Sisyphus Hound: What a Dog Can Teach Us about God Belief and Existentialism

There’s a lot to ponder philosophically in this very short video of a dog, Sisyphus-like, having difficulty keeping a rock in place:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           .

Albert Camus once wrote that we must imagine Sisyphus happy, and, indeed, the dog appears happy for a time. His tail is wagging in parts of the video.

But Camus also wrote that the first question of philosophy is whether or not to commit suicide, and, at a crucial moment, notice that the dog appears to be deliberating on whether to give up on his project entirely.

Then it seems to occur to him that there is a way out: to take the rock further, out of the realm of the sidewalk, and onto another plain, the cool of the grass.

This is doggy transcendence: to have his shake (the pleasure of shaking off the water from his fur after leaving the water) and his quest object too. And he does this by expanding his imaginative vision from the lousy options available in one world (water and sidewalk) to the better options available in a larger world (water, sidewalk, and grass).

This dog, in short, enacts in miniature the great existential question we all must face: will you accept this life for what it appears to be (a realm of contingency, entropy, and ultimate futility), trying to live in it as a happy Sisyphus, or will you imaginatively escape existence’s “wheel” into some sort of religious transcendence?

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr thought (for what it’s worth) that Camus’s brave and rebellious atheist embrace of Sisyphus was not really a sustainable way for most people to live. The following quote comes from the beginning of Niebuhr’s essay, “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith” (1940):

Human vitality has two primary sources, animal impulse and confidence in the meaningfulness of human existence. The more human consciousness arises to full self-consciousness and to a complete recognition of the total forces of the universe in which it finds itself, the more it requires not only animal vitality but confidence in the meaningfulness of its world to maintain a healthy will-to-live. This confidence in the meaningfulness of life is not something which results from a sophisticated analysis of the forces and factors which surround the human enterprise. It is something which is assumed in every healthy life. It is primary religion. Men may be quite unable to define the meaning of life, and yet live by a simple trust that it has meaning. This primary religion is the basic optimism of all vital and wholesome human life.

To put Niebuhr’s observation in Sisyphus-dog terms, all humans (or, perhaps, nearly all) need to believe that their life’s work will come to a satisfying end; that there is a place in cool grass where one will (someday) lay all burdens down.

This is not just relief in the grave (James Joyce called death “a blessing in disguise”), but also some hope that existence has an ultimate meaning; that a larger mind than our own was prior to matter and set it to some good purpose to which we are sharing and will share.

It may be bullshit, but God is the “grass option.” Live without God belief if you can.

But it does seem rather tiresome and pointless, doesn’t it? Who, for example, on reading them, cannot feel the heart tug in response to these words attributed to Jesus?:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. (Mt. 11:28)

Wouldn’t it be a great relief to deliver up your Sisyphus-rock to someone who loves you and claims to possess a more primal and extensive power than you?

But, absent good evidence that a higher being like Jesus (or God) actually exists and can deliver the goods, would it be a life cop-out to place your hopes in such a deus ex machina anyway? Or is the leap of faith a defensible human option among otherwise emotionally intolerable and atrocious-to-contemplate alternatives?

Miguel de Unamuno, in the Tragic Sense of Life, wrote the following:

It is not enough to think about our destiny: it must be felt.

Agree?

If so, what “chess move” does that bring your life to?

Surrender?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to Sisyphus Hound: What a Dog Can Teach Us about God Belief and Existentialism

  1. Paradigm says:

    There is no such thing as a happy Sisyphos. Even atheists listen to music, watch movies, read books etc to elevate themselves to a higher existence. When they are in that state I’m pretty sure they don’t reflect on the meaninglessness of life, they just get in to it like everybody else. Of course, a skeptic will always stay on a lower level because he can’t accept that life is a mystery, and that will always hold him back. He will become a great critic, distancing himself from the experience and looking at every work of art from a technical perspective : )

  2. Cody Deitz says:

    It certainly does seem to be a common human expectation that one’s life should (and must) add up to something. But the absurdity of this is, of course, that this is not the case. Ecclesiastes 1:15 reads: “Life’s a corkscrew that can’t be straightened, A minus that won’t add up.” Like many philosophers, Camus struggled with this concept. He seems to come to the conclusion that the answer lies not in resignation to futility or metaphysical transcendence, but rather, in grasping what small hope in humanity one is able to grab on to. I suppose you could consider this a form of “expanding his imaginative vision from the lousy options available in one world,” which isn’t an unreasonable understanding. But both explicit and implicit in Camus’ body of work is an interesting and more useful answer to the problem, and that is Revolt with a capital ‘R.’ Rebellion not in suicide, but in humanitarianism in the face of absurdity and injustice.

    • santitafarella says:

      I agree with you, but what is that rebellion?

      It is a rebellion against absurdity, and joining in solidarity with other people who are in the same fucked situation that you are in (that is, all of us). And this entails living your life “as if” it was not absurd and futile.

      It’s really not a terribly satisfying move. No wonder evangelicals pity us atheists and agnostics.

      Camus’s rebellion is punching a fist into the absurd air for its absurd and contingent existence (and its indifference to our existence). It doesn’t feel a thing. Only we do.

      Have you ever read Hardy’s poem, Hap? You might want to see if you can locate it in a Google search. Hardy was an atheist, and I think you would like that poem. He complains about how much easier it would be if there was a God to complain and rebel against (and not an indifferent universe).

      —Santi

      • Anonymous says:

        I looked up Hap, and enjoyed it very much. Thank you for that.

        That rebellion could really be different in every person, but I think Camus would say that that rebellion is a staunch resistance to absurdity and injustice. This stems from Camus’ belief in an intrinsic value of the human being, and this is where Camus and Sartre are really very different. If there’s nothing intrinsically valuable in humanity as a whole, then what use is rebellion against the absurd? Wouldn’t you just leave each man to his own devices, to combat the absurd alone?

        Luckily, there does seem to be an intrinsic value in human life. At least I’m persuaded that there is. I suppose you could some up the rebellion as a sort of humanitarian view of the world – one that might strain a little into Kantian territory maybe.

  3. Pingback: Unnecessary Profundity « Rationality for the Irrational

  4. Cody Deitz says:

    I looked up Hap, and enjoyed it very much. Thank you for that.

    That rebellion could really be different in every person, but I think Camus would say that that rebellion is a staunch resistance to absurdity and injustice. This stems from Camus’ belief in an intrinsic value of the human being, and this is where Camus and Sartre are really very different. If there’s nothing intrinsically valuable in humanity as a whole, then what use is rebellion against the absurd? Wouldn’t you just leave each man to his own devices, to combat the absurd alone?

    Luckily, there does seem to be an intrinsic value in human life. At least I’m persuaded that there is. I suppose you could some up the rebellion as a sort of humanitarian view of the world – one that might strain a little into Kantian territory maybe.

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