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Imagining Sisyphus happy

staff note

One of my favorite pieces I read in all my years of English classes was Albert Camus’s essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Camus was admirable. He came across as defiant in this work in refusing to limit himself based on what he believed was a purposeless existence. And this work continues to impact how I choose to live. 

Born in 1913, Albert Camus was a French-Algerian writer best known for his work “The Stranger,” considered by many to be a profound discussion of absurdity and existentialism. Influenced by the intellectual movements of the time like the growing postmodernism, Camus struggled with questions of meaning and purpose in what he found to be a meaningless and purposeless world.

Camus opens the essay with a description of the life of Sisyphus. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is the famous king of Corinth — or Ephyra, as it was known at the time — who infamously cheated death not once, but twice. As punishment, Hades damns Sisyphus to push a boulder up a hill, for it to only roll down again for all of eternity.

What Camus is drawn to is the moment Sisyphus pauses to watch the stone roll down once again. Sisyphus devoted his life to escaping death and yet this hard-won life, as Camus claims, accomplished nothing. Camus, however, finds something human in this moment. Sisyphus stands, feeling the weight of his intensive labor as he watches the boulder he devoted hours to pushing roll down the hill again, putting him back where he started.

Camus uses Sisyphus as a symbol for all of mankind. Our actions are as meaningless and fruitless as Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill only for it to immediately roll down again. Every day, every year, every decade, we watch our own ventures seemingly repeat themselves as we are made to pursue them again. 

Its relevance today is epitomized in our political situation and the many issues our society faces. Today, we watch our own boulder roll down the hill again only for humanity to push it back up, as we address events like the Paris Climate Agreement be taken off the table in a single presidency after decades of debate and the lives of immigrants in this country be ripped apart.

The idea of history repeating itself seems to be shaping our current political situation, a boulder rolling down the hill of what our future could be. Even following an unchanging weekly routine seems to fall in line with what Camus deems the absurd and meaningless life.

Camus asks one of the many paradoxical questions of philosophy: Is there a way to live a life without meaning yet without despair? The paramount issue is one of acceptance — if it is possible for humans to accept that life is merely absurd and orderless without complete indifference.

The danger of pure despair is obvious in our society. Apathy seems to be a universal characteristic of the millennial generation, felt after watching years of political failures and the seeming influx of corrupt governments, like in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Libya. Marketing and media teams further promote this ideology and shape our attitude toward life and routine (see: Apathy Clothing). Individual efficacy in changing systematic problems feels futile and purposeless. The slippery slope of pessimism can result in the very hopelessness Camus argues against.

This often makes me think of the five stages of grief, ending with acceptance — the step Camus believes all of humanity needs to achieve. He does not argue for Sisyphus to give up, to stop pushing the boulder up the hill. Instead, Camus promotes persistence in the face of this struggle. As meaningless and tragic as this pursuit may be, Sisyphus transforms into the “absurd hero” in choosing to live, choosing to define himself by the world he lives in and finding passion in it. Our freedom from our punishment is consciousness, an awareness of the life we have been made to live, without having the ability to change the situation we live in. Once aware, we prevail in the face of struggle, and in that moment, we become the absurd hero over our repetitive venture. 

What I leave you with is Camus’s final line: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Kerry Rork is a Trinity sophomore and Recess campus arts editor.

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