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Once and Future Myths
The Power of Ancient Stories in Our Lives
By Phil Cousineau
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2001 Phil Cousineau
All rights reserved.
The Myth of the Creative Struggle
Late-Night Thoughts from Sisyphus to Sinatra
Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them.
—Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
I am sitting in the dark at my rolltop desk and marveling for a few minutes, as I do every night, at our view of Coit Tower at the top of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. The tower glows proudly, throwing light and mystery out over the city, making me think of the old engravings of the Pharos Lighthouse in ancient Egypt.
Moonlight pours into the room, falling onto a book that lies open on the desk, the exquisite Heritage Club edition of Ovid's Metamorphosis that I inherited from my father. The book still has the unmistakable smell of the well-crafted book, an odor of ink and glue that wafts forth each time it is cracked open. I pick up the book, slowly turn the pages, and feel an unexpected shock of recognition. The Hans Enri pen-and-ink drawings of the ancient gods and heroes bring back blushing memories of the first time I saw the lasciviously grinning Zeus, disguised as the swan, coiled around Leda, Once again I feel a pang of joy from simply reading off the pantheon of names in the table of contents: Daedalus and Ariadne, Actaeon and Artemis, Hades and Sisyphus. After all these years they are still powerful figures for me. I have often reread their exploits, which to me is like opening an old scrapbook full of memories of marvelous friends and family.
Each time I return to them I am surprised by how the ancient tales of sudden transformation force me to think about the strange changes in my own life.
Then I come across the story that has been a part of my own story for a long time. Just staring at the word Sisyphus is enough to make my shoulder ache. I can't even pronounce the old king's name without thinking about my own years of pushing the boulder up the hill. It is a living myth for me, vividly reminding me of my own youthful rebellion, my long struggle with struggle itself.
* * *
For seven long years after my post-college world travels I raged against the great dragon doubt. I had dreamed of becoming a writer since I was a boy. Other than fantasizing about playing right field for my hometown team, the Detroit Tigers, I never wanted to do anything else with my life. The problem was, as the poet Robert Bly gleefully pointed out in a poetry workshop I attended in the early 1980s, there are people who want to be a writer, and there are people who want to write.
"Which one are you?" he asked, scanning the faces in the room, busting half of us like a literary cop. In fact, I did want to write, desperately. I just couldn't. My years of voluminous reading and protracted travels had humbled and intimidated me into creative silence. I had a writing block the size of Gibraltar and twice as unmovable.
So I did what all self-respecting wannabe writers do. I read and read and read. For seven long years I painted Victorian houses around San Francisco (forty-four of them in all) during the day, and then back in my apartment in Berkeley I read until the wee hours of the morning.
Eventually I formed a little company with a friend of mine that we called "Painter's Palette," which boasted the motto, "Custom Painting for a Classic City." To keep my mind alive during the often numbingly repetitive work, I memorized reams of poetry, a litany of limericks, and a passel of French phases that I copied onto white index cards hidden in my overalls. At night, I stared at blindlingly blank paper in my old Smith-Corona typewriter. I saw myself as a paint-flecked version of the frustrated writer in The Shining, as demonically portrayed by Jack Nicholson. Not unlike him, I used to type hundreds of versions of the same short stories and poems, often without changing clothes after work, living on tunafish and beer.
The horrified expression on Shelley Duvall's face in the movie when she peeks at a page of her tormented husband's writing and sees the same sentence—All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy—repeated line after line, page after page, was a little too close for comfort when I saw it in the middle of my own enfeebling torment.
Regardless of how the writing was going, I eventually sank down onto the futon on the floor, picked up a book, and eagerly disappeared down the rabbit hole of another writer's work. During that dark stretch, I read well over a thousand books, some of them again and again, taking prodigious notes, cross-referencing them in large journals, and often writing short reviews of them. Desperate to write, but even more hungry to learn things that had just been hinted at in my wide travels, I had embarked on a kind of self-imposed Ph.D. program on the world classics. I started a novel, a movie script, an epic poem, dozens of travel stories, but all I had to show for seven years of work was the publication of two modest freelance stories in the local newspapers and a few poems in obscure journals.
No doubt about it, I was frustrated by my lack of progress, but proud of my rebellion against the dead-end life I had left behind in Detroit, as well as the traditional form of journalism I had studied in college. I reveled in my bohemian life, meaning a matchbox-sized apartment, an old car, few possessions other than books, and a life I fancied, of Joycean "silence, exile, and cunning." I even grew to accept the frequent descents into depression and submersions in melancholia.
It was worth it, I told myself; it's just part of the creative struggle.
* * *
Finally, one night in the spring of 1983, during a period of increasing despair that often found me curled on the floor unable to move for hours at a time, my brother Paul called me from Pensacola, Florida. The first word out of his mouth was, "Help!" Then he laughed and added, "I've got a term paper due in my mythology class—in a week! Hey, bro,' can you help me?"
"One week?" I asked warily. "Well, what's it supposed to be about?"
"Hey, how am I supposed to know? No, just kidding. I think we're supposed to write about a myth that we think has some relevance today."
Out of the blue, I blurted, "How about Sisyphus?"
"You mean the guy who was condemned to roll the boulder up the mountain forever? What's that got to do with us?"
"Yeah, same guy. I think you'd dig his story. I recently read an essay called 'The Myth of Sisyphus' by Albert Camus, the French philosopher, and he said some things that are a helluva lot more interesting than the usual moralistic reading. Camus actually saw him as one of the first rebels, what he called 'the absurd hero,' a man who learned how to overcome his fate."
There was a long pause on the telephone. I ran my fingers through my hair, as I do when I'm nervous, and they got tangled in clots of dried beige paint.
Silence. My brother was carefully measuring my words.
"How did he do that?"
"If I remember right, Camus said that Sisyphus was paying the price for a life of passion, and had learned to accept his ordeal, learned to love the struggle."
As I spoke those words, I felt a tremendous surge of emotion. I suddenly knew I wasn't just talking about something that happened once, long ago, if at all. By chance, I realized in astonishment, I had stumbled onto a description of something permanent, eternal, in life, my own life.
"Paul, has your teacher told you how Salutius, the old Roman writer, described myth? He said myths were things that never happened, but always are."
I remember trembling with excitement as I held the telephone. The air around me felt charged, as if after one of those green-skied electrical storms back in the Michigan of our youth. The hair stood on the back of my arms and my scalp prickled. The Camus phrase I had quoted— he "learned to love the struggle"—seemed to hover in the air like the last words of a great stage play. Not only did the ancients adeptly describe the problem; they also prescribed a way of dealing with it.
"That's great, Phil. If you can write down a few of those ideas just the way you told me, I'll do the rest."
"Write it down?" I muttered, then thought to myself, Easy for you to say. But before I could say something I'd regret, I felt some resolve return to my voice for the first time in a long time.
"Sure, just give me a few days."
For the next few days, I wrote down a flurry of thoughts about Sisyphus on the blank index cards I always carried with me to the painting sites. Around four o'clock, when the cold fog began blowing in from the Pacific Ocean and made it hard to hold onto our paintbrushes, I packed up and headed home, where I wrote until dawn.
By the end of the week I had a thirteen-page essay to send off to my brother. Afterward, I felt as if an enormous burden had been lifted from my shoulders.
* * *
I wouldn't know it for many years, but that serendipitous call woke me up from a long, potentially dangerous slumber. Writing about Sisyphus unleashed years of pent-up creativity. His story was my story; his struggle was my struggle. In those benighted days there was tremendous pressure on me from my family, from old friends and new, to become successful, famous, productive. It's the All-American way. If you choose the contemplative life, decide to drop out for awhile, it tends to trouble the people around you. One girlfriend confided to a buddy that I was "a diamond in the rough," but she wasn't sure if she could hang around long enough to see me all polished. Another asked me, sotto voce, one day when I was going to grow up and get a real job.
However, I held out, stubbornly. Then one night, I got a package of old Life magazines in the mail from my father. Tucked inside one of them was a postcard asking me to tell him one more time exactly what it was that I was writing because his friends kept asking him what I was doing with my life. I had no idea what to tell him. How could I describe the uncanny feeling of being pulled forward by a dream, an image, a story, even my destiny, for so many years, but had somehow lost sight of it? Well, I couldn't. I sensed he was ashamed and couldn't come right out and say it. Hadn't he recently confided to my sister that he was afraid that I was throwing my whole life away? I felt like an utter failure after reading his cryptic note, and my heart sank like a stone. A stone rolling to the bottom of the hill.
The Shoulder to the Boulder
On a blistering hot day in the fall of 1995 I stood on a hillside overlooking the site of the mythical King Sisyphus' domain, the ancient citadel of Corinth. The old grounds looked as parched as I felt at the ungodly hour of high noon. I was leading a tour around Greece for the Joseph Campbell Foundation. Our Greek expert was an elderly professor named Adrianna. She found a bit of shade for us underneath a gnarled olive tree and began the session with a brilliant history of Corinth, but then delivered a surprisingly conservative version of the Sisyphus tale, tinged with a slight sense of condescension, as if telling a fairy tale to a group of schoolkids she was sure had never heard the myth before.
Adrianna may have had the best of intentions, to simply entertain the group for a few minutes in between the hotel, the ruins, and lunch, but I found her approach to be the kind that had earned mythology its reputation for being charming but irrelevant. Told like this, I thought to myself, a myth is a lie, irrelevant, untrue to the way people live now.
As I stepped forward for my turn to talk, the group shuffled around uncomfortably. A few of them took desultory photographs of the archaeologists at work in the ruins of the old citadel below. Adrianna nervously checked her watch, then clicked at it with her finger, as if to signal me that we were short on time. Remember, she was reminding me, we still have half the Peloponnese to see today.
Unwilling to be rushed, I leaned against the chained link fence that surrounds the excavations of the agora, then began by saying, "Many things change over the centuries, but the one thing that never changes is human character. That's why the old myths are still so fascinating to us today. They reveal the inner meaning of human life, what they used to call 'the workings of the soul,' the realm that defies time and space. As I see it, myths like this are metaphors for the dramas of our inward life, and the story of Sisyphus is a metaphor for struggle itself. On the outside, this is a tale of betrayal and retribution, but on the inside, the domain of myth, it tells us something about our attitude to struggle we can't seem to learn any other way."
Slowly I spun my version of the myth.
* * *
Sisyphus, ruler of Corinth, regarded by Homer as the wisest and most prudent in his relationships with other mortals, was also, according to other ancient sources, rather a wise guy in his relationships with the gods.
One afternoon, Sisyphus chanced upon Zeus en flagrante delicto with the lovely maiden Aegina, daughter of the river god Asopus. Before Sisyphus could even conjure up any judgments, he watched as the mighty god abducted the poor girl. As one might imagine, Asopus, the god of flowing water, was inconsolable over her disappearance. Asopus was so distraught he approached the king for help. Sisyphus felt compromised between his loyalty to the gods and the truth he witnessed, but the cisterns of his citadel were dry. So Sisyphus risked everything by trading a divine secret for a perennial spring, chancing retribution for an act of compassion for his own citizens.
The fury of Asopus was so great that when he learned the true source of his daughter's sorrow, he went into a rage. The rivers around Corinth roiled. The banks overflowed, nearly drowning Zeus, who was hiding from his outraged wife Hera, and who narrowly escaped by disguising himself as a large stone so the waters would run off the slope of his back.
Zeus soon discovered who had betrayed his pawky little secret, and he turned to his brother Hades for help, hoping to render Sisyphus invisible by having him hauled down to the underworld. As usual, he wanted to get rid of all the evidence of his incorrigible philandering.
Once immured in the dark underworld, Sisyphus was restless and unwilling to accept the justice of his fate. As his name in Greek suggests, he is "the crafty one" who devised a clever ruse to chain Hades, the Dark One, to his own stone throne. Strange to say, with the god of death literally enchained, the gravediggers were out of work. No one was dying in the world above. This gravely upset Ares, the god of war, whose love of igniting the desire for battle in men's hearts was now thwarted. Zeus soon learned that he had been twice scorned by the pesky Sisyphus, and he reluctantly agreed to allow Ares to rescue Hades from his humiliating predicament.
Meanwhile, Sisyphus called upon Persephone, the half-time bride of Hades, cajoling her with a mournful tale of longing for his wife Merope (who is immortalized as the seventh—and invisible—sister in the Pleiades constellation) and the need for him to fulfill his duties as a husband and father.
"Let me return to Corinth for three days," he pleaded. "I am a king. Let me arrange a funeral so my family can properly grieve."
Persephone was either duped by this clever sob story or else simply empathized with a fellow soul who had been unfairly seized and sentenced. She agreed to guide Sisyphus out of the dank caverns of the underworld and back into the overworld, where Sisyphus paid his respects to his wife and family and the people of his kingdom. But once he had escaped the underworld, and as the ancients said, smelled once more the fresh air of the living world, he had a change of heart and refused to accept the terms of parole. When Hades came calling for him to return to the underworld, instead Sisyphus chose the "sun, warm stones, and the sea" to the hall of horrors awaiting him below.
Outraged, Hades dispatched the messenger god Hermes to collar the incorrigible one and haul him before the Judges of the Dead. For his hubris and his scorn, Sisyphus was condemned to suffer the seemingly most futile and hopeless of labors. In a shadow world of skyless space and depthless time, in a place echoing with the cries of the damned, Sisyphus was given the sentence of shouldering a stone—the very same size as the one Zeus took as his disguise to escape the wrath of Asopus—for all eternity, up the forlorn mountain slope in Tartarus.
At that point in the story, I took a long pause, sipped from my water bottle, and then opened up my copy of the Odyssey and read Homer's own description:
With both arms embracing the monstrous stone, struggling with hands and feet alike, he would try to push the stone upward to the crest of the hill, but when it was on the point of going over the top, the force of gravity turned it backward, and the pitiless stone rolled back down to the level. He then tried once more to push it up, straining hard, and sweat ran all down his body, and over his head a cloud of dust rose.
By now the group was rapt. They leaned forward to hear what would happen next, which is the point of all great stories.
This was the true vengeance of the gods, I told the group. Sisyphus was condemned for all eternity to shoulder the boulder up the mountain of hell, and all the while Hades would be watching for the look of despair that would mark the defeat of another mere mortal. But Sisyphus resolved never to allow the gods to see him defeated by despair. He silently vowed that because his fate was in his hands he could be superior to it. That is the genius of the mythic view of this complex image, that this, "the hour of consciousness" as Camus called it, is born out of the beauty that can be heard in the midst of our ordeals.
Excerpted from Once and Future Myths by Phil Cousineau. Copyright © 2001 Phil Cousineau. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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