The Myth of Sisyphus

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. If one believes Homer, Sisyphus was the wisest and most prudent of mortals. According to another tradition, however, he was disposed to practice the profession of highwayman. I see no contradiction in this. Opinions differ as to the reasons why he became the futile laborer of the underworld. To begin with, he is accused of a certain levity in regard to the gods. He stole their secrets. Egina, the daughter of Esopus, was carried off by Jupiter. The father was shocked by that disappearance and complained to Sisyphus. He, who knew of the abduction, offered to tell about it on condition that Esopus would give water to the citadel of Corinth. To the celestial thunderbolts he 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 deserted, silent empire. He dispatched the god of war, who liberated Death from the hands of her conqueror. It is said that Sisyphus, being near to death, rashly wanted to test his wife's love. He ordered her to cast his unburied body into the middle of the public square. Sisyphus woke up in the underworld. And there, annoyed by an obedience so contrary to human love, he obtained from Pluto permission to return to earth in order to chastise his wife. But when he had seen again the face of this world, enjoyed water and sun, warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back to the infernal darkness. Recalls, signs of anger, warnings were of no avail. Many years more he lived facing the curve of the gulf, the sparkling sea, and the smiles of earth. A decree of the gods was necessary. Mercury came and seized the impudent man by the collar and, snatching him from his joys, lead him forcibly back to the underworld, where his rock was ready for him. You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth. Nothing is told us about Sisyphus in the underworld. Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them. As for this myth, one sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it, and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands. At the very end of his long effort measured by skyless space and time without depth, the purpose

It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd discovery. that is the hour of consciousness. But from the moment he knows. and the sorrow was in the beginning. he is superior to his fate. Thus. One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of achieved. He goes back down to the plain. that is because its hero is conscious. that Sisyphus interests me. It happens as well that the felling of the absurd springs from happiness. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. Sisyphus. however. if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks. my advanced age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. when the call of happiness becomes too insistent. it can also take place in joy. Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. Yet at the same moment. Where would his torture be. blind and desperate. he realizes that the only bond linking him to the world is the cool hand of a girl. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. He is stronger than his rock. Ancient wisdom confirms modern heroism. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. If this myth is tragic. and that remark is sacred. knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. that pause. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods. "I conclude that all is well. has not been. If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow. It is during that return. indeed. "What!---by such narrow ways--?" There is but one world. Oedipus at the outset obeys fate without knowing it. Again I fancy Sisyphus returning toward his rock. like Dostoevsky's Kirilov. This word is not too much. this is the rock itself. it happens that melancholy arises in man's heart: this is the rock's victory. It . thus gives the recipe for the absurd victory. Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward that lower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn. powerless and rebellious. proletarian of the gods. his tragedy begins. It teaches that all is not. The boundless grief is too heavy to bear." Sophocles' Oedipus. When the images of earth cling too tightly to memory. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering." says Oedipus. Then a tremendous remark rings out: "Despite so many ordeals. and his fate is no less absurd. exhausted. They are inseparable. These are our nights of Gethsemane. But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.

but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. secret calls. silences all the idols. a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence. he is still on the go. Sisyphus returning toward his rock. Thus. he knows himself to be the master of his days. convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human. Likewise. His rock is a thing. combined under his memory's eye and soon sealed by his death. Each atom of that stone. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. when he contemplates his torment. It makes of fate a human matter. There is no sun without shadow. the absurd man. created by him. The rock is still rolling. Unconscious. The absurd man says yes and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing. ---Albert Camus . in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which become his fate. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. there is no higher destiny. For the rest. invitations from all the faces. He too concludes that all is well. which must be settled among men. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. His fate belongs to him. and it is essential to know the night. or at least there is. If there is a personal fate. each mineral flake of that night filled mountain. All Sisyphus' silent joy is contained therein. the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up.drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile suffering. in itself forms a world. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life.

in the monotonous limits of his task. his love of life  his punishment. although useless. is not meaningless  the greatest glory of man is expending all his substance and existence to achieve precisely nothing Comment         Sisyphus is of course a symbol of man the rock is man's awareness of the absurdity of his existence Camus' position is that Sisyphus is fully alive and as such expresses his potential fully he cannot waste any vitality in dreaming or in false hope he is forced by his knowledge to extract joy from the given.that is man's greatness     . for he knows that there is nothing else Sisyphus. struggling towards the top of the mountain. the worse form of punishment they could inflict on a man. whose fundamental philosophy was almost identical with Camus Stevens has a poem called "The Hero. the hero of the Greek myth  Sisyphus had been condemned by the gods to roll a great stone everlastingly to the top of a mountain. he continues to try that is his greatness . no life it is curious to note that in Camus the sun holds the same central importance as it does for Wallace Stevens. This hopeless and totally useless task was. having died. in the opinion of the gods. knows that he will never reach it. There at the top and of its own weight it would roll down to the valley again and the task would begin again. his hatred of death. failed to honor his word and return to the land of the dead  Sisyphus is the great hero because of his disdain for the gods.Sisyphus  the last example of l'homme absurde is the greatest of them all  Sisyphus." which is simply about the rising and setting of the sun Sisyphus. is an extreme case it is just because he is an extreme case that he is a good example it is also worth noting that at the basis of the story of Sisyphus there is a solar myth  an attempt to explain the "eternal" movement of the sun. and having been allowed by Pluto (god of the underworld) to return briefly to the world. the American poet. which seems to be rolled up to the height of the heavens and then rolls down the other side  this eternally recurrent task seems purposeless. but without the sun there would be no light.  Why had the gods inflicted this punishment?  Sisyphus.

Sisyphus witnessed this kidnapping in his home city of Corinth. briefly free from his labor. As he descends the mountain. or when he hopes or wishes for happiness. When he arrived in the underworld. As he heads down the mountain. Zeus carried off Aegina. having suffered so much. his first victim was Sisyphus. Camus suggests. in perceiving that an eternity of futile labor is a hideous punishment. is able to "conclude that all is well. It is also said that Sisyphus told his wife not to offer any of the traditional burial rites when he died. His fate can only be considered tragic because he understands it and has no hope for reprieve. The moments of sorrow or melancholy come when he looks back at the world he's left behind. only to have the rock roll back down to the bottom every time he reaches the top. His punishment is to endure an eternity of hopeless struggle. he is conscious. that there is no hope and that our life is purely what we make of it. What fascinates Camus is Sisyphus's state of mind in that moment after the rock rolls away from him at the top of the mountain. and lived to a ripe old age before returning to the underworld a second time to endure his eternal punishment. he complained to Hades that his wife had not observed these rites and was granted permission to return to earth to chastise her. when the gods freed Death. At the same time. Camus identifies Sisyphus as the archetypal absurd hero. however. and a passion for life. Naturally. According to one story. They are both connected to the discovery that our world and our fate is our own. Sisyphus is condemned to roll a rock up to the top of a mountain. When Sisyphus accepts his fate. According to the Greek myth.Summary Sisyphus is probably more famous for his punishment in the underworld than for what he did in his life. no human being died. We are not told how Sisyphus endures his punishment in the underworld: that much is left to our imagination. In making this deal and bearing witness against Zeus. He refers to Oedipus. both for his behavior on earth and for his punishment in the underworld. Sisyphus earned the wrath of the gods while earning earthly wealth and happiness for himself and his people. the sorrow and melancholy of it vanish. aware of the absurdity of his fate. There are a number of stories—ones which are not mutually exclusive—that explain how Sisyphus came to earn his punishment in the underworld. a mortal woman who was the daughter of Asopus. a hatred of death. Once granted this second lease on life. Sisyphus agreed to inform Asopus as to who had kidnapped Aegina if Asopus would give the citadel at Corinth a fresh-water spring. Sisyphus refused to return to the underworld. suggests Camus. Camus suggests that Sisyphus might even approach his task with joy. Another story tells how Sisyphus enchained the spirit of Death. the lucidity he achieves with this understanding also places him above his fate. He displays scorn for the gods. The gods were wise." Happiness and the absurd are closely linked. who. Sisyphus is totally aware of his fate. Camus suggests that acknowledging "crushing truths" like the eternity and futility of his fate is enough to render them less crushing. Camus concludes: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy." . so that during Death's imprisonment.

Life as a Constant Struggle without Hope • • • • • any attempt to deny or avoid the struggle and the hopelessness that define our lives is an attempt to escape from this absurd contradiction Camus' single requirement for the absurd man is that he live with full awareness of the absurdity of his position in those moments where Sisyphus descends the mountain free from his burden." Tragedy. then we can accept our fate without horror only then can we fully appreciate life. is not pessimistic o it represents the greatest triumph we are capable of as human beings o as long as Sisyphus and Oedipus continue to hope and to deceive themselves. Consciousness. his fate is no different and no worse than our lot in life Futility and Hopelessness • • • • • the central argument of this essay is that life itself is a futile struggle devoid of hope this fate is only horrible if we continue to think that there is something more that is worth aiming for if we accept that there is no preferable alternative. Sisyphus and Oedipus have abandoned hope. His punishment is only horrible if he can hope or dream for something better. they are not heroic o with tragic recognition comes a full acknowledgment of our fate and our limitations o with that acknowledgment comes an acceptance of who we are and what we are capable of o in accepting their fate. the gods have nothing to punish him with. who becomes a tragic figure only when he becomes aware that he has killed his father and married his mother both Sisyphus and Oedipus are ultimately happy. Tragedy. he is aware. because we are accepting it without reservations Therefore. He knows that he will struggle forever and he knows that this struggle will get him nowhere this awareness is precisely the same awareness that an absurd man has in this life so long as Sisyphus is aware. and so their fate does not seem horrible to them . If he does not hope.Analysis The Absurd Hero . his fate becomes tragic he also alludes to Oedipus. Camus seems to be suggesting. Sisyphus is above his fate precisely because he has accepted it. that they "conclude that all is well. & Happiness • • • • Camus tells us that the moment Sisyphus becomes aware of his fate.

o on the contrary. we must be able to find happiness without relying on hope. and it concludes with its starting premise: If genuine happiness is possible. . faith. we must imagine Sisyphus happy if we want to believe in genuine happiness . or anything else that goes beyond immediate experience The Myth of Sisyphus is essentially an elaborate attempt to show that this is possible. if we leap into hope or faith o IF the leap into hope or faith represents an attempt to escape from the reality of our fate and IF happiness is only possible through such a leap o THEN happiness would essentially be an escape  life itself would be inherently unhappy  happiness would be a sham born out of denial • THEREFORE. they have finally found the only genuine happiness Connection between Happiness and Absurd Awareness • • we can only be truly happy when we accept our life and our fate as entirely our own —as the only thing we have and as the only thing we will ever be the final sentence reads: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy. o because Camus essentially believes in the idea that individual human experience is the only thing that is real o if he wants to show that happiness is real he must show that individual humans can truly be happy based on their experiences. the man who loved life so much that he has been condemned to an eternity of futile and hopeless labor  yet he is above that fate precisely because he is aware of it Logical Leap • • if Sisyphus is not happy in this awareness. then Sisyphus must be happy." WHY? o Camus's wording suggests that we have no choice in the matter o Is there an alternative?  Sisyphus is the absurd hero. not on their denial of experience o if happiness is real. then absurd awareness does NOT bring happiness it would then follow that happiness is only possible if we evade absurd awareness.

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