Friday, March 18, 2011


“Sisyphus is the absurd hero…”

- 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…”


  1. "To Albert Camus, Sisyphus is the absurd hero because he knows his task is meaningless and futile and yet he continues anyway."

    I don't know if I'd consider Sisyphus a hero. It's not like he was given a choice to stop or continue at least that's how I understand it. Likewise, we can't escape reality. Where ever we go we're in it no matter how much we wish we were not. (where could we be instead?) But once we fully realize there's no escape, then struggling to escape will stop and the experience of life will be less anxious and better.

  2. Give credit where credit is due . . . someone sent you that link to the watch in an earlier comment.

  3. So, I've been thinking about the issue of Sisyphus and choice this morning.

    I woke up today and was lying in bed meditating and it was going especially well. I've started meditating regularly and often I don't feel good about it, but this time was different. The difference I think was that I was actively involved with examining my experience rather than just passively lying or sitting. The intention of actively living or experiencing and passively living makes a very big difference I think in the quality of how we experience it. When a mind is passive, life can be boring no matter what the body is doing. But when a mind is active even the most non active body state such as sitting or lying down can be exciting and interesting. This is an important lesson for me.

    This brings me back to Sisyphus and the absurd. I think what makes him a hero according to Camus is that he's actively living despite what most would consider to be a boring and futile life. He may have no choice to live the kind of life he's living, but he does have the choice to use his mind actively and passionately by living in the moment and not being bothered by what could have been or what should be

  4. Thomas,

    Thanks for the comments. We'd say one always has a choice because there is always suicide. And Camus begins his Myth of Sisyphus by discussing this.


  5. Inigo,

    I have been reading your interesting reflections for a while now, but have never commented, mostly because I do not enjoy the debating that some commentators like to bring to the forum, and it would be inane simply to keep saying I like your ideas. But I have had a lifelong admiration of Camus, and especially his Sisyphus. Some fifteen years ago or so I commissioned a painting of the subject from one of our professors at the local art college. (Savannah College of Art and Design) My only request was that she read the work (she had not) and discuss it with me before commencing the painting. She found the process fascinating, and completed a very cool abstract painting that has Jungian undertones of the unconscious. Her work is one of my most prized possessions.

    But the kicker is that I too have as an absurd totem a laughing Buddha that sits on my bedside table. I enjoy a quiet chuckle with him most every night.

    Mark Lee

  6. Thanks, Mark. Appreciate the comments. That's a nice story about the painting. And gotta love that Buddha!