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"There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn."
For twice trying to cheat death, Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to an eternal punishment; to push a huge boulder up a steep hill, and each time reaching the top, the boulder would roll back down again. Each time, Sisyphus would have to return to the Underworld, and begin his labour again, over and over. Sisyphus was, for Albert Camus, the ultimate “absurd hero”, because his “...whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.”
Yet in the face of his exertions toward nothing, of the sheer pointlessness of his repetitive task, Sisyphus’ consciousness of his task and the fact that he returns, time after time, to the rock at the bottom of the hill, means that:
“The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory.”
Sisyphus’ victory lay in depriving the gods of their control over his fate; they may have fated him to this eternal punishment, but he took their imposition of futile suffering and made it his own. In this way, “Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks.” Camus invites us to conclude that Sisyphus is happy.
Recently I’ve been thinking about a question: do we have an entitlement to happiness? Note the deliberate phrasing of the question; an entitlement to happiness. This is distinct both from being happy and from pursuing happiness. These concepts differ in their relationship to our metaphorical rock, and require distinction.
Being happy is precisely what it describes; a state of being, a cheerful and optimistic disposition, one that is likely innate to the individual. The glass is always half full, or some other trope. Being happy is encouraged; it is associated with positive attributes, to the point where it is almost an expectation, a societal norm. For those of us not so inclined, this is a source of friction; those inclined to a disposition of being happy tend to be deeply uncomfortable about those who are not. Eternal optimists feel a need to fix the pessimistic disposition of others, because they are deeply perturbed by the idea that sadness may be your default state. And terrified by the prospect that you might be ok with it.
The juxtaposition of being unhappy, however, requires an important distinction between people who genuinely suffer from a diagnosed condition like major depressive disorder, and people like me who just seem to have a default program running in the background of melancholy and disillusionment. This is the thing; I’m not unhappy with anything in particular about my life, yet I exist with a underlying constancy of nondescript sombreness, interspersed with an overlay of experiences of happiness (as distinct from being happy). This distinction is where I, and you if you feel similarly, meet Sisyphus. We will return to our absurd hero momentarily.
Then there is pursuing happiness, i.e., deliberately engaging with, or seeking to create, conditions that one then expects will lead to being happy. Given that expectations are the root of all disappointment, this is a road paved with good intentions that can lead to hell. Pursuing happiness is conditional upon achieving, finding, or doing, whatever it is one believes will bring them happiness. Perhaps more than being happy, the pursuit of happiness is the most culturally-ingrained norm in Western societies; it is the concept to which capitalism hitched its consumer wagon, and mutated into our current neoliberal wasteland of vapid materialism. The pursuit of happiness is only ever one click away.
But what of entitlement to happiness? This is a different proposition, because the concept of entitlement entails that this applies irrespective of your default settings. Whether you’re the optimist/happy type or the pessimist/melancholy type doesn’t negate that you have an entitlement to happiness. Whether you accept it or not is up to you. Entitlement also contains entailments for the pursuit of happiness, because in a society of social beings, no one necessarily has the entitlement to pursue happiness at the expense of another. But crucially, you don’t owe anyone your happiness. By implication, you are not the guarantor of anyone else’s happiness. Your entitlement to happiness is an entitlement to not be.
This is where these concepts of happiness converge. Those who fit the category of being happy do not necessarily need to be aware that they have an entitlement to happiness, even though they do. This reflects the fact that being happy requires a certain lack of consciousness, an imperviousness to reality. Those in the category of being happy never feel that they are pushing a rock. For those who believe in the pursuit of happiness, how this is pursued matters; such a pursuit is not entitled at the expense of others. Given the material self-gratification that characterises our neoliberal promised land, the pursuit of happiness is often characterised by a certain lack of consciousness. If pursued for self-indulgent purposes, people in this category will get others to push the rock for them so they can enjoy the walk to the top, utterly indifferent to the plight of those struggling against the rock.
And finally, then, we come to those of the naturally melancholic disposition among you. Here, the exercise of consciousness is the crucial mediator. The entitlement to happiness opens up a problem for the burden of existence, because those of you who fit this category are aware that you are pushing the rock up the hill. The entitlement to happiness and the burden of existence are thus inseparable; how can you exercise an entitlement to happiness if existence is a burden? How do we deal with this knowledge? Once you have asked the question, there is no going back; you are now conscious of the absurdity and a “man who has become conscious of the absurd is forever bound to it.”
This is where we must meet Sisyphus. There are two paths, both defined by consciousness. Down one path, you will struggle against the rock, curse the gods, bemoan your fate, lament the injustice of the world. You will be crushed by the rock, because you believe that your entitlement to happiness has been revoked; that you have been stripped of your agency. But Camus warns us:
“When the images of earth cling too tightly to memory, when the call of happiness becomes too insistent, it happens that melancholy arises in man's heart: this is the rock’s victory, this is the rock itself. The boundless grief is too heavy to bear. These are our nights of Gethsemane. But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.”
Down the second path is where we must travel, to meet Sisyphus and embrace, with full consciousness, the absurdity of our existence. In this full consciousness, you mock the gods, embrace your fate, and laugh at the horror. You have joined Sisyphus in depriving the gods of their power, because the lucidity that was to constitute your torture has, at the same time, crowned your victory. Each time you reach the summit; each time the rock rolls back down to the depths; each time you watch it descend, and follow it back down: this is the moment of your victory. The moment of your consciousness. Camus writes of this eternal moment:
“That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”
This is where you find your entitlement to happiness, in the embrace of the absurd. In your hour of consciousness of the triumph over the rock, and the dignity in the struggle. Camus writes of the reward for Sisyphus:
“This 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.”
And this is why we must find our absurd hero; we must meet Sisyphus in the Underworld, with the boulder at the bottom of the steep hill. And we must laugh with him; at the absurdity and meaningless of existence and our world. And laugh at the gods, which is to laugh at the horror of humanity, the rogue monkeys who live only to feed, fight, fuck, and destroy everything they create. And we must start to push that rock up the hill, all the while mocking the sheer pointlessness of the ordeal, because to do otherwise, to assume this cosmic clusterfuck of chaos has meaning, will destroy you. The rock will have its victory. So remember:
“There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”