For a variety of reasons, I have recently been called upon to consider the absurdity, and the tragedy, of the story of Sisyphus. When my mother first painted the above, beautiful work of art, I, as a young child, asked her what it meant. (Well, I asked her this about everything she painted as it happens, but this painting, in particular, truly captured this child’s imagination.) My mother replied that it was a painting of Sisyphus – a man condemned by the gods to ceaselessly roll a rock to the top of a mountain, only to watch it fall. Time and time again he was to repeat this act, for all eternity. I found this concept deeply distressing, and turned away from it. Happily, at that time, my mind simply shut down on a concept it was, then, far too young to grasp.
I have come to this place now, from where I am willing, and able, to consider this story anew, as follows:
According to Wikipedia, Albert Camus, the French, Nobel Prize winning author and philosopher, gave rise to the philosophy known as Absurdism. It is to Camus I now turn in search of words that may calm my greatly troubled thoughts on matters of futile labours, and the absurdity of repeating patterns of behaviour throughout one’s life, as though striving towards an end that simply cannot be reached.
Camus tells us that if Homer were to be believed, Sisyphus was the “wisest of mortals.” According to another tradition, he was far from this, “disposed to practice the profession of a highwayman.” Camus sees no contradiction in this. Thus, for a variety of reasons, none of which I am going to elaborate on here, Camus was condemned to a fate in the underworld that my mother described, grabbed by the god Mercury, and led forcibly to his rock that awaited him there.
Camus describes Sisyphus as the “Absurd Hero”, for it was his hatred of death, and his passion for life, equally, that led him to the penalty in which he is fated to exert himself toward accomplishing nothing for all eternity. I consider this now, and ask the reader: do you not know of people who do such a thing? People who, through earthly passions, needs, drives and desires of many different kinds, exert themselves in futile persuits throughout their lives, accomplishing nothing. I do.
On reading the story again, I am granted a vision of something I certainly had not considered before. Camus discusses the matter of Sisyphus returning down the summit of the mountain to retrieve his rock from the plain below.
“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 conciousness. 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.” Albert Camus.
Camus continues to suggest that if this story is tragic, it is because Sisyphus is conscious. “Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?”
And here, at last, I find some comfort in the words Camus continues with now:
“When the images of earth cling too tightly to memory, when the call of happiness becomes too insistent, it happens that melancholy arises in a 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.”
Well now, I like that. A lot! And it gets better…honestly, it does! But, I shall opt out here, and leave the reader to investigate further into the story Camus tells so well, should you feel so inclined. You may not, of course. It is a very personal matter for me, that I am drawn to consider futility, absurdity, and yes, heroic struggles to no end. There are many words within all that Albert Camus writes here, from which I draw comfort, and fresh ways of seeing. Not least of all, for example, these:
“At that subtle moment when a man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which become his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.
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.” Albert Camus.
One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Well, this is what I wanted to share today of Albert Camus on the subject of Sisyphus. Later today, I shall post my own version of this story in STORIES OF WILLOW contd….under the title: “OF CAMELS, AND SISYPHUS IN THE FOUNTAIN.”
Please read, enjoy, and comment on all.
Among many things, in his writing of the Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus proposes the following: “..crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.”