- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
We recently watched the movie Inception, which deals with various absurd ideas. Christopher Nolan wrote, co-produced and directed the film, which was inspired by the idea of lucid dreaming (where you are aware you are dreaming) and the blurry lines between reality and dreams and time. (No worries, we won’t give anything away).
The characters in the film sometimes have a hard time separating what is a dream and what is real. (And in fact, one character in the film loses all touch with what is “real” and what is a “dream” – and the movie delightfully plays with these boundaries, such that viewers too will start to wonder what the difference is between the two… and if it even matters). And then are dreams within dreams, where someone is in a dream and has another dream. Things get murky, as you can imagine.
The characters in the film that can enter other people’s dreams are called “Extractors” because their mission often involves extracting information from a person’s subconscious.
One of the neat ideas in the film is the idea of “totems.” The Extractors all carry their own unique totems which serve to help them distinguish when they are in the “real world” and when they are in a “dream.” For example, the main character, Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) carries a top which he spins. In the real world, the top eventually stops spinning and falls over. But in the dreamworld, it keeps spinning.
It’s an entertaining film and we would recommend it. But, what inspires this post is that idea of a totem, because we happen to have recently purchased something of an absurd totem. You can see the picture of it at the top of this post. It’s a watch with a little man pushing a rock around and around and around… Inside the face of the watch is the word “Sisyphus,” repeated in a spiral to the center.
What a great idea! We should have thought of it…The Myth of Sisyphus you may well know and we’ve sprinkled this blog with references to the old Greek myth. In essence, Sisyphus – as a form of punishment - pushes a rock up a mountain only to have it roll back. He descends the mountain and pushes again, only to have the same thing happen. He repeats this endlessly, pushing his rock over and over again.
To Albert Camus, Sisyphus is the absurd hero because he knows his task is meaningless and futile and yet he continues anyway. Sisyphus teaches us that a meaningless existence can lose its power over us once we recognize it and accept it. The struggle itself is enough. As Camus writes, “[Sisyphus] too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile.”
Sisyphus is not a despairing figure at all in Camus’ absurd worldview. Instead, he is a figure of stubborn happiness. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” he writes.
The watch, then, is our absurd totem. It reminds us that life is absurd. We look down at our wrist and see that little fellow pushing that rock and we can't help but smile. Life is absurd and all is well.
(If you are interested in where we got ours, you can find it here, animated even:
An absurd totem doesn’t seem a bad thing. We have a laughing Buddha that sits on our desk, too, as a kind of reminder to laugh off the world’s troubles. Another sits on our nightstand, greeting us every morning and wishing us sweet dreams every night. We’d encourage you too to find something, however simple or small, to remind you of that perspective.
And imagine what a great conversation starter this watch will make.
“What’s that watch you have there?”
“Well, it’s Sisyphus pushing his rock. Let me explain. You see…”