Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Civilized futility

Sisyphus was a deceitful and murderous Corinthian king in Greek mythology forced to spend all eternity in grueling and futile labor pushing a boulder over and over again up a steep hill only to have it roll away from him just before he gets to the top. The number and nature of Sisyphus’ evil deeds makes it difficult to feel sympathy for him. But his punishment is not meant as restitution for the nasty treatment of his fellow mortals. There are many versions of the particular chain of events leading to Sisyphus’ torturous repetitive predicament, but in each case he is being punished for more-or-less successful attempts to outsmart the gods. In one version of the tale, Sisyphus’ sentence was devised by Zeus specifically to demonstrate his own godly cleverness and send the message that Sisyphus, the wisest of human tricksters, wasn’t so smart after all.

Mythological tales are not necessarily supposed to make logical sense, but there is something about Sisyphus’ afterlife activity that doesn’t make any sense at all. Why does he keep at it? What is it that compels him to continue to push the rock? Why doesn’t he simply refuse to go on, sit down with his back against the hill, prop his feet up on top of his boulder, and give the gods the extended middle finger? I mean, really, he’s already dead. What more can they do to him? Does he fear an even worse punishment if he refuses? Surely if there was a worse punishment, Zeus would have thought of it.

Of course, they’re gods. They can conceivably deprive him of all choice in the matter and make his limbs move of their own accord. But if so, then Sisyphus is no longer purposefully engaged, and his actions lose their futility. Once his free choice has been usurped he is just along for the ride and the most punishing feature of his punishment has been rendered inert. It would make no difference whether he rolls an uncooperative rock up a hill or hauls heavy sacks of dirt—or works in a Nike shoe factory. The thing that makes the boulder punishment different from simple tedious labor, the thing that makes it uniquely punishing, is that he is intentionally slaving toward a goal that he continually almost but not quite achieves.

The writer and philosopher, Albert Camus, suggested that there might be more to Sisyphus’ circumstances than meets the eye. The tale is always told with an emphasis on the upward leg of Sisyphus’ hillside round trip. But the climb up is only half the journey. The other half is spent traveling burden free, and one might imagine in a leisurely fashion, downhill. In this, Sisyphus’ fate is not so different from normal civilized life: struggle toward largely futile goals interspersed with periods of respite. Could it be that Sisyphus managed to outsmart the gods yet again?

But let’s return to the idea of futility, to the notion that there is something distinctly different about purposeful effort directed at an unachievable goal as opposed to forced labor, and to the question of what keeps Sisyphus—and you and me—from simply setting the rock aside and refusing to continue.

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