Home Work

“Feels like Home.”  An odd phrase. When we say it, we seldom mean it literally like the place where we keep our possessions or get our mail. Usually we mean something else.  Something bigger- even mythic. Yes, a metaphor, but for what exactly? Peace, Security,  Wholeness? Maybe, but these terms are also abstract. What do they mean?

"Home" has always been one of literature's great themes- building a home, protecting one's home, leaving home. Odysseus’ sole mission was to return home.  
In the opening passage of her novel Damage,  Josephine Humphries describes "Home" this way:
There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives. Those who are lucky enough to find it ease like water over a stone, onto its fluid contours, and are home.   
Some find it in the place of their birth; others may leave a seaside town, parched, and find themselves refreshed in the desert. There are those born in rolling countryside who are really only at ease in the intense and busy loneliness of the city. 
For some, the search is for the imprint of another; a child or a mother, a grandfather or a brother, a lover, a husband, a wife, or a foe.  
We may go through our lives happy or unhappy, successful or unfulfilled, loved or unloved, without ever standing cold with the shock of recognition, without ever feeling the agony as the twisted iron in our soul unlocks itself and we slip at last into place. 
Those who are lucky enough to find it ease like water over a stone… and are home. Here, Humphries too is using the term "home" in a grand or mythic sense. When I read Humphries quote the first time, I was reminded of Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook, based on Nicholas Sparks novel.  In the story, we see Noah (Ryan Gosling) and Allie (Rachel McAdams) fall in love but then eventually become estranged.  At one point, Allie is even set to marry someone else. In spite of this, Noah continues to rebuild a home he always envisioned living in with Allie.  In doing so, he creates a room just for her where she can pursue her passion for painting.  Shortly after seeing it, she laments the fact that she never paints anymore. She wants to, but for whatever reason, has stopped. We assume it’s because she has been busy or has simply forgotten- forgotten what’s important; essential.  She’s reminded when Noah presents her this “room of one’s own.” By Noah understanding this need, even when Allie has forgotten it, their relationship moves beyond mere attraction, even beyond affection, to perhaps the truest form of intimacy- recognition. It’s one thing to be desirable to another, but it’s something else to be known. The house Noah built is a home but also acts as home in the mythic sense we've been discussing.  Noah and Allie rekindle their relationship and something “unlocks itself” as both “slip at last into place.” 

When we think of love stories in general, we usually begin (and end) with sexual attraction or Eros. Certainly that plays a role, but the deeper feeling of being understood or “known” goes much further than just physical attraction.  C.S. Lewis’ in The Four Loves illustrates this distinction nicely.  Lewis indeed writes about erotic love, but it’s actually his definition of friendship that I think best captures what it feels like to be "known" by another: 
Friendship arises... when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure or (burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, 'What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’    
We can imagine that among those early hunters and warriors single individuals- one in a century? one in a thousand years?- saw what the others did not; saw that the deer was beautiful as well as edible, that hunting was fun as well as necessary, dreamed that his gods might be not only powerful but holy. But as long as each of these percipient persons dies without finding a kindred soul, nothing (I suspect) will come of it; art or sport or spiritual religion will not be born. 
It is when two such persons discover one another, when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision- it is then that Friendship is born. And instantly they stand together in an immense solitude.  Lewis, C.S. (1960; 1988). The Four Loves. (p. 65). Harvest/HBJ.
When considering Lewis’ quote, it’s important not to be distracted or dismissive of the word “friend” or “friendship” within the context of romantic love. I remember as a teenager how often a phrase like “just friends” was used to distinguish the seriousness of a relationship, or actually, the lack of seriousness. The phrase “strictly platonic” was similarly used, meaning- Yes, we may be spending a lot of time together but there is nothing physical or sexual between us. 

To fully appreciate Lewis’ definition of friendship, it’s important to realize that 
the way I used the term “strictly platonic” as a teenager, was the exact opposite of what Plato actually meant. Yes, it was mostly accurate to say a relationship absent of sexual relations was "Platonic." However, adding “just” in front of the word Platonic is where the error occurred. On the contrary, Plato would describe the sexual relationship as the lesser, more diminutive of the two. Strictly Platonic actually meant the relationship was so profound, so intimate, that one no longer needed sex- that the relationship expanded beyond it, to the transcendent, to true communion, far beyond the mere physical world and into a spiritual realm. 

We can see a representation of this in Mike Nichol’s 1971 film Carnal Knowledge when Sandy (Art Garfunkel) is talking to his friend Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) about the intimacy he shares with his girlfriend, Susan (Candice Bergen). Sandy says, "She tells me thoughts I didn’t even know I had before she tells them to me. It’s unbelievable. I can talk to her."

Jonathan is so intrigued by Sandy's connection with Susan and their intimacy, that he actually seduces Susan in order to find it too. But there’s an interesting twist.  The connection between Jonathan and Susan is just sexual. After a few months, Jonathan becomes angry. On the surface it appears he's angry that she's still seeing Sandy. However, what actually bothers him is that in spite of having sex, they don't share the same level of intimacy she shares with Sandy: 
Jonathan: Susan, I love you. What can’t you be more with me like you are with Sandy? You know every mood of mine like you know every mood of his. 
Susan: No. 
Jonathan: How come?
Susan: I don’t know. 
Jonathan: You don’t tell me thoughts I never knew I had. 
Susan: Does he say I do that? 
Jonathan: You do it all right, so do it with me. 
Susan: I can’t. 
Jonathan: You can do it with him. You can do it with me! Now tell me my thoughts. 
Susan: I can’t. 
Jonathan: Why can’t you?  
Susan: I can’t with you. 
Jonathan: This has gone far enough. 
Susan: I can’t stand any more ultimatums. 
Jonathan: This is the last one. Now, tonight you tell him about us or tomorrow, I tell him.  Look at me Susan! Now tell me my goddamn thoughts! 
When Jonathan demands that Susan tell him his thoughts, he is desperately seeking the Platonic ideal of intimacy that transcends sex.

Let’s now return to Lewis’ quote, and reconsider it within this context, suggesting that Lewis' description of friendship is akin to this Platonic ideal:
…when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure or (burden). The typical expression.. would be something like, 'What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’ It is when two such persons discover one another, when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision… And instantly they stand together in an immense solitude.  Lewis, C.S. (1960; 1988). The Four Loves. (p. 65). Harvest/HBJ. 
Here Lewis describes what it feels to not only have someone know your thoughts, but to know theirs as well. 

One of my favorite illustrations of this type of recognition, of being known, is through Ben's (Dustin Hoffman) relationship with Elaine (Katherine Ross) in The Graduate, another film by Mike Nichols. Before this connection occurs though, Ben has an affair with Elaine's mother, Mrs. Robinson. Ben and Elaine's intimacy is all the more profound when contrasted with the meaningless and empty affair Ben has with her mother. In spite of being sexually intimate, Ben and Mrs. Robinson are never able to even have a conversation. When they meet in the hotel room for the first time, Ben feels guilty and says: "
Mrs. Robinson, I can't do this. This is terribly wrong. Can you imagine my parents, can you imagine what they would say if they saw us in this room. I think they deserve better than this."  Mrs. Robinson doesn't play by the same rules though. She asks Ben if this is his first time, and says that just because he's "inadequate" in one area, doesn't mean he should be embarrassed. Ben neglects to see her game and gives in to prove that he is indeed adequate. 

In another failed attempt to communicate he is in bed with Mrs. Robinson and instead of making love, he asks her if they could talk for once. She is uninterested though and keeps turning off the light. He keeps pressing the issue until Mrs. Robinson reveals that she studied art in college, and that she had to marry Mr. Robinson because she became pregnant with Elaine. For the first time in the movie, Ben verbally asserts himself and is able to control the conversation and persuade someone to talk to him, even if for a moment. However, the conversation, while being candid, never becomes intimate and eventually turns into an argument. 

Similar to Jonathan’s relationship with Susan in Carnal Knowledge, the relationship is just sexual and while Ben doesn’t demand more like Jonathan does, he does desire more. Interestingly, Ben’s misery may be greater though as he isn’t asking Mrs. Robinson to tell him his thoughts, he’s simply asking her to share her own.

The truth is, Ben is unable to communicate with anyone in the first half of the film. The opening scene shows him alone and stoic, while Simon and Garfunkle's "The Sounds of Silence" is playing in the background. The next scene is Ben's party; it's noisy and the faces of the people talking are shot at close-up, distorted angles.  The garrulous conversations are steeped with patronizing advice and meaningless compliments. The scene is filled with confusion, forcing Ben to repeatedly retreat to his room to be alone. Later in the film, when Ben's father buys him some scuba equipment, Ben wears it, and unable to hear anyone, jumps into the water and sinks to the bottom of the pool. The camera slowly pans away, illustrating just how isolated and alone he really is. 

Everything changes of course when Ben goes on a date with Elaine which is set up by her father who of course doesn’t realize the affair Ben is having with his wife and Elaine’s mother. Ben, not wanting to be rude to Mr. Robinson, agrees to take Elaine on a date. Yet, to appease Mrs. Robinson who’s adamantly opposed to it, Ben sabotages the date from the start. 

In one of the most bizarre first date sequences in the history of film, Ben takes Elaine to what in essence is a strip club. Initially, Ben is oblivious or simply doesn’t care how Elaine feels about any of this, which is represented nicely by the fact that he keeps his sunglasses on while in the club. However, this changes when a girl comes over and starts dancing right above Elaine’s head.  When Ben sees how all of it is affecting Elaine, and how humiliated she is, he takes off his sunglasses, pushes the dancer away and then follows Elaine as she runs outside. This is when everything in the film changes. As Ben apologizes, he's finally able to communicate with another human being and it’s thrilling to see it happen: 
Can I tell you something? Listen, I just want to tell you one thing. I'm not like this. I hate myself like this. 
Elaine is receptive and the two go to a drive-in restaurant where they sit in Ben’s car and eat while continuing to talk. Ben continues their conversation:
I've had this feeling ever since I graduated. This compulsion that I have to be rude all the time. It's like I've been playing some kind of game, but the rule don't make any sense to me. They're being made-up by all the wrong people. No, I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.
This is really a remarkable scene in that for the first time in the film, something is released in Ben. He is finally able to talk to someone who is responsive and genuinely interested in what he is saying.  Nichols cleverly juxtaposes these first moments of intimacy along with noise and confusion. When Ben and Elaine are outside of the strip club, the camera is placed across the street, with cars driving by and people talking, making Ben's confession to Elaine barely audible. Also at the drive-in diner, a car next to them is filled with kids playing loud music. When Ben asks them to turn it down, they actually turn the music up, forcing him to put the top up on his convertible and to roll up his windows. Interestingly, Nichols keeps the camera outside of the car. As a result, we can't hear what Ben and Elaine are saying but can see them continuing to talk passionately, despite the distractions outside the car.  

The scene outside of the club and the loud music from the car are symbolic of the chaos surrounding Ben up to that point in the film. Talking to Elaine though is a refuge, a safe place from this confusion which is illustrated when Ben puts the top up on his convertible- a place so personal, that the audience isn’t even allowed inside. 

In the next scene, the top is down again and the viewer is welcomed back into the car as the two sit quietly outside Elaine's house. The silence is striking in how it contrasts so directly with the noise of the two previous scenes. Unlike the Sounds of Silence heard at the beginning of the film from being unable to communicate with another person, this is the silence, the deep breath, that occurs after a personal and meaningful conversation. Silence no longer illustrates Ben’s isolation, but instead punctuates the intimacy he is sharing with another person.  The conversation with Elaine "eases like water over a stone" as Ben finally feels at home.  


I started my essay with stating the term feels like home was an odd phrase. Maybe it’s odd because this “feeling,” whether we realize it or not, is actually a sort of conscience or compass guiding us. These people, or things, or places that feel like home are gentle reminders of what we should (could?) be. They represent something that is true; honest; essential. If we are brave enough to listen, we can, just maybe, feel the “shock of recognition… as the twisted iron unlocks itself and we slip at last [back] into place.” 

Metaphorically Speaking

If you go online and look up “Bad Metaphors or Similes,” here are a few examples you’re likely to find:

The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

The red brick wall was the color of a brick-red Crayola crayon.

He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.

What makes these so comically terrible? For one, they each violate the blueprint of a good joke: recognizable set up, a moment of tension, then a hard right turn.  With the examples above, the turn, rather than being poetic or descriptive, is blunt and obvious- a U-Turn.
 
I realize that being a former English teacher makes me part of the home team so to speak, but it's difficult for me to imagine understanding anything complex or abstract without having a coinciding metaphor illustrating it. I would even go one step further and say that metaphors can become a part of our personal stories, and that like personal stories, they become our "compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice." Solnit, Rebecca (2013-06-13). The Faraway Nearby (p. 3). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition. 

Is this overstating the importance of metaphor?  Before you answer, let's look at a scene from Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview that was filmed in 1996, several years before Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In fact when this particular interview occurred, he had been fired from Apple and the company was only a few months away from bankruptcy. During the interview, Jobs is unusually reflective, a bit sullen, and completely unaware that within a year's time, he will return to Apple and make it one of the most successful companies in the world. 

This first quote is in response to when Jobs was asked about the team he put together to create the first Apple Macintosh computer and how there were reports of in-fighting and tension among the team. Interestingly, Jobs doesn’t get defensive or dispel the rumors, but instead does the opposite by explaining how this tension actually led to the team’s success.  To illustrate his point, Jobs incorporates a metaphor he gleaned from a childhood experience:  
When I was a kid, there was a widowed man that lived up the street and he was in his 80’s. He was a little scary looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he might of paid me to cut or mow his lawn or something. And one day, he said come into my garage, I want to show you something and he pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler, and it was a motor and a coffee can and a little ban between them. And he said come with me, and we went out to the back and we got some rocks. Some regular, ugly old rocks. And we put them into the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit powder. And he closed the can up and turned this motor on and he said come back tomorrow. And the can was making this racket as the stones were turning. And I came back the next day, and … opened the can, and we took out these amazingly, beautiful polished rocks.  The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this [smacking his hands together] creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful, polished rocks. And that’s always in my mind a metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about. Is that it’s through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people that, bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together, they polish each other.  
Jobs goes on to say that everyone on the original Macintosh team, in spite of the conflict, admitted it was one of the most enriching and meaningful experiences of their lives. I would imagine that it was Jobs' expanded understanding of what makes an effective team along with his ability to enlist such metaphors that allowed the team members to ultimately see beyond their frustrations. Near the end of the interview, Jobs incorporates another metaphor, this time for the computer itself: 
I read an article when I was very young in Scientific American and it measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet, so for Bears and Chimps and raccoons and birds and fish- how many kilocalories per kilometer did they spend to move and humans were measured too and the condor won. It was the most efficient, and mankind, the crown of creation, came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list. But somebody there had the brilliance to test a human riding a bicycle. Blew away the condor. All the way off the charts. I remember that this really had an impact on me. I really remember this, that humans are tool builders and we build tools that can dramatically amplify our innate human abilities. And to me, we actually ran an ad like this very early on at Apple that the personal computer was the bicycle of the mind. 
And finally, let's look at a third metaphor that, for Jobs, illustrated Apple’s mission statement. It was posted on Apple's website on the 1 year anniversary of his death. During the tribute video, we hear a voiceover of Jobs: "There is an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love: ‘I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.'” 

One would be hard pressed to find a literal connection between personal computing and kilocalories, rock grinders, or hockey, yet if one could turn counter-clockwise for a moment and venture into a metaphorical or symbolic understanding of computers, the connection becomes quite clear, even profound. I would even go as far to say that it gives us insight into the idea of genius and one of the ways the term could be defined. Genius isn’t simply doing one thing or a series of things brilliantly; that’s what we call expertise and we shouldn’t just assume they're the same. I would argue “Genius” should be reserved for those who are not only experts but go one step (or several steps) further by taking disparate ideas and/or skills and combining them to form an entirely new idea. Jobs not only saw the computer as an efficient tool, but, through his interest in calligraphy, also imaged combining it with a graphic user interface. Isn’t this what metaphors do as well? Gleaning understanding through the combining of unrelated ideas: a bicycle and the role of the personal computer; a rock polisher and team management, a hockey player’s instincts and the mission statement of an innovative tech company?  When we find a metaphor that articulates what we are trying to say, it can act as, not just a guide, but a lifeline, much like the rope from Midwestern folklore that people would tie from the their house to the barn so they wouldn’t get lost in a blizzard.  

To get a better understanding of symbolic or metaphorical language, let's look at a few definitions from Karen Armstrong’s book, History of God. Armstrong writes, "In most premodern cultures, there were two recognized ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them mythos and logos." Logos signified the rational, objective, and literal; while Mythos represented a metaphorical, non direct, symbolic interpretation. Armstrong goes on to write: 
Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary. Each had its own sphere of competence, and it was considered unwise to mix the two. Logos (“reason”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world.... People have always needed logos to make an efficient weapon, organize their societies, or plan an expedition.... But it had its limitations: it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles. For that people turned to mythos or ‘myth.‘  Myth or figurative language was “designed to help people negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche, which are difficult to access but which profoundly influence our thought and behavior. Armstrong, Karen (2009-09-11). The Case for God. Random House, Inc.. Kindle.
You can learn a lot about yourself (including what subject you should probably study in college) when determining which of the two, Logos or Mythos, you deem more important. If you’re interested in learning how to fly a plane, Mythos won’t be of much use. You will need Logos to fully comprehend Bernoulli's theorem and the inverse relationship between the velocity of fluid flow and air pressure. However, one could say it was Mythos behind the inspiration to apply this theorem to flight in the first place. One could argue it was imagining being a hawk or an eagle soaring high into the sky and daydreaming about being free from earth's gravitational pull, free from mortality itself, that actually led Orville and Wilbur Wright to perform that fateful first flight on December 17, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. 

Then again, why are we referring to academics and scientists to understand figurative language?  Emily Dickinson wrote in nothing but metaphors. She even has a poem that explains how metaphor works

Tell all the truth but tell it slant -

Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

What is a metaphor if not an attempt to tell the truth slant? And why do we need metaphors in the first place? Because Logos or literal language is limited; it can be “too bright.”  Consider the pin-hole projector; a device used to assist children when learning about a solar eclipse without looking at the sun. By looking through the projector, the students see the reflection of something that would otherwise be blinding. 

A few years ago, I had a friend who survived a massive heart attack, and afterwards when he was physically recovered but still a bit shaken emotionally, we had a lengthly conversation about the experience. We had no difficulty talking about the "How" or Logos of the situation. He could explain exactly what occurred from a physiological standpoint that led to the heart attack and what exactly occurred when he had surgery and how exactly the doctors were able to save him. We discussed his treatment and his diet and exercise regiment moving forward. This part of the conversation was easy. What was much more difficult was talking about the deeper meaning of the moment- the Why of the occurrence. Logos was completely inept at answering such questions, and I didn't really know what else to say. Then for whatever reason, a scene from Tender Mercies, a film we've talked about over the years, came to my mind. It was the scene near the end of the movie when Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) is heartbroken and trying to make sense of his daughter's recent death. He is digging in a small garden, trying to get his mind off of things while talking to his wife. Unsure of what to say or even feel, Mac quietly begins:
I was almost killed in car accident once. I was drunk. I ran off the side of the road and I turned the car over 4 times. And they took me out of that car for dead, but I lived. And I prayed last night to know why I lived and she died, but I got no answers to my prayers. I still don’t know why she died and I lived.  I don’t know the answer to nothin. Not a blessed thing. I don’t know why I wandered out to this part of Texas drunk and you pitied me and took me in and helped me to straighten out and marry me. Why? Why did that happen? Is there a reason that happened? And Sonny’s daddy died in the war. My daughter killed in an automobile accident. Why? You see, I don’t trust happiness. I never did, I never will.  
Mac’s wife doesn’t attempt to answer his questions, but she does listen. I didn’t have any answers either. In situations like this, I’ve heard people try to console someone by saying You’ll be in our thoughts and prayers or Things happen for a reason, but these sentiments, while sincere, often seem hollow or anemic. That’s because these moments require Mythos not Logos. For moments like this, understanding, instead, is found “in [c]ircuit” or around the truth. Stories, liturgy, poems, metaphors, and in this case with my friend, a scene from Tender Mercies, is how one can tell the truth but "tell it slant.” After I mentioned the scene with Mac and his wife in the vegetable garden, my friend quickly referred to the next scene in the film.  After some time passes, Mac and his stepson, Sonny, go across the road to play catch with a football. Sonny is happy and so is Mac as they throw the ball and enjoy each other’s company.  Another metaphor at work- a ball being tossed back and forth through the air; connecting a father and son together both literally and figuratively. 

Working with Meaning (Part 6)

 As we think about the idea of work, we should look at a peculiar scene in David Lean’s WWII epic The Bridge on the River Kwai. Colonel Nicholson and his men are held as prisoners of war by the Japanese army and ordered to build the bridge stated in the film's title. Initially, the men are not taking their work seriously and are even trying to undermine their enemy’s command. 

Nicholson realizes this and orders them to stop thwarting the effort and begin taking pride in their work. Shortly after, Clifton, a physician, notices the progress of the bridge and questions Nicholson:

CLIFTON: The fact is, what we’re doing could be construed as, forgive me sir, collaboration with the enemy. Perhaps even as treasonable activity. 


NICHOLSON: Are you alright Clifton? We are prisoners of war, we haven’t the right to refuse work. 


CLIFTON: I understand that sir, but must we work so well? Must we build them a better bridge than they can build themselves? 


NICHOLSON: Would you prefer to see this battalion disintegrate in idleness? Would you have it said that our chaps can’t do a proper job? Do you realize how important it is to show these people that they can’t break us in body or in spirit. Take a good look, Clifton. One day the war will be over and I hope the people who will use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers. British soldiers even in captivity. 

 

How is the viewer supposed to interpret this odd scene? On one hand, Clifton is
right. The bridge will help their enemy. On the other, we again hear echoes of Price’s grandfather from “Good Work” in that how one works is just as important as the work itself. Likewise for Nicholson, “shoveling shit” or building a bridge- “work is work” and the value isn’t just in what’s accomplished but in the way it’s accomplished. 

Could we go a step further and suggest that Colonel Nicholson is an artist? An artist wishing to create something functional, yes, but also something beautiful; a monument to hard work and craftsmanship, independent from any military or political objective. Nicholson’s men only see the bridge within utilitarian terms- a passageway from point A to point B. The bridge isn’t a work of art at all which makes it easy to undermine and eventually destroy. Conversely, Colonel Nicholson only sees it as a work of art. Even though their enemy is using the bridge with the intent to destroy the Colonel’s own military, the bridge has inherent value in and of itself- art for art’s sake in other words.  

There is a certain absurdity in Colonel Nicholson’s ideas which provides a nice segue to another absurd story regarding work- the myth of Sisyphus. A tragic hero forever destined to push a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down once he reaches the top. Up and back down, and up again- for eternity. Is there a more apt metaphor to describe the drudgery and monotony, the daily grind, many associate with the job they do (redo) everyday? 


Albert Camus contemplated what Sisyphus must have thought each time he labored to push that great stone up the hill, and each time he followed after it when it rolled back down. One of his conclusions may surprise you. Instead of assuming Sisyphus felt cursed or a sense of dread, Camus wrote: "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." Sisyphus happy? Camus imagined a counter-interpretation to the story. Philosophy professor Robert C. Solomon explains: 

Camus makes it very clear…that Sisyphus is what is called the Absurd Hero and why we might readily agree the situation is absurd- What is it that makes him a hero?  [For Camus] Sisyphus puts himself into his labor and one can imagine Sisyphus as he rolls the rock up the mountain, coming to notice and appreciate and even love the various contours and markings on the rock itself. He comes to study and appreciate and even become very fond of, the various bumps and levels that the rock has to proceed along. There is a sense that he throws himself into his labor, and the consequence of this, Camus tells us, is that Sisyphus must be considered happy.  "No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life." The Great Courses Narrated by Professor Robert C. Solomon. Lecture 4. 

Camus imagined Sisyphus happy as he kept track of each trip within his mind, comparing the number of steps and pace with the one prior. He imagined Sisyphus knew exactly how few steps his quickest trip was and that each subsequent one was an attempt to best it. He envisioned Sisyphus feeling the at times rough, at times smooth texture of the stone against the side of his face, the traction upon the slope of the ground as he used his legs and shoulders to gain leverage. 

Camus’ Sisyphus, like Colonel Nicholson, finds meaning, not only through an arbitrary act of willpower, but more importantly through a sort of redefining or reinterpretation of the act he's doing. A faith like we discussed earlier, once again returning to the idea that meaning isn’t dependent on outcome, but the effort and intent put into it. 

Isn’t there something sort of liberating here?  


Whether working in a garage for minimal pay or building a bridge that may destroy you or pushing a rock only to know it will roll back down the hill- Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all of your might…. This quote by King Solomon from the Book of Ecclesiastes goes on to say ...that for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. I would like to think that Colonel Nicholson and Camus and King Solomon for that matter would interpret the passage as- "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with of your might even though you are going in the realm of the dead, where… there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom."  Sisyphus knew the rock would roll back the down the hill and the Colonel knew the bridge may cause his own defeat, yet each used all of his might. 

 

How about connecting these ideas to It's a Wonderful Life, another movie about work and ambition? I know it may initially sound ridiculous to draw parallels between George Bailey and Camus’ Sisyphus, but there's more in common than you might think. At first, it’s easy to consider Bailey as a hero embodying the American Dream. He starts with unbridled ambition- wanting to travel the world, be a captain of industry, to “lasso the moon” no less. An American Dream to be sure. The problem though is that he does none of it. None of his initial dreams come true.  You could actually argue it’s sort of an anti-American Dream story.  

This is easy to recognize when you contrast it to Citizen Kane, a film that actually is about the American Dream Are there two characters more drastically different in cinema than Kane and Bailey? While their origins and initial ambitions parallel each other, all similarities end there. Bailey doesn't obtain his American Dream but is saved while Kane does, but dies alone in despair. Interestingly enough, Kane actually resembles the antagonist- Mr. Potter more than George Bailey.

It sounds strange but isn’t the plot of It’s a Wonderful Life simply a reckoning between the standard interpretation of Sisyphus and Camus' reinterpretation?  Isn’t the despair that leads George to contemplate suicide nothing more than the drudgery of pushing a proverbial stone up the hill? What does Bailey realize? The same as Camus- that pushing a small rock up the hill in his hometown can be just as valuable and meaningful as pushing a boulder up a mountain in a metropolis. In other words, the moon George wants to lasso (and does) is just as big in Bedford Falls as it is in New York City.