Albert Camus, the celebrated French writer and pioneer of the absurd thought, began The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays with this dramatic opening:
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”
Well it may not be, but it immediately forces you to contemplate on the meaning of life as that opening lingers on in your mind.
As Camus himself mentions in the Preface to Justin O’ Brien’s translation of The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, “it is legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life has a meaning.”
So does life have meaning then? Or are we all consigned to a meaningless world and a life that drives us to suicide?
For what else could be the most legitimate action other than suicide, if we find ourselves in the throes of meaninglessness?
Hence his much maligned and misunderstood and dramatic opening!
Yet, Camus does not simply say that life has no meaning and therefore we are caught in a web of absurdities never to know any purpose or aim in life.
In the eponymous essay at the end, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus uses a relatively unknown figure from Greek mythology, Sisyphus, to elaborate on his idea of the absurd.
Sisyphus in Greek Mythology was a typical trickster who was the King of Corinth and had managed to trick death, not once but twice!
The first time, in exchange for a never ending spring in Corinth, Sisyphus spilled Zeus’ secret to Aesophus, one of the water gods, that Zeus had in fact kidnapped, Aegina, the daughter of Aesophus.
Zeus being Zeus, with his bad temper, punished Sisyphus to death. But Sisyphus was too crafty for that. He managed to escape from the Underworld by tricking the God of Death into chaining himself and leaving Sisyphus himself to be free and go back to the world above.
Zeus, enraged by such defiance, condemned him to death once again.
However, Sisyphus was a step ahead once again.
This time he instructed his wife, Merope, that she should not carry out his funeral in the correct order and should not put any money on his dead body so that he has no money to give to Charon, the ferryman of the Underworld, who ferried the souls across the River Styx for a toll.
Thus when Sisyphus was in Tartarus, he used this incomplete funeral and lack of money as an excuse to come back to the living world. He said that once he berated his wife for neglecting her wifely duties and seeing that all was carried out properly, he would gladly come back.
However, he loved his life too much in the living world and did not wish to go back. Many accounts do suggest that he lived his life peacefully and joyously till a ripe old age.
Lo! Behold! The bad tempered Zeus strikes again!
He was now beyond enraged since Sisyphus had tricked death twice and in doing so that fooled Zeus as well!
Somebody should have really send that God of Gods to some anger management sessions!
Nobody did however and the end result?
In his rage, Zeus condemned Sisyphus to a punishment which he thought would be worse than death.
In Tartarus, Sisyphus was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll down again, so that he had to keep rolling it back up again for eternity.
Pretty cheerful, right?
Most would say no.
But Camus had a different take to it.
He believed that this seemingly worthless and eternal task of Sisyphus was not entirely devoid of meaning.
Despite its mundaneness, Camus states in his last essay that Sisyphus did find meaning in this task despite its never ending trait.
Specifically, Camus says that in that moment, when Sisyphus reaches the top of the hill when he is done with his task, albeit for just a while, it is that pause that is meaningful since he is able to reflect on his completed task and feel fulfilled.
Camus puts the onus on Sisyphus to take control of his fate, to seize its mundaneness and create his own meaning through it.
In simpler words, Camus says that it is either your victory or the rock’s victory and it is up to you to decide who should win- the absurdity of every day life i.e. the rock or you as a person.
He admits that Sisyphus is stuck in that never ending cycle but Camus does not feel that he is bereft of meaning. On the contrary, he says that he creates his own meaning through his Sisyphean task.
For me, personally that is quite a positive way of looking at things since monotony and the mundane are part of everyone’s lives. We all have our rocks and other burdens to push up the hill. Yet, we persevere and take our own pauses, reflect back, take the journey back again to the bottom where we again are involved in the most banal of tasks.
It may be difficult to avoid the monotony of life. Who can really escape these inevitable routines and processes? It may seem senseless and absurd. It perhaps is as well.
But does that mean that we just throw our hands up and give up?
What would be left if we do not take our own pauses and create our own meanings then; if we thought everything is absurd?
This brings me back to the opening again. No wonder then that Camus looked at suicide as the only truly philosophical problem of today.
Why do people commit suicide? Mostly due to a lack of meaning in one’s life coupled with many different aspects along with an inescapable sense of hopelessness in the world and in oneself perhaps . But if we changed that attitude and tried to look at the world, despite its monotony, as still being a world worth living in, everything might not seem so bleak.
Some might even see meaning in the monotony itself, just as Camus imagines Sisyphus to be doing.
We must perhaps take a step back and accept the fact that yes, we are all caught in our own vicious cycles but once in a while we must engage in our own “pauses,” our own breaks or our own feeling of being on the top of the hill (akin to Sisyphus) to see that life is glorious and worth it after all.
As Camus ends, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
And I truly think we should!
Otherwise what is left other than mere bleak nihilism?
Rather, lets embrace the absurd and still create our own meaning and purpose!
READ MORE and LEARN MORE:
- See this excellent Marker Board summary of the last essay:
- Find the full book here in PDF version:
- Read one part of his punishment:
- Read the complete guide to his tricks and punishments:
Share your thoughts about this and any other absurd literature that you have read in the comments below!