Sisyphus and Me

One of my favorite authors I have not written about in this space is Albert Camus (1913-1960), a Nobel laureate (1957) who was both a superb novelist and an influential philosophic essayist.  In Camus’ view, life is an unsolvable situation which we (being what we are) will nonetheless die trying to solve.  This is not a condition which must lead to despair. It is one to accept the absurdity of, while we continue our struggle against it.  Camus was not an existentialist or nihilist.  He did not believe life has no meaning outside of what the individual gives it.  Nor did he accept that we are inescapably doomed.  He believed we live in the position of Sisyphus.

Sisyphus was the character in Greek and Roman mythology who, as punishment for tricking the gods, is sentenced to an eternal task he cannot complete successfully.  He must push a heavy boulder to the top of a hill.  Before it gets to the top, the rock will always roll back to the bottom, and Sisyphus must begin again.  What goes up must come down.  The brilliant idea that Camus advanced was to point out that Sisyphus represents not merely eternal frustration, but also a noble opportunity, the individual’s revolt against the absurd and uncaring world.  What goes down, we can make go up.

We will expend ourselves in learning, striving and growing.  The closer we get to the top, the closer death and chaos approach, ready to envelop and forcibly redirect our efforts.  Understanding and accepting our inability to properly complete the task is not a reason to stop pushing.  The sun rises.  We can’t prevent it from setting.  Gather what warmth you may on the way up, and know that it’s a cycle.  Read meaning into it if you choose, but whatever meaning you find won’t influence the rise and the fall.  It will continue unabated and unstoppable, without notice of your actions.

I stand with Camus on this essential question.  I can’t stop the process my patients are going through, along with every other living thing on Earth.  I will treat them well, and offer momentary respite, though every one of them will die despite my efforts.  I might die while doing it.  It’s my choice.  It’s my revolt against the gods.

If you want to read my favorite Camus novel, The Plague (1947), here’s a link:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/2370252/Albert-Camus-The-Plague

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16 Comments

Filed under Ethics and Morality, Literature, Metaphysics, symbolism

16 responses to “Sisyphus and Me

  1. Cat

    It’s one of the 70+ books on my to-read list. It’s going to be a literary summer. 🙂

    • Oh, I know you. You’ll hit an upswing, and do 35 of them in one afternoon.

      • Cat

        God, probably. When I was a kid and had no stresses or things to do, I would literally read about 5 books a day. When the Harry Potter books would come out, the minute we got back from the bookstore, I’d just plop down and read the entire thing in one sitting. Including the 830 page one. I’m a nutcase. But you know that already. 😉

  2. The riddle becomes: what happens to that Promethean spirit of revolt when it is lodged in the bosom of someone who loves instead of hates. You are a lover, old boy. Your “revolt against the gods” becomes a beautiful co-creation and cooperation with whatever force is good and benevolent in the universe, even if you believe that force is just the collective well-wishing of other like-minded souls. Bravo, buddy.

  3. As I’ve been struggling with “finding success,” lessons such as this keep revealing themselves. There’s never going to be a safe harbor; there’s always going to be another problem to solve or necessity demanding to be met. I used to want to rush and “keep up” with everyone, but the outcomes will all be the same. It’s easy to misconstrue it as pessimism, but I see a hint of liberation beneath its surface.

  4. Will have to check that one out. Good post! I need to face that everything is inevitable, so what good is worrying in the end.

  5. Sarah Baram

    I am infatuated with Camus, I am thrilled to see him here! His novel, The Plague, is on my summer reading list… If I get there of course. I’ll be drowning in books.
    I personally love his ideas on the absurd. It gives a much better meaning to live your life than to live it for God. If you are not all too familiar with it, you should look it up!

    • Though we were assigned The Stranger to read in school in 1969, my first wife gave me his Notebooks and my first copy of The Plague back in the ’70s. When I read The Myth of Sisyphus in 1980, the circle was complete.

  6. Falling short of the expectations of others while striving to achieve the best we can possibly achieve does not make us, nor the story of us, any less valid. It was the driving force in my endeavour to live without obligation. And where I found happiness.

  7. lianamerlo

    I was one of those kids in high school who tried to sell back as many books as they could at the end of the year. But The Plague is one of the elite that survived. This assigned reading is still safely tucked away in my bookcase for the next read.

    • The Plague has become extremely important to me. Re-reading it has been very helpful in helping me hold it together at the Dementia Care facility. It’s wonderful to re-experience influential books decades after first reading them. They unfold with new lessons as I age.

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