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Written by Mason Tabor
Man's pursuit of knowledge
Camus' initial narrative begins with a conflict between the protagonist and the gods, who are displeased because the protagonist, Sisyphus, steals their secrets and is governed by a thirst for knowledge which they find to be arrogant and threatening. So they seek to punish him.
This conflict is interesting within Camus' corpus because Camus believes that life is inherently meaningless and absurd. That might lead the reader to understand knowledge as a futile act as well, but in fact, Camus argues in this essay that knowledge is integral to man's noble resistance of his own futillity and mortality. Knowledge then becomes a type of bravery. Fear keeps people from acknowledging their own fate, but the absurd hero is aware and active in resisting the consequences of the truth.
Camus juxtaposes observations about Sisyphus' thirst for wisdom and his alleged profession as a thief: "According to another tradition, however, he was disposed to practice the profession of highwayman." Camus' conclusion about the two themes is given in the next line: "I see no contradiction in this." This illustrates Camus' assumption about wisdom as an act of theft. Of course, knowing a thing does not remove the knowledge from the person you took the knowledge from, but it is an act of robbery. When you learn something for yourself, you seize power from he who kept the knowledge from you. This is an essential doctrine of the absurd hero, that he gains authority of his own fate by learning it, even though Sisyphus' own main conflict is not resolved by his awareness of it. But, it is his knowledge of the truth of his own existence that allows him to be a hero.
The futility of human existence.
The central conflict is presented by Camus to be Sisyphus' fateful duty in the underworld of rolling a stone up a hill each day just to watch it fall back to where it started. But, it is preceded in the narrative by a few lines about the time between his putting Death in chains and his capture. "But when he had seen again the face of this world, enjoyed water and sun, warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back to the infernal darkness. Recalls, signs of anger, warnings were of no avail. Many years more he lived facing the curve of the gulf, the sparkling sea, and the smiles of earth." Comments about Sisyphus' persistent love of nature and existence seem antithetical to his awareness of the futility of his own fate, yet Camus is careful to indicate that Sisyphus is still consoled by nature, still warmed by the sun by the coast, still very much craving a life in the natural world. This is an important argument in Existentialism, because it confronts the idea that awareness about the futility of life should bring about apathy, spite and suicide. Through Sisyphus, Camus shows why that isn't true; life is still rich in experience, though it lacks inherent meaning.
When Sisyphus is finally bound to toil for naught in the darkness of the underworld, we see another comment (arguably the dominant one) that life is lived most nobly when we face our triviality and choose to continue on in spite of it. Note Camus blatant comment, "You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture." He tells us in that comment that he believes herocisim to include desire and futility. He believes Sisyphus' heroicism stems primarily from his understanding that his life has no consequence or essence, but still finds peace in his state, and still desires to live. Camus says this in the last paragraph of the essay by asserting, "One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well."
The religious connotation of Camus' comment can be seen easily in his use of religious terms ("fidelity," "all is well," and others throughout) which is because his own religious beliefs strengthened his conviction that life was not validated through religious belief. He believed religion to be unnecessary, and maybe even unhelpful in the ends of an absurd hero. The point of his religious disposition in this work is that it emphasizes his main thesis in the essay, that man ought to understand his nothingness and still carry on in his futility. His earlier comments further this point: "Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.
Camus's main thesis is an answer to the futility of life. He argues that man ought to despise his fate and thwart the capricious nature of existence through an awareness of his poor state, and through continuing on the pursuits of his own vain desires. Secondarily, the essay contains an embedded argument against those who use religious faith instead of objective knowledge.
Man and love
Camus' comments about romance are brief but insightful. He recasts a portion of the myth this way: "It is said that Sisyphus, being near to death, rashly wanted to test his wife's love. He ordered her to cast his unburied body into the middle of the public square. Sisyphus woke up in the underworld. And there, annoyed by and obedience so contrary to human love, he obtained from Pluto permission to return to earth in order to chastise his wife." This passage is insightful to the thematic intent of the story, because it involves the tragedy of human romance, and it contrasts the dark solitary punishment that characterizes Sisyphus' story with his own frustrations with the failure of human romance.
Camus' tale describes the paradox of romance by showing the wife honoring Sisyphus' request, contrary to Sisyphus' true desires. This is a poignant reflection of the complexity that undergirds love--that what we ask for and what we want are different. According to Sisyphus' reaction, we assume that he feels slighted by her not seeking to do best for him despite his explicit directions. There is no easy solution to the conflict, and none is given in the piece.
Perhaps the most notable detail of Sisyphus' frustration is that there is no redemption or validation for his relationship with his wife. Instead, he spends time by the shore, entranced by the beauty of nature. In this way he demonstrates a calm peace with the failures inherent in human relationships. His fate is not multi-personal. It is his own struggle against his own absurdity, and love, like religion, is not offered as an easy solution to the problems of his existence.
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