Tuesday, April 03, 2007


The ancient Greeks had some pretty morbid ideas of what hell would be like. In the Greek view of things, which influenced later Christian writers like Dante, hell was populated by people who knew they were dead and who continued in death to be punished day and night for the sins they committed while they were still alive. So we had men like Tantalus, who would reach for grapes to end his hunger, only to have the branch move out of his way; or we had kings like Sisyphus, who had schemed against and outwitted the gods, and was punished accordingly.

Sisyphus' punishment was particularly grotesque. He was placed at the bottom of a hill in Hades and given a large boulder. All he had to do was to roll that boulder up to the top of the hill, and his punishment would be over. It's an effort doomed to failure, for with some pathetic fallacy the rock doesn't want to get to the top. It fights back with every tortured step he takes. No matter how he strains his muscles, no matter how far up the hill he manages to get the boulder, it wrests itself out of his grasp and rushes downhill again.

How wearying this must be! I imagine for the first few months, maybe for the first several years even, Sisyphus bore this in good humor. After all, he has all eternity before him to try and try again. So he learns from his failures, sees the missteps that incite the rock to work against him, and he does everything he can to avoid repeating his errors. He coaxes the rock, speaks kindly to it, tries to understand the particular gravity that pulls the rock down with such force just when they're almost at the top, and perhaps he even grins and laughs at his own folly when the rock tumbles past, smacking his shin or crushing his foot.

But the sun never sets in Hades, and there is no rest as the years turn as slowly and painfully as Ixion's wheel. Sisyphus begins to realize that he's not going to get that boulder up to the top of the hill as easily as he first thought. Does he try to carry it? Does he throw his whole self into it, scraping arms, legs, chest and back as he bodily lifts the boulder over one rock and another? Does he ever curse himself for the choices he made in life that led the gods to partner him with this rock for all eternity? Does he curse the rock, or rail at the gods? What does he do when, no matter how he tries, he just can't progress past a certain point? What does he do when it becomes evident that there will be no relief gained by getting to the top of this hill, because the rock will not consent to go there with him?

I wonder if Sisyphus ever wants to say "to hell with it" (perhaps he even appreciaties the irony of such a sentiment, given his situation) and tries to leave the rock. I wonder, too, if merely saying "to hell with it" would suffice. He's been pushing that rock for so long that he probably can't imagine existence without it; he's practically married to it. Even if he wanders off through Hades and finds happiness in the Elysian Fields, he'll probably still be haunted by memories of that rock, and he'll wonder if he could have found peace and happiness the way the gods had promised, if he hadn't given up. I imagine a sense of failure would haunt him, even in Elysium, if he walked away from the boulder.

And there's the matter of the gods. Didn't they decree that he was to get that rock up the hill? Maybe in their mercy and understanding, they'll allow him to leave the rock at the bottom of the hill -- surely they knew when he took the task that it was beyond his ability, and they'll forgive him his weakness. But then, these are the gods we're talking about. Unless they're just cruel without limit, there must be a way for him to succeed, and if there is, surely in their wisdom, they saw that he could do it, and they truly have kept their best waiting for him for when he completes the task.

I wonder if Sisyphus ever wants to just give up and sit at the bottom of the hill for all eternity, next to that rock that the gods put with him. It's not like he'd be leaving it, so you'd have to give something for integrity and perseverance for not deserting his post. But I can't say it would be much fun to sit at the bottom of a hill, next to a rock that's going to run over your foot every few minutes if you don't move, for all eternity, in hell.

The Greeks saw Sisyphus forever trapped in this cruel arrangement, where nothing he could do would improve his situation. The rock for its part provides no companionship, and every time he nearly gets it to the top of the hill, it rolls back down again, until numb and unfeeling, he staggers back down to get the rock and start moving it uphill again. If that goes on long enough, he's going to reach the point that no longer believes that anything will happen when he reaches the top of the hill, that there are Elysian Fields waiting somewhere for him. Keep it up long enough, and not only won't he believe in the gods, he won't be able to feel anything either. All he'll know is that he has to get the rock up the hill, but he wouldn't be able to tell you why if you asked him.

For my part, as I consider all these different options -- walking away, falling into despair, and doing the same damn thing every day -- I can't help thinking there must be something else he could try. And I wonder what it is.

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