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Written by Timothy Sexton
Rock and Roll, and Inevitability
The most important, pervasive and memorable imagery in this work is, by definition, the punishment of Sisyphus. Camus draws every ounce of tension, importance and meaning out the simple repetitive act of pushing a rock up a hill only to watch it inevitably and inexorably roll right back down to its starting place that is humanly possible. Even more amazing is that by the end he takes what is one of the most primal stories from ancient myth that everyone knows precisely because of its simplicity and transforms it into something that mandates reconsideration. You may not agree with the conclusions Camus draws, but you likely never look at images of Sisyphus pushing that rock up a hill the same way again.
Sisyphus' Return from Death
There is no consensus on exactly why Sisyphus was condemned to his unique punishment and Camus makes great use of this. He decides to go with the idea that Sisyphus ticked off the gods by breaking an agreement made with them to return from death in order to chastise his wife for her own breaking of an agreement on how to handle his body after death. Once Sisyphus returns to the land of the living from the underworld, however, he is too overcome by the light of the sun, the sustenance of water, the power of stones warmed by the sun to provide heat and the infinite possibilities of adventure symbolized by the sea. In other words, once Sisyphus is granted life again, he is overcome with an affirmation of the value of existence. Given the opportunity to live, he refuses to honor his agreement and return to the underworld. Or, put another way, he rejects suicide.
Sisyphus: Hero of the Working Class
“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 everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd.” Perhaps not even the imagery of Sisyphus vainly trying to push the rock up the cliff puts the point Camus is making more than the image of the laborer heading off to do the same job every day knowing it won’t change tomorrow and won’t give his life any more meaning or satisfaction ten years from now. Camus suggests that it is not the pushing of the rock that always falls back that is the tragedy of Sisyphus, it is his foreknowledge that it is always going to fall back. Without that foreknowledge there would be hope; without it, there can be no hope. And without hope, why reject suicide?
The image which Camus leaves the reader to ponder over is that of Sisyphus—tasked with a backbreaking labor and cursed with the consciousness of the hopelessness of ever successfully achieving it—happy and content with his situation. To anyone who comes to this essay with only the slightest knowledge of the story, this is the image that defines the absurd. And yet, the reality is just the opposite. Sisyphus has peered into the abyss of the absurd and found a reason to keep going. How? Well, that would hardly be fair to reveal here, would it?
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