Intertextuality- The Myth of Sisyphus

28 Nov

While it may not be referenced literally in Primo Levi’s If this is a Man, the Myth of Sisyphus can highly relate to certain contexts of his novel. The myth itself, written by Albert Camus, is about a man condemned by the Greek gods to roll a rock up a mountain continuously, which they believed to be the most justifiable, effective form of punishment. Even at the few times Sisyphus actually made it up the mountain, the rock would merely tumble back down again, so the entire thing is meaningless, constant labor. This is where the obvious connection is made to Levi’s novel, as the author can assume the position of Sisyphus and the Gods represent the Nazis who sent Levi to his meaningless punishment. The life of a prisoner in the Lager (“Häftling”), as Levi vividly describes, is nothing but monotonous, brutal and constant labor. While at times, Levi is able to catch some respite, ultimately he ends up compensating for it by working even harder.

A certain excerpt from “The Canto of Ulysses” (chapter 11) appears to reference the myth of Sisyphus, even though it is one from Dante’s Inferno. Levi writes, “’…When at last hove up a mountain, grey with distance, and so lofty and so steep…” which obviously provides imagery of a mountain. Thus, it could be suggested that Levi is referring to the myth to metaphorically describe life in the Lager. Moreover, what appears to be one of the main messages from the myth, is the fact that Sisyphus began to accept his fate, or chose to be above it and despite being eternally doomed to a futile task, he still carries elements of life and humanity in him. While Levi knew his fate, or thought he did, he still survived and chose to continue with the “absurd” ways of the camp rather than take what I would imagine to be the easier way out: death. Levi, as well as the others who fell in the category of the “saved” did not let their fates crush them.

In chapter 9, “The Drowned and the Saved”, among the few stories Levi tells us of the “saved”, one of them contains similar elements to that of the Sisyphus myth, even if coincidentally. This is the story of Elias Lindzin, the one Levi describes as being invincible and resistant to the loftiness of the camp. What especially catches my attention is the concluding line to his story, as Levi writes, “Elias…was probably a happy person”(104). This sounds strikingly similar to the last line of Camus’s myth, as he says, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Camus was also a philosophical writer, and the myth of Sisyphus carries elements of absurdism, as he emphasizes the absurdity of the gods’ condemnation and refers to Sisyphus himself as the “absurd hero”. This again relates to the novel, as the concept of and life in the concentration camps were absurd, and as Levi explains, comprised of absurd laws. This is demonstrated when he writes the following, regarding the story of Elias, “His fame as an exceptional worker spread quite soon, and by the absurd law of the Lager, from then on he practically creased to work.”(103)


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