The Dream of Sisyphus: Quitting

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By Skip Eisiminger

Sisyphus and his absurd companion, the rock.

Sisyphus and his absurd companion, the rock.

“Before the light comes on, you must chop a lot of wood./Then the need for further chopping will be understood.”—The Wordspinner

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point being a damn fool about it.”—W. C. Fields

Sterling (Skip) EisimingerCLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—1/27/2014—I love the story of Winston Churchill vowing that if Hitler invaded hell, he’d “come to the devil’s rescue.”

And the Spartan general who vows to fight in the shade if the Persians blacken the sky with arrows.

And the anonymous warrior who vows to fight until hell freezes over and then on the ice.

When I felt pressure to retire, I posted a cartoon on my bulletin board showing an ant laboring uphill with a stone on its back saying to a ladybug, “I’ll quit when it stops being fun.” It’s not quite the same as fighting on the ice, but I was and remain determined.

Churchill explained his resolve by saying, “If you are going through hell, keep going.” It sounds so noble, romantic, and simple. While the first two qualities may be true, it’s seldom simple and never easy.

The Austrian mountaineer Reinhold Messner made up his mind to climb every mountain above 26,200 feet on Earth without supplemental oxygen or porters, and so he did.

The American activist Bill Irwin set his sights somewhat lower: he vowed to hike the Appalachian Trail with his dog Orient. He succeeded despite the fact that he’s blind and fell five thousand times.

The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had few mountains to climb, but he did have a thousand miles of frigid wasteland to cross before a rival beat him to the South Pole. Amundsen also succeeded, eating his dogs as he went. Two of these men started their journeys as lumps of coal and finished cold and clear as a diamond: Messner sacrificed a brother to his ambition, and Amundsen drove one of his men, who’d slowed his progress, to suicide.

The retired baseballer Johnny Bench compared the relationship we have with our aging bodies to that of a fleeing outlaw and his horse: we’ll “ride that nag until it drops.” But mortals both equine and human have their limits. Auguste-Pierre Renoir continued to paint into his 70s with a brush he could barely grasp in his bandaged, arthritic hand. We love him for his perseverance, but we don’t blame him for rolling up his canvases because at some point he knew the work wasn’t up to his standards.

The stubborn French impressionist reminds me of one of my favorite caricatures in which a frog is being swallowed by an egret but, before disappearing entirely, the frog has grabbed the bird by the throat. The amphibian may be halfway to hell, but he’s determined to save himself or take the bird with him. As Albert Camus said, “He who aspires without end cannot be beyond saving.”

In the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the sly king solves a perennial problem for Corinth: he obtains a reliable water supply. When the river god Esopus comes to him and asks about his missing daughter, Sisyphus says, “Provide my city with a spring, and I will tell you what I know.” When water bubbles up in the market place, the king reveals that Zeus had kidnapped the girl and taken her to a distant island. How he knew that is anyone’s guess but, like Prometheus, he’s willing to stand up to the gods for the good of his people. Zeus, however, is furious and sends Death to claim this impertinent mortal.

When Sisyphus arrives in hell, he says, “It’s not what I expected.”

“What were you expecting?” asks Death.

“Nothing,” says the newest resident, but the game is not over yet. Sisyphus whispers something to Death which he does not understand. As the god comes near, Sisyphus wraps him in his chains. With Death indisposed, Pluto is angry because his underworld business will eventually dry up. So Sisyphus tells Pluto if he’ll release him to punish his wife for her failure to give him a decent burial, he’ll come right back. Of course, he doesn’t, and he dies of old age after enjoying all that Earth has to offer. However, no one fools the gods with impunity, and his punishment is what most remember.

Sisyphus is condemned to roll a large rock up a steep hill, but when he reaches the summit, it slips from his grasp. He is then compelled to return to the foot of the hill and resume his grinding labor as half-man, half-robot. Once one of Pluto’s confederates has invaded his body, the former king rolls his rock for eternity, never sleeping or dying. The only “kindness” Pluto shows him is that the rock has not been placed in a hamster wheel.

 “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” 

After retelling the myth above, Camus concluded his essay, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” I have tried for years to get my head around that conclusion, but I fail every time partly because the eternal fortitude of Camus’s happy hero is possible only in fiction.

My failure hinges on the huge disproportion between Sisyphus’s meager victories in life and his eternal punishment. Yes, he got some satisfaction from tying up Death and exposing Zeus, but surely this will wear thin. He did fix Corinth’s plumbing problem, but Asopus’ daughter and the child she had by Zeus remain in exile. Moreover, Zeus continues to rape and rule, and Death has escaped Sisyphus to bring relief to all but the immortals.

One truth that Camus does speak in his retelling is this, “Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into.” Indeed this is the invitation I accepted when I chose to revisit the ancient tall tale. Some mythologists think the punishment was once used to explain the sun’s daily rising and setting. Others say it was used to explain the ebb and flood of the sea. Still others say the myth explains how some become addicted to food, drink, drugs, or sex in a tragic circularity. To this reader, the idea that the right attitude can make slaves happy forever rolling rocks, whether the rolling is productive or rewarding, is absurd.

Camus’s own life is proof that some hope and the possibility of respite or revolt are necessary in reality. If Camus had written that he‘d been born in poverty in a country where he was hated, that his father was killed before his son’s first birthday, that his mother was almost deaf and virtually speechless, and that despite dying at age 46 in a car crash you must imagine him happy, I could believe it. I could believe it because, unlike Sisyphus, the eventual Nobel laureate knew that one day his political and marital tribulations would end and, before that, he would spend three years fighting the Nazis in France. Sisyphus enjoys neither of those possibilities. And without hope for change, Camus argues, “The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” I don’t think it is if the struggle is unremitting and unrewarded.

Camus seems to be saying to the proletariat, “Go ahead and roll your rock, and if you can find something to smile at like the dim reflection of hellfire on your stone or a sprig of asphodel, then take that small pleasure. I wonder, however, what Jewish prisoners found to smile at in the Mauthausen concentration camp? Did they ever consider blitzing their guards? Was the word “Masada” ever spoken?

The sign on the prison gate proclaimed, “Work makes you free,” but the only freedom here was death, for Mauthausen was designed to test the Nazi theory of “extermination through labor.” Here, quarried rocks weighing 110 pounds on average were placed on the naked backs of malnourished men weighing 88 pounds on average. Once about a hundred prisoners had their rocks in place, they were marched in formation up the “Steps of Death” because the main purpose of these 186 ragged steps was to grind the bones of those who ascended them.

The Nazis needed many things in their quest for world domination, but rocks and the “rehabilitation” of Jewish intellectuals were the least of them. Can anyone imagine these innocent men, whose life expectancy at Mauthausen was about four months, happy? Can anyone imagine a prisoner or even a jailer in this camp “being tempted to write a manual of happiness”?

Where is the dignity in the fly that dies trying to bore his way through the window pane? To suggest that there is serves only the sadist’s end.

In this hell, and all others, the gods’ chief role lay in humanity’s vain oath.

About Sterling Eisiminger

Sterling (Skip) Eisiminger was born in Washington D.C. in 1941. The son of an Army officer, he traveled widely but often reluctantly with his family in the United States and Europe. After he finished a master’s degree at Auburn and took a job at Clemson University in 1968, he promised himself that he would put down some deep roots. These roots now reach back through 40 years of red Carolina clay. In 1974, Eisiminger received a Ph. D. from the University of South Carolina, where poet James Dickey “guided” his creative dissertation. His publications include Non-Prescription Medicine (poems), Felix Academicus (personal essays), Omi and the Christmas Candles (a children’s book), and Wordspinner (word games). He is married to the former Ingrid (“Omi”) Barmwater, a native of Germany, and is the proud father of a son, Shane, a daughter, Anja, and grandfather to four grandchildren, Edgar, Sterling, Spencer, and Lena. Author Photo: Ingrid Eisiminger
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2 Responses to The Dream of Sisyphus: Quitting

  1. Danny M Reed says:

    “Humanity’s vain oath…One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” My father was a Navy veteran Radioman of World War Two in the Pacific Theater and 40, nearly 41, when I came along unexpectedly as the third and youngest, and last, child. He was dark and unapproachable to me just as he was abusive and cold to my brother 8 years older than I. Excuse me, Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life” is on just now. Sorry. Mom was an eternal optimist whom made life with Dad possible, and at times, unintentionally hilarious. He almost bled to death when I was 10 from a stomach ulcer and so at the same age as I am now, 51, he lightened up a bit….

  2. Skip says:

    Danny, Every damn rock is unique, and so is every hill.

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