The first time that I read Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” I was very disappointed with the basic argument and hardly found the consolation that I was expecting to find therein. Camus seemed to simply be saying that life can be made bearable, even if it is an absurd, pointless burden, if only man could change his attitude to one of heroic defiance instead of despair. Thus, in essence, Camus only adds to the picture of Sisyphus endlessly pushing the rock up a mountain a certain defiant visage and perhaps a middle finger extended towards an absent god. The book has its good points, some of which I will save until the end of this essay, and certainly the main argument is not without its charms. However, it fails to incorporate some rather glaring and inconvenient features of man’s condition. Sadly, my first impression was only confirmed upon reading this text again; the new picture of Sisyphus is just too juvenile to be a compelling solution to man facing an absurd existence.
In terms of facing the absurd, Camus tells us that whereas suicide is “acceptance at its extreme,” the “revolt gives life its value,” restoring its “majesty.” He continues with a line that I quite like: “To a man devoid of blinders, there is no finer sight than that of the intelligence at grips with a reality that transcends it.” (this sentence properly depicts The Thinker, not Sisyphus) I like this line because it reminds me that a reality easily grasped by our intelligence might be just as absurd as a reality that eludes that intelligence, while being much more boring! However, this brings me to the first feature of mans’ condition that Camus overlooks: the burden of boredom. If we allow Sisyphus’ labor to stand for the labor that we must tolerate in order to stay alive, we run into a problem that Schopenhauer drives home quite often: succeeding in removing the burden of subsistence only adds the further burden of boredom. Thus, even if Sisyphus manages to set down the heavy stone, he will have to pick up three smaller stones to juggle or throw in order to entertain himself. He might even choose to keep pushing the heavy stone out of boredom, habit, or just due to lack of imagination!
The problem of boredom is not the worst burden that man has to carry. In addition, he must carry the burden of justifying himself, of finding salvation, of creating something or doing something that makes the universe meaningful, purposeful, or at least interesting. Thus, Camus’ solution of Sisyphus giving the universe the bird just doesn’t cut it. Human beings need more than an indignant or stoic revolt. The absurd is not just a challenge of endurance, but of imagination. The universe is in essence challenging us to come up with something more interesting than obscenities! We should picture Sisyphus trying to play the flute one-handed, not defiantly insulting the cosmos. This is the true burden of human existence, at least for the intelligent among us: we have to toil the hardest in order to make the world beautiful and interesting, while all the while pushing that rock up the hill with our free hand! That is a lot to juggle! Man’s need for certainty and truth in a world that doesn’t offer him much is hardly his greatest problem. His greatest problem, as Nietzsche rightly tells us, is not dieing of the truth! His greatest problem is finding out how to create something that will save him from the truth, that will posit meaning and purpose in a universe truthfully devoid of both.
When Sisyphus reaches the summit the rock rolls back down the hill and he must return to the bottom and start all over again. On the second read through I noticed where Camus lost me. He writes the following quotes in this order on page 121:
“It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me.” “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 towards the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.” “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.”
First of all, is this “hour of consciousness” not simply a convenient feature of the myth? Where is this reprieve for the average working man? Where is his “breathing-space” between working, paying bills, taking care of children, and every other burden that modern life straps him with? If he does get that break, he is either too tired to do anything imaginative, busy with other burdens, or frantically running from his boredom, which can often be more exhausting and much more futile than the labor of subsistence. Secondly, Sisyphus has been condemned to this fate, which precludes Camus from glorifying the “hour of consciousness” or his return to his labor as being a heroic choice! Sisyphus cannot choose to stay at the top of the mountain sitting on his hands and meditating. Thirdly, Camus is trying to give us a solution to the problem of suicide, which he deems the only philosophical question that matters, but Sisyphus could actually escape his absurd condition in the myth if he were capable of committing suicide (or of making any choice whatsoever!). Sisyphus is condemned to his fate by the gods, whose sadistic will he could easily thwart if he were able to kill himself. They wanted to give him the cruelest fate possible, but would fail if Sisyphus annihilated his future and with it any fate whatsoever. That would be victory! Lastly, if we take the Sisyphean burden to be that of discovering truth and finding clarity, as Camus does, instead of the toil of subsistence, as I interpret it, then it ceases to fit the structure of the myth. Though we are “defeated in advance” in our search for truth, as we will never be done with this task, there is no equivalent of the rock falling back down the mountain. We could potentially keep making discoveries, learning more and more, unifying our conception of our selves and the world, and so forth, without end, without victory, but also without completely starting from scratch as Sisyphus must each time! So essentially we have to ignore certain parts of the myth and focus only on the parts that interest Camus, as well as ignore certain parts of actual human life that don’t fit with the myth. I suppose I wouldn’t mind doing so if I found Camus’ conclusion satisfying. But scorn? That is how we surmount our fate? Scorn? If we realize that the world is full of shit it will hardly do to start flinging our poo. This may confirm our vision of the world (poo everywhere!), but only at the expense of losing our opportunity to do something slightly more evolved with our hands. (I can’t help but picture de Sade in “Quills” writing smut on the walls of his prison cell, although his message may be no more evolved than his medium.)
The last sentence of Camus’ essay asserts that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy,” but why must we and how can we? Camus claims one sentence earlier that “the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” It is hard to see how the burden of subsistence can fill a man’s heart when that man is conscious of his own death and thus the futility of his toil. So, we must interpret “the struggle” as one towards the “heights” of truth, clarity, and meaning, which can I think fill man’s heart. However, my basic objection is that this struggle is actually the third that man has to deal with, and he contends with it only after dealing with the first two! If we interpret the rock as Camus does, then we should picture Sisyphus trying to push the rock up the mountain while constantly dodging even larger boulders that hurtle down the mountain towards him, making more lateral progress than vertical. In other words, if the highest fate that the gods will allow Sisyphus to reach is this futile cycle of pushing the rock to the top only to start over again, we have to find some consolation for a Sisyphus who fails to even reach the top once! There is no revolt, there is no defiance, there is no acceptance of a fate that one cannot even manage to live up to! There is a fate worse than having to defiantly assert meaning in a meaningless universe: the fate of not having enough time off of work to even try! Thus, we are more in the position of Lucifer than Sisyphus: full of creativity, held back from displaying it in a brilliant creation, and consigned to the fate of sulking over our wounded merit. Unfortunately for us, there is nowhere to enact our Fall, and no god to defy in so doing. In truth, this is what prompts suicide in most cases I think: a person has some vague notion of a fate more exalted than the one they are currently laboring under, but this beautiful vision only serves to mock them while they labor on unable to realize their lofty vision in paper, canvas, marble, or their own flesh. Schopenhauer didn’t commit suicide because an inheritance from his father saved him from being a merchant who was mocked daily by the faint voice of the worlds greatest philosopher. Most of us will not be so lucky.
Quotes that I liked in Camus’ Sisyphus:
“All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning.”
“That nostalgia for unity, that appetite for the absolute illustrates the essential impulse of the human drama.”
“The absurd is sin without god.”
“Likewise, if all experiences are indifferent, that of duty is as legitimate as any other. One can be virtuous through a whim.”
“that necessary imperfection that makes happiness perceptible.”