Monday, February 09, 2015

Sisyphus, the Idiot

I have made many, many decisions in my life, most of them poor decisions brought on by poor lighting, poor judgment, and too much alcohol. Most of the (bad) decisions I have made have faded into the mists of my personal history. I may be living a life that is partly based on the sum total of those (bad) decisions, but the actual point of decision making has long since passed, and been mostly forgotten.

However, there are two (bad) decisions that I made that still attract interest from third parties, and I am still asked, years later, to try and explain them. I usually do a poor job of it, because, after all who wants to explain their two poorest decisions over and over? I generally attempt to deflect the question, or to obfuscate the answer so much that the person asking just walks away in confusion. These two decisions are intertwined like a strand of DNA, there is no real separating one from the other. In many ways, they were a love song followed by a song of farewell and departure. They do not exist in a vacuum and they are almost entirely dependent upon one another. Strap up ladies, and gents this might be a bumpy ride.

We all know (or at least we should) the story/myth of Sisyphus, but for those who were not chained to a book as an ungainly, isolated child like I was, we will run through the highlights. Sisyphus was a King of Corinth, the one in Greece that is, and it was his destiny to be punished by the gods for chronic deceitfulness, in other words Sisyphus was a lying sack of shite.  It seems that his major problem was hubris, he just figured that whenever he went he was the most clever fellow in the room. That is all well and good when there are just men in the room, but trying to be more clever than the gods is not a wise decision.  Sisyphus eventually managed to piss off the HMFIC of the Greek gods a fellow by the name of Zeus. He betrayed one of Zeus' secrets to the river god Asopus, and that did not sit well with Zeus.

As punishment, Zeus sent the personification of death, Thanatos to chain Sisyphus in Tartatus. Sisyphus managed to trick Thanatos into locking himself in the chains, and suddenly things started to get a little crazy. Death himself was chained to a rock in the underworld, and that meant that people, those average everyday slobs that we all are, could not die. There is a Family Guy episode that is very similar to this story, but that is a blind alley that we need not follow.  The god of battle, miffed that his wars had lost their fun, what with people stabbing and burning each other and not dying and all, freed Thanatos, and it seemed order was restored. Except of course, for Sisyphus. His trickery wasn't quite at its end, and he pulled a couple of other stunts before Zeus devised a special brand of punishment for Sisyphus.

That punishment, as we all know, is to push a rather large boulder up a rather steep mountain for all eternity. Doesn't sound that rough right? I mean it gets you out in the fresh air, and after a while of struggling, I would suspect you would eventually work yourself into fine shape. Nothing works the glutes quite like pushing large rocks up steep hills. However, Sisyphus had one small problem with all this rock moving. Zeus was angry, and Zeus was clever, it is wise not to make Zeus angry, as many a Greek hero has found out, and since Zeus was also very, very clever, he devised a special twist to the Sisyphus Rock Moving Company's task. That twist was that every time Sisyphus got the bleeding rock to the top of the bleeding mountain it would immediately roll right back down the bleeding hill to the bottom, as it was his task to get the rock to the top of the mountain for keeps, Sisyphus would then have to start his task all over again, for all eternity. Thus, the gods punish hubris.

Sisyphus was the subject of a wonderful book written by the French writer/philosopher Albert Camus, again those of us with poor social skills, and too much time on their hands have read this book, more than once. In that wonderful book, M. Camus takes Sisyphus and makes him an absurdist hero.  He becomes the everyman, the man (or woman) working the same job in the same factory day in and day out at the same task in order to make the money to keep body and soul together. 

 "The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious." Albert Camus

That quote from the book, defines Camus' point, he is trying to use Sisyphus' fate to show that even the absurd can quickly become tragic. But, in order for the tragic to take effect, man has to realize the absurdity of his fate. Most of us live that life of "quite desperation" that Thoreau discussed, but for Camus it is possible step beyond that by the conscious realization of the absurdity of modern life. It is a huge step for your average factory worker, lawyer, secretary, or turkey masturbater and it is not always a rewarding one. Realizing that your day, your every day is much like a record placed on "repeat" is soul-crushing. It takes a lot of the Joie de vivre out of one's existence, and replaces it with a version of Sartre's Nausea.  Camus becomes interested in the thoughts of Sisyphus as he marches back down the hill to start his task anew, he believes that Sisyphus realizes the hopelessness of his condition, and that he rises to the occasion. A condition that would crush the spirit of lesser men, makes Sisyphus the hero of the story. All hope is lost, and understanding that, and the fact that "there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn." allows Sisyphus to acknowledge his condition, and to keep pushing, just like the factory worker that clocks into his job promptly at 7 a.m. everyday. Camus believes that once Sisyphus, and by extension the rest of us, realizes his fate, he comes to an acceptance of it that leaves him contented, and happy.  Camus believes that in that instant of turning back to walk down the mountain to start his task again, Sisyphus awakens to the absurd nature of everything, and is content with his lot in life. No matter how meaningless it may seem (and be) to the rest of the universe, it is HIS task, no one else can claim it, and no one else can do it. It is for Sisyphus alone that this punishment has been devised, and once he accepts it, an odd type of contentment follows, much like Satan after being thrown out of heaven, takes a look around his new domain of hell, nods, and says "so be it."

I am not French philosopher, nor am I am Greek hero (I am not exactly chiseled from stone), and I am not the Prince of Darkness, despite what a few people who used to know me may think. I am also not the saintly idiot of Dostoyevsky's novel. I am a modern man in the modern world, and as much as I admire Camus and his version of Sisyphus, I have to disagree that he is a hero, absurd or otherwise. Quite simply put it is my firmly held belief that Sisyphus is an idiot. Attempting to out-clever Zeus is not just hubris, it is rank idiocy taken to its highest form.  The "nuts and bolts" of Sisyphus' idiocy need not overly concern us. It is easy enough to find the simple details of his silly attempts to place himself higher than the gods, it is the abstract nature of his idiocy that we need to plumb.

It is a longly held firm belief of mine that you should not send an idiot to repair the damage that idiot has wrought. Be it in car repair, horse racing, or real life, sending the idiot to fix their mistakes rarely leads to anything but a larger mistake. Most of the time, that just simply means a non-idiot, if one is handy, has to take time out of their day to fix the now worse disaster that the original idiot created, and made worse. The gods are wise, they do not send Sisyphus out into the world to repair his mistakes, they just devise a suitable punishment for him, and sit back to enjoy his horror show.  If Sisyphus is, as Camus imagines him to be, content in that moment of turning back to his task, then it becomes clear (at least to me) that he has in fact, learned nothing. This is no longer a test of wills against the gods, they punish, you pay the price. That is how interactions with angry gods work, they do not negotiate with people who can not do anything for them.

For me, Sisyphus' rock is a metaphor for life. It is your task that you are condemned/born to, and you may push it as much as you like, or as little as you dare. We all hope the direction our life is going is the proverbial "up", but the reality might be a little different for most of us. It is your burden, you are the one that needs to shoulder it. Certainly, at least in theory, we all have people in our lives that help us with our burdens, but remember they have burdens of their own. No matter how much they may or may not love you, they still have their own rock to shift, and if you want to be a member of any type of meaningful society, you need to give their rocks the occasional push as well. It seems a simple enough task, focusing on the rock in front of you, but it very rarely is. There are distractions too numerous to count, that divide (and sometimes conquer) our attention to, and our ability to shift our rock. Sometimes we get the unique pleasure of picking a person that we think can help us (and by extension we try to help them) shift our rock to the glorious summit of our particular mountain. Those occasions are as rare as hen's teeth, and should not be undertaken lightly. Shifting our burden means sharing our burden, and sharing is sometimes a whole lot harder than just trying to shift it.

Shakespeare wrote that "when sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions" and sometimes those battalions of sorrows can overwhelm even the most dedicated rock pushers, be they singular or in tandem. Some people (myself included) have an annoying tendency to want to hoard their sorrows, and not to share them. It is not any sort of altruistic behaviour, but a knee jerk, selfish reaction born of immaturity. Those selfish individuals, of which I am one, think that no matter how many battalions of sorrows that are laying siege to our lives, we can handle them ourselves. For the most part, we are wrong, spectacularly wrong.  Certainly, helping someone with their burden does make things slightly harder, but receiving their help in return is the main point. Shifting rocks is harder than Chinese math, and a little help is sometimes necessary, and vital to the continuation of the species.

Of course, the crippling point to my metaphor is the fact, that just like Sisyphus, I am an idiot. And in the grand scheme of things, I will probably remain an idiot until I 'shuffle off this mortal coil.' The sorrowful part of this is the fact that I am the only one shifting my rock, and I am an idiot. I am the one that pushed my rock into its current perilous position, and when I look around at the framework of my life, I can only see myself available to fix that problem. Hence the conundrum of sending an idiot to fix the problem the idiot created. Those two decision which were and remain hopelessly intertwined are a prime example of why the 'fixing idiot' solution just doesn't work. In my idiocy, I created the first problem. It was an unmitigated disaster, and it was, almost entirely, my fault.

Being an idiot, and having no one else around to fix this problem, I was forced to attempt a solution of and on my own, with predictable results. The 'solution' I arrived at created another disaster of slightly larger proportion, and one that continues to vex me to this day. This second disaster has a solution, this I am convinced of, however two problems prevent me from implementing that solution. One is that I don't know what the solution is, which is a considerable mountain to climb, and two, even if I were to somehow miraculously  hit upon a solution, I remain an idiot.  It remains a pathetic form of refuge that I hide behind because, since I am an idiot, I do not know, or am unable to do any better.  Je suis desolae.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Je ne suis pas Rome

I am not Rome, just in case your silly barbarian ass was confused, I am not Rome. I am around 1600 stinking Roman miles easterly of Rome, and I am as different from Rome as night is to day. I am a port city, my districts contain the quays and docks that a Roman would have to get off their olive eating arses and trundle the 17 or so miles to Ostia to find. What is it about nations that makes them send their scum to sea? It is an article of faith that port cities are full of odd fellows, hard men, and shady characters from foreign shores that are only looking to cause trouble to the local gendarme. When the barbarian from the story below washed upon my shores, I didn't even spare him a second glance. After all, I had seen his type before, in fact, I was home to a few thousand of his type already. Why should he be any different from the rest of the exiles, reprobates, and various other losers at life that I was already 'home' to?  Being escorted off some stinking tub of a merchant ship coming from nowhere, and bound to nowhere, by two husky Roman centurions is no way to assure yourself a hero's welcome in my city. It hardly warrants a second glance. That, I think, hurt his pride almost as much as being exiled here in the first place.

Make no mistake, I've had my years of glory. Long before  stinking Rome was espousing the myth of being founded by twins suckling at a wolf's teat, I flourished.  I was founded by those "boy loving" Greeks, and I blossomed. I was the place to be on a well traveled caravan route, and became a mini version of Rome itself. I founded colonies, issued my own coinage, and even for a time was the capital city of the Kingdom of Pontus. Just because my glory has faded doesn't mean that it wasn't as bright as a summer's sun when it was new.  But, along came those stinking Romans, and their well trained, over sexed legions, and I was conquered. It wasn't hard for them to manage, after all, who can resist Rome? Not I, and I was duly colonized by the stinking Roman Julius Caesar. Of course, being the arrogant bastards that they are they duly renamed me Colonia Julia Felix.

A name is just that a name, it does not have to define you, or who/what you are. It is a place holder for some po-faced geographer to engrave upon a map, so that real men with real senses of adventure can find you without sailing off the edge of the Earth. I've no doubt that countless screaming, whoring Argonauts would have had a whole lot less fun, without the maps they carried leading them to my sheltering port. Being the difficult bitch that I am, I did have to place a small obstacle in those intrepid sailors path. A small island named (yet again a name) Scopelus that made the bigger ships take a 40 stadia detour. I may be an open city, but I am open on my terms, not theirs.  At least that is what I like to think, Rome of course had different ideas, and I was duly Romanized like a multitude of cites before and after me.

All the proper Roman buildings were erected, and the forms were duly followed that allowed me to become part of the great Empire that Rome has become. I've had many peoples claim to be my master, and I allow those temporary fools to indulge themselves with the notion that anyone can master me. Therefore, when another exile washed upon my shore I didn't really consider him any sort of threat, or any sort of potential problem. It seems I was wrong, there is a lot of detail about me, and his time in my environs that he left out of his short little tale, and I am here to set the record straight. He wasn't a large problem, those are reserved for fires that sometimes burn out of control near the quays, and wipe out large swathes of people's homes, or the occasional plague brought by some unkempt sailor staggering onto my shore.  He was just another damn fool in a city of damn fools, and I rather figured his loud mouth, and his bragging about being from Rome would get him stabbed fairly quickly.

To my surprise, he was a bit handier with a blade (and not the cooking kind) than I, and a couple of my more enterprising citizens had figured. He survived that first hard, cold winter that serves the purpose of weeding out the weaker exiles to my shores. However, I knew he wasn't built for me, the purpose driven life he was leading had one goal, and one goal only, Rome. That bitch of a city and empire that exerts a pull upon all damn fools of a certain type, and he was a damn fool of that certain type. I have a lot of damn fools like him just idly passing the time within my borders, and the "chance" meeting of him and that other damn fool Stairaid was bound to happen sooner or later. It happened sooner than I expected, but surprises are kind of like that, sudden and unexpected. Perhaps the surprise of his survival would have turned into that most rare of surprises, a pleasant one, but once he toughed out the first winter, I knew he would not be around to see the leaves change colour again.

He will complain, and tell you that while staying with me he woke up "cold, hungry, and alone." He is not the only citizen/exile in my districts to experience those feelings, and many of them all at once just like he did. It does not single him out for any sort of sympathy, and probably made him a better person in spite of himself. My winters can be harsh, food is not usually free, and he seemed loath to steal (one of his few good qualities). Perhaps he had a "lady friend" back in Rome that he was being loyal to, there were rumors that it was an affair of the heart that was the major cause of his exile, or perhaps he wasn't as charming as he made out to be. I am a city full of women with the talent to warm a man's heart and his bed at the same time. If he was cold, he had options, a warm blanket or a warm woman, which would kill two birds with one stone, if he was hungry, day labour unloading the ships that swarm to my docks is always available, and the price of a meal is easily earned.

Truth, that rarest of commodities, was something that he did not share willingly, it was, as I found out later, almost constitutionally impossible for him to trust anyone. Fair play to him for that, but his lies, which few people believed, became a source of real contention between him, and my fellow citizens. Rome was beyond compare, Rome had it all, Rome was the beginning, middle, and end of all human endeavour. That may be true, but eventually one gets tired of being compared to stinking Rome, and losing out on the comparison. I have my charms, and a fair number of men have succumbed to them.

 Certainly all roads lead to Rome, but just as many lead away from Rome as well. His obsession with "conquering" Rome will be his downfall. He is just too blinded, stupid, or angry to see it, or perhaps it is a combination of all three. He eventually screwed his courage up to the sticking point, and together with his boon companion left me for one of those roads leading to Rome. I do, once in a while, hear wild rumors  concerning him. He was killed in a shipwreck, he was captured by pirates and is being held for a ransom that there is no one to pay, he made it to Rome and was welcomed back with open arms (perhaps by his "lady friend"), he made it to Rome, and was thrown off of Tarpeian Rock for being a criminal and a traitor. All of these reports remain just rumors, wild tales told by drunken fools in low taverns, until I see either him, or his body, I will remain cautiously optimistic about his fate. He left me with that burning desire to conquer Rome, or die in the attempt. I wish him luck.