Myth of Sisyphus
In Albert Camus’s seminal book, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus presents us with the myth of Sisyphus so that he can attempt to answer whether one can logically deduce that suicide, and not hope, is the only solution to an absurd, cold and indifferent world. More specifically, Camus wants to know whether an absurd reasoning, in the sense of experiencing the feeling of absurdness of the world, logically leads to suicide as the only solution. By absurd Camus gives us no strict definition but characterises a few sketches by what he means by the feeling of absurdity: for example, the weariness tinged with amazement when we begin to ask “why” after performing our mechanical gestures and routines day by day. Or, for another example, the feeling of being exiled from our alien world with no home to return to or to find in the future.
I will quote prolifically from the book because Camus is a sumptuous, beautiful writer and his ideas are better understood and conveyed through the voice of the existentialist-absurdist Frenchman.
In the final chapter of book Camus attempts to answer this question by presenting us with the story of Sisyphus: “The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back on its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour.”
The gods were right. There is no punishment more severe than futile labour persisting for the duration of all eternity without respite. It may be argued that the case of Sisyphus is not entirely analogous to the condition of absurdity that modern man is his office cubical finds himself in, but this would be a misstep. Modern man in his office is driven by illusions, fancies and lights, but if we tore down the curtain guarding his world we would see that the bare harsh reality of modern existence is analogous to that of Sisyphus: it just takes mythic identification to be able to see it.
Camus goes on to state: “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 towards accomplishing nothing.” One rule of thumb to measure whether a situation is absurd is to apply the following formula: does the time engaged in and effort expended result in a worthwhile accomplishment? Consider the women who has spent her entire life building the biggest sandcastle that she can conceive. At the precise moment she is about to apply the finishing touches to her magnum opus, a strong roaring tidal wave crashes onto the beach and demolishes the castle. An absurd situation (in both senses of the word). In the case of Sisyphus, only he could have exerted so much energy yet achieved so little in recompense.
Camus finally gives us an answer to the question that we have been pondering throughout the book: is life worth living in an absurd universe? As Camus writes during the descent of Sisyphus’s stone after it has rolled back down the mountain. “I see that man [Sisyphus] going back down with a heavy yet measured step towards the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, this is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. His is stronger than his rock. “
But how Camus is Sisyphus superior to his fate in this lucid hour of consciousness? Camus writes: “[t]he absurd man says yes and his effort will be 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 the subtle moment when a man glances backward over his life … Sisyphus … contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death.”
This is a beautiful idea expressed by Camus which has clearly been influence by the “Amor Fati” of Friedrich Nietzsche. Sisyphus is, according to Camus, greater than his fate despite it being despicable and inevitable because he has the mindset of being a yea-sayer (another Nietzsche term). Sisyphus, in essence, takes responsibility for all that has happened to him and will take responsibility for all that, hitherto, goes beyond him. Even though he his only pushing a rock up a steep mountain only for it to fall and roll mercilessly to the foot of the mountain, Sisyphus will take ownership for his remaining days and for how he conducts himself for the rest of his life.
“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 towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
So, Camus answer to the question is life worth living in absurd universe is that “all is good, not to worry, it’s not really futile” just enjoy the struggle of existence. But this answer is totally unconvincing. To see why, consider the following:
Earlier in the Sisyphus story Camus writes “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 workmen of today is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.” This is precisely correct. The feeling of absurdity arises, even if only in a flash, and even if the thinking process that made the mind arrive at this stage was entirely an unconscious process, because consciously the subject has felt a type of alienation between him and the world, time or life. That is, the feeling of absurdity arises out of consciously noticing the discrepancy between the self and the universe, time or life resulting in an alienation that was previously ignored by habit or necessity. Since this feeling of absurdity is a conscious process arising out of the logical connection between the state of the world and the self, it seems bizarre to assert that Sisyphus, in his conscious moments, when he recognises the absurdity of existence will also be able to realise that this crushing absurd and futile punishment is really not absurd at all: I just have to enjoy the struggle and love my fate.
But once again, this type of reasoning fails to convince, Sisyphus through an act of magnificent will and mindset cannot just magically turn the alchemical absurd into alchemical gold. The absurd reasoning, and the absurd mindset, comes out of the conscious reasoning that the means never justify the end because metaphorically the stone will keep rolling down the mountain, therefore for Sisyphus to arbitrarily change his mind seems unlikely. However, Camus himself says that this is precisely the crux: “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 cannot be surmounted by scorn.
My argument against the great Camus is that the Sisyphus’s lucidity which will crown his victory is ultimately self-defeating since it is built on the conscious recognition of absurd reasoning, and once this logical standpoint has been achieved, it is extremely hard to see how this lucidity could alchemically turn defeat into a resounding victory.
Maybe Camus secretly agrees with the following analysis since at the very end of the book he writes the following which appears to betray all that has come before it:
“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
I’ve have always been obsessed with Camus’s articulation that one must imagine Sisyphus happy. Firstly, this articulation includes the need for necessity with “must,” what happens if sometimes we don’t imagine Sisyphus happy, is the truth of our condition too hard to bear? Secondly, the notion of imagination rather than knowledge in regards to Sisyphus, we don’t know whether he is happy or not, but rather we should use the power of our imagination to believe that Sisyphus is happy. Putting these two terms together “must imagine” Sisyphus happy reveals a powerful combination of Camus pushing the agenda that the solution to the absurd is hope and not suicide. It is of the upmost necessity that we imagine that Sisyphus is happy, which if you reflect on what Camus is proposing here is frankly ridiculous. In the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus’s primary task is answering the question of whether an absurd existence is solved best by suicide or by hope, yet Camus in the final line of the book after telling us the absurd condition is analogous to the futile punishment faced by Sisyphus is best explained as hope since we have to, out of necessity, imagine that Sisyphus is happy with his wretched condition. One cannot help but think that Camus must imagine that hope not suicide is the answer.