In "The Myth of Sisyphus," what is the role of the consciousness in shaping the character of Sisyphus? And what do you think is the value it presents?

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gpane | College Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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As Camus sees it, the role of consciousness is absolutely vital to the shaping of Sisyphus's character; in fact, it elevates him to the status of a hero. On the face of it, the character and his situation of eternally rolling a rock up a hill only to have it drop back again, appears absurd and even wholly ridiculous.  Sisyphus has, of course, generally been used as a symbol of the absurd, the sense of the ultimate meaninglessness of all human life and endeavour - a sentiment which recurs in the work of  many modern writers.  However, as Camus pictures it, it is Sisyphus's awareness of the futility of his situation that actually makes him superior to it, because it engenders a spirit of defiance in him. He knows he is  condemned to an eternity of performing the same useless task, over and over again, but he does it in his own manner, with pride. He doesn't do it blindly, nor does he give way to despair. His consciousness of his situation makes him not just the hero of the absurd, but, indeed, a tragic hero.

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. 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.

Sisyphus, then, is seen by Camus as turning his punishment into a kind of triumph, a 'victory' over the fate that oppresses him. As Camus says, he is under no illusion as to his situation, he entertains no false hopes that he might get some kind of reward for his labours, achieve some kind of meaningful result; yet he keeps on, with dignity. Camus extends the analogy here to the common man of contemporary society: 'the workman of today'. Modern man, says Camus, is caught in a similar meaningless struggle like Sisyphus, his efforts tending to no worthwhile end.

Yet, human endeavour itself can be seen as substantial and worthwhile; Sisyphus's rock is described as being a 'world' unto itself, regardless of his overall cruel and mocking fate.  Despite the essential tragedy of Sisyphus's situation, Camus concludes on a cautiously optimistic note: 'One must imagine Sisyphus happy.'

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