With the London Olympics in full swing, I suppose the natural choice would be to feature Tennyson this week (“to seek, to find, and not to yield” and all that). But I’m not big on Victorian poetry. Besides, with Boris Johnson dangling from a zip line, phantom seats in the stands, and an opening ceremony that stopped just short of the marching hammers scene in The Wall, I’m giving more thought to absurdity than athleticism.

I joke that I don’t watch competitive sports because I can’t stand to see players lose, but it’s a joke with a good deal of truth in it. I suppose it’s one thing when players perform badly. Losing seems justified under those circumstances. And for the spectators, much less interesting to watch. The exciting contest is an evenly matched one, which means that when there is eventually, inevitably, a loss, it is heartbreaking. That heartbreak comes from the realization that failure comes to everyone sooner or later, earned or not.

Nicholas Lezard once wrote that Joseph Roth, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil and Stefan Zweig formed the corners of a square, and if that’s true, pity the architect endeavoring to build there. And pity the man who comes to live there. Things will not go well for him. Kafka might transform him into a cockroach, Musil might drain him of character, and Zweig might drive him mad. But Roth would almost certainly crush him completely.

The hero of Joseph Roth’s Rebellion is Andreas Pum, a soldier who comes home to Germany after the First World War less a leg. But he is happy and cheerful. He believes his wartime service has earned him the right to live out the rest of his years pleasantly. One disaster after another befalls him. By the end of his life he is working as a bathroom attendant in a third class cafe, a bitter, humiliated, angry man. He has done nothing to earn this.

Absurdity is the tension between the expected and the unexpected result, between what is deserved and what is actually received. Roth – and so many others, from Homer to Franzen – warns of the dangers of entitlement thinking. In reality, the just are often punished and the evil rewarded. What we rightfully expect is not what we always get.

Albert Camus considered this problem in his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. He took as his starting point the story of Sisyphus, who according to Greek mythology was doomed to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll back down every night. This is classic existential absurdity: struggle devoid of meaning. Camus’ solution to futile suffering was not suicide, though. He recommended “revolt.” Unlike Roth’s notion of angry rebellion, Camus’ revolt lay not in bitterness but in acceptance of fate. The acceptance and understanding of absurdity ultimately grants mastery over it:

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.

And as the essay’s famous closing line goes, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

If I’m going to be completely honest, I’m having my own small crisis at the moment. It is nothing of any consequence in the grand scheme of things, and it will pass in its own time. I’m going to keep my head down and put one foot in front of the other, and keep that boulder moving. And be happy.

This helps:

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