We Must Imagine Sisyphus Laughing: Camus, Absurdity, and the Existential Trickster

laughter, existential revolt, Sisyphus, Camus, and absurdity

In his essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), the French existentialist Albert Camus lays out his exposition of the human condition. He draws on the ancient Greek myth of King Sisyphus in order to typify what it means to exist as a human in day-to-day life, which is a rather bleak picture it turns out. However, Camus offers us a form of salvation, a Camusian kind of existential revolt, which can help us deal with the absurdity of existence.

In this essay, I do not necessarily want to refute Camus’ recommendation, but I do want to reframe or supplement it. I will argue that Camus’ form of revolt, which involves a defiant acceptance of absurdity, without resignation, should also include laughter. In fact, I propose that laughter is perhaps the greatest form of existential revolt available to us. Laughter does not signify resignation. It can come from acceptance. But moreover, laughter is perhaps more existentially curative than the purely defiant attitude that characterises Camusian revolt.

Sisyphus’ Eternal Punishment

The Greek poet Homer described the king Sisyphus as “the most cunning of men” in the Iliad – and it was precisely his craftiness that led to his downfall. Sisyphus betrayed Zeus by revealing one of the god’s secrets, the whereabouts of Aegina, the daughter of the river god Asopus, who Zeus had kidnapped. Sisyphus disclosed this secret to Asopus in exchange for an eternal spring to be added to his kingdom. Furious about this betrayal, Zeus sent Thanatos (the god of death) after him. But thanks to his cunning abilities, Sisyphus managed to trap Thanatos in chains in his house.

The war god Ares eventually set Thanatos free and delivered Sisyphus to him. However, the king would come to cheat death a second time. Before descending to the Underworld of Hades (the god of the dead), he told his wife Merope not to carry out the traditional funereal practices (i.e. burying him, giving him a funeral feast, performing sacrifices to Hades or Persephone, or placing a coin under his tongue, which was used to pay Charon, who ferried the deceased across the river Styx to the Underworld). Due to this trickery, Sisyphus appeared before Hades as an unburied pauper, arguing that he had no right to be there, especially since he had no fare for Charon, so he should not have been allowed to make the journey across the river Styx.

Sisyphus pleaded with Hades to allow him to return to earth for three days to arrange the proper funereal practices, after which he promised to return to the Underworld. But he broke his promise, of course, cheating death once again, living many years on earth until he died of old age. For cheating death twice, for his offences to both Zeus and Hades, Sisyphus was sentenced to eternal punishment in Tartarus, the lowest region of the Underworld. Here the king would have to roll an immense boulder to the top of a steep hill and once he neared the top, the boulder would roll back down to the bottom. He would then have to repeat this laborious process, for all eternity.

Why We Are All Like Sisyphus

Camus posits that Sisyphus’ punishment is an apt metaphor for the everyday existence of people. In The Myth of Sisyphus, he writes, “The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd [than Sisyphus’].” Indeed, we can notice a similar futility if we trace the pattern of each day: we wake up, we toil, we sleep, we wake up, we toil…and so on. Camus believes that this repetitive mundane pattern reflects the absurdity of human existence, whereby we think we’re making progress but in reality, we’re all like Sisyphus, straining ourselves with a boulder we’re pushing, enjoying some respite in sleep, and then waking up to bear our particular boulder again. And to what end do we do this?

But for Camus, it’s not just our repetitive day-to-day lives that find accordance with Sisyphus’ punishment – the very nature of the human condition encapsulates this absurdity. Camus defines “the absurd” as the unavoidable conflict between our inherent need for meaning and an indifferent, incomprehensible universe that does not provide such meaning. Camus also rejects every scientific, metaphysical, and religious attempt to adequately satisfy our longing for meaning, purpose, and a reason to exist. Each theory aimed at meaning we construct becomes like Sisyphus’ boulder: we toil in our creation and commitment to a belief system, only to find it cannot satisfy our deepest impulses, and so each theory comes crashing down, and we feel compelled to build a new one.

The absurd, then, is a yearning without finding, an asking without answering. The absurd is a hopeless space that we have no hope of escaping, according to Camus, since it is impossible to either discover a truly satisfying meaning of life or create one. So what should we do in response to a life of pointlessly rolling boulders, from Camus’ point of view? He begins his essay by famously – and grimly – asking the following:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.

However, Camus rejects suicide as an option for dealing with the absurd because he claims there is no more meaning to be found in death than in life. Furthermore, he wants to take the absurd seriously, by acknowledging it, and we cannot do this through suicide since when we stop existing, so does the absurd. As Camus remarks, “The realization that life is absurd cannot be an end, but a beginning.”

Camus’ Existential Revolt

Camus’ solution is to subvert the understandable response to Sisyphus’ – and therefore our own – predicament. Rather than seeing Sisyphus’ endless exertions as an indictment of life, Camus viewed them as a triumph, with Sisyphus positioned as a kind of existential hero. Camus argues that the story of Sisyphus demonstrates to us that we can be strong and resilient in the face of absurdity, for Sisyphus “knows himself to be the master of his days.” We have the option of responding to the absurd with escapist behaviour, through the numbing activities of addictions and mindless entertainment. This can help us to cope, but for Camus, this will never provide us with true purpose.

Instead, Camus stresses, we should adopt the mindset he imagines Sisyphus having, which involves taking ownership and responsibility of our lives, rejecting false solutions, and defiantly accepting our condition. Doing so allows us to gain a sense of meaning and purpose when confronted with the absurd. Sisyphus is the “absurd hero” – as Camus puts it – because he chooses to collect his boulder after it rolls to the bottom of the hill, showing that he accepts the futility and meaninglessness of his task. “It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me,” Camus writes. He adds: “The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory.”

With his conscious awareness of his situation, Sisyphus opts to live in the face of absurdity and by doing so he transforms his tragic fate. Camus likewise argues that we can become fully alive, like Sisyphus, if we choose to fully acknowledge the absurdity of the human condition while carrying on anyway. It is through becoming masters of our fate that we defy futility, allowing us to live with vitality. In this choice, we may find some happiness, too; as Camus states: “All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing.” Heroism lies in the confrontation with the absurd and deciding to live with passion and intensity regardless. As Camus concludes his essay:

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

This attitude of defiance and acceptance constitutes existential revolt. It is a form of life-affirmation, a Sisyphean choice to live “with the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.” We revolt by having the resolve to continue our futile existence and by deciding to live joyously. For Camus, revolt involves facing the absurd while smiling and endeavouring to enjoy life to the fullest, even though we know everything we do is meaningless. Elsewhere, Camus has stated that “revolt gives life its value”. Yet the absurd requires constant revolt, for it is always present, so we have to give life its value over and over again.

The existential revolt expounded by Camus is, in one sense, deeply heroic. To live a life “without consolation” and “without appeal”, in Camus’ words, is brave, although it does also seem challenging to “imagine Sisyphus happy”, even if an effervescent response to the absurd is available to him (and hence us as well). I think a missing element of existential revolt here – one that genuinely affords us joy – is the comedic response to absurdity, the response of laughter. While it is possible and valuable to “imagine Sisyphus happy”, I would argue it is more plausible and organic to imagine Sisyphus laughing. The choice to laugh can also be part of existential revolt. And I would argue that Sisyphus is not the only existential hero we can aspire to. The archetype of the trickster is another.

Existential Laughter and the Trickster as an Existential Hero

Existential laughter refers to laughing that has the quality of Sisyphean revolt. It is a defiant kind of laughter, a laughing at the absurd. Existential laughter is not nervous and afraid but strong and confrontational. I can see other similarities between existential laughter and Camus’ description of Sisyphean revolt. For example, Sisyphean revolt is very much a conscious choice; it is an act that reasonably takes a powerful force of will since finding joy in futility seems deeply subversive and non-intuitive. Laughter as existential revolt is, similarly, a conscious choice; it is choosing to laugh when perhaps we might intuitively want to despair. However, we can distinguish classic Sisyphean revolt from this new variation, which includes laughter, because laughing in the face of the absurd does not seem to require such a strong act of will. It is easier for laughter as existential revolt to arise.

The absurdity of existence can be pointed out to us – in dark humour, for instance – and laughter arises naturally. We might suppose that this type of laughter is not really existential revolt since we can consider such laughter to be a response to the recognition of truth or a pattern, which is not the same as adopting a consistent attitude of defiant laughter. We may laugh at a comedian talking about the absurd because of their bravery to speak uncomfortable truths, which may be taboo or generally ignored, so part of the laughter comes from that surprise, and perhaps a sense of relief too in hearing the truth out loud from someone else. And the use of sarcasm and wit in conveying the absurd can also make us laugh, of course. After a comedian points out the uncomfortable truth of existence, causing us to laugh, can we still laugh when we continue to be confronted with the absurd?

Nonetheless, the natural laughter that arises from a comedian’s jokes bears a relationship to the more conscious revolt of existential laughter. After all, there is something inherently comedic about the absurd. The absurd, I think, more naturally lends itself to humour than to Sisyphean defiance. This is not to say that we should discard our efforts in cultivating the latter, only that it is easier to imagine Sisyphus laughing, which, subsequently, would also involve picturing him happy since positive feelings arise from laughter. Laughter is a more plausible kind of existential revolt if we take laughter to be ‘organic’.

If organic is taken to mean “healthful” or “close to nature”, I think the usage is appropriate. Laughter is healthful in the sense that it keeps us psychologically healthy and full of vitality, much like Sisyphean revolt, but laughter – by which I mean existential laughter – is close to nature because it closely aligns with the absurd, which is a feature of our natural condition. There appears to be something more organic about existential laughter than Sisyphean revolt. This is due, I believe, to the comedic logic of absurdity. As John Lippett notes in his paper Existential Laughter, for the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, “it is ‘contradiction’, or incongruity, in which humour is rooted.” In contrast, there is nothing intrinsic about the absurd that evokes joyfulness. Such a response is more effortful.

To get this point across, it’s worth remembering that much of comedy relies on surprise and reversal (beginning a joke or story that leads the audience down one line of thinking, only to end it with an unexpected twist). We can easily frame the absurd as a form of comedic reversal: we begin a story (our life) with the expectation or the assumption of meaning, only to discover it is nowhere to be found. Thus, we can respond to the absurd by saying “what a joke!” in both a casual, flippant way, but also with an attitude of strong defiance, with the attitude of an existential trickster.

It is also interesting to consider the fact that the archetype of the trickster includes the characteristics of absurdity and contradiction. These are qualities that have long been considered comedic in essence. Among the Sioux, a group of Native American tribes, some people will adopt the role of heyoka (or sacred clown), which involves absurd behaviour, like saying and doing the opposite of what is expected. This is often to induce a sense of mirth in times of distress. But the role of tricksters is often much more meaningfully rich than simply trying to raise people’s spirits. Barbara Babcock-Abrahams, in her paper A Tolerated Margin of Mess: The Trickster and His Tales Reconsidered, asserts that a trickster “embodies the fundamental contradiction of our existence: the contradiction between individual and society, between freedom and constraint.”

Here I would add that a trickster could embody another contradiction, the one that typifies the absurd: the contradiction between man’s search for meaning and the absence of meaning in a cold and silent universe. When a trickster plays with the absurd (since playfulness is central to the spirit of the trickster), and helps us to laugh defiantly at this contradiction, this makes such a character an existential hero. Yet since the trickster is an archetype (a collective component of the psyche), this is a character that is within each and every one of us; it is not just a fiction that we can depict in stories and myths, or a role we elect only a few to adopt, be they sacred clowns or comedians. Rather, we can all become an existential trickster. We can all be Sisyphus the clown, laughing amidst the struggle.

Laughter is a crucial component of the trickster in mythology and the function of real-life tricksters, such as clowns and comics. Angi Buettner, in her essay Mocking and Farting: Trickster Imagination and the Origins of Laughter, states:

Trickster tales appear wherever there is a hearty laugh, whenever things become so solemn that they provoke laughter. In many cultures and their mythical cycles, sacred accounts of the creation of the world are often accompanied by analogous myths that challenge their ritualised seriousness. These alternative myths tell the story of how tricksters create the ‘unofficial’, dirty and physical worlds we live in, of how the creation of the gods is counterbalanced by a different creative agency — the chaotic and comic acts of the trickster. It is striking how these myths of origin almost always relate to the origin of laughter. Laughter and creation are closely linked. Laughter either precedes the bringing into being of something new (the world or such cultural goods as language), accompanies creation, or immediately succeeds it…[T]rickster tales do not just induce laughter but are about the creation of laughter itself.

Again, I would like to suggest that the trickster can become existential; for if laughter is so strongly linked to origin myths, can we not also link laughter to the apparently solemn creation of the absurd? The origin of humanity is the origin of the absurd; it is the origin of solemnity; it is a tragedy, according to Peter Wessel Zapffe, that the human intellect became so developed that humans would crave meaning, only to find themselves in a meaningless world. However, the role of the trickster hero is to remind us that the world is not a tragedy but a comedy. And it is by seeing the absurd as comical that we can live with the passion, vitality, and enjoyment that Camus is encouraging us to feel. What Camus’ account of the absurd hero is lacking is the function and importance of the trickster. An absurd or existential hero should be able to see the reason to laugh (both the logic of laughter in the face of the absurd and the therapeutic benefits of laughter). And through laughing, through the transformation of existential tragedy into existential comedy, we become the masters of our fate – we change the narrative of our lives and the entire world in our favour.

This altered narrativisation leads to a different meaning of our lives altogether. Buettner makes a similar point when she says that trickster imagination and its laughter “draws us into the hermeneutic activity of interpreting, and of subsequently critiquing our own interpretations and significations.” Laughter may also arise, as it tends to in humour, from the realisation of a surprising truth, namely, that the human condition, which we may have long seen as a tragedy, can equally be viewed as a comedy, and that we have been fools this whole time for getting so worked up about a changeable perception, a perspective of attitudinal choice. This is an existential punchline. Is laughter not the natural response in such a moment of clarity? When a human shortcoming – a narrow, one-sided vision of the world – becomes apparent to us, we see the ridiculousness of our wasted energy – all the time we spent despairing over a tragedy when we could be laughing at a comedy. Our laughter in the face of this situation reveals our wisdom. Laughter is the gesture of a revelation.

The philosopher Eugene Thacker has also spoken about the naturalness of laughter with respect to the human condition. In Cosmic Pessimism (2015), he writes:

Pessimism involves a statement about a condition. In pessimism each statement boils down to an affirmation or a negation, just as any condition boils down to the best or the worst.

With Schopenhauer, that arch-pessimist, the thinker for whom the philosopher and the curmudgeon perfectly overlap, we see a no-saying to the worst, a no-saying that secretly covets a yes-saying (through asceticism, mysticism, quietism), even if this hidden yes-saying is a horizon at the limits of comprehension. With Nietzsche comes the pronouncement of a Dionysian pessimism, a pessimism of strength or joy, a yes-saying to the worst, a yes-saying to this world as it is. And with Cioran yet another variation, unavailing yet lyrical, a no-saying to the worst, and a further no-saying to the possibility of any other world, in here or out there. With these one approaches, but never reaches, a studied abandonment of pessimism itself.

The logic of pessimism moves through three refusals: a no-saying to the worst (refusal of the world-for-us, or Schopenhauer’s tears); a yes-saying to the worst (refusal of the world-in-itself, or Nietzsche’s laughter); and a no-saying to the for-us and the in-itself (a double refusal, or Cioran’s sleep).

Crying, laughing, sleeping — what other responses are adequate to a life that is so indifferent?

Crying and sleeping, here, would not be what Camus had in mind when he was talking about existential revolt. Crying (or Schopenhauer’s tears) suggests despair about the state of the world, while sleeping (Cioran’s sleep) hints at a turning away from the world – a complete and utter no-saying. Thacker is correct in associating laughter with Friedrich Nietzsche’s pessimism of strength. To Nietzsche, like Camus, life must be affirmed, and joyously so. To live with the absurd joyously involves making the choice to laugh at it, in response to it. Laughter affirms life and brings us vitality, strength, and health. Laughter can be a philosophical worldview as much as an unconscious reaction. Laughter has an existential quality when it comprises an attitude towards life. And this attitude, in line with Camusian and Nietzschean perspectives, is both willed and defiant.

In The Gay Science (1882), Nietzsche asserts that “the comedy of existence has not yet “become conscious” of itself. For the present, we still live in the age of tragedy, the age of moralities and religions.” And in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–1885), he described existence as an “eternal comedy”. Nietzsche took a very favourable view of laughter. Lippett points out that Nietzsche sees laughter “as having the potential to redeem us from the suffering of the human condition”, with laughter taking on a “quasi-religious role” in his philosophy. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche said, “Laughter have I pronounced holy: you higher men, learn to laugh!” Without the ability to laugh, we would still have the potential to smile like Sisyphus and enjoy ourselves; yet we would be without the trickster as our ally, prodding us into states of clarifying and unburdening laughter. The trickster exists within our psyche for a reason.

To imagine Sisyphus as a trickster, as a clown laughing and being playful with his punishment, we could imagine him saying contrary things like the heyoka. For example, the heyoka, when it is summer and hot outside, will complain about the cold, and when it is winter, they will bemoan the heat. So perhaps we should envision Sisyphus thinking or saying something like “this is deeply meaningful”, the complete opposite of his predicament. To jest about futility in this way – and adopt the contrary position for the sake of play – is an act of Camusian defiance, I argue. And to re-emphasise, laughter as existential revolt will lead to the happy Sisyphus that Camus has in mind, due to the curative effects of laughter. This is why Nietzsche often drew connections between laughter, lightness, dance, and play – they are all ways to live more joyously.

The philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin describes the curative function of laughter in his book Rabelais and His World (1965), where he points to ancient Greek theorists (Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Lucian) who conceived of laughter as “a universal philosophical principle that heals and regenerates”, one that “is essentially linked to the ultimate philosophical questions concerning the ‘regulation of life’.” Indeed, the importance of laughter – especially as an existential principle – cannot be stated strongly enough. Existential laughter, that is, laughter as existential revolt, is triumphant.

One potential criticism of laughter as existential revolt is that such laughter is not a form of revolt at all, but rather a way of coping, a method for feeling temporarily uplifted about a dire situation. In his essay, The Last Messiah (1933), Zapffe submitted that humans try to limit the contents of their consciousness because, if we did not do so, we would be overwhelmed by reality. The four main methods we use to achieve this, Zapffe says, are (1) Isolation: avoiding thinking about the human condition, (2) Anchoring: focusing our attention instead on a value or ideal, (3) Distraction: occupying ourselves with external stimulation, and (4) Sublimation: turning the “pain of living”, as Zapffe calls it, into creative, positive, and aesthetic works. Could laughter, including so-called existential laughter, be the fifth coping mechanism? In some ways, it is easy to see existential laughter as a form of coping, if it is interpreted as forcing an interpretation of the human condition as comedic. If there is no logic of humour contained in the absurd, then to laugh is to deny the tearful reality of the tragic.

However, there are several possible responses to this line of criticism. Firstly, laughter – whether considered existential in nature or not – may be a way to alleviate the burden of being, but this just means Zapffe’s analysis of coping mechanisms is incomplete. There is one more coping strategy (or perhaps many more). Secondly, choosing to orient oneself towards laughter might be an effortful interpretation of the human condition, but interpretations can still constitute one’s reality. If the absurd can genuinely appear funny, then is laughing really a form of reality-denial? Thirdly, we can maintain that the absurd does have the logic of humour to it, although this might involve arguing that the conflict between the human desire for meaning and the universe’s denial of it is, for some reason, humorous in a way that other deprivations are not.

For example, where is the logic of comedy in the desire for food and the denial of it in the form of starvation? On this point, we could posit that the search for meaning may be an impulse but not a need. Or that the absurd has the quality of incongruity (things not matching as they are expected to) whereas something like starvation does not. (Interestingly, though, for Nietzsche, everything is fit for laughter – laughter does not require a state of incongruity; we can laugh at all tragedies and suffering in the world.) We could also emphasise the point that the universe only denies us objective meaning. Camus did not reject the existence of subjective meaning, only the idea that any meaning could be absolute and universal. After all, Sisyphean revolt is a meaningful act. Camus was not a total nihilist. We could then have a need for meaning, in line with Viktor Frankl’s thinking, that can be satisfied on a subjective level, which makes the want for a meaning ‘out there’ as a more fit subject of humour than basic survival needs not being met (although Nietzsche argues we should be emboldened to laugh everything).

Fourthly (and finally), we can reject the idea that laughter is a coping mechanism, in the way that Zapffe had in mind because it does not serve to limit consciousness of the absurd (or the tragic, as Zapffe thought of it). Again, we can view existential laughter in life-affirming terms, as a full embracing of the absurd, in much the same way as Sisyphus’ smile. Consequently, it is perhaps best to see the absurd with a more cosmic perspective, to really understand its comic nature. We can consider the course of the universe’s trajectory – billions of years of evolution – as building up the joke before the punchline. And then we get the punchline, the cosmic punchline: a meaningless universe giving birth to an awkward ape in a costume, looking around desperately for some meaning to hold onto.

Ram Dass touched on the value of laughter in the face of human struggle when he said, “I think the game is to bear the unbearable with a giggle.” Existential heroes are not just those who grin and bear the human condition but those who can find humour in it as well. I can’t help but think that Sisyphus, in order to maintain his resolve, would end up giggling about his situation, harnessing the inner trickster that we all possess.

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