Pop Philosophy: Pushing vodka bottles up the hill in the pursuit of meaning

We must imagine university students happy

I had already applied to graduate, paid for the late application fee, put down my deposit for the robe, and paid for an extra ticket when the University emailed me to inform me that I would not be able to graduate because I was missing a single first year social studies lecture course.

After five years of school, one year off, 26 credits, thousands of dollars of therapy, several different prescriptions and diagnoses, uncountable personal crises, and $10,000 in debt, I find myself signing up for the summer distance ed first-year sociology lecture I need to take to finally graduate.

Just when I had built up positive associations with my time at university, the University itself manages to remind me that the meaningless and impartial universe swings absurdly.  

It’s hard not to see everything we do at university as meaningless.

We toil, and moil, and trek through 8:30 a.m. classes, through -30 degree Celsius weather, through midterms, through terrible profs, and worse group members for what feels like, at times, no reward.

What good is being able to write a 40 page paper about the use of grammar and verb tense in 20th century poetry if I still can’t get a job, and worse, will need to write discussion posts with 200 18-year-olds for three months? And I’ll have to pay the University even more money to do it.

I can’t help but compare our experiences with postsecondary education to a text I read in my Existentialism class (also pretty much the only school of thought about which I feel comfortable writing any kind of exposition), Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus.

In Camus’s Sisyphus, he writes of the meaningless, truthless, and godless world in which humanity finds themselves.

In a human existence bereft of meaning, Camus posits that humankind ought to exist in despair. That we, in the face of the void left behind by the human-made death of God, ultimately, should kill ourselves.

I’ve decided that he doesn’t mean that in the literal sense. I think he means we should kill our dreams, our aspirations, our desire for human connection, for laughter, and for love.

Camus uses a mythological figure of all to work through his hypothesis.

He explains to his readers the myth of Sisyphus, the King of Ephyra who defied the gods and the mortality of man by chaining Death. To punish him for his transgressions, he was sentenced to push a rock up a hill every day, only to have it roll back down once he finished.

Camus wonders, then, what is the internal world of Sisyphus like? Is he devastated by this impossible task which now acts as the sole purpose of his life? Has his brain been jellified by the repetitive movements, menial actions, and nonexistent rewards?

How can he stand to complete this task every day, only to have whatever work he’s done made undone?

In the ever-dominant pursuit of meaning, how can he bear to live when nothing he’s done has created so much as a ripple in the fabric of the universe?

Camus argues, then, that to fathom the idea of Sisyphus (read humanity) pushing a rock up a hill every day and categorically not killing himself, we must imagine that, at some moment (perhaps when he walks back down the hill as the sun sets), Sisyphus finds himself happy.

So, while I drive past student houses along Gordon and the various residential streets of Guelph and see rows of liquor bottles painstakingly lined up along windowsills, I must imagine that we are happy.

I must imagine that the university students who spend the meagre earnings of part-time jobs on rent, debt, and school, are the same students who do what they can to wrest some kind of infinitesimal enjoyment from the nightmare factory that is postsecondary education. I must imagine that these students are happy.

I must picture them in the kitchen, rinsing out the bottles from the complete flavour collection of Smirnoff Vodka and then carrying them to their bedroom.

I have to imagine them laboriously arranging them on their windowsills. I must imagine them smiling once their task is complete.

I have to imagine them turning back to their studies, to their assignments and exams, to their brutal part-time jobs and crushing student loans, with the small burning sun of happiness and peace gleaned from collecting their liquor bottles.

The opposite is too much to imagine.

Photo by Tiann Nantais/The Ontarion.