I tried beginning this book three times; the first time in a hostel in the middle of Mostar; but I simply could not get my head around it. I couldn’t tell if this was because of the incredibly intellectual nature of the author or because of the editor’s job in translating the text from French to English.
However, when I did finally get round to reading and understanding The Myth of Sisyphus, I opened my mind to a new way of understanding society that I had been previously blind to.
The book’s title is named after an Ancient Greek myth in which an individual was punished for deceitfulness and ordered to push a heavy boulder to the top of a steep mountain, only to watch the boulder roll back down again. Sisyphus had to continue this cycle of pushing the boulder back to the top of the mountain for eternity.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus ultimately asks: is there any point in living a life of indefinite misery? Or, can suicide be rationalised in the event of such a miserable life?
In my opinion, the Algerian-born author’s conclusion to this question wasn’t clearly articulated – at least in Penguin’s translated edition of the book – but I understood his conclusion to be: it is precisely when we question whether or not life is worth living that life becomes worth living.
For Camus, existential questions are enough to give somebody a sense of purpose in their life. Indeed, Camus crafted an entire literary career from existentialism. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus even introduces a new term to the existential discourse: the ‘absurd’ – an individual’s search for meaning in life:
“The struggle [of understanding life] itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
For me, one of the most interesting parts of the book is where Camus analyses the ‘absurd creation’. That is, the way in which individuals consciously or subconsciously explore their existential purpose through art, literature and theatre. Camus analyses the works of Kafka, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard and others – who are unfortunately all men; but this could perhaps be put down to the fact that the differences between the platforms given to men and women in the liberal arts were much greater at the time of the book’s publication (1942) than they are today.
Interestingly, not all of the notable men analysed by Camus were proactively aware that their literature or theatre were essentially ‘absurd creations’. A case in point is when Camus considers Tirso de Molina’s Don Juan to be a ‘three hour’ journey of love and its various dead-ends that readers would otherwise require a physical lifetime to discover and learn. Therefore, Camus sees Tirso de Molina as finding purpose in his life as he explores love through his Don Juan legend. For its spectators, the legend is a fantasy or “second life” that they can delve into, ponder, learn and enjoy, and also establish some purpose in their lives in doing so.
So, why does this book matter? Well, aside from its contribution to the existential discourse in introducing the idea of absurdism, it awakened myself and many others to a new way of understanding the books we read, the art we observe and the plays we watch. For example, when I read, I now ask – in writing his or her book, is the author in question trying to give some purpose or meaning to their life? What does this say about their insecurities and their individual contexts as authors? What does this mean for how reliable, credible or subject to bias their material is?
The Myth of Sisyphus is an essential read for anybody with an inquisitive mind.