Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Artist’s Struggle: Seeing beyond the boulder

I enjoy exploring the histories and ideas about myths as I find they help me grasp the deeper premise of musical gestures and metaphors. I’m currently chewing on the myth of Sisyphus as it is presented in Phil Cousineau’s book  Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in Modern Times

He offers this story as one to guide and inspire the artist. Yes, Sisyphus was the fellow who was condemned to push a boulder up the side of mount Tartarus, just to have it roll back down again.

Cousineau’s take on the myth sees beyond a sense of futileness and despair. As he writes:

"Sisyphus was condemned for all eternity to shoulder the boulder up the mountain of hell, and all the while Hades would be watching for the look of despair that would mark the defeat of another mere mortal. But Sisyphus resolved never to allow the gods to see him defeated by despair. He silently vowed that because his fate was in his hands he could be superior to it. That is the genius of the mythic view of this complex image, that this, "the hour of consciousness" as Camus called it, is born out of the beauty that can be heard in the midst of our ordeals.

“The myth of Sisyphus is a living myth, I concluded, because it reveals the inner meaning of our outer struggles. And who doesn't struggle? Who doesn't look for meaning in the everyday drama of their life? The myth personifies the notion set forth in models of drama, from Aristotle to screenwriter William Goldman, that growth comes through conflict, change from response to defeat. Moreover, it presages the marvelous thought of the Scottish poet Kathleen Raine about "the mysterious wisdom won by toil."


I’m still contemplating this version of the ‘artist's struggle.’ I see the boulder as the weight of creative endeavor. Each time we create something which seems ‘perfect’ and ‘beautiful’ - once it’s completed, the rock rolls back down the hill. To look once again up at the side of the mountain and ponder how to not just ‘do it again,’ but surpass the previous creation is unfathomable. Yet you lean into the rock and go to.

For our response to defeat, I have found the story of Otho, one of the late Caesars to be particularly apt. Otho’s response to an embarrassing military defeat was to retire to his chambers and kill himself. The irony of this is that Julius Caesar had suffered far larger losses and many more defeats, but Julius Caesar saw beyond the immediate struggle. What was a road block to Otho was a mere pot-hole to Julius Caesar. Maybe Julius was thinking of his life as something bigger than the boulder - a myth, his to bring to life.


A final word from Cousineau:

“Don’t be satisfied with the myths that come before you,” said the Sufi poet Rumi seven centuries ago, “unfold your own myth.” …... If we do, we may learn the eternal struggle from the depths towards the heights “is enough to fill a man’s heart” as Camus concluded, gloriously.

Out of the struggle with ourselves, from the fire in our soul, comes the thing that never existed before—the music, the art, the words that make life endurable, and more, creative and sublime.”

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