Thinking for Yourself: Checking in with Camus

Each time I revisit Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, I find myself drawn to the final line: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (Camus, 123). We leave Sisyphus with his burden, his boulder, knowing his punishment is eternal. Why, then, is it imperative that we imagine Sisyphus happy? As I see it, to imagine Sisyphus happy is to affirm our freedom to think, to control our conscious life and the meanings we accept.

Myths, Camus claims, “are made for the imagination to breathe life into them” (Camus, 120). Human beings are imaginative, creative beings, and when we breathe life into a myth, we make it meaningful in a way that is relevant to our time, our struggles. The myth provides some basic ingredients, as it were, and with them we create an entire meal.

The gods condemned Sisyphus to an eternity of pointless labor. He is forced to push a boulder up a mountain. When he reaches the top, the boulder rolls back down and he must return to it to begin again. Sisyphus knows he will labor with his boulder until the end of time. Everything seems certain, his fate has been sealed, it is the penalty for his disobedience. He is being punished by the gods, and they are to blame for his torment. He struggles under the weight of his torture.

Sisyphus gets a slight reprieve from his physical labor whenever he must walk back down the mountain to return to his boulder. Camus calls it a “breathing space.” As Sisyphus makes his descent, he is free to reflect, to think. It is this conscious reflection that interests Camus. In time, things begin to change for Sisyphus. As he makes his way back to his rock, he is conscious of and can reflect on himself, his situation, and his life. Camus imagines that Sisyphus starts to slowly reinterpret things, to change his perspective. He experiments with different explanations for his current situation. He realizes as he reflects that how he understands the present, himself, how he interprets it all, can be and is up to him. He is free, he has freedom of thought, and with it is no longer bound to an explanation, a perspective, that he does not accept and did not create. His life again (or perhaps for the first time) becomes his own.

We imagine that Sisyphus returns to his burden, his boulder, but he does so having transformed. Sisyphus’ mental state, his perspective, has changed, and with it his world has changed. He has taken control of his conscious life and accepted his fate as his own. Happiness is once again possible for Sisyphus because he recognizes that the possible interpretations are inexhaustible.

We imagine Sisyphus happy because his conscious life is his own. We realize that this is true for us as well. We have control over the meanings and explanations we accept. We can affirm our freedom to think, to form our own perspective and live an authentic, happy life.  

“I conclude that all is well,” … 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.

– Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 123.

16 Comments

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  1. Brilliant! I’m aware of the myth but not this interpretation. In a way, this seems like an act of defiance. That despite what punishment they give, his mind is still his own. It reminds me of a poem that was Nelson Mandela’s favourite: “No matter how straight the gate, nor the punishments to scroll. I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”

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  2. I heard this story in my literature class, but didn’t know this wonderful explanation of it. Everything has its meaning, it all depends on how you interpret. The quotes you used brilliantly sum up your concepts. 👏

    Liked by 1 person

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