Thursday, March 5, 2009

Sisyphus road act

Long ago, shortly after my arrival at Gamone, I learned that it can be a mistake to imagine that the weather at Choranche, at a particular moment, indicates the climatic conditions I might expect to discover five minutes later on, further up or down the road, if I were to decide to leave on an automobile excursion. For example, this photo I took today reveals that everything's fine as long as you stay on the lower slopes of the Cournouze:

After reaching the church of Châtelus, though, you would suddenly find yourself driving through snow.

Yesterday, late in the afternoon, I set off for Valence. A few hundred meters down from Gamone, I was called upon to do a Sisyphus road act. Maybe certain particularly bright blog readers have guessed what that means. I simply stopped my old Citroën on the slopes, got out and carried a big rock up to a place alongside the road where it would do no harm. Whenever the temperature climbs a few degrees after a cold period, rocks thaw and can roll onto roads.

In the environment of Greek gods and goddesses, Sisyphus (depicted in the above painting by Titian) was in fact a mere mortal, but he seemed to have special high-quality links with divine beings... much like the kind of exceptional relationship that exists these days between a humble sinner such as the pope and the Holy Trinity, if you see what I mean. At an earthly level, Sisyphus was renowned for having built the city of Corinth, on the northern coast of the Peloponnese. Alas, his cherished city was conquered by Theseus... the famous Athenian whom I mention briefly in my website that allows you to stroll virtually though the labyrinth of Lucca [access]. During the conflict, Sisyphus was killed and he went directly to Hell, where he was assigned the task of moving a big boulder up to the top of a mountain, and then letting it roll down again.

Insofar as Sisyphus is condemned to repeat this task endlessly, the French writer Albert Camus seized upon this assignment as an ideal symbol of existentialist absurdity. The book by Camus on the theme of Sisyphus played a primordial role in bringing me to France.

Now, getting back to the rock I moved off the road this morning, there was a tiny but interesting consequence. At exactly the moment I got out of my car and walked towards the rock, a four-wheel-drive truck halted alongside me. It was driven by a young guy named Frédéric, who has disliked me intensely ever since I arrived in his native commune of Choranche. This animosity was brought about by a trivial incident. Every winter, ever since he was a young teenager, Frédéric has been driving the family's tractor with a snow plow, to clear the roads of Choranche after heavy snowfalls. Well, during my first winter at Gamone, Frédéric dragged his snow plow across my lawn and tore up inadvertently a drain that I had spent a day or so installing. I was furious, and I complained about this accident in a letter to the mayor. To cut a long story short, Frédéric has never talked to me since then... up until this morning, when he came upon me doing my Sisyphus act. Maybe Frédéric never imagined that an urban gentleman such as me would be capable of performing such an altruistic act as stopping my automobile in order to remove a rock on the other side of the road: that's to say, a rock he might have hit. Whatever the explanation, Frédéric smiled at me in a friendly fashion, for the first time in fifteen years, and thanked me for removing the rock.

In his evaluation of the arduous task of Sisyphus, Camus may have gone a little too far. My personal experience suggests—as I've just indicated— that rolling a rock is not necessarily a totally absurd operation.

By the way, the personal autobiography on which I've been working lately, entitled Digital Me, opens with the following extract:

At that subtle moment when a man glances back over his life, Sisyphus, returning towards his rock, contemplates the series of unrelated actions that has become his fate, created by him, combined in his memory’s eye and soon to be sealed by his death. Convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see, who knows that the night has no end, he is therefore advancing still. The rock is still rolling. I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! We always return to our burden. But Sisyphus teaches a higher fidelity, which negates gods and raises rocks. He, too, considers that all is well. This universe, henceforth without a master, appears to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, forms in itself a world. The struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.
— Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.

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