Examples of Absurdism: Sisyphus & Others Who Press On

Why did Albert Camus use Sisyphus as his primary model for absurdism? Why did Camus consider Sisyphus to be fulfilled in life?

In his definitive philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus argues that human existence is fundamentally absurd. This is because the human drive for purpose and meaning is at odds with the reality that death is inevitable and humanity is cosmically insignificant.

Read more to learn about the figure of Sisyphus and other examples of absurdism from Camus and elsewhere.

Sisyphus as the Absurd Man

In the essay, Camus provides several examples of absurdism, and he offers up the Greek mythological figure of Sisyphus as the perfect symbol of an absurd figure. For crimes he committed in life, the gods condemned Sisyphus to spend eternity in the underworld pushing a massive boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down again as soon as he reached the top. His commitment to this futile task, repeated over and over, represents everyday life, as people strive for meaning or for an escape from death that they can never achieve. Sisyphus himself represents the drive to live since he was known for his defiance of death—different versions of the myth have him tricking or trapping Hades, the God of the Dead, in order to escape temporarily back to the surface—which still couldn’t save him from it.

(Shortform note: There are many different versions of the Sisyphus myth, though most include his punishment of rolling the boulder and his attempts to “cheat death.” Descriptions of his crimes are less consistent, though most accounts agree that he offended Zeus, king of all the gods. Either Sisyphus violated xenia or guest-relations by killing visitors to his court (he was the founder of Ephyra, or modern-day Corinth in Greece), or he reported on Zeus’s abduction and rape of the nymph Aegina to her father, Asopus. Scholars generally interpret the Sisyphus myth as demonstrating the futility of resisting the gods, and the word “Sisyphean” evolved to describe unending or senseless labor.)

Though Sisyphus is generally invoked as an example of divine punishment or torture, Camus believes that Sisyphus is happy despite his fate. He’s alive—in the sense that he still has a consciousness, even though he no longer has access to the world of the living—and he has a task to commit himself to, even if that task can never be completed. He continues to experience the world and to draw pleasure and strength from it. Camus argues that, like Sisyphus, a person committed to the absurd must dedicate themselves to being fully present for every second of life. Life’s value doesn’t come from the promise of eternity or from any external source; rather, it’s self-evident.

(Shortform note: The advice to “live in the present” can be found in a number of different philosophical, religious, psychological, and self-help movements. Generally, the goal is to encourage people to reduce their stress and unhappiness by focusing on what’s right in front of them, rather than a past they can’t change or a future they can’t control. While followers of these movements are often asked to let go of things like painful memories or career plans, Camus asks his readers to let go of the belief that they can avoid or even understand death.)

Additional Examples

Camus ends the essay by providing further examples of absurd figures in fiction and the arts, particularly in the work of novelist Franz Kafka. Kafka’s protagonists struggle to survive in hostile worlds with authoritarian, incomprehensible rules, whether this means Josef of The Trial being sentenced to execution for an unknown crime or K. of The Castle spending years trying and failing to gain entrance to the titular seat of government. Despite their frustration and suffering, Kafka’s characters cling to life—going to work and building relationships with the untrustworthy figures around them—even as their expulsion from the world (via exile or death) seems inevitable.

(Shortform note: Some scholars of Kafka interpret his work more politically than Camus does, arguing that the hostility of the world in his fiction is not truly random or absurd, but the result of specific, violent political forces like fascism, capitalism, and antisemitism. Kafka was a Jewish socialist living during a period of increased antisemitism and authoritarianism in central Europe, and while none of his protagonists are explicitly stated to be Jewish, themes of persecution run through much of his work.)

Speaking generally, Camus describes artists of every type as absurd, and he describes creative work as an inherently absurd venture—dedicating your life to making something that is, like yourself, temporary and doomed to be forgotten. He draws particular attention to stage actors, who take on entire other identities for a few hours at a time but have no physical record of their performances. Though art is a way of rebelling against and coping with the absurd—reflecting one’s reality back at others for a chance at self-expression and commiseration—it can’t grant true immortality to its artist, or alleviate the struggle of living an absurd life.

(Shortform note: Absurdism became an art movement in its own right after World War II, beginning with some of Camus’s own plays like Caligula and The Misunderstanding. Theater critic Martin Esslin described “the theater of the absurd” as tragicomic, fourth-wall-breaking productions focusing on the ridiculousness of human attempts at communication or progress in an irrational and hostile world. Examples include Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. The postwar fiction of satirists like Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller has also been called “absurdist.”)

Examples of Absurdism: Sisyphus & Others Who Press On

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.