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Footnote to Sisyphus: even bigger rocks

29 May

As far as I’m concerned the Sisyphean rolling of stones up hills involves not just mundane tasks like washing up – ‘in three hours the pots gleaming on the draining board will be dirty again’ – but more serious pursuits. Every time I finish a play or an article I feel as though this particular piece of work can have no validity unless I start another one almost immediately. When I mentioned this to my partner, he understood exactly what I meant. ‘It’s not just the same rock, either,’ he said. ‘Every time you set off you think you have to roll an even bigger rock.’

In his Sisyphus essay Camus has interesting things to say about rocks and about hope, a state of mind that has intrigued me ever since I learnt that it was the only thing left in Pandora’s jar of evils after she’d lifted the lid on them. Sisyphus had a passion for life and so tried to overcome death. But in the underworld – according to Camus’ interpretation – he achieved the understanding that defeating death is impossible. Every time he saw his rock roll down the hill, he knew for sure that he was going to have to roll it up again, and that once again it would hurtle back to the bottom. There’s no meaning that transcends death, no final end towards which we strive, no big idea. To hope otherwise – to hope that life involves a meaning that we will discover either before or after death – is a bi-product of the condition of the absurd. If we’re going to come to terms with absurdity, then we have to do away with hope. When we start rolling the rock, we mustn’t imagine for one moment that this time it’s going to stay at the top of the hill.

“If Faust and Don Quixote are eminent creations of art, this is because of the immeasurable nobilities they point out to us with their earthly hands. Yet a moment always comes when the mind negates the truths that those hands can touch. A moment comes when the creation ceases to be taken tragically; it is merely taken seriously. Then a man is concerned with hope. But that is not his business. His business is to turn away from subterfuge.”  (The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien, Penguin Great Ideas, p.134).

The story of Sisyphus is one of many Greek myths which warn us that it is a mistake to yearn for immortality. Instead, we need to get to grips with the here and now. This is an idea which has been expressed many times in many different ways. Last week I was reminded of one of the most effective when Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’ was discussing Edward FitzGerald’s wonderful version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter garment of Repentance fling:
 The Bird of Time has but a little way
 To flutter – and the Bird is on the Wing. …. 

Alike for those who for Today prepare,
And those that after some Tomorrow stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries,
“Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There.”

There are no rewards. Don’t hope for them.

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Sisyphus, a model for happiness

17 May

Reluctantly, I’ve come to realise recently that the view of happiness presented by Albert Camus in The myth of Sisyphus comes quite close to my own. Basically for Camus happiness is a product of the condition of the absurd. This is encapsulated in humanity’s search for meaning in a world where God does not exist, and where there are no absolute truths or values. Our ‘appetite for the absolute and for unity’ constantly runs up against ‘the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle’. The world is simply not reasonable. So the human project is doomed to failure – we will never succeed in our attempts to apply reason to a state of being that is fundamentally unreasonable. This, in a nutshell, is the absurd.

Does our recognition of the absurd demand suicide as a response, Camus asks.No, we just have to live with the contradiction. Reason and its limits must be acknowledged, without any false hopes. But the absurd must never be accepted: it requires constant confrontation, constant revolt. For Camus, this revolt leads to freedom: when we are no longer bound by hope for a better future or for eternity, we have no need to pursue life’s purpose or to create meaning; instead we enjoy ‘freedom with regard to common rules’.

In the last chapter of this short work Camus relates the condition of the absurd to the myth of Sisyphus. The latter was a character in Greek mythology who tried to outwit Zeus, the ruler of the gods, and in the process committed some pretty bloody crimes. Finally Zeus ordered Death, or Thanatos, to chain Sisyphus up in the Underworld. Cunning as ever, Sisyphus asked Thanatos to show him how the chains worked; while Thanatos was obliging him with a demonstration Sisyphus seized the initiative and imprisoned Death in his own shackles.

In other words, Sisyphus tried to outwit Zeus by abolishing death. This caused such an uproar among the gods that Sisyphus was bullied into releasing Thanatos. He was then condemned to a punishment which most of us can easily recognise from our own day-to-day lives: he had to spend the rest of eternity in the Underworld, rolling a huge boulder up a steep hill; whenever he got near the top the boulder tumbled back down again, forcing Sisyphus to begin the task all over again. (Think, for example, of spending hours cleaning the house, knowing that next week we’ll have to do it all over again. Are our more serious tasks any different – do we ever really complete them?).

Camus sees Sisyphus as the archetypal absurd hero who lives life to the full, hates death and is condemned to an utterly meaningless task. His never-ending and pointless toil can be interpreted as a metaphor for human life, full of unremitting drudgery which we are compelled to take seriously, since existence would be unsustainable without it.

According to Camus the truly tragic moment comes when Sisyphus is beginning his task all over again, and becomes conscious of his own miserable condition. He does not have hope, but ‘there is no fate that cannot be overcome by scorn’. When Sisyphus acknowledges the futility of his task and the certainty that he will never succeed in it, he is freed to realise the absurdity of his situation and to reach a contented acceptance. ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy’.

 

A brief postscript: Camus’ account of our flailing attempts to apply reason to problems which will never admit of reasonable solutions reminded me of Steven Knight’s brilliant film Locke. Ivan Locke thinks that if he just stays calm and remains rational he will work out how to do the right thing in a nightmare situation where there is no right thing that can be done. It’s agonising to watch.