The mythical figure of Sisyphus has long been employed as a metaphor for futility. Condemned by the gods to continuously push a large boulder up a steep mountain only to have it roll back down to the bottom each time he reaches the peak, the phrase “Sisyphean task” is synonymous with the conduct of hopeless activities. Albert Camus, a product of the environment in which he matured – the rise of Nazi Germany, the occupation of his native France (although he spent much of his childhood in French-occupied Algeria), and the evolution of the French Resistance – was struck by the absurdity of the world in which he lived. The brutality and repression characteristic of German occupation colored his perception of humanity, and was manifested in his depictions of “reality,” as in perhaps his most respected work, The Stranger. While that well-known work is, of course, a novel, The Myth of Sisyphus is a work of nonfiction in which Camus contemplates the theme of absurdity in life that permeates his works of fiction. While Camus can hardly be considered a raving optimist, however, The Myth of Sisyphus is a direct rejection of the sense of futility that undergirds the myth of Sisyphus. Camus is, in effect, playing with words to refute the notion that suicide is a legitimate response to perceptions of futility. “The Myth” in the title is intended to emphasize the inappropriateness of conclusions that the end of life is a legitimate response to the seemingly intractable difficulties that arise during the course of life. As he states in the preface to this volume:
“The fundamental subject of “The Myth of Sisyphus” is this: it is legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life has a meaning; therefore it is legitimate to meet the problem of suicide face to face. The answer, underlying and appearing through the paradoxes which cover it, is this: even if one does not believe in God, suicide is not legitimate.”
As Camus writes in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” this mythological figure was a rebel who rejected the strictures imposed upon him by the gods, going so far as to mock Hades. In a telling passage from his essay, Camus summarizes his perception of Sisyphus and how that particular myth is a refutation of the notion of futility as tantamount to the end of the meaningful life:
“You 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.”
Camus ends his discussion of suicide, and absurdity by emphasizing the tranquility to which the mythological figure whose name is synonymous with futility does, in fact, reject the gods once more by accepting his fate with a relatively positive attitude – albeit one grounded in an almost psychotic level of defiance. Sisyphus remains defiant throughout the eternity to which he is condemned to roll that boulder up the mountain. In this sense, he is triumphant, as is the common man similarly condemned to a life of seeming futility but who accepts his fate and rejects the notion of servitude.