Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Repetition: Poor Guy with a Rock

The narrative pull coming from the plight of Sisyphus and his rock was excruciating in the way it evoked a grinding sense of frustration that made you twitchy and wishing for some activity symbolic of escape.

Then you read Albert Camus' essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," in which Camus argued that Sisyphus was a happy man.  You reread the essay a few times, trying to capture the emotional intents well as the power of the argument.  How could an activity that seemed so to symbolize boring jobs and hopelessness produce satisfaction?

A significant answer to your own question was already apparent.  All you had to do was consider how such activities as reading and writing impacted your life and how bereft you would you feel should you no longer engage in either.

Sisyphus had worked his way into a situation another culture refers to as karma yoga, sometimes expressed as work as worship.  Never mind what the work is or who or what the thing being worshipped.  Here you are back at the Bhagavad-Gita, yet again, to recount your favorite line from it, wherein Krishna, an appearance of a god-figure or avatar, tells Prince Arjuna, a mighty military figure, "To the work you are entitled, but not the fruits thereof."

Krishna did not say in so many words to Krishna that he'd better like what he was doing and consider it an offering to the supreme godhead, but in context, the meaning was clear.  Long ago, you took a sense of guidance from that line, liking the way it influenced your decisions to as often as possible do things that mattered to you.

Back to Sisyphus for a moment or two:  Do you think the Sisyphus of Camus counts the number of times he pushes that rock up that hill?  Put the matter another way:  Do you keep count of the number of revisions you make on a piece, or do you, instead, think along the lines of perhaps you'll get what you were after stated with yet more fluidity and presence the next time through?  Perhaps it is possible to see Sisyphus regarding what you have from time to time seen as meaningless work as a way of performing action, of getting something tangible done, of having an eternity of getting a task accomplished, of in the first place having an assigned task.

If you have done a thing a number of times with such an attitude, expecting no rewards except the reward of opportunity to do the thing again, there is a prospect for transcending thought, moving forward into muscle memory, perhaps along the way sensing more things about the task than you'd ever thought possible.  The task becomes a ritual of the sort where its performance and the attitude of the performer transcend the purpose for which the ritual is intended.

You have given here your version of the positive side of the dialectic, the side that transcends such temporal qualities as boredom, dread, helplessness, actual slavery, none of which can you imagine being offered as prayerful or even merely reverential behavior.

Throughout history, untold millions have been consigned to forced labor and the degrees of slavery associated with it.  Some of these untold millions have in one way or another found a way to turn the odium, the boredom and repressive eradication of self by standing up to and perhaps even up against the oppressive grind of forced repetition.  Perhaps in his own way, Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener, in his preferring not to accept the task set before him was setting the movement of the universe awry.  Perhaps the Scottish philosopher, Thomas Carlyle, with his insightful essays, "No, In Thunder," "The Everlasting Yea," and "The Everlasting Nay" were among the Western voices, calling out in the wilderness, emboldening and empowering that new Bartleby emerging from the bureaucratic madness of World War II in the person of Joseph Heller's Yossarian from Catch-22.


If you'd done a thing you cared about a number of times, say five hundred, to the point where those times had become a ritual where the major result was your joy in contemplating the ritual rather than any other status or reward, you would be approaching the five hundred first repetition of that ritual with the muscle memory of a celebrant.

You rather enjoy the concept of the Mass being performed by a celebrant, of the Mass being celebrated, rather than the mystery of transubstantiation itself.  The "work" is getting the motivating idea into some form where you attempt to capture the feelings embedded in it, thus the "work" is an act of love without the need to be told it is such.  The "work" is an attempt to dramatize the spirit of the act so that some--not all--will see those five hundred times as steps to the transubstantiation of love into words and feelings with tangible resonance, in anticipation of the five hundred first, which is incarnate the pure risk potential of boredom or significant connection with the original notion.

Sisyphus invites the risk of rolling the rock over his foot.  You'd think, with all those past pushes up the hill, he'd be safe.  Your risks are producing incomplete or inexact renditions of story, with a reader or more saying, "What does this mean?" or "Why should I care?"

Sometimes, particularly when you get off to an early start, or on late Saturday afternoons, when the gardener comes, you look out the window beyond your desk and see busy men, confronting shrubbery, and you think of Sisyphus, confronting his rock, then you return to your note pad or computer screen.

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