At least once a year I read The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. Sisyphus is immortalized by his punishment in the underworld – “ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight.”
The gods had thought, Camus explains, “that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”
And one can imagine why such an existence would be punishment. Futile and hopeless labor. Pushing with all your might to accomplish something. And accomplishing nothing. Trying again, perhaps more forceful than before. Aiming for that peak. Fighting to meet that goal. And accomplishing nothing.
How long could you go on?
Camus is interested in Sisyphus’ decent. “That return, that pause…That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering.” That moment, Camus says, “that is the hour of consciousness.”
And consciousness is what makes Sisyphus tragic. Alas, he “knows the whole extent of his wretched condition.”
Yet consciousness is also Sisyphus’ victory.
“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…His fate belongs to him. His rock is a thing.”
According to Camus, that long decent, with its moments of pause, of thought, of reflection, those are his moments of victory.
I like to take it further.
There are two moments for Sisyphus that interest me. At the top of the hill, Sisyphus turns to watch his rock effortlessly fall down the slope he effortfully just pushed it up.
Then he goes down the hill.
At the bottom of the hill, Sisyphus looks up at the peak he and his rock just returned from.
Then he sets himself, and begins to push.
Those are the moments that interest me. The story of Sisyphus has no villains. No harpies plucking out his eyes or monsters threatening his fate. There is only Sisyphus and his rock.
The gods think they forced Sisyphus to this fate. They decreed his punishment and so it must be so.
But Camus is right – his fate belongs to him. Sisyphus chooses to push his rock. Neither man nor god can force it upon him. The rock is his alone to chose.
I imagine Sisyphus to know the wretched state of his condition throughout his struggle, not only in those subtle moments of silent decent. He sets his shoulder against the stone knowing the outcome. Knowing the rock will fall. Knowing it will happen again and again and again.
And Sisyphus pushes anyway.
Indeed, “these are our nights of Gethsemane.”
We all of us have our burdens to bear, our rocks to push. And while at times these burdens may feel forced upon us by a merciless or unjust world, they are ultimately ours to choose.
But the alternative is far worse. “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.”
To avoid our rocks is to avoid the world. To shut ourselves off from all that is around us. To will ourselves into the inky void of unconsciousness, where the weight of the world can’t follow.
Camus’ Sisyphus chooses consciousness. He pushes his rock, embracing the pain and hardship that come with his toil. “There is no fate that can not be surmounted by scorn,” and indeed, Sisyphus scorns his so-called punishment – reveling in the blood, sweat and tears which tell him plainly that, in the underworld though he may be, he is very much alive.
So, yes, we “must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
As he stands on that peak, watching his rock roll away, I imagine him taking a deep breath, narrowing his eyes, and gritting his teeth. Then, hardened and focused, prepared for his descent and the grueling ascent to follow, I imagine Sisyphus says himself, a wry smile on his lips, “Okay, then. Let’s do this.”