Sisyphus's Blues

Good Morning, Blues.

How do you do?

I’m doing all right.

Good Morning. How are you?

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

These words, both sets, are about an edge. They are about neither misery nor an easy comfort. Camus’ essay has a lot wrong with it. Camusian absurdity is too much a disappointed attempt to fulfill a desire we do not all share and are gradually putting behind us. It is too much a history. And the myths evoked are often badly chosen. Oedipus’ conclusion that “all is well” means little, other than, perhaps, the satisfaction of recognizing the sort of divine plan the “loss” of which serves as the occasion for Camus’ book. Sisyphus himself is a badly chosen myth in so far as paganism is not quite atheism, and there are no heights. Were the gods to die, Sisyphus would let the rock roll down. But – and this is the saving grace of this legend – it would only be a couple of months before Sisyphus started rolling the rock again. The rock does not symbolize acquiescence in avoidable hardship, blindness to self-inflicted torture, Protestant-Japanese work ethic. The rock is human activity, much of it work, enjoyable work, without however any metaphysical comfort or eternal accomplishment in it. Rests are taken at the top. Camus stresses that, as he highlights a swimming break in La Peste. The myth is perhaps better if Sisyphus breaks off pieces from the rock and begins to build something at the top. But it should be understood that Sisyphus does not work forever, and that the next rock-roller may have different ideas of what to build. And some day the rock may crush the constructions. So, ultimately, all of that can be incorporated into the image of the rock-rolling. Camus sees Sisyphus as brave because he recognizes this and smiles. Sisyphus sees himself as brave, and for that reason he smiles. He smiles because he smiles. Sisyphus smiles in the face of many many things, not just death, and certainly not just the death of philosophy; he smiles at all of his difficulties, as a duty only to himself and those he may help. And it is not a smile of consolation or fatalism, but one of muscular strain. There’s an Italian song I like which commands one to be never “contento” and always “contento.” This is possible because contento means both content or satisfied, and happy or joyful. To suppose that Camus’ Sisyphus is content with being punished is to miss the whole point. Camus’ Sisyphus is joyful and determined in adversity. The myth is not intended to pacify workers in repetitive dead-end jobs, but to encourage them, not to discourage them from rebellion, but to empower them with dignity right now.

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