The Greek mythical character – Sisyphus – had been condemned by the gods to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back to the bottom. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than “futile and hopeless labour”.
According to the myth, he was accused of levity in regard to the gods. He was a brilliant rascal who sometimes played tricks on the gods to get what he wanted. He even used trickery to avoid death. Finally the gods had enough and condemned Sisyphus to eternal hard labor. His punishment? Rolling a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down to the bottom each time he finally gets to the top.
He pushes the rock up the mountain summit with immeasurable toil and hardship. And taking it to the summit is not the end, rather a start to another suffering. At the summit, the rock begins to roll down with tremendous speed, while Sisyphus rushes down with heavy step before the rock reaches and crushes him down. This dreadful labour goes on as such.
The 1957 Nobel laureate Albert Camus wrote in a brief essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus, ” in 1940, the endless labour of Sisyphus was not in vain. Besides, the essay was written as a showcase with which the life of the modern man is put in contrast to the labour of Sisyphus.
Sisyphus is an absurd hero. He is as much, through his passions as through his torture, harbouring this scorn of the gods, his hatred of death and his passion for life. His whole being is exerted towards accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.
Though the job of Sisyphus is so arduous, Albert Camus says that his enless toil is not futile. “If the descent [i.e Sisyphus ‘ returning to the bottom of the mountain to start pushing the rock upward all over again] is sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy,” he says. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
When Camus shows the tragedy of the punishment, he explains it with the consciousness of the hero. “If this myth is tragic that is because the hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?” He symbolizes the life of today’s man with the torture of Sisyphus. “The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd.
In the myth we can see the value of labour and a lot of lessons that used to seem absurd to us. Albert Camus says that we should imagine Sisyphus happy. But how? How could a man who is destined to push a rock up a hill and again retreat from its crush when it descends be happy?
Rick Garlicov in his analytical writing about the myth of Sisyphus tells us how our hero could be happy, unlike our imagination. He says that rolling the rock eternally up a hill only to have it return each time he reaches the summit for him to do it all over again is 1) repetitive 2) futile 3) temporary and 4) laborious, and 5) worthless in a way that’s separate from its being repetitive, futile, laborious and temporary. Impermanence does not erase value. Making someone happy or providing solace for someone in despair, even if it is temporary, is still a worthwhile act. Creating or saving life that will some day die is not a worthless or meaning less act. That something happened and meant anything at all is important, regardless of how long it lasts. All joys in life are temporary, but they are joys nevertheless, and they are most important.
Garlicov agrees with Camus about the fact that Sisyphus ‘ success at reaching the summit with the boulder is merely temporary. Sisyphus can rejoice in that success each time, simply because he achieves it, regardless of how long the achievement lasts.
And the fact that he has to do it all over again does not diminish its value or his happiness, because there are many things we do repeatedly to obtain joy or satisfaction and we do not lament having to do so. Repeated joy or repeated success is not a source of frustration or futility. Camus also tell us that even Sisyphus concludes what he does with optimism. As Edipus said, “despite so many ordeals, my advanced age and the nobility of my soil make me conclude that that all is well. Sisyphus too concludes all is well.”
The effort is laborious; the rock is huge and heavy, and Sisyphus has to work very hard to achieve the summit. But the work is possible, and it is not harmful. Much work that is difficult is worthwhile and often success at a difficult task is far sweater than success at easy one. There’s nothing about hard work in itself that is frustrating or futile or even punishing. So Camus is still on safe ground in imagining at least the possibility that Sisyphus is happy each time he succeeds, even as he starts back down the mountain to retrieve the rock back again.
Now futility is, normally, perhaps even always, disappointing but futility is the failure to reach a goal. Sisyphus fails to get the rock to the top of the mountain permanently. But he never fails to get the rock to the top of the mountain. This effort is only to be considered futile if the goal is permanence. Insofar as his task is not to keep the rock at the pinnacle, but merely to get it there, his efforts are not futile. In fact as often as he has to repeat the task, he achieves success and his effort is rewarded, not frustrated.
By Abiy Solomon