Meeting Myths

“Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 490)

 

This week, I revisited Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling for Arts One. This text is one that has, in many ways, haunted me for almost a decade. I’ve read it several times, recommended it to others, and most importantly, struggled with it. Because you are meant to struggle with this text. It is meant to unsettle you, create dis-ease, confusion, uncertainty and–to put it bluntly–blow your mind. It is an exercise in thinking about something beyond thought, after all! And I think that’s why the text has always intrigued me. I am fascinated by the idea of pushing thought further and further, of testing the boundaries of intelligible reason, of wondering why Kierkegaard found himself so caught up in the intelligibility of the Abraham story.

On that last point, there is one enduring theory that is referenced even in the introduction to our own edition: Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regine Olsen. Kierkegaard’s father was a melancholy man who was consumed by guilt and depression. His guilt was never entirely explained, but may have derived from the fact that he slept with Kierkegaard’s mother out of wedlock when she was still a maid in his home. Kierkegaard appears to have inherited this depressed, melancholy and guilt-ridden temperament from his father. His mother and several of his seven siblings died before Kierkegaard was 21, many dying in childhood. Kierkegaard himself was convinced that he would not live much past 33, though again, the reason for this is unclear. But this back-story is necessary in order to understand Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regine Olsen.

Kierkegaard met Regine in 1837 and proposed to her in 1840. She accepted him. However, in 1841, Kierkegaard broke off the engagement, much to Olsen’s confusion and dismay. When he was asked why, Kierkegaard never did give a satisfactory answer. Some speculate that he broke the engagement off because he was afraid of his impending early death, and fearful of leaving Olsen widowed. Some said he was fearful that his melancholy temperament would make him an unsuitable husband and father. But some people suppose that Olsen was Kierkegaard’s Isaac; she was his test of faith. That is, Kierkegaard sometimes claimed that he could not see how be a good husband and father and be the religious scholar he felt called upon to be at the same time. While this might be dismissed as someone making the decision to pursue fame and glory over pursuing a life of home and family (a perfectly rational and intelligible decision) some scholars suggest that this is only what Kierkegaard said. What he meant, what he could not say, was that he was being tested.

If he was being tested, it seems possible that he failed the test. He never got Olsen back (as Abraham got Isaac). Instead, she married another, and Kierkegaard lived alone. However, indications are that he never stopped loving Olsen. He left everything to her in his will.  If he failed the test, it seems to have been because he could not sustain the duel movement of faith. Indeed, Johannes de Silentio claims at many places in Fear and Trembling to be able to understand, and even to make, the move of infinite resignation (giving up Isaac/Olsen) but not the double-movement required of faith (giving up Isaac/Olsen, but still believing that one will get him/her back somehow). That is, de Silentio cannot sustain the paradox of believing two conflicting beliefs. And it is possible that Kierkegaard cannot as well.

So, Kierkegaard’s fascination with the Abraham/Isaac story is often thought to result from his own love, and loss of, Regine Olsen. But I don’t want to jump too quickly to the conclusion that Kierkegaard and de Silentio are the same person, or share the same experiences and perspectives. They may, they may not. Indeed, part of the reason Kierkegaard may have written under this pseudonym may have been to distance himself from these ideas and theories. Another reason may have been his desire for us to meet these ideas on their own merits, and not do what I just did: explain them away as a result of Kierkegaard’s past experience.

Still, when I read this text, I am vividly aware of how intimate and passionate it is. This is not an essay. It is, as one student recently put it to me, more like a diary, or a stream of consciousness. It is a personal exploration of an old myth. Whether he intended to or not, whether this is about Olsen or not, the text will contain elements of Kierkegaard’s identity within it, simply because he wrote it. And, in writing it, he brought his own lived experiences to bear. This doesn’t invalidate Kierkegaard’s reading of the Abraham/Isaac story, nor do I think it allows us to dismiss his interpretation. What it does do, is illuminate something interesting about interpreting texts. Interpretation is personal. It is a meeting of you and the myth. You bring your life experiences to the meeting, and the myth brings all the past interpretations and discussions. But what comes out of this meeting is unique.

Which brings me to the quote from Camus with which I started this blog post. It’s one of my favorite Arts One quotes. And I think Kierkegaard exemplifies it. He breathes life into this Abraham story, possibly by breathing his own lived experiences, his own unfulfilled hopes and dreams, into the myth from Genesis. And in doing so, he attempts to flesh out the subtle characterizations of Abraham, Isaac and Sarah as represented in the original biblical text. We may not agree with the life he breathed into these texts. We may take issue with them, or delight in them, or be unsettled or confused by them. And we may want to breathe our own life both into Fear and Trembling and into Genesis itself.

All these options are open to us this week. In speaking about these texts, we bring them to life again. But, in speaking about them, we aren’t being silent.

Perhaps that’s another reason Johannes di Silentio (and by extension, Kierkegaard) returns to this text. Perhaps his obsession with this text was a way to drown out the silence.

 

For more on Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen, see: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kierkegaard/

Silence and Speech

This week, I’d like to talk about a chant–a little ear-worm, if you will–that has been embedded in my mind for decades. It’s an unpleasant puzzle why, when I’ve forgotten other arguably more useful and less damaging things, somehow I still vividly remember this chant. It’s stuck in my head. It is a part of my history. And so, it is also a part of myself.

We were studying North American history in Elementary School Social Studies. I think it was grade 5 or so. And one of my classmates took it upon themselves to extend one of the teaching-tool chants from this unit: “The Columbus Chant”.

Here it is, in case you are unfamiliar:

In 1492,

Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

It’s pithy, has a good beat, and has probably helped millions of students remember the date come test day. But my classmate thought there was more to be said. And, against all odds, the extension of the chant that a classmate of mine came up with is still, possibly forever, in my mind.

In 1492,

Columbus sailed the ocean blue,

He found an island and staked a claim

And now to give his new land a name

West Indies he said, he called it so

‘America’ he failed to know.

There might have been more, but that’s all I can recall. I remember my teacher enthusiastically endorsing this student’s initiative, and all of us singing this together while clapping our hands. I don’t remember if there were children from the Tsuu t’ina nation in that class, but there might have been. A fair number of them went to my Southern Alberta school. But I don’t remember if there were any present that day and I remember no discomfort while singing about Columbus ‘staking a claim’ to land that was already claimed by indigenous groups. If anything, I remember the whole lesson as being rather fun. That, in itself, is upsetting.

Don’t get me wrong. My teacher was a good teacher. In fact, she was one of my favorite teachers precisely because she encouraged us to be creative and to take an active role in our own education; which was exactly the thing my classmate had done by extending the ‘Columbus chant’. This teacher’s embracing of our creativity and her willingness to be playful with our education are still things I remember fondly. So I don’t write this to condemn either my school or my teacher. And I certainly don’t write it to condemn my classmate, who was, after all, ten years old. The fact that this chant was chanted by otherwise kind and well-meaning people is, actually, the whole point. It’s why I’m writing this blog post this week.

I write it because, while reading Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past this week, I was recalled to this classroom in a visceral and uncomfortable way. And I was reminded of the way in which speech can be a tool for silence. And for inaction. And I remember, as uncomfortable as that memory is, that I have unwittingly participated in this silencing. My own speech has been used to silence others. And this was done without malice, without forethought and without even an awareness that I was doing it. I was, of course, not the instigator of this silencing, as anyone who has read Trouillot’s book knows. But I was participating in it. My chant, in elementary school, was ensuring the enshrinement of history. Trouillot tells us, when speaking of Columbus, that the celebration of Columbus day on October 12th is significant. That the United States has reduced Europe’s bloody and prolonged encounter with America to one “single moment thus creates a historical ‘fact’.”(Pg. 114) This fact becomes an anchor from which to understand our present selves. And it becomes transparent. Obvious. Beyond question. Eventually, beyond thought. So easily assumed that my elementary school class could make a nursery rhyme of it, stripping it of all the horror of the original event. (Nursery rhymes do this stripping effectively, after all. Just look at “Ring around the rosie”!)

Whether I knew it or not, I was participating in the creation of history, which means I was also participating in the silencing of what happened. I was participating in the constant “narrativization of history, the transformation of what happened into that which is said to have happened.” (Pg. 113) By repeating the old chant, and by extending it, my class was reaffirming what many elementary school classes had done before. We were reasserting this narrative as historical ‘fact’ and simultaneously denying any possible counter-narrative. No, it was more than denying a counter-narrative. We weren’t acknowledging the possibility of the existence of the counter-narrative. To deny something is, if only tacitly, to acknowledge it. After all, what’s the point of denying something that isn’t there? Through our speech, we prevented the possibility of the counter-narrative from even arising. Our repetition of a chant that had been repeated over and over made it mindless. Self-evident. No denial was needed because no conceptual space for a counter-narrative was given.

We’ve examined the ways in which speech can be used for action, communication, and power in this class. But we haven’t directly looked at the ways in which speech can be used in the service of silence, maybe because it seems paradoxical. The society I live in is one that seems to shy away from silence. My bus ride to work is filled with individuals who, like me, have ear buds on, blocking out the silence with the noise of a podcast, music, or an audio book. We are all encouraged or coerced into participating in ‘small talk’ whose use is mainly to put others at ease by filling up the silence between us with noise. I’ve heard it said, more than once, that my society is one that doesn’t like silence. Silence must be eradicated at all costs. And we have a multitude of tools at our disposal to shatter silence wherever and whenever it arises. The easiest one, and the oldest one, is speech.

But this dichotomy between speech and silence is a false one. Speech doesn’t just eradicate silence. Often, too often, it perpetuates it. And, more frightening still, it can perpetuate this silence effortlessly and unconsciously. Perhaps the question I am left with here, then, is how does one shatter speech? How do I uncover what has happened, when what is said to have happened is comfortably ensconced in my mind?How do I squish my ear-worm?

Repetition and Sisyphus

“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” (Camus, Pg. 489)

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Sisyphus is cursed by the gods to roll a boulder up a mountain, watching it come crashing down, walk back down the mountain after it, and roll the boulder up again. His life is an endless series of repetition. Worse than that, it is meaningless repetition. So then why does Albert Camus say that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (Pg. 492)? How can one imagine Sisyphus happy?

Camus’ 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, is itself an exercise in repetition. Not only does he examine Sisyphus–a figure condemned to repeat the same task over and over–but his examination itself is a revisiting of a text that has been revisited before, and will, no doubt, be revisited again. (Not to get too self-conscious, but it is being revisited right now, as I write this). I choose this text as an introduction to the Arts One 2013-2014 ‘Remake/Remodel’ theme, because the text repeats a myth about repeating. So, if you’ve been keeping up, we are repeating a text that repeats a myth that is about the agony of repetition. So, in doing so have we just tripled our agony? Is Sisyphus happy? And are we?

There are a lot of reasons to think that the answer to these questions is ‘no’. Repetition is often boring. And it’s often not seen as very meaningful. After all, what is the point of doing something we’ve already done before. It’s like ‘reinventing the wheel’. The first guy to invent it is a genius. But after that, it just isn’t so impressive or important.

There is another reason to think the answers to the above questions should be ‘no’. Camus tells us that

“If the myth is tragic it is because the hero is conscious. What would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?” (Pg. 491, emphasis added)

The implication seems to be that, if Sisyphus were not acutely self-conscious of the futility of the repetition he is forced to participate in, then things wouldn’t be so bad.Image

It’s because Sisyphus knows that what he is doing is futile that he feels its futility acutely. His awareness of its meaninglessness makes it meaningless. So, he is the author of his own empty life in virtue of his consciousness. Doesn’t sound too happy so far.

And it gets worse. Because this myth has been and can be treated as an allegory for life. Yeah, life! Under this reading it isn’t just that Sisyphus’s existence is meaningless, but that life just generally is pointless. After all, the repetition Sisyphus is engaged in is similar to the kind of repetition we are all engaged in. People are born. They live. They die. It’s been happening for hundreds of years. Worse than that, there is a sense in which many feel that even what they do with their lives has been done before. In the Bible, Ecclesiastes, we find the phrase “there is nothing new under the sun” and people often state that all the stories it is possible to tell have been told. There is a sense that there is no room for a truly novel ideal, or a truly unique experience. It’s all been done before. Probably hundreds of times before. We are all the authors of our own meaningless lives in virtue of our self-consciousness.

So by this point you should be getting the sense that this text is often seen as a bit of a downer. It should also come as no surprise that the first line of The Myth of Sisyphus is “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” (Pg. 441) So forget why we must imagine Sisyphus happy for a moment, how can we imagine it? And if we can’t then what’s the point of all the repetition?

There are a lot of reasons to think of The Myth of Sisyphus as a depressing myth. There are a lot of reasons to find repetition tedious. But, that’s not the end of the story. As Camus revisits familiar ground in retelling this Greek myth, he illustrates what can be uplifting and creative in the act of repetition. Camus writes that “Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them.” (Pg. 490) The myth of Sisyphus is lacking in detail at times. It doesn’t tell us everything. It leaves things open to interpretation, and grants us the ability to fill in the blanks.

The details are lacking on purpose, according to Camus. The lack of detail allows the possibility for the myth to change even as it remains the same. Because the reader or the listener will change it. One sees it in a new way, a way unique to one’s own perspective in this time and this place. And this is not only true for the Sisyphus myth, but for every text we will read this term. Every text has been read by people before you. Every text has been talked about and written about by people before you. But none of them have been read by you. Here. Now. Even when you revisit these texts in the future (and we all hope you do) they will never be the same as they are right now. Because you will have changed, and your surroundings will have changed.

So I want to suggest that there is a tension in Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. The tension is between the apparent meaningless of retracing the steps of others over familiar ground, and the freedom to make this journey one’s own through one’s own unique perspective, imagination and conscious life. I wrote above that we are the authors of our own empty lives in virtue of our self-consciousness. But it is also in virtue of our self-consciousness that we can give our lives meaning. This is one of the tensions that I hope to explore this term in Remake/Remodel: the ways in which existing patterns, structures, myths and customs both constrain us and offer us ways to freely and creatively express ourselves.

Camus argues that, even though Sisyphus is trapped in a repetitive structure, within that structure he is free. “His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. . . he knows himself to be the master of his days.” (Pg. 492). The structure is in place, but what he chooses to do within that structure is up to him!

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Works Cited: Camus, Albert The Myth of Sisyphus” in Basic Writing of Existentialism, Gordon Marino (ed.) New York: The Modern Library. 2004. Pp. 442-488