The lost lives of Sisyphus


Older now than the gods who had died long ago, Sisyphus rarely left his head. One day he imagined himself as Tantalus, standing in a lake with water up to his chin; another Zeus, the infinity on the edge of things. But most of the time he imagined himself as Sisyphus. The Sisyphus he imagined was slowly building a wall from large stones he pushed up a hill. The wall grew with the passing years, high enough that he could no longer scale it, and so long he could no longer see where it began nor remember why he was building it.


Why did Sisyphus obey?

The gods knew they would have to be wily, because even those with the greatest power can be made to look like slaves. They knew that nothing made a man more malleable than fear (and the hope that makes fear real). Their problem then was this: why would a man not rebel if he could conceive of no punishment greater than the one he has already been given? If he has, that is, nothing further to fear?

(The gods had once seen Sisyphus play a trick on his sheep. Every evening, as the sun dropped behind the hills, he would lead his flock back to the small corral where he kept them overnight. He would stand at the open gate and hold a stick across the entrance, horizontal to the ground, so that the sheep had to jump over it in order to pass into the yard. He had to whip them to begin with, but after a couple of weeks they jumped without coercion. Then one evening, overcome, perhaps, by a small demon, he held the stick in place as he always did, but after the first sheep had jumped over it, he pulled the stick away. Amazed, he watched as one by one the remaining sheep jumped over the stick that wasn’t there and trotted off into the yard. He repeated this again the following evening, and the evening after that. There was no stick, and yet the sheep continued to jump as if there were.)

There was force, of course, there was might. There was terror, and there were chains. But there could also be invisible chains, and man was no more a puppet than when he could not see or feel his chains.

“Thou shall not roll that rock for eternity,” the gods commanded him. And so, Sisyphus rebelled.


There is always something worse, always further to fall. No man in his right mind can deny it. Fear of something worse might almost pass for a definition of what it means to be alive.

The last yards were the worst, so close to the top yet more interminable somehow than the miles that stretched before him at the start. But worse still, the memory he had been here before and must be here again. Each day forever the same. How he cursed his memory. Surely that was truly the worst? If only it were possible to start each day with no recollection of the day before; no accrual of knowledge; no repetition of experience. To wake each morning as if it were the first, the boulder at the bottom of the hill as if it had never been anywhere else, and his task merely to get it to the top.


Though it seemed to take an eternity for the realisation to form, the moment when the rock rolled down the hill was not a moment of freedom. The rock rolled and he followed it: how could that be free? He had heard the story of Achilles and the tortoise, and he saw in his own punishment the same. No matter how close a man might come to the end, it always slipped away. Eternity was never really all that far away. What had once seemed to him interminable, then, those last yards so close to the top, how had it happened that he now loved them the most, when the labour still seemed to stretch out before him like forever? What he came to understand was that repetition was only possible if a task could be completed. Whatever was unfinished thus was also free.


In those final yards it was as if he could see every grain of the rock at once. So close had he been to it for so long it became for him like a second skin stretched tight across the hill on which he rolled. And whether he was made from it or it from him he could no longer say.


Perhaps in the early days the rock really had rolled back down the hill, but that was a long time ago. He could remember rolling it, but he could no longer remember its weight. Some days he found it impossible to recall a time when he and the rock had not been stationary at the top of the hill, the labour complete.

His punishment now was other. Like smoke rising from a chimney or a river flowing to the sea, Sisyphus never left the mountain but seemed to grow further away. It was as if all his past selves, each self that rolled the rock each day, continued to live on, Sisyphus after Sisyphus in endless relay.


Straining against the huge stone, his shoulder bracing its mass, how can he not hope this time will be the last, his purpose achieved, his labours at an end? How beautiful the mountain would look then. It is hope rather than the rolling of the stone that is his true punishment. Worse than grief or resentment or bitterness or hate or shame or love or pain because it holds out a promise when no such promise exists.


In later years they would come to write of him as a hero. But he was no hero, absurd or otherwise. How could he be? For isn’t Sisyphus just another name for memory? 

“The Lost Lives of Sisyphus” is from the recently published book Tales from The Greek with Marco Luccio.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 15, 2022 as "The lost lives of Sisyphus".

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John Hughes writes fiction and essays. His seventh book is The Dogs.

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