Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Camus on The Absurd Life of Sisyphus

Sisyphus by Titian, 1549
Albert Camus notes in his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” (Chapter 4; The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus), that the Gods are wise because they understand that an eternity of fruitless labor is the most hideous punishment that can be inflicted on man.

Sisyphus lusted for happiness in his life but the Gods mete out to him the punishment of rolling a rock up a mountain only to have it roll back down to the bottom when he is close to the top. He must keep repeating the labor for eternity without any hope of success.

But even though his life is mired in ceaseless struggle, futility, and hopelessness, Sisyphus is not necessarily unhappy. Camus ends the essay with the sentence: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” He says that Sisyphus can be happy if he accepts his fate—if he accepts that the meaning of life is futile, senseless labor, and there is nothing that he can do to change the situation. Here’s an excerpt from Camus’s essay:
All Sisyphus' silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is a thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is, but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when 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. 
According to Camus, happiness and absurdity are closely connected. Happiness can come to a human being only when he accepts that life is absurd and there is nothing that he can do to change his fate. Men do not have any choice in the matter. We have to accept life as it dawns on us—to even think of bringing about an improvement in our condition is a recipe for unhappiness. Happiness is only possible to those who accept their fate— Sisyphus is happy because he accepted his fate. There is certainly too much of pessimism and fatalism in Camus. 

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