Sisyphus the Ludicrous Hero introduces Albert Camus. Camus notes, emphatically, that by his torment as well as through his emotions, Sisyphus is this. His torture still helps to characterise him, if his impulses have earlier characterised his life, now in the moment, in the everlasting present that has eaten away the possibility of some other imaginable future. The term ‘serves’ is used advisedly here in a Camusian context, that is. Torture honours its lord, who is not the gods who have decreed torture, but the man Sisyphus, the human who executes it. He perfected his rock, made it his own, rendered it the rock of Sisyphus, made it the rock of Sisyphus, made it the rock of Sisyphus, and became the rock of Sisyphus. If the tragic hero Oedipus could assert in his conscious pain that “all is well”, Camus’s concept of ‘Sisyphus Happy’ must be accurate because, it is true that “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn” (121).
Camus mentions the emotions that distinguish Sisyphus, “his contempt of the gods, his hate of death and his zeal for living.” These have given him the most unspeakable punishments under which he must try to do nothing with all his heart and might. But a classical definition of negation is to expend yourself to do little and Sisyphus must have realised that introducing the sensation of pleasure to his labours would be the perfect way to negate the gods, one of his prime interests, of course. Therefore the argument became irrefutable as Camus states that Sisyphus, the ‘proletarian of the gods,’ is Sisyphus Happy. For the wisest of mortals was said to have been Sisyphus.
Camus tells us that no less ridiculous than that of Sisyphus is the plight of modern man in the modern workplace, employed every day on the same activities. Modern man then lives and operates in true ridiculous fashion, but only in those occasional moments where he becomes mindful of the absurd, the creation of the tragic, the chance for redemption, the capacity for authentic life becomes probable. The power of Sisyphus, like his joy, emerges out of his knowledge of his situation. The triumph of Sisyphus over the rock, over the gods, over the tyranny of his condition, springs from perception, out of knowledge, out of lucidity.
Charlie Chaplin’s films brilliantly portray the irony of ‘modern days’ at the core of all of human effort. Chaplin reveals that the modern ludicrous hero is the guy who understands the absurdity of his situation. Through using the tool of contempt, such a man will conquer the oppressiveness of his existence and job. Because of his profession, or as a result of it he does not intend to find satisfaction. The tool of disdain, though, offers him the sensation of pleasure when participating in the job. That pleasure is his way of mastering the job as well as anybody else would have hoped that his soul might be exhausted by the task.
Unmixed pleasure, on the other side, will not be the ludicrous hero’s preferred tea cup or vinegar tub. It is difficult to divorce the feeling of joy from the sense of suffering and sorrow. The fall of Sisyphus is however, sometimes carried out in grief. Camus assumes the grief was at the beginning, as his mind was haunted with memories of the world. Rock triumphs in moments like these. Yet Sisyphus scarcely permits himself to be too ridiculous or so agonising. In Camus’s view, much of his effort is performed in quiet pleasure. This is because Sisyphus understands that “His life belongs to him.” His stone is his own thing’ (123). It is his rock that reflects the substance of his soul, his life, and his supreme contempt for pompous power, not the rock of the gods, not the tool built by the gods to torment him, but something that distinguishes him.
The Last Castle is a film starring Robert Redford, who was sent to a jail under the supervision of an official Chief Warden, in the part of a retired general. The film highlights a punishment for a small crime inflicted on the jailed general by the Warden. The penalty included the raising and transporting of a wide hard rock heap from one stage to another with one hand. Only when the general, cheered on by the other prisoners, completes the task with superhuman perseverance, does the Warden reveal the second stage of the punishment. All the rocks now have to be lifted and transported back to their original location by the general. When the general has accomplished this seemingly absurd task intended to humiliate him, he becomes a hero to the prisoners. They see in him a leader to remind them that they too needed to exist as human beings, not as subhuman doormats. The task then becomes a lofty ideal, the person who executes it becomes a genuine verifiable existent—and the only figures that are diminished by the experience are those who had set the task with questionable intentions.
In mythology, quite apart from Sisyphus who needed a Camus to highlight his mettle, better-known heroes have tasted the wine of absurdity. The labors of Hercules may have ended in an absurd death. Nevertheless, his awareness of the heroism of his actions, his acceptance of the treachery that caused his fall, and the manner of his chosen exit from earth, all ensure that he is remembered as a hero rather than as a victim or a loser. The most important thing is that Hercules did not allow himself to be diminished by life or by labor or by death or by anything else—it was his life, his labors and his death and he remains the epitome of heroism.
Likewise, Job, in the Bible, did not allow his spirit to be broken by the suffering and the pain and the deaths and the misfortunes that brought his happy world crashing around him. There have never been any doubts about Job’s constant faith in God. Yet, he was man enough to exist, to proclaim his inner worth, and to question the injustice of his experiences not just before his fellow men but also before God himself when directly challenged.
To cite an instance from our own days, the life of Nelson Mandela, the South African leader, could be considered to follow a trajectory of absurdity. His association with an organization that did not anathematize violence, his imprisonment for an excessive period in the prime of his life, his stoic non-violence and true dignity in the midst of the violence and indignity of prison, his release at a relatively advanced age, his quick rise to power, his voluntary abdication of power soon after, his marital problems and their solutions—none of these mastered the man. Instead, he mastered all of these and all these now serve to define him and his existence and to clarify the existence of others.
Therefore, when Camus declares Sisyphus ‘happy,’ there need be no doubt in our minds regarding that fact of existence. It is a fact of life that the absurd hero who wields the weapon of scorn can be happy anywhere. Sisyphus Happy then is happy because he is not just Sisyphus but Everyman who can be happy in any circumstances. He is happy because he will not allow circumstances to master him, to overpower him or to oppress him. He is happy because he can exist as himself in all circumstances. He is happy because he will consciously master all circumstances, however oppressive or frustrating they may be. He can do this whenever “he contemplates his torment” (123). When he contemplates his torment, when his consciousness masters it, he assists others in similar situations to contemplate and thus, to master their individual torments.
- Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage, 1960.