Steve Braunias on the return to work
The myth of Sisyphus is a story that never ends. It never goes anywhere, it never changes; it's the same old, same old; its cruelty and horror never varies. The gods punished Sisyphus by making him roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it reached the top, and to repeat his meaningless task for all eternity.
Yes, happy new year! It's a story everyone can relate to as we step out of the bright light of summer into the dimness and meanness of work. Back to the grind. Back to the futile pursuit. Back, too, in my case, to the creek around the corner from my estate.
The myth of Sisyphus is a metaphor for hopeless endeavour. Once every so often I step into the mangrovial wonderlands of my nearby creek to pick up rubbish. I've been doing this small service for the past 10 years and performed it again the other day, filling two rubbish bags and hauling out five chairs from the mud. There was a TV stuck beneath a fallen tree. But more rubbish will accumulate, more TVs and chairs will be dumped; when the boulder rolls down to the bottom of the hill, it sinks into the mud. Poor old Sisyphus bends at the knees and the waist.
The myth of Sisyphus is a lesson in remaining steadfast and true. I take out the rubbish and place it into or beside a bin at a field above the mangrove creek. The council comes and takes it away. That's good. That's something. Our pointless and interminable activities at work are Sisyphean, but we can take some pride, some satisfaction; honest labour is its own reward. Homer witnessed Sisyphus, and described him in The Odyssey: "The sweat poured from his limbs and the dust rose high above his head."
The myth of Sisyphus is a tragedy. I usually toil away for about two hours in the creek, and cover around about the length of a football field. But what about beyond that, where the creek joins the river, and the river flows out to the harbour, and the tides cover our planet, bringing untold and unrecoverable amounts of rubbish – nets, plastics, oil spills, all the effluvia of human existence – across the sea and on to every shore? The world is a total mess. The world is an extinction event in progress. The world is in a worse state than good old Sisyphus.
The myth of Sisyphus is a farce. Sometimes I take things home from the creek – a pair of scissors, a perfectly good bucket – and now have what may be one of the largest and certainly one of the ugliest collections of bongs in West Auckland. Strange that they end up in the mud. Is it the actions of the same pothead? The design of each is very similar; about three inches of hose pipe, all sticking out of a plastic bottle at the same angle. They are little works of bogan art. I should exhibit them. Smoke on the Water.
The myth of Sisyphus is too narrowly told. Certainly it captures the heartbreaking awfulness of his plight. Homer writes, "Bracing himself and thrusting with hands and feet he pushed the boulder uphill to the top. But every time, as he was about to send it toppling over the crest, its sheer weight turned it back, and once again towards the plain the pitiless rock rolled down."
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But just as all wage slaves go home to their families, Sisyphus had another life outside of his labours; he seduced his brother's daughter, his son was ripped to pieces by his own flesh-eating horses, and his grandson rode the winged horse Pegasus. And what of the view he beheld as he trotted back down towards the plain? Was it scenic, was he at one with nature? When I was in the creek the other day, I watched a starling bathe itself in two inches of water. Then it flew to a branch of a mangrove tree, and rubbed its head against the bark. Sunlight lit its emerald tail feathers.
The myth of Sisyphus is all of us, doing our best, clocking in, putting up with it, going out to do whatever it is we do in good faith and good cheer. Albert Camus wrote a classic essay in 1942 on Sisyphus. He examined the absurdity of our lives, our existential dilemma. He saw Sisyphus as "the proletarian of the gods", a hard worker who regularly experienced a kind of ecstasy. Cleaning creeks, pursuing ambitions…"The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart," Camus concluded. "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."