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Derek Best has contributed to several publications, including Macleans Magazine Canada, and Omni Magazine, USA. He is has also produced many documentary films for Television. For many years, he has been interested in A Course in Miracles, a metaphysical thought system, and maintains the official website for that organization. "ACIM", he says "is central to my personal way of seeing the world." This site is strictly personal however. Derek has an eclectic range of interests, and writes about them here as the mood strikes him.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Thinking about Sisyphus

"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide"
Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

Thus does Camus state what he sees as the core dilemma of life, famously invoking the Greek myth of Sisyphus to illustrate his point. Without elaborating too much here on what is doubtless well-known to the reader: Sisyphus was an opportunistic and rascally character, a kind of Homeric version of Tom Jones, who incurred the wrath of the gods, and was sent to the underworld. Nonetheless he tricked his way out and back into the land of the living, where he enjoyed many more years under the warm sun. Finally Mercury himself came to collect Sisyphus and like the modern bounty hunter, led him forcibly (and irrevocably) back to Hades, where his punishment awaited him.

It is the nature of that punishment that seems to strike such a chord in readers throughout the ages. Poor Sisyphus was condemned to push a huge heavy rock up a mountain for all eternity. Whenever he achieved the summit, the rock would roll down to the bottom and he would have to begin all over again.

This is quite literally the stuff of which myths often seem made: a tragic irony of epic proportions. The act of completing the Herculean task renders it instantly undone, and there is no choice but to start again. Completion and satisfaction seem forever unattainable, and there is neither rest nor escape.

To say myths seem made of this or that is perhaps to presume a standard formula. What exactly is meant by "myth"? Is there a formula, or are there properties that are common to all myths? In modern usage the word has come to mean an untrue but widely held idea. When we say for example that the sunken city of Atlantis is just a myth, we assert that it does not really exist, despite persistent stories to the contrary. On a lesser scale, when people recite the common belief that "lightning never strikes the same place twice," that too is a myth – for lightning can and often does.

Falseness alone however, is not sufficient to make a myth. If it were, then I could tell you I have a hundred million dollars in the bank and that would automatically be a myth. It is not a myth: just a falsehood. It is simply untrue, meaning that the property of untrue-ness is not by itself mythic. As already argued, the idea, although false must also be common currency. Sometimes (as in the case of "creation" myths for example,) it may be based on a truth or truths that have been obscured by the years or by the millennia, and may now be beyond authentication or refutation. More importantly, a myth usually serves a cultural purpose, allegorizing a particular aspect of the human psyche, or symbolizing or iconizing deeply rooted motifs. Atlantis may or may not be real, but a part of our human dynamic seems to need the concept of a lost greatness that will one day return to awaken us from our mediocrity. Even the humble lightning myth is more than simple pseudo-science. It tells us there is a possibility of respite from life’s savagery – that there are safe havens in the direst of storms, and we can be sure of some order in the chaos. Thus even if a myth has no basis in truth, it is still a fable that springs from the living human heart, with all its concomitant fears and yearnings, and is always sure to bear the trademark imprints thereof.

If the content of myths is always a reflection of human nature, the form is more varied. Nonetheless, there are similarities among the more enduring myths. Larger than life characters and circumstances prevail, just as they do today on the screens of Hollywood. In fact, a good case can be made that film screen heroes are just the latest in a long lineage of myths. The late Joseph Campbell, considered by some to be an authority on mythology, postulates something called the "monomyth," which is really a kind of Jungian archetype or template for all myths:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Joseph Campbell: Hero with a Thousand Faces

As can be seen in Sisyphus, not all myths have such happy outcomes, but certainly all myths involve "a region of wonder" which seems somehow greater than what we think of as everyday reality, and there is usually a struggle or conflict between the central character and the forces or characters found there. Victory is not always won; Icarus for example discovered this to his detriment. But win or lose, a lesson for all eternity is usually implied. This format seems to hold equally true whether we think of Odysseus standing up for his men against Polyphemus in The Odyssey, or Marshall Kane (Gary Cooper) standing up for his town and his conscience against Frank Miller in High Noon, or Frodo Baggins defending the race of men against Sauron in Lord of the Rings.

Returning to Sisyphus, the struggle is in the plotting and trickery performed by Sisyphus as he repeatedly outwits the gods themselves ... the "fabulous forces" in Campbell’s terms. If there is a "decisive victory" for Sisyphus though, it is short-lived. He eventually gets what Booth Tarkington called his "come-uppance," and thus begins his famous punishment. Indeed a common motif in mythology, particularly Greek mythology, is the idea of knowing one’s place, or being taught it in the most unforgiving way. Thus, as mentioned earlier, did Icarus fall, because he aspired to the heights of the gods. Both Icarus and Sisyphus and many others were guilty of hubris, the sin of pride or overconfidence; a lack of humility – a failure to know their "place". The axiom that "pride comes before a fall" can be largely traced back to Greek myth, in which the goddess Nemesis always extracted swift and merciless retribution on all mortals arrogant enough to try to compete with the Gods.

However, not to put the cart before the horse, it is wrong to conclude that the myth came first and the moral axiom followed as a consequence. Any stories about hubris and Nemesis may be just that – stories, but the ideas for which they serve as metaphor pre-dated them and served as inspiration. They were and still are an underlying aspect of humanity. Just as those stories of Atlantis reveal our deeply buried hopes and beliefs, so too do stories about Sisyphus. However, it is not Sisyphus’ hi-jinks or victories that form the core of any lasting message … it is his punishment.

The myth itself stops where the punishment begins. We know nothing of Sisyphus’ actual travails in Hades, except the nature of the endless thankless task prescribed for him. Perhaps it is this "cutaway," this tantalizing trick of leaving it to the imagination that has engendered so much interest and speculation. We are free to see in it whatever is most meaningful to us, and seemingly, what is most meaningful is the manner in which repetitiveness, futility, dreariness, absurdity and emptiness define the human condition.

This element of absurdity is the basis for Camus’ use of the myth to illustrate his essay on the plight of modern man. Camus observes that we usually feel some sense of possibility, purpose, and progress in our lives, which motivates us to continue the daily struggle. However should we ever become cursed with the ability to perceive the true futility of it all, any sense of purpose would disappear and we would see ourselves as simply tragic and absurd. In that event, life is meaningless and the only possible rational response is suicide.

So Camus draws a line separating those who are aware of the futility from those who are not. In this division lies hope for modern man. As long as we remain on the side where eventual success is unquestioned, we can maintain our sanity – and our lives – intact.

If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious ...
... The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus.

Is Camus indulging in a type of self-deception, or at least a type of myopia? If the only saving grace in absurdity is the hope of success, what becomes of the protagonist without that hope? Can Sisyphus experience the luxury of hope? Remember that his punishment was for all eternity. There is no hope that the situation will ever change or improve. He might perhaps try to cast a positive spin on his situation and see his fate as a continuous stream of successes – each time he crests that summit. But each success must seem more empty and pointless than the last as the great stone tumbles back to its starting place leaving no evidence whatever of any achievement. Even that might be bearable; for there are many repetitive acts we all perform which may be enjoyable in themselves, but which leave no lasting trace: exercise, for example, or even eating dinner. The difference is that these activities serve a purpose, however slight or fleeting, while the movement of the rock up the mountain serves none. Nothing of any consequence is changed. There is no achievement of any kind. It is truly pointless, and Sisyphus must know this. What can he hope for? What can he rejoice in? He does not even have death as a final option – being already in Hades. This is the final option: "eternity" means what it says. It does not end. There is no subsequent resolution.

What of modern man? Is his dilemma so different? It is tempting to think of modern prisoner work details as an analogy to the Greek myth. Daily hard labor breaking up big rocks into smaller rocks is similar to Sisyphus’ plight, particularly since the work is pointless and thankless, the supply of big rocks is infinite, and the job is never done. In fact, a little searching on the internet quickly reveals several cases of prisoners who – having been sentenced to hard labor – committed suicide in their cells rather than face the futility of it. There are two distinct kinds of hard labor, which are qualitatively different. One, as already described, is purely futile and punitive (sorry: "rehabilitative"). This is labor of the rock-breaking type. The other seems similar at first glance and is equally backbreaking work. It involves working on road-building, track-laying, or trench-digging types of projects. The word "projects" is the giveaway; these tasks have a purpose or an end-goal, other than merely to punish. The task itself has a life cycle. From the perspective of the convict this may have no relevance. If the cycle of one project is completed, another will just take its place. His daily existence seems as punishing and meaningless as that of the rock-breaker. Or does it? In an interesting novel: "Cool Hand Luke" by Donn Pearce (later a movie with Paul Newman) the hero (Luke) inspires his fellow inmates to work with great enthusiasm on the chain gang. They actually exceed their daily quotas, and work with tremendous gusto and energy – to the dismay of the prison authorities who prefer them to suffer.

What happened in this case? How were men able to display such vigor and passion for such a Sisyphean punishment? The answer lies in the men’s perception of their situation. Camus states that the fate, which befalls Sisyphus, was:

"… that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing …"

For Donn Pearce’s convicts however there were three elements of their dilemma which differed from that of Sisyphus. First: they were only imprisoned for a finite period. In some cases this period was many years, but even this is considerably less than eternity. Every day they worked brought them one day closer to the end of their labor; and they all knew this.

As for myself, what can I say? I too have committed my crime, the one which demonstrated my hostility toward this great big wonderful world of ours; the one which has put me in debt to society and which I am gradually paying off, on the installment plan.
Don Pearce: Cool Hand Luke

Any man who works with an attainable goal in mind, and sees it getting closer is, by definition, not indulging in futility, at least in his own mind.

Second: the work itself had goals. The roads to be laid were not endless and the quotas, though brutal, were not infinite. At a certain point, a road would be complete and would begin to serve a purpose. Once more, if a man can see a purpose in his own mind, he can feel a degree of motivation.

Third: even thirty years of backbreaking work can be broken up into finite segments. What Luke did for his men was make them forget the long-term horizon, stretching away into infinitely depressing distances. Instead, he was able to stoke their zeal for short-term goals and closer horizons. By concentrating on the sheer pleasure of achieving the achievable, day-by-day, and ignoring the unthinkable, he found a way to bring some joy into a bitter landscape.

Yes, this was only fiction, but it was based on real life experiences. We should remember that Sisyphus is also fiction. In neither case does it matter. What matters is the underlying truth the fiction reveals to us about the human heart. Is there hope for Sisyphus in this? Can we picture him as Camus did; filled with the daily joy of simply doing the allotted task to the best of his ability, and rejoicing in the sheer quality and love he brings to his mundane existence?

Unfortunately not; the one element he had to contend with which faces no modern prisoner – was the length of his sentence. Eternity cannot be subdivided. No fraction of it is an attainable goal. Any fraction of it is also eternity. There is no mental trickery that can make it seem less, nor any attitude that can seem to make it pass more quickly. Even if he were completely deluded about his own situation, that too would pass with the passing of the eons. All things would pass. The only thing that would not pass is his continuing plight. No short-term measures could have any impact upon the long-term, and no long-term measures could have any impact upon the infinite. Neither rejoicing nor hope have any permanent place in the lexicon of eternal futility, and he being aware of this, could have no temporary place either. Sisyphus’ dilemma utterly and completely defines hopelessness.

So we return to the question: what of modern man? Does the myth serve to express a basic quandary of modern life? Are we all on a treadmill of futility, which, if realized for what it is, would justify mass suicide? Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote "Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom." A popular bumper-sticker states "Life’s a bitch. Then you die." Is this the truth exemplified in Sisyphus? We can perhaps see why this conundrum found such favor with the French existentialist movement, in the person of Camus. The whole idea is a kind of hopeless Gallic shrug: a secular gesture of dismissal of all possibility through a blue haze of Gauloises smoke, amid a clatter of empty demitasses. To the existential mind, chaos and entropy are the only lasting truth. Everything else is illusory and fleeting, bubbling for a few brief moments out of meaninglessness to hold our attention with false promises of relief from drudgery, until each bubble bursts or subsides into nothing – its true nature. Certainly there is no point in striving if all is temporary and illusory. Men, along with the greatest of man’s edifices and achievements will all soon enough be dust.

The function of the myth is to awaken us to a way of seeing, but not necessarily the way. It is necessary to be aware of a problem before we can begin to solve it, and mythical insights are often insights into what we perceive as the characteristics that hold us back or cause us to fail. Given sufficient irony we often decree the obstacles to change insurmountable, or too fundamental to be overcome; we accept the myth as a truism and do not look beyond, like the old mapmakers, who marked the edge of the known world with the legend "hic sunt dracones" – here there be dragons.

Certainly each of us must find our own path to a life of meaning, and how to do that is beyond the scope of this short essay. One fact is beyond dispute: into each life, meaningful or otherwise, death must come. If we accept the nihilist viewpoint, then death is only the absurd final curtain of an absurd play.

In this writer’s humble opinion, to succumb to that notion is to abdicate from faith. Such issues are clearly not the precinct of the original myth. For poor Sisyphus, life had been sweet – it was the afterlife itself that was the problem. We would do well to remind ourselves that strictly speaking the myth says nothing adverse about life as we commonly understand it. Looked at in a different light it may even be urging us all to do as its hero did, by finding whatever happiness we can, and rejoicing in the time we have in the sun.

-- end --


Anonymous JO-ANN said...


10:54 AM  
Anonymous toyotaman said...

I don't get it. What's your point?

10:57 PM  
Anonymous marian said...

Derek, I'm still reading and mulling. Great post. Comment to come.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Derek said...

Toyotaman: You see right through me. No point at all. All random empty rubbish! -- Derek.

7:23 PM  
Blogger J.M. said...

Wow fantastic. Ok hope you don't mind me bringing this around to The Course. Seems to relate directly. In studying the course it seems to me the whole world, thought included is a barren landscape, created out of my guilt of separation. And like in the myth of Sisyphus I know see how hopeless it would be to try and find true happiness in this world. could say in seeing that, that I am free or awake. But I do not feel awake or free. Call it the dark night of the soul if you will, but finding out all my plans and hopes have been dashed against the rocks and am destined to push a stone daily up a hill for no apparent reason is a real bummer. I recently went to a mini workshop with Ken W. and got this concept quite clearly. I'm working on being in my right mind and choosing the Holy spirit over the myth or Ego but have only fleeting moments of peace. I am an artist by nature and now see all my art as a special relationship a false a cry for love. I truly have walked into the world of Camus. Once you see the snake is not a snake but a rope you may be relieved, but you still need to find your way out of the desert.

12:11 PM  
Blogger Derek said...

Thanks for your comment.
To think that perceiving our dilemma will give us peace is a little bit of a sophism. In my view there are 3 steps --
1/. Perceiving.
2/. Accepting.
3/. Forgiving.
Only the final step has an impact on peace.
Best to you ... D.

9:26 AM  
Anonymous marian said...

So the myth of Sisyphus is a representation of what it would look like if the ego could achieve eternity -- the one thing it can't do. Personally I take a lot of comfort in the fact that it can trick us into seeking unattainable goals for only so long before we will inevitably desire to awaken.

j.m. -- If I may offer my two cents -- just disregard if I've misunderstood.

The dark night of the soul, even though it hurts like hell, is a great place to be. I don't mean to be flippant or to dismiss what you are experiencing, but if you will just hang in there in that night and not try to fill the emptiness with anything "new" -- no new ways of trying to make yourself feel like you really exist -- that very emptiness will begin to attract the experience of Self that will start to turn on the light for you. Wishing you the best. Just stand there and look at the rope, feel the pain. Let the desert transform itself. Relief will come but not through your "doing" anything.

9:50 AM  
Anonymous Jo-Ann said...

Dear J.M.

Let me say right from the start that I do not know the answer for you in finding your happiness or peace. I can say what has helped me on my journey to understanding Truth and who I am. This has been a process, and still is as I write this. What Derek wrote is all true and very helpful. Forgiveness is the key word. It is learning to forgive ourselves for making wrong decisions, like the separation. However before I was able to get this concept I had to learn how to love myself before I could love my brother and forgive myself. What I learned from K.W. is before we can receive we must give. I could not understand this. It took a long time for me. This lesson finally lead me to this understanding that extending the Love that God created me in to every person I came in contact with would be my happiness. Just the simple thing as a smile or a pleasant greeting to a store clerk, or complimenting someone for being nice or letting the person in back of you go first, would be extending or giving yourself in kindness. This is where I started. Many times I believe I have received more pleasure, happiness and peace then the person I was extending Love to. This is the law of giving before receiving. You have your own path to walk, you will find your way, you: will learn the lessons that will give you your peace and happiness. Special relationships are our greatest teaches. Reading and doing the lessons will help as well. Finding a meeting that suits you, where you feel comfortable enough to ask questions will strengthen your God Mind and quiet the ego mind. Good Luck J. M. You are a beautiful person and God loves you.

3:56 PM  
Blogger Derek said...

So many thoughtful comments. Thank you everyone. Marian: not to get too carried away with the "evil ego" metaphor, but surely if the ego could offer us eternity, there would still have to be some carrot dangled before us to distract from the repetitive futility of it. We would not voluntarily choose endless work with no reward promised...
Jo-ann: good advice, and not specific to devotees of the Course, which is nice.
It's funny, my post did not mention the Course, but it seems to have made a lot of people think about it. I also had quite a few emails about it, all Course oriented. With that in mind, try the next posting.

8:26 PM  
Anonymous marian said...

good point, Derek.

9:28 AM  
Blogger J.M. said...

Thank you everyone. Great insights. I think I have a vision of truth or whats real and then the ego try's to co-op it and define it, which of course makes it no longer the truth. Yes forgivness...kindness. The only way. It always comes down to with whos eyes shall I see the world. Through the Ego's or the Holy spirits.
AWWW vigilance....J.M.

11:31 AM  


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