The Myth of Sisyphus

by Albert Camus (+ my commentary)

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“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”

~ The Gods’ condemnation of Sisyphus implies he is worthy of being punished. Sisyphus has apparently committed a crime and shall be convicted to a ‘ceaseless torment.’ It speaks to the Gods’ incessant affinity for punishment and sadism and feeds the mother of all superiority complexes. Additionally, the Gods’ own infallibility of reason is disproven with their presumption that this particular form of “futile” and “hopeless” punishment is truly the most dreadful. The Gods are unaware they are, in fact, creating a hero, of the most dreadfully absurd kind.

“If one believes Homer, Sisyphus was the wisest and most prudent of mortals. According to another tradition, however, he was disposed to practice the profession of highwayman. I see no contradiction in this. Opinions differ as to the reasons why he became the futile laborer of the underworld. To begin with, he is accused of a certain levity in regard to the gods. He stole their secrets. Egina, the daughter of Esopus, was carried off by Jupiter. The father was shocked by that disappearance and complained to Sisyphus. He, who knew of the abduction, offered to tell about it on condition that Esopus would give water to the citadel of Corinth. To the celestial thunderbolts he preferred the benediction of water. He was punished for this in the underworld. Homer tells us also that Sisyphus had put Death in chains. Pluto could not endure the sight of his deserted, silent empire. He dispatched the god of war, who liberated Death from the hands of her conqueror.”

~ Camus sees no contradiction in wisdom / prudence and the profession of highwaymen, with the context that the Gods are the ones being lifted & duped by Sisyphus. His “levity” towards these vengeful Gods and their reactions toward him again indicate their insufferable superiority complex with the mortal man (which, in truth, appears to be of the inferiority nature). Sisyphus’ capability to literally steal secrets from the Gods and get away with it, if only for a short period of time, already proves his status as a competent hero. He brokers reality-altering deals with the Gods based on impossible information he has apparently easily acquired simply from being a good listener. And what could possibly be more impressive than putting Death in chains? Sisyphus’ actions require Pluto to put one of the Gods’ greatest resources, the God of War, to use in order to rectify his meddling. To us mortals, he is truly admirable. We’re already firmly in his corner.

“It is said that Sisyphus, being near to death, rashly wanted to test his wife’s love. He ordered her to cast his unburied body into the middle of the public square. Sisyphus woke up in the underworld. And there, annoyed by an obedience so contrary to human love, he obtained from Pluto permission to return to earth in order to chastise his wife. But when he had seen again the face of this world, enjoyed water and sun, warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back to the infernal darkness. Recalls, signs of anger, warnings were of no avail. Many years more he lived facing the curve of the gulf, the sparkling sea, and the smiles of earth. A decree of the gods was necessary. Mercury came and seized the impudent man by the collar and, snatching him from his joys, lead him forcibly back to the underworld, where his rock was ready for him.”

~ Sisyphus’ test for his wife is an absurd request, which leads to an absurd situation, and ultimately an absurd fate. The conditions of his near death state and the capacity for the wife’s compliance being outside the realm of Love are both unknown and perhaps worthy of consideration. Sisyphus’ wife probably loved him despite her reckless obedience. Regardless, waking up in the underworld would bring about the necessary levels of consternation. Once again, Sisyphus effectively tricks a God, when Hades gives him a second life on Earth merely as a result of his request to chastise his wife. Incredible. Predictably, once he feels the warmth of life’s pleasures again, he abdicates any responsibility to return to the underworld. Who can blame him? The primary oddity here is that it took any amount of time at all for a ‘decree of the gods’ to be issued. How long was Sisyphus’ delinquent immortality, and how did he spend his time? Perhaps, he meditated and studied philosophy.

“You have already grasped that 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 toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth. Nothing is told us about Sisyphus in the underworld. Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them. As for this myth, one sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it, and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands. At the very end of his long effort measured by skyless space and time without depth, the purpose is achieved. Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward tlower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain.”

~ There is vivid imagery used here to describe Sisyphus’ great heave of the rock up the hill. It’s effective in conveying just how much of a Man goes into moving this stone. Every inch of the body is put to work, muscles straining to resist the gravity of each moment. And once the peak is attained and the rock is returned to the lower plain, a different kind of effort is required: The existent will of heart & mind of one Sisyphus.

“It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”

~ Camus, like Sisyphus, focuses on the moment here, dilating time to its most salient fulcrum. This pause, the consideration of the return, is the finest hour for our hero. It seems the task of the perpetual stone roll, in its labor both of body and spirit, forces dead set stoicism upon the user. In order to continue, Sisyphus has to ground himself to the present, just the next few moments of time, into perpetuity. He knows that is it going to roll back down the slope and it will be square one again. He knows! As Camus says, he is conscious of it all. And yet, he continues with fervor. He isn’t thinking of the next one, he is thinking of the only one that matters. This practice of mindfulness makes him superior to the rock, superior to the punishment itself, and, of course, superior to the Gods.

“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 workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. 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 can not be surmounted by scorn.”

~ The torture he endures lies in the knowledge, in the consciousness of his futile position. Camus draws a comparison to the modern working man – is he any different? We labor at our repetitions, perhaps suffering more often than not, knowing full well there will be a certain end, we will be forgotten, and things will go on. Any progress we think we achieve before our final breath is infintesimal and supremely temporary, in a grand cosmic sense. Knowing this in an abstract sense, why do we continue? Perhaps it is cognitive dissonance entirely. Or perhaps because we can find moments of triumph in this time, their transience making them more, not less, valuable. We can understand our position, our seeming powerlessness or meaninglessness in the grand scheme, and in that begin to seek something for ourselves, generating our own purposes in what is supposed to be a void. The lucidity of our position, the conscious grasp of the torturous prison of existence, grants us a real choice. We can choose to be like Sisyphus, creating meaning in our struggles.

“If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. This word is not too much. Again I fancy Sisyphus returning toward his rock, and the sorrow was in the beginning. When the images of earth cling too tightly to memory, when the call of happiness becomes too insistent, it happens that melancholy arises in man’s heart: this is the rock’s victory, this is the rock itself. The boundless grief is too heavy to bear. These are our nights of Gethsemane. But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged. Thus, Edipus at the outset obeys fate without knowing it. But from the moment he knows, his tragedy begins. Yet at the same moment, blind and desperate, he realizes that the only bond linking him to the world is the cool hand of a girl. Then a tremendous remark rings out: “Despite so many ordeals, my advanced age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well.” Sophocles’ Edipus, like Dostoevsky’s Kirilov, thus gives the recipe for the absurd victory. Ancient wisdom confirms modern heroism.”

~ The Absurd Victory is the only real victory. In fact, one could say all victories are absurd victories given the broad perspective. Camus outlines here the battle with the rock, and the duality of our conscious awareness of the absurd conditions of our fate. There is legitimate sorrow in seeing the rock roll back down, but that is also our choice, isn’t it? If we despair and we let it affect our next heave up the next hill, then the rock has tallied a victory in its own absurd name. Just because we are conscious of these parameters, and are capable of creating meaning, does not mean that it will ever be easy. Some aren’t up to it at all. Can we fault someone, after a thousand hills, giving up and letting gravity crush them into oblivion? We all may have the ancient wisdom & heroic potential of Sisyphus, but sometimes we miss it.

“One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness. “What!—by such narrow ways–?” There is but one world, however. Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd. Discovery. It happens as well that the felling of the absurd springs from happiness. “I conclude that all is well,” says Edipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile suffering. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.”

~ Happiness in spite of fate, in spite of the benign void surrounding our existence, is the very telos of the absurd. Any true, un-feigned happiness outside of the absurd consciousness is simply ignorance. Ignorance may be bliss in this sense, but any happiness resulting from existential blindness cannot last, and if it does, it’s surely lesser. We can only run from fate for so long before we must face it and grapple with it. “Concluding that all is well,” in spite of our knowledge, is what vindicates the mortal spirit and sets one upon the path to something approaching true fulfillment. As a human being, we are not yet exhausted in our conscious futile suffering, and this is our power.

“All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is a thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his efforts will 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 that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which become his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.”

~ Sisyphus’ fate belonging to him echoes the suffering of one William Ernest Henley:

Invictus

“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

I am the master of my fate;
I am the Captain of my soul.

Despite any circumstantial suffering, the reigns of your attitude always lie in your hands. The contemplation of your own fate is the most important and powerful tool for the Absurd Man. What more can we ask for? Sisyphus’ dominion of his days and his destiny speaks to Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Ownership of existence is granted in its own proof. The ownership of actions and the memories held in fast embrace of sun & shadow alike frees Sisyphus from his designated torment. He can return to the rock in an engaged revolt of despair, eager and ready to go again.

“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 toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

~ The Absurd Man creates his own world, here in the moments with his stone and its journey up and over the hill. Ceterus paribus, he is God, we are Gods, perhaps our consciousness is – in so far that no God is really needed. The passionate struggle is meaning made manifest and that’s all one requires to seek happiness. ~ ~