Travel Essay on Sisyphean Happiness


“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” The quote from Albert Camus’ essay on The Myth of Sisyphus comes to my mind as I walk down the hill leading up to the Alhambra to get my camera from the hotel.

An old shoe-shine stops me and asks me if I needed my shoes shined. My shoes were new and clean, but the old Galician seemed nice enough. He shined my shoes for over half an hour. He told me his entire family history. His son was studying in Salamanca. Tuition fees forced him out of retirement. He was nice and I sympathised with him. When he was done he told me, in eloquent Spanish, “that’s 50euros”. For a shoe-shine I didn’t need? I told him 25euros. He accepted and I walked away fuming, overhearing his muffled grumbling.

The morning is still, the Alhambra’s wooded, panoramic hill looks out onto a marble Granada, still sleeping under the violet horizon. It’s early in the morning. Everything is fresh and expectant. The hotel is just at the foot of the hill, to get to it I pass by brilliant white houses with red flowers climbing their facades, statues of Moorish kings, small bars were bearded old men have a loud, tepid breakfast, and finally the hotel; an old house built around an airy, central courtyard.

“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” I start walking back up the hill, camera in hand. I look onto the view and awe as if I were seeing it for the first time. I walk the same walk I walked a few minutes ago. And I’m happy. The hill is steep and winding, but yes, I am happy. And I could go up and down that same hill ad infinitum if I had to.

That would make me happy, I think as I reach the red-brick gates of the Alhambra and stop near a monument to Washington Irving. I could live here, yes, right here, out in these woods; I’d go have breakfast in that small bar in the morning, walk most of the day, have lunch in the Gran Via, go back up the gates of the Alhambra, read, smoke and write then, when the late Spanish night beckons, I would descend down to the Albaicin.

What more could I want? Well, how about going back home every now and then to see family? Or what about publishing a novel then touring it around the world (think of making it big in New York!)? What about seeing Cuba one day, or Nicaragua or writing a poem in the caves of Lascaux? No, no it won’t do. The gates of the Alhambra aren’t enough.

But aren’t they, really? Hell, shouldn’t they be? Sisyphus tried to defy death. When Hades, god of the underworld, tried to put him in chains, Sisyphus deceived him and put the chains on him. Because Hades was so bound no one on earth could die. Eventually, Ares, god of war, came to Hades’ rescue and as punishment they banished Sisyphus to the underworld where he had to push a boulder up a hill, watch it fall, and start all over again.

And Camus is really telling us we must imagine Sisyphus happy?

The Alhambra is cool and fresh. Walking through its verse-filled rooms, courtyards full of gilded stalactites and ponds so perfect it was as if God himself designed them, I feel a sophisticated kind of happiness. Art, climate, history, architecture; they’re all there. But to think, back home, I was happy too, wasn’t I?

I begin to think, as I leave the Alhambra after a half day exploring it (at the Alhambra you can’t think much, only watch, when you leave, then you think) I walked back down the hill and found an old-fashioned restaurant near the hotel. The restaurant looked like the shed of an old farmhouse and it served paella cooked in the large paellera dish, outside in the small, leafy courtyard. I had a bottle of Alhambra beer and reflected on my new happiness. A happiness distinct from what I experienced up at the Alhambra. This was a more hedonistic pleasure. Our capability of enjoying food and drink evolved in our animal brains and was refined but civilization. Grand stuff, I thought.

I could live here, too. If I was condemned to repeat this cycle of living one could very easily imagine me happy. But then I’d miss out, wouldn’t I? God, I’m going in circles, like Sisyphus’ damn boulder!

If only I could settle on one routine of happiness and bury my head in the sand. Dream no more, you know, bar myself from social media, television, internet, all kinds of media, hell, even books! Then, I would be happy with my lot. I don’t want to suffer the grass is always greener syndrome anymore. I’d be a hedonistic ascetic. An Amish with a Hemingway appetite.

But that’s a stupid dichotomy! I leave the restaurant and go for a walk into the Gran Via to walk off my food before going for a siesta. The sun shines cleanly over the white avenue but the temperature is barely over ten degrees. Spring is invading winter’s kingdom. And that’s alright, I can’t complain. But it is impossible to bury your head in the sand. Our human, primate nature won’t allow it.

Look at our ancestors, those who left Africa some 600, 000 years ago and within a few millennia colonised the known world. They didn’t have any form of media, they knew nothing of the world beyond the next river, mountain or sea. And yet the urge to explore, to see more, find something better, defeat the Sisyphean languor drove them on and on. They weren’t inspired by what they knew, but by what they didn’t.

Of course, travel itself is a form of Sisyphean happiness, the kind that goes on and on, seemingly always new and diverse but really a routine in itself. On the Gran Via I find a well-lit, humble, modern bookshop and inside it sells books by all my favourite poets. I must be picky and I buy books of Rafael Alberti and Vicente Aleixandre. They are beautifully bound hard-backs, both in Spanish. Spain in general is good for books, but Granada especially. Granada has a history of being a learned city. It was home to a great many Moorish philosophers, poets and polymaths. Its book-shops are replete with this sort of thing. As are its museums and street-names. And this kind of thing I could never get back in Malta.

At some point you have to ask yourself a crucial question and make a choice: what’s more important to you, happiness or exploration? In a world where there is no god, no supernatural arbiter of fate and purpose, we have to make our own purpose. There’s a fork in the road here which we have to traverse. Is happiness alone, simple and good, sufficient, or is there something more you want?

I’d rather not choose. For me, it’s impossible, like being asked to vote Labour or Nationalist back home. I’d rather not choose. I’d rather say, and I say this as I put my feet up on my bed, Rafael Alberti in hand, my window looking out onto the breezy courtyard; give me a little bit of meaning and a lot of happiness.

I will succumb to Sisyphean happiness, I will try, sure. I’ll find someplace and make it my own, I’ll find a routine that makes me truly happy and stick to it. I am a king like Sisyphus was. But I am also a primate. Every now and then I will break free from my own chains and explore, travel, try something different, meet someone new.

All of this is governed by my own self-appointed purpose, my meaning of life, my raison d’etre: writing. This is the fate I have written for myself: to chronicle the world as I see and imagine it, to capture the beauty of life on paper, and make others know it and feel it, especially those who are less privileged than me. So whether I’m having a beer at dusk overlooking Valletta or walking through the gardens of the Alhambra, those different breeds of happiness are directed by that singular, immortalising purpose.

I am awoken, sometime at dusk, by the sound of muffled singing and stifled guitar chords. I get up, walk out of my room and go into the courtyard. From behind a large, closed door I hear flamenco singing and guitar-playing. I ask the receptionist at the entrance and she told me a group is rehearsing for a show in the courtyard later that night. The idea excites me. And I think of Sisyphus again.

What did Sisyphus think when he prepared to begin pushing the boulder uphill yet another time? Surely, he was motivated – he has to be! Otherwise, he would hate himself. Sisyphus is a good hero. He is fighting against the fate imposed on him. Hades and Ares wanted to crush his spirit. They didn’t succeed. And I refuse Camus’ interpretation that life for is a Sisyphean task. Life is more diverse than that. And that kind of metaphysics does no one any good.

But I do think that human beings are capable of being happy with very little. We can have Sisyphean happiness. Men are happy working in quarries, as road-sweepers in the sun, they can be happy when sick, can be happy when alone (a caveat: not everyone is happy, of course, and it is our duty as happy citizens to ensure that all men and women are permitted their pursuit of happiness); we can be happy anywhere, anytime.

And this creates a beautiful problem. If we can be happy with anything, how do we know what truly makes us happy? Here human nature comes in: we have to be curious, explore, learn, try everything, anything! Life is a constant journey to discover what kind of static routine gives us optimum joy. Sisyphean happiness is not a punishment it is an aim. To reach that state of contented acceptance and moments of rare, unadulterated bliss, that is our burden.

Despite my excitement about the flamenco show I skip it and I go out that night. I had seen flamenco before in Madrid. I loved it. But this is Granada. I went out, ate a good seafood tapas dinner in a tapateria in the Albaicin, then, walking back late at night to the hotel I found a small bar, with lots of foreigners singing karaoke, and I went there, had an Alhambra beer and stayed there for one ‘last’ drink after another.

I could definitely do this again. And one day, when I’ve done it all, I will. Over and over again. Then I can imagine myself truly happy.

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