Camus' Insight Into Adversity

The passages below can be found in Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus & Other Essays (Alfred Knopf, 1955), pp. 88-90.

"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...

"[Sisyphus'] 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 in 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 that lower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain.

"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.

"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 every day in his life at the same tasks, and this 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 cannot be surmounted by scorn.

"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 rises 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, Oedipus 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' Oedipus, like Dostoevsky's Kirilov, thus gives the recipe for the absurd victory. Ancient wisdom confirms modern heroism...

"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."

 

Questions

1. How, exactly, does scorn surmount a terrible fate? Sisyphus can curse the gods forever, but it will not lighten his burden one bit. In fact, the gods might even find his scorn amusing: it would indicate that their punishment is really having the desired effect.

2. The poet of Ecclesiastes lamented that "all is vanity and vexation of the spirit." But then isn't scorn itself vain? Doesn't it merely become part of an absurd life rather than something outside or beyond it? 

3. Is there any similarity at all between Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill and Jesus dying on the cross?

4. Imagine Sisyphus, after so many grueling hours, looking up at the sky and saying "Screw you!" Imagine, like Huxley's savage in Brave New World, he takes his life. Would suicide here be wrong? Wouldn't it amount to the ultimate protest against the gods -- a way of saying, "No, I won't play your stupid little game"? But maybe, as Camus suggests, it is precisely in and through this "stupid little game" that man achieves a kind of victory. Camus tells us that "crushing truths perish from being acknowledged." What does this mean? To know the answer, perhaps, is to understand why the same frustrated and lonely Sisyphus might also be contented and happy -- why sorrow and joy, emptiness and fulfillment may only be different sides of the same coin.

 

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