Where I Stand 05/09/2016

I have spent much of the month of August travelling down to London to see C.  For some or other reason, certainly with no particular literary reason in mind, I took her on a Keats and Marx tour.  Whether anybody has ever linked these two humans in any theoretical way I have no idea  but for me their presence in Hampstead and Highgate, one poetic the other physical, was in a strange way one (or two) of the reasons why I have always gravitated to that part of London.  Of course there is also the presence of Freud up there.  That, however, we did not visit due to, I think, C’s growing annoyance with my desire to stay in Hampstead at the cost of viewing what else London has to offer.

What she, I guess, did not realise was that in one of our other outings I would again take her to a place that links Keats and Marx.  That is to say the British Museum where Marx wrote Das Capital and Keats was inspired, by the Elgin Marbles (#controversynotedbutnotdiscussedhere), to write ‘Ode on Grecian Urn’.  Sadly, the famous reading room (or as Kenneth Clark suggested: the only large room where a great work was ever created) was closed. But the marbles were certainly still on display with the famous carving said to have inspired these words:

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

To what green altar, O mysterious priest,

Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,

And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

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However, while touring the Highgate Cemetery, where Marx is interred (under perhaps the most inappropriate of tombs one could imagine [See Above]), it was with some surprise that we encountered the gravestone of Mr John Charles Gage (1910-1993).  I say surprised because sitting asymmetrically atop of it is a sculpture of Sisyphus rolling his stone.

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Just quite who Mr Gage was and why he or his bereaved chose this symbol to mark his death no cursory Google search reveals.  However, it happily brought to mind Camus’s famous essay on Sisyphus’s symbolic relevance to the modern (or what Camus referred to as ‘absurd’) world and our lived experience.  Death for Camus was one of the distinct elements of the absurd, and it would certainly be absurd to dedicate the reasons for living to the dead, but that is no doubt how Camus would have had it.  So here, to those remains in Highgate Cemetery and in particular to Mr. Gage:

You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero…His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth…As for this myth, one sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it, and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands. At the very end of his long effort measured by skyless space and time without depth, the purpose is achieved. Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward that lower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain.

It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.

If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn…

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. – Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus 

 

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