Temporal Torture: Sisyphus

Or, “How I feel about the Academic Job Market.”

King Sisyphus was too clever for his own good.  He wanted to live forever, or at least, he surely did not want to die.  Once ordered to death, he tricked Thanatos (god of death) into locking itself in the very chains that were meant for Sisyphus’s imprisonment.  Death, thus shackled, left all mortals free to live forever.  One might think we all ought to thank Sisyphus for this gift, though I’ll argue we really shouldn’t. Fortunately or unfortunately, the myth tells us that Death is eventually freed, and Zeus Outrageous responded with a display of his own cleverness—a very peculiar torture indeed—dooming Sisyphus to an eternity rolling a massive boulder up a steep hill, only to have it roll back down.  And again the next day.  And the next day. And so on and so forth.

I have two questions about this story:

1) What is it that compels Sisyphus to roll the boulder up again?  Why not simply not?

2) In Langdon Jone’s short story, “The Great Clock,” a man in a similar predicament finds a different solution: destroy the boulder. What would it mean for Sisyphus to destroy the boulder?

Other famous examples: Groundhog Day (1993), Moon (2009), Russian Doll (2019), the Treadmill Slinky, and any of Tehching Hsieh‘s art.

Sisyphus is a human perpetual motion machine, like Chaplin in Modern Times (1936): the embodied holy grail of energy. Amelia Groom describes the tragedy of Sisyphus as the condition of a slinky on treadmill: “condemned to eternal redundancy, where he can never be done with what he has nevertheless already finished.” What could be a more depressing metaphor for the human condition than the Sisyphean treadmill? Always running, yet going nowhere, “proceeding without progressing,” never done with what has already been finished, a step-on-step “perpetual repetition of dissatisfaction.” [Amelia Groom, ‘Sisyphus’, in Reality Considerations (for the sake of), ed. Eleanor Ivory Weber (Sydney: 55 Syndenham Road, 2012) 12-15.]

The temporal torture imposed on Sisyphus (endless, meaningless action), is the essential state of the human condition.  No life purpose (read as: boulder), however defined, is any more or less absurd than any any other purpose.  To destroy the boulder (Question 2) is a reasonable response, given that the boulder cannot destroy Sisyphus. However this solution would mean to live in an even greater state of despair, to live a purposeless life entirely.  Imagine: an existence with no boulder at all!—what then?

Similarly, to abandon the boulder (Question 1) is to abandon any sense of purpose—go where? To another boulder, perhaps?  The blessing of the boulder is to have something—anything, really—to occupy the length of a mortal life.  Thus, Camus’ concluding claim that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Privilege, then, is  the freedom to choose one’s boulder—and is something I personally think about every day: have I chosen the best possible boulder today?  Meaningful labor is only possible if the labor has an end—some sort of teleology that shapes the narrative of all the actions that came before it.  Sisyphus’s torture is not the boulder at all.  It is the teleological denial of meaning that results from his immortality—he never gets to end.  The immortality which he sought for himself, and briefly bestowed on all humanity, is another fine example of cruel optimism.  Sisyphus is a warning to those among us who seek immortality: Immortality is not immortality if you can choose to give it up.  So be careful what you wish for.

Sisyphus is the speaker in e.e. cummings poem:

dying is fine)but Death

?o
baby
i

wouldn’t like

Death if Death
were
good

 

 

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