"One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
Camus on happiness
Each time I revisit Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, I find myself drawn to the final line: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
The gods condemned Sisyphus to an eternity of pointless labor. He is forced to push a boulder up a mountain. When he reaches the top, the boulder rolls back down and Sisyphus must return to it to begin again. The boulder always rolls back down the mountain…Sisyphus never successfully completes his task. His labor, as the gods intended, is utterly pointless and hopeless.
Sisyphus knows he will labor with his boulder until the end of time. Each time he ascends the mountain, he struggles under the weight of the boulder. Everything seems certain, his fate has been sealed, it is the penalty for his disobedience. He is being punished by the gods, and they are to blame for his torment.
Nothing about Sisyphus’ situation screams happiness. What are we supposed to imagine that would somehow warrant imagining Sisyphus happy? Why does Camus focus on this myth, on Sisyphus, when he could have presumably focused on some other character, some other tale?
At the end of the myth, Camus points out that we leave Sisyphus with his burden, his boulder. His punishment eternal, Sisyphus will perform the same task, again and again, forever. Why, then, is it imperative that we imagine Sisyphus happy?
Perhaps it is imperative that we imagine Sisyphus happy because by doing so we affirm our own freedom to think, to control our attitude, our mindset. As I see it, we see in Sisyphus something of ourselves, and since we make this connection our own happiness depends on whether Sisyphus can be happy.
“Myths,” Camus claims, “are made for the imagination to breathe life into them.” Human beings are imaginative, creative beings, and when we breathe life into a myth, we make it meaningful in a way that is relevant to our time, our struggles, our situation. The myth provides some basic ingredients, as it were, and with them we create an entire meal.
Camus’ imagination is piqued by the very slight reprieve Sisyphus gets from his physical labor whenever he must walk back down the mountain to retrieve his boulder. Camus calls it a “breathing-space” and “the hour of consciousness.” As Sisyphus makes his descent, he is free to reflect, to think. It is this opportunity to exercise consciousness, to reflect and think, that interests Camus.
Camus imagines Sisyphus reflecting on his life, on his circumstances, as he makes his way back to his rock. He reflects on himself, his situation, on his life, and his past. Camus imagines that Sisyphus' perspective slowly changes over time. At first, Sisyphus is likely upset, mad at himself, angry with the gods, and probably blames the gods for his punishment. With time, however, Sisyphus starts to slowly reinterpret things, to change his perspective. He begins to experiment with different explanations for his current situation and even starts to view things differently.
Sisyphus tries out different meanings, different ways of making sense of his life, his predicament. In some interpretations, the gods bear the blame for his circumstances. In others, he is to blame because he defied the gods’ will. Sisyphus begins to realize that he is responsible for his actions, for how things turned out. For Camus, it is self-reflection that makes Sisyphus’ transformation possible, because he begins to realize his power, his ability to create meaning and to determine how he interprets his life, his circumstances.
Sisyphus is free. He is free to think, to interpret his world as he sees fit. Sisyphus’ freedom of thought frees him from thinking of himself, his life, as one controlled by the gods. He is not a victim, he is not bound to an explanation, a perspective, that he does not accept and did not create. His life again (or perhaps for the first time) becomes his own.
We imagine that Sisyphus returns to his burden, his boulder, but he does so having transformed. Sisyphus’ mental state, his perspective, has changed, and with it his world has changed. Sisyphus has taken control of his conscious life and accepted his fate as his own. Happiness is once again possible for him because he recognizes that the possible interpretations are inexhaustible.
We imagine Sisyphus happy because his conscious life is his own. We realize that this is true for us as well. We have control over the meanings and explanations we accept. We can affirm our freedom to think, to form our own perspective and live an authentic, happy life.
'"I conclude that all is well,' … and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted." - Camus
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