Sisyphus, from the Greek Myth, was a King charged with the eternal punishment of endlessly pushing a boulder uphill, a boulder which would only, once it got to the top, roll all the way back down again. A just keep swimming mantra of old times. Albert Camus, that philosopher of the absurd, imagines Sisyphus not only content, but dare he say it, happy. A sort of middle finger to the gods who intended the task to be a punishment. A real way of getting back at upper management. I suspect the happiness had something to do with the joy of work itself, the heft and sturdiness of the endeavor — the improbable space of hope which impossibility creates for us.
This essay as meandering and long-suffering treatise on depression, inertia, and impossibility is an exercise in rolling words into sentences, paragraphs, boulders — a boulder which I now pass to you, a boulder which you must now roll up that long hill whose treks of attention, boredom, and juts of despair bind you to the path. This personal essay, as genres help negotiate the space between us, is a performative essay, written within the experience of impossible boulder pushing. The author (if there is any such thing) writes this essay while the author [performer] is (was) feeling depressed, tired, and in bed. The show The Sopranos plays in the background. I have my own hill to push boulders up — you too, I know. It is perhaps why we read and why we watch shows and why we pay attention in the moments that we do — to catch faint glimpses of the tracks others leave behind of the boulders they push, to follow the traces, to see how the others manage, to witness how any of us survive it at all.
To write from within the space of the experience that the writer is attempting to remark upon is the attempt to close, just a bit, the gap of space between the subject at hand and its linguistical performance, the space between writer and reader. It is despair performed — depression and language pushed up the mountain (only to roll back down). The author attempts to stay close, but these etchings and words are only traces of traces*, traces of traces you trace with your eyes, but by now, this your moment of reading, I have already gone and what is left on the page is only the absence of my spectral presence and now you must confront (read) your own ghostly absent-presence. I feel this separation between us. You reach out and I am only trace. I reach to you through word and you too are only trace, an idea in my head, a specter of past and future reading this perhaps, as I wrote it, while laying in bed? And just like that, the boulder rolls– rolls all the way back down the hill. And so we start again.
[*Derrida, that great philosopher of deconstruction gives us the idea of the trace. I’ll leave it there. It’s a bit tough to read Derrida when you are depressed. Basically the trace is the trace of a trace — as in there are no originary marks, just traces upon traces within the trace of the trace…].
The Boulder Rolls Back Down.
How do we even begin to ask for help these days? I fall into the banal rabbit hole of Justin Bieber’s instagram. In March 2019, he captions a photo saying, “been struggling a lot. Just feeling super disconnected and weird.” He asks for help, for prayer. I see desperation shared through a screen. Touching only machine, my finger traces his face. Does he find relief? 4,863,414 people like his photo. Maybe that helps. I touch the machine again. He might already be feeling better. Trace of a trace of a trace. I scroll onward and he goes back to pushing his own boulder the way we all must. It is impossible really, all of it.
Have you been there? To that wild land of the impossible? Tony Soprano, mob boss, sitting in therapy is asked, “are you depressed?” – “I guess” he answers. Anne Sexton, in a poem, writes “Depression is boring, I think / and I would do better to make /some soup and light up the cave.” But alas, Sexton tires of pushing the boulder and takes her own life. I am visiting this land of the impossible currently and visiting hard, the kind of visit where you bring so much stuff your hosts start to get nervous, passing looks back and forth with their spouse and asking in a slightly higher-pitched voice, “so…how long do you plan on staying?” Time is an impossible gambit and the only guarantee is that you’ll run out of it and the ghosts, any minute, will soon start arriving.
The possibility of life is hemmed in by impossibility (this is what Sisyphus knew, what science sings, what poetry configures, what mourning reveals). As I type this, my fingers are languid, for depression slows the blood, freezes the joints, ages you swiftly– swiftly enough to palpably notice as the strange self in the mirror gazes back. Thoughts arrive at the page garbled and rotten like fruit picked far too late. The time the words finally arrive is an arrival of a moment already past. When Hamlet proclaims “time is out of joint” you know it is not time but yourself which is disjointed. Hamlet was of course haunted, so too, are we. One ontologically arrives either too fast or too slow and the bones break as they collide into the clock, the boulder, desire, impossibility — all of which must be rolled up that hill, but you just can’t seem to get the timing quite right and it all rolls over on top of you. Maybe it too took Sisyphus awhile to get the hang of eternal punishment.
All I can do is to sketch out the landscape of despair etched into the back of my eyelids –the tracks and traces my boulder makes. I wish I could do more. The moment I almost get anywhere or tell you anything, the boulder starts to roll back downhill. The landscape of darkness I observe from behind delicate, almost transparent flesh is punctuated by the blue light of screens, peeling open consciousness. They say this kind of light is not good for you. Keeps you up. Keeps you pushing boulders uphill, even in sleep. The Sopranos plays on the laptop I keep in bed beside me like a faithful lover and as I toss and turn I hear Tony say to his therapist, “I’m not getting any satisfaction from my work either.” It’s hard when the boulder gets the best of you and right when that rock reaches the very top of the mountain I awake to find it heavy heavy heavy there, beside my feet, at the sinking of the very bottom.
Justin Bieber asks the internet for prayer. You can pray to the boulder to be lighter, to the mountain to be shorter, supplicate the gods for mightier arms and a broader back– either way, it rolls back downhill, for that/this is precisely the point. The impossibility of the never-to-be-finished task is a gift — albeit a cruel one. It is the gift that keeps us in the game. As Camus says, “the struggle itself toward the height is enough to fill a man’s heart.” If you’ve ever had to give up booze or any other sundry substances or kick a habit you learn that it is the very impossibility of the task which keeps the hand to the plow and the heart busy. One day at a time as the saying goes; it is the way of acknowledging the boulder — the necessary and persistent vulnerabilities, weaknesses, humanness. It is work never finished, a job which renews each morning, mourning, moment. There are boulders to push and I am sure Sisyphus would love a drink, but perhaps he has no time. And just like that, the boulder rolls back down the mountain and we begin the task over again. It is within the heft of this impossible task wherein we find the possibility of our work of building equitable worlds (but of course, when you are depressed, this impossibility is no gift but rather a sick cosmic joke and the task of Sisyphus feels just as it was intended to be, an eternal punishment — even hell itself would be more futile, better on the back, easier on the psyche).
Justin Bieber asks for prayer. Tony, mob boss on The Sopranos, goes to therapy — takes prozac. Anne Sexton lights her cave and Sisyphus, punished, has no choice but to push the boulder. Camus, and all the philosophers, imagine. I write this. You maybe read it. Brian Shaw, my favorite Strongman, sets a world record in the Stone Lift, hoisting up a rock of 560 pounds. From what I can gather: snacks, dedication, and some chalk seem to help. Shaw finds his joy in the stone, the boulder, the rock — within their impossibility and crushing weight and the ways in which the stones cry out asking to be pushed, to be heaved, to be propelled up the impossible hill.
Impossibility teaches that we might not be the hero in the script of our lives and it is just as well, for there are boulders to push, work to be done. I succumb to playing second fiddle, back up quarterback, supporting actor — all to that great agony of the task at hand — the work to sustain an eternity. Without impossibility we would have nothing to heave against, no way to get traction, no way to stay the course. What we push upon, pushes back upon us and this touching creates the friction of possibility. The possibility of what? Camus’s guess is happiness. Perhaps it could be some configuration of hope — hope of the working kind, as hope is a brine made from the salt of tears and without its impossibility there would be nothing to push against, nothing to which to set our might upon. All this briny hope calcifies and rolls itself into the boulder we must push push push. Camus leaves Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain and writes, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Maybe, out of kindness, you can imagine me happy too. And I — I will do the same for you.
Chalk up. Impossibility awaits.