Was Sisyphus a happy man?
In a 1940s essay called The Myth of Sisyphus, author Albert Camus considered the case of a guy condemned by the gods (oh those gods, peppy as all get-out!) to roll a boulder up a hill to the very top – only to have the boulder roll back down to the bottom. He had to start over, rolling the boulder back up the hill. I don’t know if he got breaks.
The essay ends with the words, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Hint: Camus wasn’t really writing about the fate of a wily Greek who thought he could cheat death. Perhaps best-known for his brief novel The Stranger, about an ordinary man unwittingly drawn into a senseless murder on an Algerian beach, Camus was, if you will, an absurdist – meaning, and this is very much a lowbrow definition – his writing considered the plight of human beings confronting a world that makes no sense.
Speaking of low-brown interpretations, and I am, there’s something Sisysphean about being a writer. There’s something absurd about being a writer.
When you have just turned in a piece of work to your agent or your editor, it is daybreak in your heart. Reborn, like a child, you allow yourself hope — that the agent or editor will say, gosh, if this isn’t just the best book you’ve ever written, it’s the best book anyone has ever written. The grass smells of rain, food has taste, dreams are in color … and then the boulder rolls back down the hill. Then, like a child kicking rocks, you say, well, I knew about that. I actually was going to fix that. You know, I mentioned that I was going to fix that.
But oh, there is so much you didn’t know. So, your agent or editor asks, why is there so much bloviating in the main character’s head? Who would ever think that much before breakfast? Was the father a Catholic priest before he got married … or was that the brother? (It was the uncle.) Does the daughter really think she sees ghosts … or is that a manifestation of her mental illness?
At some point, the holder-of-your-fate-in-his-or-her-hands will say, I’m confused.
In the margins, you might even find the word Huh?
The boulder comes to rest — on your chest.
Once, long ago, a writer acquaintance came to me distraught because her editor had suggested that, in the last sentence of her novel, she use the word “and” instead of “but.” That was the only suggested change. The writer was in tears. What a wimp. If she were here now, I would want to drop a rock on her foot.
Well, it is true that yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.
Now, here I sit on my boulder, measuring the elevation of the hill. It looks taller up close. Sisyphus and me. Can I really make it up the hill, yet one more time? The past suggests I can. The future suggests I must. The present? Forget about it.
Was Sisyphus happy? If happiness comes from knowing your role in the world, I guess he was. Some jobs are described, not for nothing, as Sisyphean labor. Still, at least he had job security.