Thursday, April 23, 2015

Gertrude Stein and Sisyphus

Strange how a phrase with quite profound meanings can arise from a fairly common experience  when it is expressed in high compression as a kind of poetic line. Such a case is of Gertrude Stein’s saying: “There is no there there.” Stein was revisiting Oakland, CA where she had lived as a child. The farmhouse when she had grown up had been razed and built over. In her mind “there” meant “where I grew up”; but that place was no longer “there,” meaning the physical arrangements at that spot.  The poetic touch—to be pedantic about it—is the contrast between two meanings of “there.”

The phrase came to mind this morning when I was contemplating the evanescent nature of reality as we experience it here, which, by a small mental step, produced the notion that the values we create or manifest rapidly vanish with the rush of Time. Or do they? Is it with values as it is with people? The body soon ages and then, transformed into dust or ashes, disappears for practical purposes. But the soul moves on. This line of thought then brought to mind that, as long back as I can remember, work has always been the center of my life—going right back to my humblest tasks in my early teens working as a bus boy at Plaza Royal restaurant in Kansas City. Work produces value—at minimum a certain order. Which vanishes sooner or later—so we never run out of work. But the value of that labor, it seems to me, must be preserved somewhere. Over there, perhaps. Which then suggested to me that Sisyphus’ labors are not fully appreciated. Yes, condemned for his hubris he was set the task of rolling a huge boulder up a steep hill—but just before he reached the top, the rock got away from him and rolled down, down, down again.

Aside from being a great pre-scientific discovery of the laws of entropy by the Greeks, the story also symbolizes the work of our lives here—which, while never-ending—never produce a genuinely lasting achievement either. And since we can’t really see the other side of reality from here—from here we cannot see what is really there—we think there is no there there. But faith tells us that values are there, piled high, not least the value of Sisyphus’ labors. Bits and pieces of his pride kept rolling down the hill—but his efforts to overcome them are there, on the other side.

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