The Myth of Sisyphus

by Albert Camus

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Would Weirob agree with Camus' conclusion in The Myth of Sisyphus?

The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must consider Sisyphus happy. (777)

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Gretchen Weirob is one of the most engaging characters in John Perry's Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality. She is a diminutive, elderly woman who, despite her physical frailty, possesses a sharp mind and a strong will to live. She laments her situation as terminal, but is unconvinced of survival after death. Despite this, she requests that Cohen and Miller persuade her to believe in the possibility of survival beyond the deterioration of physical form. As they argue the integrity of identity in relation to memory and the body, she contends that she will cease to exist when her body ceases to exist, and anything beyond such as a Heavenly self (a separate entity) that will continue her existence is simply absurd.

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Throughout John Perry's A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality, we see Gretchen Weirob, though physically weak, as a force to be reckoned with intellectually. She creates a mentally stimulating atmosphere at her very deathbed, creating the conditions of the very thing she remains unconvinced of—"the possibility of survival"—by relentlessly discussing it.

In the beginning of Perry's work, Cohen's character introduces Weirob by establishing how she laments the hopelessness of her situation despite her lucidity. This is precisely what spurs Weirob to request "comfort" in the form of persuading her to believe in the possibility of survival beyond the deterioration of physical form. As they argue the integrity of identity in relation to memory and the body, she contends that she will cease to exist the moment her body ceases to exist, and that anything beyond, such as the probable existence of a "Heavenly self" that will continue her existence and thus ensure her survival, for instance, is simply absurd.

While it may seem to be a failure to know that she was ultimately unconvinced to the very end, the entire situation (dialogue) is a clear indication of its actual success with the way she remained engaged and in anticipation of their arguments at the end of each day that she remained alive:

MILLER: But perhaps by tomorrow night I will have come up with a better argument.

WEIROB: I hope I live to hear it.

It is for this reason (as are many other points throughout the dialogue) that would lead one to believe that she would've very well agreed with Camus regarding his conclusion about the struggle itself enough to fill one's heart. The operative word in Gretchen's many musings, despite her skepticism, is hope:

Even the possibility of something quite improbable can be comforting, in certain situations. When we used to play tennis, I beat you no more than one time in twenty. But this was enough to establish the possibility of beating you on any given occasion, and by focusing merely on the possibility I remained eager to play. Entombed in a secure prison, thinking our situation quite hopeless, we may find unutterable joy in the information that there is, after all, the slimmest possibility of escape. Hope provides comfort, and hope does not always require probability. But we must believe that what we hope for is at least possible.

The idea of hope here is not one of blind optimism, but one that underscores anticipation of the future as an impetus to simply continue, a kind of comfort that keeps one engaged in one's life despite being locked in life's present conditions, as in Sisyphus's plight of consistently pushing up a boulder only for it to come rolling down every time. Here, Weirob is well aware of her fate, as she's been told she has only a day or two to live, yet she pushes on desiring to know what is in store for her beyond this life on Earth. She struggles to think beyond her own existence, pushes the rock, so to speak, even as she remains trapped in an unescapable situation. She recognizes the absurdity for what it is. As readers, we are forced to recognize the same when—after everything that's been argued and said about consciousness, the soul, sameness, continuity, memory, the body—she dies.

However, this is where the point gets cleverly turned on its head. Before she dies, Cohen and Miller reach a point of near-desperation in trying to convince her of their argument for survival in order that she may decide to agree with them, and as a result, agree to get the transplant prolonging her life. They get so caught up in this desire that it is easy for readers to sympathize with their cause and find the loss of Gretchen's life an unfortunate outcome, what with all their efforts wasted. However, this is not the case. It is important to note that towards the end, Weirob tells an increasingly anxious Cohen:

Hold on, hold on. Try to relax and enjoy the argument. I am.

Here, the roles are reversed as she takes on the comforting tone. It is this statement that echoes the conclusion of The Myth of Sisyphus, where, after everything that's been said and done: one must consider Gretchen happy.

In a way, hope, then, becomes the inescapable belief in agency, where to seek comfort is not to imagine away the struggle, but to anticipate the truth of one's constant ascent towards an unrelenting nascent.

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There is a certain humor in Camus's statement, because Sisyphus's eternal torment was to roll a large stone up a hill only to have it roll back into the valley. So, while Camus states that he is "reaching new heights" and should therefore be happy, I believe Sisyphus would find the heights less and less "new" each millennia he reaches them again.

Weirob may well have agreed with Camus's assessment of the situation since she was primarily concerned with the concept of identity. It could reasonably be argued that, through repetitive action and the constant work that Sisyphus does, he develops a very clear identity and definition for himself: that of the "stone roller." In this way, Weirob may have stated that Sisyphus should be happy, much as Camus did.

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Philosopher Gretchen Weirob was concerned with the definition of the soul. She was a teacher of philosophy who was attended by several close friends on her deathbed. Her conversations with these friends have been famously recorded. Weirob contends that identity must be judged on bodily criteria, as souls are intangible and so indistinguishable. There arose an opportunity for Weirob to have a transplant after the fashion of one Julia North, whose memories were changed after a brain transplant. Memory (real versus apparent) is a touchstone concept for Weirob, and so, when confronted with the proposition that "the struggle itself is enough to make Sisyphus happy," Weirob would probably concede that Sisyphus is not happy, and would not be happy unless his apparent memory of having rolled the proverbial boulder up the hill were erased each time. Weirob is too attentive to the concepts of identity and memory to acknowledge otherwise, but, like Camus, I cannot say for sure; "one must imagine" it so.

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Weirob is concerned with the consistency of identity, with the relation of the “soul” to “physical existence.”  Weirob’s major statement was “we have knowledge of our own identity through time”.  Camus, on the other hand, is concerned with our freedom to choose in the absence of a Designer.  The myth, for him, is a visual metaphor for the meaninglessness of human effort on the physical plane, unless each individual human “soul” or entity designs him/her self by making a plan, by struggling with some task that identifies his self-design.  Camus, after completing his metaphor, make the philosophical observation that effort itself (the struggle) is “enough” to fill a man’s heart, that is, to give his life direction.  Weirob might have agreed that as long as Sisyphus continued to seek the heights, he was being consistent from day to day.  Of course, this comparison might be seen as an example of “argument by analogy,” a logical fallacy.

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