Albert Camus was born on 7th November 1913 in Algeria. To mention the unnecessary, he would have been 106 years old this year! While he died young, at the age of 46 in 1960, his ideas surrounding the absurd have made him supremely relevant even today. So, in his birth month, let us revisit some of his ideas and question their importance today.
Contrary to popular belief or rather popular misunderstanding, his works do not celebrate absurdity or worse, nihilism but rather provide meaningful answers to overcome the meaninglessness of life. His two most famous novels, The Stranger or The Outsider and The Plague look at the hopelessness of the situation the protagonists are in but also portray their rebellion against that utter lack of hope.
In 1942, he published his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. In this essay, Camus used the Greek mythological figure of Sisyphus as a metaphor for absurdity.
So who is this mythical Sisyphus?
Sisyphus was the King of Corinth who tricked Death twice but could not do so the third time.
The first time he was sentenced to death was when Sisyphus helped Aesophus, a river god, find his daughter, Aegina. Zeus had abducted Aegina. Aesophus promised Sisyphus that if he helped him find his daughter, he would create an eternal water spring in Corinth. Sisyphus thus told him about Zeus’ abduction of Aegina. This betrayal enraged Zeus and he banished Sisyphus to the Underworld. Once there, however, he was able to trick Thanatos by pretending to be unaware of how chains would chain him. Thanatos thus chained himself in an attempt to demonstrate to Sisyphus how chains functioned. Sisyphus was thus able to escape while Thanatos remained chained. While the latter was imprisoned, there was utter chaos in the world as no one died. Eventually, Ares, the God of War, found Sisyphus and freed Thanatos.
However, this time as well Sisyphus had a trick up his sleeve and before entering the realm of the dead he asked his wife, Merope, to not carry out any funeral rituals and to not give him the coin needed to pay the ferryman, Charon, to cross the river Styx. Using that as an excuse, he pleaded to Hades and Persephone that he be allowed to return to the world of living for three days to ensure that all the rites are carried out properly and then he would return. His wish was granted but he had no plans of returning ever.
Zeus was now thoroughly maddened by Sisyphus’ sheer insolence as he had cheated death twice. Eventually, Zeus banished him to Tartarus, the lowest region of the Underworld and punished him to repeatedly roll up a boulder to the top of a hill. Forever. Eternally. No escape. Zeus had finally managed to outwit the trickster with this punishment. Nobody would want to be stuck in such a never ending cycle. It is absurd and that is why it is such a cruel fate for Sisyphus who was always tricking others. Now he would have no time to fool anyone.
Camus used this apt image, this myth to highlight Sisyphus’ constant rebellion against the world. He called him an absurd hero: “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.”
But what is so heroic about Sisyphus’ eternal struggle?
For Camus, it was Sisyphus’ scorn to be overcome by this struggle. He explains how Sisyphus’ walk downhill to push the stone up again is his “breathing space… hour of consciousness.” It is in those moments that he receives a respite, albeit short, from his arduous task. It is also in those moments that he is very much aware of that very task, yet he still moves towards it.
For Camus, being conscious of your own absurd condition helps you to contemplate about it and thus aids in surmounting it at the end. It may be tragic as well but Camus believes that it is better to know the full extent of your actions rather than being disillusioned by false hope. Sisyphus for him symbolises that strength to be aware and be willing to be able to overcome the nothingness of the situation by your own thoughts. Because Sisyphus refused to be bowed down by the task and instead chose to revel in his routine, Camus believed him to be “superior to his fate… stronger than his rock.”
The myth had become a well-known metaphor for futility, for nothingness in our lives. Yet Camus subverts this very myth and lets us know that you can overcome the absurdity present in your lives, we can each surmount our own boulders and routines: “The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”
Camus does admit later that we are all at times overwhelmed by melancholy, grief and absurdity; when our boulders become too much to bear. Yet acknowledging that grief or the truth of the absurdity is the first step in acknowledging that there is meaning in life and that we can master the futility in our lives: “the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols.”
At the end of the essay, Camus imagines Sisyphus to be happy. And why not? Because, we all have our burdens to bear, yet not succumbing to them is surely a means to be happy, a means to infuse meaning in our lives. Let us all, therefore, not be overcome by our routines or the mundaneness of life but rather know that we all, each one of us, can do something constructive about it!
You can read the essay here.