“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.” (Camus, Pg. 489)
Sisyphus is cursed by the gods to roll a boulder up a mountain, watching it come crashing down, walk back down the mountain after it, and roll the boulder up again. His life is an endless series of repetition. Worse than that, it is meaningless repetition. So then why does Albert Camus say that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (Pg. 492)? How can one imagine Sisyphus happy?
Camus’ 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, is itself an exercise in repetition. Not only does he examine Sisyphus–a figure condemned to repeat the same task over and over–but his examination itself is a revisiting of a text that has been revisited before, and will, no doubt, be revisited again. (Not to get too self-conscious, but it is being revisited right now, as I write this). I choose this text as an introduction to the Arts One 2013-2014 ‘Remake/Remodel’ theme, because the text repeats a myth about repeating. So, if you’ve been keeping up, we are repeating a text that repeats a myth that is about the agony of repetition. So, in doing so have we just tripled our agony? Is Sisyphus happy? And are we?
There are a lot of reasons to think that the answer to these questions is ‘no’. Repetition is often boring. And it’s often not seen as very meaningful. After all, what is the point of doing something we’ve already done before. It’s like ‘reinventing the wheel’. The first guy to invent it is a genius. But after that, it just isn’t so impressive or important.
There is another reason to think the answers to the above questions should be ‘no’. Camus tells us that
“If the myth is tragic it is because the hero is conscious. What would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?” (Pg. 491, emphasis added)
The implication seems to be that, if Sisyphus were not acutely self-conscious of the futility of the repetition he is forced to participate in, then things wouldn’t be so bad.
It’s because Sisyphus knows that what he is doing is futile that he feels its futility acutely. His awareness of its meaninglessness makes it meaningless. So, he is the author of his own empty life in virtue of his consciousness. Doesn’t sound too happy so far.
And it gets worse. Because this myth has been and can be treated as an allegory for life. Yeah, life! Under this reading it isn’t just that Sisyphus’s existence is meaningless, but that life just generally is pointless. After all, the repetition Sisyphus is engaged in is similar to the kind of repetition we are all engaged in. People are born. They live. They die. It’s been happening for hundreds of years. Worse than that, there is a sense in which many feel that even what they do with their lives has been done before. In the Bible, Ecclesiastes, we find the phrase “there is nothing new under the sun” and people often state that all the stories it is possible to tell have been told. There is a sense that there is no room for a truly novel ideal, or a truly unique experience. It’s all been done before. Probably hundreds of times before. We are all the authors of our own meaningless lives in virtue of our self-consciousness.
So by this point you should be getting the sense that this text is often seen as a bit of a downer. It should also come as no surprise that the first line of The Myth of Sisyphus is “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” (Pg. 441) So forget why we must imagine Sisyphus happy for a moment, how can we imagine it? And if we can’t then what’s the point of all the repetition?
There are a lot of reasons to think of The Myth of Sisyphus as a depressing myth. There are a lot of reasons to find repetition tedious. But, that’s not the end of the story. As Camus revisits familiar ground in retelling this Greek myth, he illustrates what can be uplifting and creative in the act of repetition. Camus writes that “Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them.” (Pg. 490) The myth of Sisyphus is lacking in detail at times. It doesn’t tell us everything. It leaves things open to interpretation, and grants us the ability to fill in the blanks.
The details are lacking on purpose, according to Camus. The lack of detail allows the possibility for the myth to change even as it remains the same. Because the reader or the listener will change it. One sees it in a new way, a way unique to one’s own perspective in this time and this place. And this is not only true for the Sisyphus myth, but for every text we will read this term. Every text has been read by people before you. Every text has been talked about and written about by people before you. But none of them have been read by you. Here. Now. Even when you revisit these texts in the future (and we all hope you do) they will never be the same as they are right now. Because you will have changed, and your surroundings will have changed.
So I want to suggest that there is a tension in Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. The tension is between the apparent meaningless of retracing the steps of others over familiar ground, and the freedom to make this journey one’s own through one’s own unique perspective, imagination and conscious life. I wrote above that we are the authors of our own empty lives in virtue of our self-consciousness. But it is also in virtue of our self-consciousness that we can give our lives meaning. This is one of the tensions that I hope to explore this term in Remake/Remodel: the ways in which existing patterns, structures, myths and customs both constrain us and offer us ways to freely and creatively express ourselves.
Camus argues that, even though Sisyphus is trapped in a repetitive structure, within that structure he is free. “His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. . . he knows himself to be the master of his days.” (Pg. 492). The structure is in place, but what he chooses to do within that structure is up to him!
Works Cited: Camus, Albert “The Myth of Sisyphus” in Basic Writing of Existentialism, Gordon Marino (ed.) New York: The Modern Library. 2004. Pp. 442-488