Albert Camus (1913 - 1960)
The myth of Sisyphus
does not tolerate reason
The gods had condemned
Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a 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 fu tile and hopeless labor.
one believes Homer, Sisyphus was the wisest and most prudent
of mortals. According to another tradition, however, he was
disposed to practice the profession of highwayman. I see no
contradiction in this. Opinions differ as to the reasons why
he became the futile laborer of the underworld. To begin with,
he is accused of a certain levity in regard to the gods. He
stole their secrets. Egina, the daughter of Esopus, was carried
off by Jupiter. The father was shocked by that disappearance
and complained to Sisyphus. He, who knew of the abduction,
offered to tell about it on condition that Esopu s would give
water to the citadel of Corinth. To the celestial thunderbolts
he preferred the benediction of water. He was punished for
this in the underworld. Homer tells us also that Sisyphus
had put Death in chains. Pluto could not endure the sight
of h is deserted, silent empire. He dispatched the god of
war, who liberated Death from the hands of her conqueror.
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 an obedience so contrary
to human love, he obtained from Pluto permission to return
to earth in order to chastise his wife. 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. A decree
of the gods w as necessary. Mercury came and seized the impudent
man by the collar and, snatching him from his joys, lead him
forcibly back to the underworld, where his rock was ready
have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He
is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His
scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for
life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being
is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price
that must be paid for the passions of this earth. Nothing
is told us about Sisyphus in the underworld. Myths are made
for the imagination to breathe life into them. As for this
myth, one sees merely the whole effort of a body straining
to raise the huge stone, to roll it, and push it up a slope
a hundred times over; one sees the face screw ed up, the cheek
tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered
mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched,
the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands. At the
very end of his long effort measured by skyless space and
time without depth, the purpose is achieved. Then Sisyphus
watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward that lower
world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit.
He goes back down to the plain.
is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests
me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone
itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured
step toward the torment of which he will never know the end.
That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as
his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each
of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually
sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his
fate. He is stronger than his rock.
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.
But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes
conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and
rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition:
it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that
was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his
victory. There is no fate that can not be surmou nted by scorn.
the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can
also take place in joy. This word is not too much. Again I
fancy Sisyphus returning toward his rock, and the sorrow was
in the beginning. When the images of earth cling too tightly
to memory, when the call of happiness becomes too insistent,
it happens that melancholy arises in man's heart: this is
the rock's victory, this is the rock itself. The boundless
grief is too heavy to bear. These are our nights of Gethsemane.
But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged. Thus,
Edipus at the outset obeys fate without knowing it. But from
the moment he knows, his tragedy begins. Yet at the same moment,
blind and desperate, he realizes that the on ly bond linking
him to the world is the cool hand of a girl. Then a tremendous
remark rings out: "Despite so many ordeals, my advanced age
and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well."
Sophocles' Edipus, like Dostoevsky's Kirilov, thus gives the
recipe for the absurd victory. Ancient wisdom confirms modern
does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write
a manual of happiness. "What!---by such narrow ways--?" There
is but one world, however. Happiness and the absurd are two
sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. It would be
a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the
absurd. discover y. It happens as well that the felling of
the absurd springs from happiness. "I conclude that all is
well," says Edipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in
the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all
is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world
a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference
for futile suffering. It makes of fate a human matter, which
must be settled among men.
Sisyphus' silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs
to him. His rock is a thing Likewise, the absurd man, when
he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the
universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering
little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls,
invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse
and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and
it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes
and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing. If there is
a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there
is, but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable.
For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days.
At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life,
Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting
he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which become
his fate, created by him, combined under his memory's eye
and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly
human origin of all that is human, a blind man eage r to see
who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go.
The rock is still rolling.
leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! 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. This universe henceforth without a master seems
to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone,
each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself
forms a world. The strugg le itself toward the heights is
enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
by Justin O'Brien, 1955
qu'on fait n'est jamais compris mais seulement loué ou blâmé.
Nietzsche, Gay Science