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Sisyphus, Happiness, and the Abyss

Titian's Sisyphus -- Art Gallery ErgsArt [1]
Titian’s Sisyphus — Art Gallery ErgsArt

Last Friday, H.M. (Heather) Bouwman posted a wonderful piece here titled “Writing (in the) Happy Middles. [2]” In it she discussed the “guiding myths of our lives,” and how a writer friend had identified Sisyphus as the hero whose story best conformed to her publishing career as she’d experienced it so far.

Heather responded that, by learning to “love the rock,” i.e., embracing and enjoying the process not the result, the nonstop effort to once again push the boulder up the hill could come to feel not just worthwhile but noble, even joyous, instead of odious or depressing or futile.

As it turned out, this post came a day after I’d had a chance to talk with fellow Unboxer Don Maass [3] at Thrillerfest [4]. He’s working on a novel, and he spoke about some of the scenes he’d found particularly challenging to write.

Specifically, he talked about how, in the character’s search for identity—and in our own as well—there come moments not of self-evaluation or reflection but utter, silent dread—as though peering over a cliff, or into the abyss. Moments when we don’t know what to do, but must do something. And do it sooner than we’d like.

As it turns out, these two notions—staring into the abyss and rolling that rock up the hill—are not entirely distinct.

This became clear when I went back and re-read Albert Camus’ essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” I hadn’t read it since college, and I’m not sure I really understood it then. Camus, like youth itself, is wasted on the young.

How refreshing to re-read “The Myth of Sisyphus” and find that a downbeat interpretation is utterly wrong-headed.

The essay, despite its profound influence on 20th century thought, is deceptively brief. And I would bet that most of us, given our American optimist mindset, think of the core idea of this essay as: Life is “futile, meaningless, inescapable labor.” The cheeriest insight to be had is: “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”

Oh, those frolicsome, fun-loving French.

How refreshing to re-read the thing and find that such a downbeat interpretation is utterly wrong-headed.

Camus finds most interesting that moment when Sisyphus looks at the rock rolling downhill again: “That is the hour of consciousness.”

This is also akin to the moment of staring into the abyss that Don, I believe, was getting at. That moment of silent, paralyzed doubt or indecision, when we simply don’t know what to do, and our fate seems to be swimming in the darkness at our feet.

Imagine a lifetime of coming back, over and over and over, to that exact same spot, that exact same empty, fathomless silence–the fabled dark night of the soul.

And yet, for Camus, Sisyphus is far from a tragic figure. Instead, he “is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”

Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. The universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

I think that this is an ethos a great many people have difficulty with. Even though Camus considers Sisyphus loyal to a higher calling and therefore happy, most readers would feel a kind of terror in his plight—one more abyss to stare into. I’m sure for many people consciousness is not enough.

But Camus, by “the hour of consciousness,” doesn’t mean mere cognition. He means understanding, and through understanding acceptance, no matter how difficult that acceptance is to come by.

This ethos animates a great deal of modernity—one hears echoes of it in this from Martha Gelhorn: “It is cowardice or laziness to ask: what can I do about it anyway? Every squeak counts, if only in self-respect.”

I hear it in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, when Maggie the Cat insists that life must go on even after the dream of life is over.

I hear it in the Zen adage: Death is like the falling of a petal from a rose—nothing more, nothing less. Or this from the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön: To give up fear, we must also surrender hope.

I hear it in war stories, because there’s no concept in the lexicon more wildly misunderstood than that of victory, and no more insidious lie than a “war to end all wars.”

Which brings me to the other coincidence involving Heather’s post: It appeared the day after snipers killed five police officers and wounded several others plus two civilians in Dallas—that tragedy itself coming on the heels of two officer-involved shootings of innocent African-American men in the preceding days.

The fact that senseless violence only led to more of the same reminded me that the search for justice is never complete, that it consumes the whole of our lives, fighting each day for a way to coexist that’s more civilized, decent, compassionate, fair.

And yes, isn’t that the writing life? Trying, with each book, each story, each essay, to honor a bit more the truth as we now see it, after so many boulders down the hill, and to share that truth with our readers?

Heroism cannot always be measured by its triumphs, if only because they’re often such a long way off.

Sometimes the heroic is the simple refusal to back away from the edge of the abyss before making the decision that waits for us there. Courage isn’t a lack of fear, but persisting despite our fear.

Put another way, bravery is the refusal to close the book despite the overwhelming evidence that there’s no big reveal at the end of the story. No magic sword. No elixir. There’s just this. And it is everything.

Do you find this interpretation of the Sisyphean myth heartening or depressing? If so, how do you perceive hope and courage, meaning and purpose? How do they appear in your writing?

Have you had to craft—or personally endure—a “staring into the abyss” moment lately? How did it go?

About David Corbett [5]

David Corbett [6] (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [7], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.