Damned, he was.
No question about that. Completely damned. Couldn’t even kill himself. The gods had taken away that option too.
Nobody knew it better than this fabled Greek what absurd meant. So furious were the gods with him for cheating death twice — and generally not being deferential enough — that they punished him with hard, futile labour for ever.
Imagine the scene. A sinewy man, bare of body save for a strip of cloth around his taut, staggering hips, carrying an immense boulder up a hill. He bears it to near the summit; then watches as the boulder hurtles down the slope. Again and again he wrestles the rock up. Again and again it rolls down.
It would be an endless replay of toil and torment because the man, Sisyphus, Albert Camus’s “proletarian of the gods”, had been cursed to carry the rock up for eternity.
That is his destiny — like the destiny of humankind has now thrust a mask upon the living. How things have changed. Fiction’s fabled cloak of invisibility, for instance. Now an invisible virus has thrust a cloak upon us, a grotesque cloak-mask deemed essential and utterly visible. And there’s nothing fictitious about it.
When obits on the coronavirus pandemic would be written one day, some might record how Camus’s novel, The Plague, disappeared from shelves as people sought out a paradigm in their moment of peril. But it is his 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus — published a few years before the novel — that offers what can be called a philosophical way out of this absurdity of affliction and physical exile, likely even in a post-Covid world.
There’s no denying that the pandemic has affected us in intangible ways — in its subterranean flow. The suspicion virus, which would probably never go away.
Camus uses the legend of Sisyphus as an existential parable of the struggle against the absurdities of life. “At this point of his effort man stands face to face with the irrational…,” he writes. “The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”
The essay offers a tip to take on such silence — the inability to make meaning out of a situation. Embrace the absurdity, Camus says. Accept that the world is irrational.
The Covid-afflicted world, too, is irrational — in the pandemic’s pervasive sweep of mass mutability and destruction of familiar rhythms of life, work and relationships. It’s the lack of clarity that makes it absurd.
A possible way one could salvage meaning, according to Camus, is through lucidity, just as Sisyphus, “proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious”, acknowledges the absurd and accepts the “whole extent of his wretched condition”.
“The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory,”Camus says. “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”
If defiance had ever been distilled off all elements of entreaty, this was it.
The Plague, too, is an allegory — of the Nazi occupation of France. It is also a tale of human accord as the fictional epidemic rages through the French Algerian town of Oran in a macabre, random opera of dead vermin and dying humans. What must have drawn today’s readers is the novel’s theme of “dreary struggle”between each man’s personal response to suffering and the “abstractions of the plague”.
Also, the novel’s message is one for the ages: “(I)t’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with pestilences.”
That is the social contract that some of the novel’s main characters —like Dr. Bernard Rieux and Jean Tarrou — enter into in their struggle against disease and death.
In Sisyphus, Camus’s protagonist resets his task after every descent — “His fate belongs to him” — and defeats the caprice of the gods.
Many centuries back, King Lear too had been hurled into a mind-shattering confrontation with absurdity. Lear, driven into infirm helplessness on a stormy Shakespearean stage, loses his mind and rails at the elements —“rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain”.
But Sisyphus pauses, in between yet another descent and ceaseless ascent. It’s that pause that “interests” Camus. That is the hour of consciousness, he writes. “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.”
What Camus suggests is humankind accept suffering, the first step towards acceptance of the absurdity of the universe. The next is the willing embrace of the struggle. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,”he writes. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
It’s a message that still stands — as a counterpart to the double whammy of disease and virulent consequence.
Ananda Kamal Sen