from Once & Future Myths, Conari Press 01, Berkeley Ca reproduced
with permission of the author
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
brings 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
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 own 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, "Custome 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 phrases that I copied onto whit index cards hidden
in my overalls. At night, I stared at blindingly 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
The horrified expression on Shelly Duvall's face in the
movie when she peeks at a page of her tormented husband's
writing and see 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
It was worth it, I told myself; it's just part of the
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
my 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
Out of the blue, I blurted, "How about Sisyphus?"
"You mean the guy who was condemned to roll the boulder
up the mountains 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 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
with astonishment, I had stumbled onto a description of
something permanent, eternal, in life, in 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 are 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 card I always carried
with me to the painting sites. Around four o'clock, when
the cold fog began blowing in 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. Afterwards, 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 hand 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 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.
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 legend, 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
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 changed 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
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 hiss loyalty to the gods and the truth he had witnessed,
but the cisterns of his citadel went dry. So Sisyphus risked
everything by trading a divine secret for a perennial spring,
chancing retribution for an act of compassion for his own
The fury of Asopus was so great that when he learned the
true source of his daughter's sorrows, 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
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 in
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 Area to rescue Hades from his humiliating
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
"Let me return to Corinth for three days," he pleaded.
"I am a king. Let me arrange a funeral so my family can
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 so 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
form 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
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.
The myth of Sisyphus is a living myth, I concluded, because
it reveals the inner meaning of our outer struggles. And
who doesn't struggle? Who doesn't look for meaning in the
everyday drama of their life? The myth personifies the notion
set forth in models of drama, from Aristotle to screenwriter
William Goldman, that growth comes through conflict, change
from response to defeat. Moreover, it presages the marvelous
thought of the Scottish poet Kathleen Raine about "the mysterious
wisdom won by toil."