“One must imagine Sisyphus happy”

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The book I’m working through now is Stranded, by Bracken MacLeod, about which more later.  Suffice it for now to say that it’s a powerfully atmospheric book, transporting readers not only into the overwhelmingly vast Arctic, but also forcing them to share in the characters’ dread as illness and ice slowly choke the life from them and from their ship.  And just when I thought I couldn’t go on reading, because I knew that feeling of claustrophobic apprehension, the hero of the book mentioned a quote by French author and philosopher Albert Camus: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy”.

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra who was punished by the gods for his greed and craftiness (some stories have him outsmarting the gods who tried to punish him) by being forced to push an enormous boulder up a hill.  Every day, Sisyphus would attempt the nearly overwhelming task of pushing his boulder, only to have it roll back down the hill, hitting him on the way, and forcing him to start the process all over again.  For generations, artists, authors, and philosophers have portrayed Sisyphus as trapped in a mundane and pointless existence where the only escape is eventual, inevitable death…..a portrait of despair with which I think we have all identified at one point or another.

albert-camusBut Camus re-thought Sisyphus’ story, and cast him not as an eternal victim for having to push that stone endlessly up the hill…but as a hero, because he never gave up trying.  The world, Camus (see left) said, was insane.  It was random and chaotic, and made no inherent sense.  Those who attempt to sit back and make order of it all are doomed to failure, because the world, in its misery and absurdity, will swallow you whole.

So what is there to do?  According to Camus, it is to take pride, joy, and purpose from the little things that you can do.  To own both our failures and our successes as little things that we can control in the midst of an uncontrollable world.  It isn’t always easy.  As Camus notes:

If 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…But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.

There is no tragedy in having to start again, as long as you start again.   Sisyphus defies the gods by giving his own life meaning, making each step of his journey more important than the final goal.  As Camus notes, the moment you take control over the rock, and start pushing it again, you become the hero of your story.

I 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 struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

I don’t know if this story resonated with you as much as it did me.  And that’s ok.  But it is my round-about way of getting to this point:

We make our world through our actions and our interactions.  We can control that, even if it is on the smallest of scales.  And I am grateful, every day, for the world we have created inside the Library–from the Library Staff and Aides and Custodians and you, our Beloved Patrons.  Thank you for making this journey such a surprising, rewarding, and entertaining one, every single day.

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2 thoughts on ““One must imagine Sisyphus happy””

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