Showing posts with label existentialism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label existentialism. Show all posts


Sharing The Myth of Sisyphus With Kids: The Original Rolling Stone

I’ve been teaching Greek myth to a class of 8-12-year-olds since February, and it’s been so much fun hearing what the kids say about myths when they process the psychological insights I can share. One of the primary themes of our class has been how and why the myth is still relevant today, thousands of years after these stories were first told. A particularly useful recent lesson was on the myth of Sisyphus, an excellent metaphor for human struggle.
A Detail of an Ancient Greek Vase Depicts the Story of the Trickster Hero Sisyphus Who was Punished by the gods for Attempting to Cheat Death
The Myth of Sisyphus
Sisyphus was a Greek king in the evil trickster mold who found trouble with Zeus when he traded his knowledge of where Zeus was cavorting with a river nymph to her father in exchange for a spring of pure water for the people of his kingdom. In anger, Zeus had Sisyphus carried away to the underworld, but Sisyphus tricked Death into wearing his chains. No one could die until Ares released Death and gave Sisyphus to him.

Sisyphus tricked Death once again (Death must not have been the brightest guy), persuading him that since his (Sisyphus’) wife hadn’t performed the proper funeral rites, he must return to the upper world to correct the situation. Once there, of course, he lived happily for another 50 years or so.
For his offenses against the honor of the gods, Sisyphus is punished by being forced to push a large rock up a steep hill, only to see it roll back down again. He must trek down to the bottom of the mountain and start pushing still.

French-Algerian Writer Albert Camus Reinvents the Myth of Sisyphus for Modern Readers
In his seminal essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes about this myth, arguing that Sisyphus’ fate is the fate of every human. Every day we must do the same tasks: going to work, cleaning our homes, and making our meals. We roll the rock up the hill; each day, it rolls back down, and we must start again.

However, Camus argues that Sisyphus is not genuinely cursed because he isn’t unhappy with his fate. The gods can force him to repeat this task, but they can’t force him to hate it. He is content, and therefore Zeus’ punishment has failed.

Teaching the Myth to My Kids in the Classroom
It was refreshing when I explained all of this to my kids because they asked brilliant questions. They always want to know why the characters in Greek myths didn’t make different, better choices. One question came up: why doesn’t Sisyphus chip away at the rock to make it smaller and more manageable for himself? I compared that to working less hard on studying for an exam and getting a “C” instead of an “A.” You can always take steps to make things easier for yourself, but you’d be cheating yourself at the same time. They got it, and it was cool to see them getting it.
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Found Objects: Jean-Paul Sartre Found On Construction Signage

In this post, I look at a sign that is supposed to be one thing, but looked at through the lens of existentialism means something else entirely.

This sign is on a fence meant to direct visitors to the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan away from construction on the new transportation hub for the PATH train at the World Trade Center Site.


Quote: Kobo Abé On the Value of Work

The only way to go beyond work is through work. It is not that work itself is valuable; we surmount work by work. The real value of work lies in the strength of self-denial.
Kobo Abé, The Woman in the Dunes (1964)
Image credit:  Greig Roselli
PDF Copy for Printing


On Whiskey Bottles, Trail Mix and Walker Percy

In this post, I recount a story of when I found a bottle with a message tucked inside of it.
Shaking Off a Feeling of Emptiness
   Do you ever get this empty feeling you just can’t shake?  It’s like the person who pulls up to their house, sits in their car and lets the engine run when they get home from work, to breathe again, before easily letting go of the ignition, sighing as the car dies.  Not that the person hates his life.  He just needs to breathe.  Again.
This reminds me of Walker Percy, a writer who searched out answers to the odd questions of everyday life – like, “what do I do with myself?” He won the National Book Award for The Moviegoer in 1961, about Binx Bolling, a disconsolate everyman in New Orleans who ostensibly has a good life, a girlfriend, a steady well-paying job, but nevertheless feels this emptiness inside the pit of his gut that he just can’t shake. One day it occurs to Binx to embark on a “search,” to discover what is missing in his life.  
As A Monk I Would Walk in the Woods
The summer of my first year in the monastery, I was twenty-two years old. I was on a search.  I escaped the monastic schedule to hike with a fellow monk who had joined the community at the same time as me. Our plan was to climb the fence along the cemetery to reach a tiny creek, full of white sand, like an ocean's front, that meanders to the Bogue Falaya River. I think we did this once or twice: took off our shoes and socks and donned a bathing suit, crinkling our toes gingerly over rough patches of pine needles and dried up Water Oak leaves until we reached the banks of the creek. A soda for each and a bag of trail mix from the house – one for each – drank 'em and nibbled on fleshy banana bits and salted cashews on the banks, on a Sunday afternoon, when the everydayness gets heavy. We knocked back a few dried apricots into your mouth; take a swig of Orangina, to reduce the despair of the early twenty-first century. The water was cool, even in the summer, and the sand was supple, sinking a few feet past our ankles, making it difficult to walk, careful to avoid the odd shard of glass or roping water snake that patrols the shallow waters. When the bag of trail mix emptied and the sodas had gurgled in our bellies, we hurried back to the monastery to attend evening prayer. To enter back into the rhythm of monastic life. On days like this, as a friend of mine told me once, you feel on par with existence.
Walker Percy's Empty Bottle 
Coming out of the woods, I spotted an empty bottle next to Walker Percy’s grave. He is buried in our cemetery. Usually, there is a flowerpot on the edge of his grave: WALKER PERCY 1916 - 1990. So not to see the usual flowerpot, but an empty bottle struck me as peculiar. At first, I thought that it could have been leftover by rowdy teenagers from the neighborhood, but on closer inspection, I saw that it was an Early Times whiskey bottle, Percy’s favorite brand; an admirer had left behind a note stuffed inside. This intrigued me. 
Why would someone come to a Benedictine monastery to leave behind “a message in a bottle”?  What search were they on?  Did they find themselves at a difficult time in life, seeking answers? Or was it an inside joke, a jocund sentiment left for a friend? Or a prayer left unanswered? Coming out of the river and finding someone else’s message situated me at a crossroads, a place of tension where the monk meets the world – a place where my disconsolation and anxiety struggled with a sense of place and meaning – for I was very much not at ease all the time, in my skin, in my monastic habit, in this place I called home – and the questioning of another seeker confirmed for me that we are both searchers on this planet, seeking and groping for answers.  For aren’t we all searchers? Aren’t we all castaways on an island? For Percy, “to be a castaway is to search for news from across the seas.”
The Self as a Castaway
I think this is the self in any generation: a castaway on an island, searching for news from across the seas, salt in his face and hair, thirsty and desirous. But at every juncture, we are not at ease in our skin, with our station in life. We do not know how to sift through the avalanche of information that bombards us, not knowing the difference between the Good News and the Daily News. Coming out of the woods is a messy business. We emerge as castaways, hoping to decipher a message in a bottle.


Excerpt from My Book of Essays Inspired by New Orleans and New York: "Turning Over a New Leafs [sic]"

Read the rest of the book here.
Setting a crate of laundry on top of the washing machine, I told my landlord, who happened to be standing at the doorway, "I'm turning over a new leafs - I mean, leaf -hah hah, I can't spell." He was doing his Sunday laundry chores as well, convivial as ever, and we were chatting about getting stuff done, the usual small talk between landlord and tenant. My landlord is a 40 something single man who runs his own non-profit; he has light brown hair, average build, and a pleasant smile. We barely see each other; mostly our meetings are necessitated by my late rent checks.


Book Review: The Passion According to G.H.

A review of Clarice's Lispector's novel, The Passion According to G.H. 
Kafka’s Metamorphosis comes to mind when I read Clarice Lispector’s book The Passion According to G.H.  It may just be that a bug figures prominently in both books.

In Kafka’s story a man wakes up as a dung beetle, and his family, at the horror of what he has become, refuse to acknowledge his existence as a bug and Gregor dies of starvation. In Lispector’s story a woman confronts a cockroach she wants to kill and in the process of eliminating this invader, she co-identifies with the insect.  In both stories, there is a radical representation of an “other” entirely alien from what we would call “human.”  The bug of Lispector and the bug of Kafka repulses us. The bug repulses G.H. She is an otherwise  Mrs. Dalloway-kind-of-character. She is haughty and refined.

The novel begins with her epiphanic face-to-face standoff with a cockroach which she half-smashes in her doorway, watching it writhe in its final death throes. And after its white ooze has vacated its exoskeleton, she takes the carcass of the creature and consumes it in a kind of immanent form of communion.

With the consumption of the body of Christ in the form of bread at a Eucharistic celebration, there is supposed to be a kind of transcendent moment that touches the divine, for G.H. there is nothing like transcendence in her consuming of the cockroach. This is pure immanence, baby. In G.H.’s immanent vision — and to call it a vision is really a misnomer —  there is no transcendent moment for G.H.

Actually, she cannot describe the communion she has with the roach in words.  She is at that moment of consumption gone beyond instinctual drive to kill the roach and beyond her repulsion of the creature’s ancient and irreducibly alien existence and has reached for herself a state of immanence, which if described by language would deny the act as being, in of itself, immanent — which means, by the way, “within itself.”

At the moment of this strange climax, G.H. has pulled herself out of her own bootstraps and reached, in the nearest way possible, a kind of creaturely existence.  Unlike Gregor in Kafka’s moribund tale, who is transformed into a bug against his will and killed because his immanence is intolerable to the humans he lives with, G.H. chooses to find immanence in an uncharacteristic way.

Going to her maid’s room to tidy up the space, she catches sight of the bug and an instinctual rage propels her to exterminate the creature, to dominate it, to stand-over-and-above-it. Her action is similar to what Sartre does intellectually in Nausea, when he addresses the tree stump in a Parisian park and declares that he can stand above the rootness of the tree.  But for G.H., coming face to face with the cockroach’s mouth, with its eyes like a girl about to be married, pondering its multiple layer of cretinous skin, she herself becomes like a stupid beast. She also goes further than what Sartre proposes; Sartre manages his nausea by leaving the stump triumphant. Sartre says, “Ha. Stump. I am better than you!”  G.H. wants to see what is on the other side of the human/animal divide. She wants to reach what Baudelaire longed for in his prose poem about what would the conscientiousness of a beast be like. In the poem, Baudelaire dreams of being like the animal bête because it is oblivious to cares and to concerns. Baudelaire may be referring to his mistress in misogynist terms here, but the brute fact that the creature does not have to choose, I guess, is the implication.  While for Sartre, the ability to choose, to stand-over-and-above the brute creature is the existentialist definition of what it means to be human; it is the ability to define the essence of our being by freedom of choice that marks existentialist thought so well — some would say happily — especially if you find it repulsive to be one with the creature like G.H. and Baudelaire.

I read some of the passages from The Passion to a friend who had never heard of Lispector.  And he basically told me that he is repulsed by cockroaches and would never have done what G.H. did. Most of us are like my friend here. Most of us, including myself, have never stooped to the eye level of the cockroach to identify with it and then, literally, to embody it.  Perhaps for G.H., the ability of choice, that marks us as human, smacks of painful consciousness, an experience she is trying to escape from as if she is trying to be without being, to see without seeing, or to ingest without ritual. Like the medieval flagellant who exposes his body to the whip to feel pain, so does G.H. wish to eradicate her consciousness.  The encounter with the roach is an attempt to eradicate the trappings of culture and consciousness.  But why?  She says that she wants to desist as opposed to exist. To exist means “to stand outside of.”  To desist means “to stand from” as if to stand neutrally.  And she says that the animal insists. The animal stands from within.
photo credit: thenewhereheretics