|Reading for Philosophical Inquiry: A Brief Introduction to Philosophical Thinking ver. 0.21; An Open Source Reader|
|Prev||Chapter 8. Le Mythe de Sisyphe by Albert Camus - trans. by Hélène Brown||Next|
The gods had condemned Sisyphus to roll a rock ceaselessly to the top of a mountain from which the huge stone would roll down by its own weight. They had thought with some reason that no punishment is more dreadful than labor for which there is no use and no hope.
If we believe Homer, Sisyphus was the wisest and most prudent of mortals. However, according to another tradition, he tended to commit highway robbery. I see no contradiction in this. Opinions vary as to the reasons why he was given to be the worthless laborer of the underworld. First of all, he is accused of taking the gods a bit lightly. He betrayed their secrets. Ægina—the daughter of Æsopus—was abducted by Jupiter. Her father found her disappearance disturbing and complained to Sisyphus. He, who knew of the abduction, offered to inform Æsopus on the condition that he Æsopus, give water to the citadel of Corinth. Rather than the wrath of the gods, Sisyphus preferred the benediction of water. He was punished for this in the underworld. Homer tells us also that Sisyphus had put Death in chains. Pluto could not endure the sight of his desert and silent empire. He dispatched the god of war, who liberated Death from the hands of her conqueror.
Also, it is said that Sisyphus, being near death, unwarily tried to test his wife's love. He ordered her to leave his body unburied and to dispose of it publicly on the forum. Sisyphus next found himself in the underworld. There, angered by an example of obedience so contrary to human love, he obtained from Pluto permission to return on earth in order to chastise his wife. But when he had seen again the face of this world, enjoyed the water and the sun, the warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to return to the darkness of the underworld. Promptings, anger, and warnings of the gods were all in vain. For many years thereafter, he lived facing the curved shoreline, the dazzling blue sea, and enjoying the smiles of the earth. The gods found necessary to summon him. Mercury arrived and grabbed the impudent Sisyphus by the collar, and, snatching him away from his joys, forced him back to the underworld where his rock was ready for him.
It has already been understood that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much because of his passions as because of his torment. His disdain for the gods, his hatred of death and his passion for life won him that unspeakable torture of exerting his whole being to achieving nothing. It is the price that one must pay for the passions of this earth. We are told nothing about Sisyphus in the underworld. Myths are created for the imagination to breathe life into them. As for this myth, one sees merely the whole effort of a body that is straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it and push it up the slope hundred of times over; one sees the face twisted by the effort, the cheek pressing against the rock, the shoulder being used to brace against a mass covered with clay, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the truly human safeguard of two hands clotted with earth. When this long effort which is commensurate with boundless space, no sky, and fathomless time comes through the very end of its course, the purpose of it is achieved. Sisyphus then watches the rock as it hurtles down with a few bounds toward that lower world from whence he will have to push it up back to the summit. Again, he returns to the bottom of the slope.
The River, El Cantara, Algeria, Library of Congress
It is during his return, his pause there, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I imagine that man with a heavy yet even step walking down the slope to the torment of which he will never know the end. That brief time, like breathing, which returns as regularly and certainly as his torment, that is the moment of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the summit and enters a little deeper into the lair of the gods, Sisyphus is superior to his destiny. He is stronger than his rock.
If this myth is tragic, it is because the hero is conscious. What would his torment be if at each step the hope of succeeding sustained him? In today's world, a worker works everyday of his life at the same tasks, making his destiny no less absurd. But the tone is tragic during the rare moments only when Sisyphus becomes conscious. Proletarian of the gods, powerless and bearing inner revolt, he knows the extent of his wretched condition: the thought of it never leaves him while he walks down to meet his rock. The lucidity that was supposed to be his torment by the same token is the achievement of his victory. There is no destiny that cannot be surmounted by scorn.
If sorrow is sometimes being felt on the way down, so might be joy. This word is not too emphatic. Again I imagine Sisyphus returning toward his rock. His sorrow was at the beginning. When the images of the earth cling too tightly to memory, when the call of happiness becomes too oppressive, it happens that sadness rises in a man's heart: this is the victory of the rock; this is the rock itself. This vast distress is too heavy to bear. There come our nights of Gethsemane. But crushing truths perish from being recognized. Thus, Œdipus at first obeys his fate without knowing it. From the moment he knows, his tragedy begins. Yet at the very same moment, blind and in despair, he realizes that the only bond that ties him to the world is a feminine young hand of which he feels the freshness. His words ring out immoderately: "Despite so many ordeals, on account of my wiser age and the nobility of my soul I judge that all is well." Sophocles's Œdipus, like Dostoevsky's Kirilov, thus gives the formula for the absurd victory. Ancient wisdom pairs with modern heroism.
One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness. "What! By such narrow ways…?" There is but one world, however. Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. The error would be to say that happiness is necessarily born of the absurd; it happens as well that the feeling of absurdity is born of happiness. "I judge that all is well" says Œdipus, and this remark is sacred. It rings out in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches us that all was not and is not yet exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had entered it with dissatisfaction and a liking for futile sufferings. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.
From the Admiralty, Algiers, Algeria, Library of Congress
All Sisyphus's silent joy is here: his fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, when he contemplates his torment, the absurd man makes all idols be silent. In the universe suddenly given back to its silence, thousands of marveling little voices of the world arise. Unconscious secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and the price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and one has to know darkness. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth have no ending. If there is a fated life destiny which is personal to each man, there is no superhuman destiny; more truly, there is only one for us all which the absurd man concludes is fatal and despicable. For the rest, he knows that he alone is master of his life. At that subtle instant when a man looks back over his life, Sisyphus walking downward to his rock contemplates the series of actions all together like dots on the curve of his destiny that has truly become his: it was created by him, is being perfected under the watchful eye of his memory, and will soon be sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the very human origin of everything that is human, a blind man having the desire to see and knowing that the night has no end, Sisyphus is not out of step. The rock is still rolling.
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One will always find one's own burden again. But Sisyphus teaches that higher sense of faithfulness that negates the gods and is capable of lifting rocks. He too judges that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master, appears to him neither sterile nor futile. Each particle of that stone, each mineral flake of that mountain filled with darkness, in its singularity constitutes a world. The struggle itself toward summits is enough alone to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.