By Albert Camus – Translated from the French by Bruce Sarbit
The gods had condemned Sisyphus forevermore to roll a rock up a mountain to the summit where, because of its weight, it had to fall back down. They had reckoned that there is no sentence more terrible than meaningless and hopeless work.
If we take Homer’s word for it, Sisyphus was the wisest and most sensible of the mortals. Another legend, however, portrays him as a professional highwayman. I don’t see any contradiction in these accounts. Opinions vary as to why he deserved to be the underworld’s futile worker. First of all, the gods reprimanded him for being frivolous with them. He divulged their secrets. Jupiter had abducted Egina. Alarmed by her disappearance, Esopus, her father, complained to Sisyphus. Sisyphus knew about the abduction and proposed to tell him of it if Esopus offered water at the citadel of Corinth. He preferred water as benediction to celestial lightning. For this, he was punished in the underworld. Homer also tells us that Sisyphus shackled Death. Because Pluto couldn’t bear to see his empire uninhabited and silent, he sent the god of war who liberated Death from her subjugator’s hands.
They also say that, when he was near death, Sisyphus foolishly wanted to verify that his wife loved him. He ordered her to throw his cadaver into the middle of the public plaza. He found himself back in the underworld. Outraged by his wife’s obedience, her behaviour being so opposed to human love, he received Pluto’s permission to return to earth to punish her. But when he had once again seen this earth’s face, tasted the water and the sun, felt the warm stones and the sea, he did not want to return to the hellish shadows. All the gods’ reminders, their fits of anger and their reprimands did nothing to sway him. For several more years, he lived facing the curve of the gulf, the dazzling sea and the smiles of the earth. The gods had to put a stop to it. Mercury collared insolent Sisyphus, hauled him away from his bliss and forced him back to the underworld where his rock was waiting for him.
We have already learned that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He qualifies as much by way of his passions as by his torment. His contempt for the gods, his hatred of death and his love of life had gained him this horrible punishment where his entire being was employed to achieve nothing. That is the price he had to pay for his passions on earth. We are told nothing of Sisyphus in the underworld. Myths are made for imagination to inspire them. As for this myth, we imagine all the effort of a body stretched to lift the enormous rock, roll it and help it up a slope begun one hundred times before; we see the determined face, the cheek pressed against the stone, the help of a shoulder that receives the mass covered in clay, a foot that wedges it, the new beginning with outstretched arms, the very human security of two hands full of earth. At the conclusion of a prolonged effort, measured by space without sky and time without depth, the aim is realized. Sisyphus observes the stone racing for several moments down toward the lower world from which he will have to raise it again toward the summit. He heads back down to the plain.
It is during this return, this interval, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that labours so near stones is already stone itself. I see him go back down, his step heavy yet equal to torment he knows will never end. This hour is like breath: it recurs as certainly as his misfortune; this hour is that of consciousness. At each of these moments, when he leaves the summit and goes down to the dens of the gods, he is superior to his destiny. He is stronger than his rock.
If this myth is tragic, it is because its hero is conscious. Where would his distress be if, at each step, hope of success encouraged him? Today’s worker toils all the days of his life at the same tasks and his destiny is no less absurd. Still, it is tragic only at those special instants when he becomes aware. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, impotent yet rebellious, knows the full extent of his miserable condition: it is what he thinks about during his descent. The clear-sightedness that was to be his torment at the same time consummates his victory. There is no destiny that cannot be overcome by contempt.
If some days the descent is made in suffering, it can also be made in joy. The word “joy” is not too strong. I imagine Sisyphus coming back toward his rock; as he begins, he is distressed. When the images of the earth are held too strongly in memory, when the call of happiness is too compelling, sadness grows in the heart of the man: it is the victory of the rock; it is the rock itself. The immense distress is too heavy to carry. These are our nights of Gethsemane. However, crushing truths die from being recognized. So it is that, at first, Oedipus obeys destiny without knowing it. His tragedy begins the moment he grasps the nature of his destiny. But in the same instant, blind and hopeless, he recognizes that his only link to the world is the cool hand of a young girl. Then, a mighty speech resounds: “In spite of so many misfortunes, my advanced age and the excellence of my soul enable me to judge that all is well.” Sophocles’s Oedipus, like Dostoevsky’s Kirilov, thus asserts the formula for the absurd victory. Old-fashioned wisdom merges with modern heroism.
We do not perceive the absurd without being tempted to write some sort of manual for happiness. “But, why must we proceed by such confined routes . . . ?” Well, there is only one world. Happiness and absurdity are its two offspring. They are inseparable. To say that happiness is the inevitable result of absurdity’s discovery would be an error. It also happens that the experience of absurdity arises from happiness. “I conclude that all is well,” says Oedipus, and these words are sacred. They resonate in the world of man that is, at once, both wild and restricted. They prove that all is not, has not been, exhausted. They banish from this world a god who entered it with dissatisfaction and a taste for futile suffering. They make destiny man’s business, a business that men must manage themselves.
All the silent joy of Sisyphus is there. His destiny is his own. His rock is his thing.
In the same way, when he contemplates his torment, the absurd man silences all the gods. In the suddenly quieted world, thousands of doubting little voices rise up from the earth. Unconscious and secret appeals, invitations from all sides, they are the necessary antithesis and price of triumph. There is no sun without shadow, and it is necessary to know the night. The absurd man says “yes” and his effort will never again cease. Even if there is a personal destiny, there isn’t a superior one, or at least there isn’t just one that he judges to be inevitable and detestable.
Moreover, he knows that he is the master of his days. At this subtly critical instant, when the man examines his life, Sisyphus, coming back to his rock, contemplates this sequence of endless actions that is becoming his destiny, created by him, united under his memory’s purview and soon guaranteed by his death. Thus, assured of the wholly human origin of all that is human, like a blind man who wants to see even though he knows that the night has no end, he is always pushing forward. The rock still rolls.
I leave Sisyphus at the base of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But, Sisyphus teaches the higher devotion, a devotion that repudiates the gods and that elevates rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This world, from now on without master, appears neither sterile nor futile to him. Each grain of the stone, each mineral chip of the night-saturated mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle toward the summit, in itself, is enough to fill a man’s heart. We must imagine that Sisyphus is happy.
© Bruce Sarbit 2005
See also “The Absurd Hero” here.