Tag Archives: Sisyphus

Thoughts on “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro

I was searching the tables in a book store a while back, as I am wont to do, and came across this book. I had read The Buried Giant by Ishiguro and loved it, so I decided to give this one a read, especially since it was one of the books that influenced the Swedish Academy’s decision to award Ishiguro the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017.

The story follows a group of friends from a special school, whose students face a grim future. While the main plot of the story is thought-provoking, it is the subtle explorations of humanity that makes this an incredible work of art. I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who has not read it, but I will say this deserves a spot on everyone’s “must read” list.

OK, let’s take a look at a few passages that stood out for me.

“But that wasn’t all,” Tommy’s voice was now down to a whisper. “What she told Roy, what she let slip, which she probably didn’t mean to let slip, do you remember, Kath? She told Roy that things like pictures, poetry, all that kind of stuff, she said they revealed what you were like inside. She said they revealed your soul.”

(p. 175)

I have always believed this. Art provides a way for an individual to express aspects of their being that cannot be conveyed through standard conversation. And yes, stories and poems are comprised of words, just like common speech, but it is what is unsaid, the cadence of the language, the metaphors and symbolism, which all combine to allow the artist to share something so deep that only a poem or well-crafted story could possibly come close to imparting that hidden part of the self to another human being.

I’ve thought about those moments over and over. I should have found something to say. I could have denied it, though Tommy wouldn’t have believed me. And to try to explain the thing truthfully would have been too complicated. But I could have done something. I could have challenged Ruth…

(p. 195)

In this passage, Kathy is remembering how she participated in the psychological bullying of her friend Tommy by staying silent and not speaking up. It is a painful lesson that too many of us learn the hard way. I learned it when I was quite young. I had a friend named Mason, and one day, a kid who usually bullied me directed his anger and hatred toward my friend instead, and I did nothing, grateful for the respite from my own torment. But the real torment came afterwards, when Mason confronted me for not standing by him. I made some lame excuse, but he was wise enough to see right through it. It’s a memory that haunted me for a long time. But I learned a valuable lesson, that silence is not acceptable when facing injustice. Not taking action makes you just as guilty in the end.

“… You built your lives on what we gave you. You wouldn’t be who you are today if we’d not protected you. You wouldn’t have become absorbed in your lessons, you wouldn’t have lost yourselves in your art and your writing. Why should you have done, knowing what lay in store for each of you? You would have told us it was all pointless, and how could we have argued with you? So she had to go.”

(p. 268)

This is the ultimate existential dilemma. We all know what’s in store for us. So what’s the point? Why struggle like Sisyphus? For me, it is precisely my lessons, my art, my writing, and my relationships with the people I love that give this life meaning. And in fact, knowing that death is inevitable makes me cherish my limited time here. It inspires me to do things that have lasting meaning and value. It’s not the end that matters. All ends are the same. It’s what you do while on the road that gives life meaning.

To sum up, this book is powerful, disturbing, inspiring, and elegantly written. If you have not read it, I highly recommend doing so. His Nobel Prize is certainly justified.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 4: Season of Mists” by Neil Gaiman

My friend Miriam told me this was her favorite book in the series, and I can see why. The story is excellent. Essentially, Lucifer decides to vacate Hell and gives Morpheus, the Dream Lord, the key to Hell. What ensues is a pantheon of various deities all trying to convince the Dream Lord that they should be given dominion over Hell, and making their various cases to support their claims. The result is a highly creative view into the personalities of various gods and goddesses across diverse religions.

The book opens in the Garden of Destiny. The opening passage explores the labyrinthine paths which symbolize a human life, the choices we make, and how upon later reflection, the realization that many of the choices that we make in life are not really choices at all.

Walk any path in Destiny’s garden, and you will be forced to choose, not once but many times. The paths fork and divide. With each step you take through Destiny’s garden, you make a choice, and every choice determines future paths. However, at the end of a lifetime of walking you might look back, and see only one path stretching out behind you; or look ahead, and see only darkness. Sometimes you dream about the paths of Destiny, and speculate, to no purpose. Dream about the paths you took and the paths you didn’t take… The paths diverge and branch and reconnect; some say not even Destiny himself truly knows where any way will take you, where each twist and turn will lead. But even if Destiny could tell you, he will not. Destiny holds his secrets. The Garden of Destiny. You would know it if you saw it. After all, you will wander it until you die. Or beyond. For the paths are long, and even in death there is no ending to them.

When all the deities converge on the castle of Dream, Odin tasks Loki with observing and noting the activities of the other deities. Loki’s thoughts on the angels I found particularly interesting.

And above all, I watch the angels. They do not eat, or flirt, or converse. They observe. I watch them in awe, All-Father. They are so beautiful and distant. The feet of the angels never touch the base earth, not even in dreams. I can read nothing in their faces, much as I try. And what they are thinking, I cannot even imagine.

As I read this, it reminded me of the Wim Wenders film, “Wings of Desire.” If you’ve not seen it, it’s a classic and worth watching.

As many of you know, we are often burdened with things that we do not want, but letting go and getting rid of those burdens is not always easy. Art and literature abound with metaphors about people clinging to their unwanted baggage, dragging it painfully through life. Think of Sisyphus with his stone, or Jacob Marley dragging his chains. In this book, Dream echoes this sentiment.

They all want it, and I don’t. I never thought that disposing of the unwanted could be so hard.

Possibly my favorite passage in this book is where the angels tell the Dream Lord of God’s decree regarding the existence of Hell.

We… I will relay the message. It is from my Creator… There must be a Hell. There must be a place for the demons; a place for the damned. Hell is Heaven’s reflection. It is Heaven’s shadow. They define each other. Reward and punishment; hope and despair. There must be a Hell, for without Hell, Heaven has no meaning. And thus, Hell must be —

This is very Taoist, in my view. There must always be darkness to balance light, a yin to balance yang. It also makes me think of Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow:

Carl Jung stated the shadow to be the unknown dark side of the personality. According to Jung, the shadow, in being instinctive and irrational, is prone to psychological projection, in which a perceived personal inferiority is recognized as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else. Jung writes that if these projections remain hidden, “The projection-making factor (the Shadow archetype) then has a free hand and can realize its object—if it has one—or bring about some other situation characteristic of its power.”

(Source: Wikipedia)

The concept of Heaven and Hell, as Gaiman expresses it, then becomes a metaphor for the our human consciousness. Our divine consciousness cannot exist without the shadow. There must always be a balance between the light and dark within the psyche.

Anyway, this series is amazing. The writing is brilliant and the artwork if outstanding. I highly recommend this to all you readers out there. Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading cool stuff.

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“Ill Luck” by Charles Baudelaire

The Poor Poet - Spitzweg

The Poor Poet – Spitzweg

So huge a burden to support
Your courage, Sisyphus, would ask;
Well though my heart attacks its task,
Yet Art is long and Time is short.

Far from the famed memorial arch
Towards a lonely grave I come.
My heart in its funereal march
Goes beating like a muffled drum.

— Yet many a gem lies hidden still
Of whom no pick-axe, spade, or drill
The lonely secrecy invades;

And many a flower, to heal regret,
Pours forth its fragrant secret yet
Amidst the solitary shades.

(Translation by Roy Campbell)

I really like this sonnet, and it is fairly accessible as far as poetry goes. This is essentially a poem about the “ill luck” of being born a poet or an artist.

In the first stanza, Baudelaire describes being an artist/poet as a Sisyphean task, a constant uphill struggle that will likely lead nowhere. But it is a calling and something he must heed. He also acknowledges that artistic expression often requires more time than one is allotted in life.

In the second stanza, he acknowledges his mortality and what he sees as in impending death. He realizes that with each beat of his heart, he is a moment closer to death. His heart is like a clock, ticking away the short time he has left on earth.

In the final two stanzas, he confesses that, even though he feels his death approaching, there are more poems inside him, more art that he wants to express. The hidden gems and the blossoming flowers are the unformed works of art still nestled within him. He longs to expose them, to carve and polish the gems and nurture the flowers of artistic expression.

Let this be a warning to all of us. Our time here is limited. If you have things to say, work to do, art to create, don’t procrastinate. If you do, you may awaken to the beating of your heart one day, like a metronome, and realize you don’t have time left to complete your life’s purpose.

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Thoughts on “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace – Part 2

InfiniteJest

But I look at these guys that’ve been here six, seven years, eight years, still suffering, hurt, beat up, so tired, just like I feel tired and suffer, I feel this what, dread, this dread, I see seven or eight years of unhappiness every day and day after day of tiredness and stress and suffering stretching ahead, and for what, for a chance at a like a pro career that I’m starting to get this dready feeling a career in the Show means even more suffering, if I’m skeletally stressed from all the grueling here by the time I get there.

(p. 109)

In this passage, Hal is expressing his feelings about working so hard at the tennis academy for the chance of becoming a pro, which would ultimately result in more hard work and stress. I found this to be a poignant metaphor for our society and the Sisyphean plight that most people face. The majority of Americans toil and stress in the early years of their lives to get themselves established in a career. The cruel joke is that once you attain your career goal, then you have to work just as hard to maintain your position, because there is a new and younger person coming up who wants your job. You are forced to prove your worth every day, and to constantly struggle to improve yourself, otherwise you will be deemed expendable and cast aside as something that’s obsolete or no longer needed.

This taps into the existential question of what is the purpose of this life. I’ve thought of this often, ever since the first time I read Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus as a teenager. We struggle and toil all our lives, chasing this ideal which we never really seem to reach, pushing the symbolic boulder only to have it tumble to the bottom and having to begin the process over again. The sense of futility can become crippling.

So how does one overcome this problem? For me, it was a shift in priorities. While success in my career is still important, I choose not to make it the most important thing in my life. I try to keep my family, my spirituality, my creativity, my intellectual curiosity, all above my desire for material success. That does not mean that I would shirk my responsibilities regarding work—anyone who knows me knows that is not who I am. But I always remember that there are things in this life that are more important than a career. I refuse to be one of those people who lie on a death bed, looking back at a life which was nothing but struggle, and having regret be my last thoughts in this world.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XI – A Gathering of the Shades

Odysseus and Tiresias: Wikipedia

Odysseus and Tiresias: Wikipedia

In this book, Odysseus describes how he performed the ritual that Circe instructed him to do. He raises the spirit of Tiresias who tells Odysseus that he is being punished by Poseidon for blinding Poseidon’s son, the Cyclops Polyphemus. He then describes the other spirits he encountered, specifically the warriors that died at the battle of Troy. He also sees the punishment of Sisyphus.

The section that stood out the most for me in this book is when Alkinoos praises Odysseus for his honesty.

As to that, one word, Odysseus:
from all we see, we take you for no swindler—
though the dark earth be patient of so many,
scattered everywhere, baiting their traps with lies
of old times and of places no one knows.
You speak with art, but your intent is honest.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 197)

We have some serious irony here. Odysseus is not really an honest person. He’s the Trickster. I’m starting to think that he is making all this up, that the odyssey is really a mental construct in Odysseus’ mind. I am going to have to start reading a little closer to see if I can uncover any more clues to support the assertion that Odysseus is really full of it and just making up a story. I’ll let you know what I discover.

Read on, friends!

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Magneto: Issue #4

Magneto_04

While this issue is less interesting for me than Issue #3, it is still good and serves to move the story forward. Essentially, Magneto is remembering his fight against the self-righteous “Purifiers” who sought to do God’s work by purifying the world of mutants, who they viewed as the offspring of the Devil.

Magneto draws upon his memory to give him strength to face his impending challenges.

I remind myself… while nature might strengthen my spirit… it is just as vital to my efforts to strengthen my mettle…to sharpen the weapons I need.

The weapons he refers to are his resolve, commitment, and perseverance. He feels alone, like he is the only one fighting to protect his kind. And while it would be easy to give up, he knows he must forge on, and it is the memory of those who have died before him that spurs him forward.

It’s strange. Earlier today I was talking about how difficult it is to continue fighting for a cause which seems insurmountable. After years of trying with few or no positive results, how can one continue the struggle? One begins to feel like Sisyphus. As I think about Magneto in this issue, I see him as undertaking a Sisyphean task, as yet another incarnation of the archetype of the one who struggles on, regardless of the outcome.

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“The Color of Magic” by Terry Pratchett

ColorOfMagicThis is a book that I had heard about often but had never read before. It is the first book in the Discworld fantasy series, a series that is comprised of an astounding 40 books (which means my reading list has just increased by 39). In fact, this is the first actual Pratchett book that I’ve read. I did read Good Omens, but that was a collaborative book written by Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

I loved this book!! It worked on multiple levels for me. As a work of fantasy, it was extremely imaginative, weaving together magic, science fiction, mythology, and fairy tales. But it is also a very funny book, overflowing with puns and satire. I literally laughed out loud during certain sections of the book. Finally, Pratchett’s writing is impeccable. There was never a moment when the characters and the fantastical realm did not come to life for me.

The basic plot is that a failed wizard named Rincewind grudgingly accepts the responsibility to guide a “tourist” named Twoflower around the Discworld, a flat, circular world that rests upon four giant elephants who ride through the universe on the back of a gigantic cosmic turtle. The two characters move through a series of adventures and interact with an array of interesting beings. That’s all I’ll say—you know how I hate spoilers. I will include a few quotes, though, and share my thoughts on them.

There is a great paragraph early in the book where Twoflower is trying to explain to Rincewind the logic of insurance, a concept that is foreign to Rincewind. Twoflower, who is from a different world, works calculating insurance risk. The passage has some great puns and pokes fun at the insurance industry.

Inn-sewer-ants,” repeated Rincewind. “Tha’s a funny word. Wossit mean?”

“Well, suppose you have a ship loaded with, say, gold bars. It might run into storms or, or be taken by pirates. You don’t want that to happen, so you take out an inn-sewer-ants-polly-sea. I work out the odds against the cargo being lost, based on weather reports and piracy records for the last twenty years, then I add a bit, then you pay me some money based on those odds—“

(p. 45)

I can’t help having an image of an insurance company as a hive of sewer dwelling insects, racing around like worker ants.

Another scene that stands out for me is the depiction of the gods playing a game of dice. It is a great metaphor for human existence being a strange blend of chance and fate, where anything can happen. During the game, which is played by the god Fate and an unnamed goddess who is only referred to as the Lady, there is a great interaction between the two about the desire cheat one’s fate.

Fate raised an eyebrow.

“And no cheating, Lady,” he said.

“But who could cheat Fate?” she asked. He shrugged.

“No one. Yet everyone tries.”

(p. 98)

The following passage is one of the most resonant symbolic scenes for me.

On either side of him, two glittering curtains of water hurtled toward infinity as the sea swept around the island on its way to the long fall. A hundred yards below the wizard the largest sea salmon he had ever seen flicked itself out of the foam in a wild, jerky and ultimately hopeless leap. Then he fell back over and over, in the golden underworld light.

(p. 222)

I see the water here as symbolizing both existence and the collective unconscious. Every drop in the ocean is an individual thought, or an individual being, all swirling together in this existence before rushing over the edge in a waterfall to become part of the ineffable and the infinite. The salmon represents an individual, caught in the currents of life. With a hopeless futility reminiscent of Sisyphus, the salmon tries to challenge Fate, to go against the flow, but fails. Ultimately, Fate always wins in the end and you become part of the greater mystery.

I’d like to finish up with one last quote, which I think beautifully sums up life. There is so much to do, to see, to experience, that it is impossible to do everything that is on one’s bucket list (especially if you accept the idea of parallel universes). I know that I will never do all the things I want to do, visit all the places I’d like to see, or read all the books I want to read. But I won’t despair; I’ll just make the best of the time I have and enjoy as many of life’s wonders as I can.

“Sometimes I think a man could wander across the Disc all his life and not see everything there is to see,” said Twoflower. “And now it seems there are lots of other worlds as well. When I think I might die without seeing a hundredth of all there is to see it makes me feel,” he paused, then added, “well, humble, I suppose. And very angry, of course.”

(pp 230 – 231)

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