Sunday, February 15, 2009

Cool Hand Sisyphus

Sisyphus--a figure from Greek mythology, variously a king or prince, but in every version of the myth a devious, self-aggrandizing individual who eventually pushed the envelope too far and was condemned by Zeus to an eternity of meaningless work; a prototype for a character who is doomed to repetitive behavior; according to Albert Camus in his essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," a happy man.

As with so many bigger-than-life characters, Sisyphus is defined more by his fate than the events leading to it. Now forged in our collective memory as a man who must push a large rock to a steep hill to its crest, whereupon it will roll down the other side, Sisyphus makes us think of the tedium of tasks we abhor, ways of avoiding the tedium, including the karma yoga approach of work,however meaningless, as worship. 

Suppose, however, that Sisyphus were an atheist. Would the karma yoga concept cause him to engage in the inevitable transformative change that is imposed on protagonists in longform fiction--change?

However his plight is seen--karmic justice done, for instance--he is an embodiment of story, as an action and as an active concept. Whatever myth you follow that led to his ultimate fate, the constant application of force to move the rock to the top of a hill, only to see it tumble, suggests story orbit, a path that may be interrupted at any point as a beginning. 

Let the rock equal the goal (which is always to keep the rock moving). Now the story may begin at any point in the circuit of Sisyphus addressing the rock or watching the rock fall or rushing to the other side of the hill to be in place when the rock comes to a halt, in order to begin pushing it to the top once more. 

Given Sisyphys' devious nature, he may be working on a plan, either to get out of this meaningless work altogether or to turn it into something with meaning. Thus the story could begin at the point where Sisyphus would ordinarily begin to push the rock up the hill, but this time he does not; he storms into Zeus office, where he quits, refuses to push the rock any longer. 

As a potential for reversal or antagonistic force, Zeus nods, then directs his underlings to assign Sisyphus to the Prometheus Treatment.

"Wait," Prometheus protests. "What's that?" Whereupon he hears the fate of Prometheus, who stole the secret of fire from Zeus and pass it along to humans. As payment for this misadventure, Prometheus is bound to a mountain side every day, in time for his liver to be an afternoon snack for a vulture. By nightfall, a new liver is regenerated, and the following day--back to the mountainside and the hungry vulture.

Hearing this tale of eternal high choler and higher cholesterol, Sisyphus quickly decides, "Excuse me. Got to get back to my rock."

Epic characters such as Sisyphus, Captain Ahab, Captain Spaulding, and Joan of Arc are resonant because of their own focus on task and because of the ways in which their behavior reminds us of other characters, those more accessible to our lives. Notable within this panoply is Luke Jackson, from Donn Pearce's novel, Cool Hand Luke, in which Jackson, after a drunken prank, is sent to a prison where his days are spent performing increasingly meaningless tasks.

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