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The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of the mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.1

The words are, of course, Albert Camus's. They were first published in 1942. Since then, this voice—at once lyrical and austere, personal and oracular—and the ancient image he calls up in these lines have become permanent parts of our postmodern consciousness. Like all the images that capture and create the character of our age, Sisyphus is always there for each of us. In the intimate space of our imagination, we can turn to him at will, and with only the slightest effort, we will find him as before—solitary, weather beaten, resigned, without illusion. I want to make that effort now, not to disturb Sisyphus in his labors, nor to uproot him, surely, but to try to be precise about a matter which is, perhaps, fatally elusive of precision, to try to make explicit the significance of this figure whose implicit significance has haunted us now for over half a century. Let us turn to Sisyphus, then, as we might turn, one aimless afternoon, to some old photographs of a person close to us, perhaps even of ourselves, in the hope that we might find in them something we had missed, some expression or gesture that inadvertently reveals the essence of a life.

But we must be silent now, for the figure is emerging. There is the hill, and it is morning, a slight chill in the soundless air. The landscape here is treeless, the land covered only with broken rock and scattered brush. A wide path of sterile earth has been cut in the thick brush of [End Page 183] the hill. And there, at the base of the hill, the rock—grey, mottled with holes, enormous. Slow, laborious breathing is audible. The rough hand comes into view, the flesh thick, sun-burnt, heavily veined. It finds a jut on the rock to grip. And now the weather-worn clothes, the thick trunk and powerful back. And here at last the face of Sisyphus—our own face, of course, or the face of one of our own personae, the eyes squinting against the sun, hair disheveled. He takes his hand from the rock and brings it to his side. Perhaps he is not quite ready yet, perhaps he needs a moment longer of rest. He stands motionless, eyes turning up. What is he gazing at? The summit of the hill, every square inch of which he has seen a million times before? What could he hope to discover there? Is it the cloudless sky that has his attention? Is he noting the progress of the sun? Does he seek in reflection on its course some inspiration for the renewal of his labor? He continues to stare without expression. We can afford to leave him for a moment.

The legend abounds in perplexities, or at least this is true of that retelling of the myth that has made it so important to us. Camus calls Sisyphus "the absurd hero." This is, then, the best that we can hope to be, for our lives, too, according to Camus, are absurd. But why should we believe this? Surely it is ludicrously question-begging to conduct an imaginative exercise in which we strip a life of all that could possibly make it worthwhile, then appeal to this figment of ours as proof of the futility of human existence.

If we are tempted to see in Sisyphus's eternal rock-rolling a revelation of the emptiness of our own labors, we should be easily dissuaded from this when we consider what little alteration is required to transform this myth from the perfect image of meaninglessness to a perfectly serviceable conception of a meaningful life.2 All we need is to introduce some point, some minimal, common, everyday point to his labors, such as any one of our lives abounds in, and the transformation is accomplished. Assume, then, that Sisyphus rolls...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 183-190
Launched on MUSE
2008-05-24
Open Access
No
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