Recently, I created a writing assignment based on Albert Camus’s absurdist philosophy and the famous essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Initially, I thought it was a brilliant assignment. Why? Well, aside from the obvious fact that novice writing students seemingly resemble the absurd hero pushing a rock uphill (along with the implications of the writing situation being more or less torturous punishment for many of them), I thought that they could identify with a fellow laborer, a proletarian comrade, a person condemned to a fate of fulfilling the terms of the gods, the powers that be. Surely, many novice writing students believe that their fate is as equally absurd as that of weary Sisyphus. Thus, for the time being at least, many of them will likely conclude that indeed “life is absurd” and “life is meaningless.” However, the writing assignment in virtue of inviting them to think meaningfully about the topic actually challenges the claim that “nothing matters” because, after all, the assignment matters. And if not the lowly assignment, then their words–the language they use to comply with or resist the assignment–matters. As a result, the lightbulbs will eventually flash on and collectively (I’m optimistic about the ‘collectively’ part), students would recognize that the statement “nothing matters” is false. Again, because their language matters–their thoughtful response matters–and their ideas matter. In an ideal world, of course, students wouldn’t be at all concerned with their grades and trying to impress the teacher. Rather, they would rise to the challenge of the assignment, meditate in their own ways on the merits of existential freedom, and fall in love with their ideas.
The assignment gives students an opportunity to reflect and think about their own beliefs, worlds, language, and fates. In other words, they could pause to reflect on the absurd hero as they invented ideas of their own to write down.
Indeed, Camus tells us that Sisyphus’ tragedy is not pushing the rock. Although he’s a laborer who follows the same daunting task day in and out, not unlike a warehouse or factory worker, or a typical retail clerk, the labor itself is not the primary problem. Camus remarks that he’s most interested in the pause, the space between Sisyphus ascending and descending the hill to retrieve the rock–in that pause, a brief moment, is the tragic absurdity.
The pause is interesting because that’s when Sisyphus becomes conscious of his existence. He realizes that a face which labors so close to stone becomes stone itself. He has vivid memories, for instance, of his children’s voices, the soft touch of his wife’s hand, and the spicy crunch of a Taco Bell Beef Chalupa. He’s literally free of the rock, yet he’s burdened by memories of a life he cannot have and the fate which awaits him. Sisyphus is free and not free–and that contradiction is ironically absurd.
Rather than mediate at length on Sisyphus’ absurd predicament, an absurdity we all face each day in our lives whether we recognize it or not, I’d prefer to consider Camus’ final judgment. In spite of Sisyphus’ enraged toil, we must imagine him happy. Why? Life is absurd. True, but he’s conscious of his fate and he’s not deluded into having faith and hope in transcendence, believing that a god or gods will care for him. Furthermore, he renounces the notion that rationality will prevail upon the world and pronounce conclusive answers to a legacy of unanswered philosophical questions. He’s happy because he’s self-reliant, an independent thinker, and tempers his own mind in spite of fate. He sees through the chimeras of human fashioning and wrestles with the gods.
Like Camus imagining Sisyphus as being happy, I also imagine my students happy with fate, thinking hard, writing ideas, and falling in love with them as they rage against the gods–the institutional gods as the case may be. They push their proverbial rocks. They meet their fate. They struggle but learn to produce writing that matters.
Here is where composition theory comes in handy. While crafting the Sisyphus writing assignment, and having doubts about it, I was reminded of Emily Strasser’s “Writing What Matters: A Student’s Struggle to Bridge the Academic/Personal Divide.” I agree with her insightful work here. In imagining my students as being happy, I imagine them struggling to locate themselves in Camus’s language, synthesizing their ideas with his. In the eventful pauses of the writing process, I hold out hope that they will transform the labor of their fate into self-fashioned destinies. Thereby, the conventions of an academic writing assignment will allow them untethered space to discover their authentic voice.