heidegger or Chestov or Kierkegaard even argue, so many would fail to draw any sort of connection between the act of leaping and their own lives. What is far more important is the exploration of the kinds of leaps ordinary people take, and while they may not be as philosophically rigorous as Kierkegaard, they certainly are more relatable.

    Our society is built from the stones of il colle that each encourage us to leap, to abandon our commitment to the factually true in exchange for hope and a promise. There are economic reasons why these narratives could be useful; for instance, convincing the masses that money will serve as a path to happiness increases productivity. So too are there socio-political reasons; persuading members of a church that opposing pro-LGBTQ+ legislation is key to salvation increases the political influence of the clergy. The idea here is not to cast away il colle, but rather to embrace the parts of it that allow one to live peacefully and to coexist with others doing the same. One ought to reject the hateful facets, like those that condone racism or sexism with the belief that those unequal doctrines lead in the right direction; but there is little wrong with embracing other parts of il colle, for example, the doctrine that helping people recover from traumatic surgery will provide happiness. In Camus’ view, all of the aforementioned scenarios are leaps, because they do not concern strictly provable fact. There is no way to verify with certainty that dedicating one’s life to helping recovering patients will make that life complete and fulfilled. Still, though, every individual needs some light at the end of their tunnel, and using acts of helping people in need as motivating factors only makes the world a better place for everyone.

          After my weary body I had rested,
             The way resumed I on the desert slope,
             So that the firm foot ever was the lower.

          And lo! almost where the ascend began,
             A panther light and swift exceedingly,
             Which with a spotted skin was covered o’er!

          And never moved she from before my face,
             Nay, rather did impede so much my way,
             That many times I to return had turned.6

    Camus’ response, however, is far more extreme. Rather than qualifying the kinds of leaps as I have above, he strikes them all down in one fell swoop. He argues that, rather than settling in any doctrine without rational foundation, one’s life “will be lived all the better if it has no meaning... The theme of permanent revolution is thus carried into individual experience. It is not aspiration, for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it”.7 This anti-doctrine challenges our instinct to know the nature of things by denying each and every answer, doing so without hope that an answer is even possible. To accept such an anti-doctrine is to thrust oneself into an epistemological inferno, where one has nothing but the scorched skin on their back. This is the panther, la lonza, that Camus advocates for. She blocks the path up il colle and repeatedly drives the person trying to escape la selva oscura back into its harrowing grip.

    Herein lies the great problem with Camus’ thought process. He treats philosophy as though it were an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. These radical conclusions are downright impossible to implement for the average person, as their application would require impenetrable mental fortitude. We need meaning and value to continue to work our jobs and care for our loved ones and to live enjoyable lives. Camus' view could only exist in an abstract philosophical space, and as such, his position crumbles when thrust into the noise and demands of the real world. How, for example, would a single mother care for her kids if she was suddenly submerged in never-ending existential turmoil without hope of ever leaving?

    This critical mistake Camus makes is illuminating, as it makes very clear that philosophy should be subjected to the realities of life and not the other way around. To put it simply, we have shit to do, and we cannot do it without having some level of perceived clarity about our world. We need to believe that our goals and successes have value, among other things, and any philosophy that impedes those processes needs to be revoked and reconsidered. Therefore we must challenge the ground on which Camus stands.

    Philosopher John Dewey does this job excellently. Dewey talks about how philosophy as a field of study inherited the role of religion in academia, especially during the Enlightenment when religion as a source of knowledge production was becoming outmoded. As a result of its history, philosophy sees itself as transcending the sciences, and being something of great importance in its own right. Dewey notes this self-importance in the metaphysics of his contemporaries, an almost-arrogance which manifests in their attempt to see things with certainty. Dewey argues that metaphysics “naturally adopted the notion, which has ruled philosophy ever since the time of the Greeks, that the office of knowledge is to uncover the antecedently real”.8 Due to its lineage, the philosophical tradition treats the conclusions of philosophical processes almost as if they were divine commandment – things that ought to be obeyed, period. The statement, “So what if it’s correct; it makes life impossibly difficult!” is scarcely uttered, and this is an oversight to say the least.

    Things needn’t be this way, though. It ought to be okay to find our way to some part of il colle that allows us to live     comfortably and do our due diligence. Dewey writes, “Should we overcome all these dualisms, then philosophy might be ‘instead of impossible attempts to transcend experience… the significant record of the efforts of men to formulate the things of experience to which they are most deeply and passionately attached.’” Philosophy should strengthen our connection and deepen our passion of life; it should help us live beautifully, not tragically. If we find an acceptable doctrine to live by, there should be no great undermining of it on sweeping and unrealistic philosophical grounds. Life is hard enough without la lonza swiping our legs out from underneath us.

    Camus is right about a lot of things, and his conclusions follow well from his premises. The error he makes is not a logical one. He is correct that the world around us is fundamentally unknowable through strict rationalism, and that we flee to find our God in theological answers as a result. What he fails to do is to express why this process of fleeing is necessarily a bad one. Of course leaning on bigotry as a response to that inherent anxiety is a bad thing; but Camus simply assumes that, because he is logically consistent in his arguments, his conclusion is compelling. Outside of academia, for people on the streets or working nine-to-five jobs, this is not the case, and philosophy’s conclusions should strengthen everyone’s experience. Everyone deserves a suitable spot on il colle, safe from the prickly undergrowth of la selva oscura and the fangs of la lonza; only there will our passions be intensified and our love for life set ablaze.


1.  Dante, Inferno (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 2008), 1-6.
2.  Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (New York: Vintage Books, 1955), 2.
3.  Ibid.
4.  Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 6.
5.  Dante, Inferno, 13-21.
6.  Dante, Inferno, 28-34.
7.  Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 18-19.
8.  Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 43.