Sunday, 18 October 2020

Life in the Plague Times, Part III: A Hero For Our Times

by Simon Smith

Sisyphus, O Sisyphus,
The hero of the age.
A hill he climbs,
From ancient times,
His quiff is all the rage.

Sisyphus, O Sisyphus,
The hero of the age.
A rock he heaves,
But never ‘chieves,
The rest that we all crave.
Sisyphus, O Sisyphus,
The hero of the age.
He knows it be.
For toil he gets no wage.
Sisyphus, O Sisyphus,
The hero of the age.
Upon his back,
The tattooed rack,
Of pinup Bettie Page.
Sisyphus, O Sisyphus,
The hero of the age,
                The fan of Betty Paige,
                                Whose quiff is all the rage.

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Life in the Plague Times, Part II

by Simon Smith

On the off chance that anyone hasn’t already guessed, I recently turned, for the first time in many years and only partly because of the present circumstances, to Camus. The Plague is top of my reading list, naturally.[1] Before that turning, however, I re-turned to The Myth of Sisyphus, unread since undergraduate days, sometime in the late fourteen-hundreds. As then so now: ruminating on reality and the absurdity of existence might profit the soul without being particularly amusing. There are very, very few jokes in Camus.
Having glossed Sisyphus and, I hope, drawn out the pricking point of application, the question arises: where, then, does all this leave us? At a moment of awakening, perhaps. Sisyphus’ eternity of punishment is, we know, absurd, meaningless in every possible sense. It achieves nothing; it is no use, even as a punishment, this eternal stone rolling, since one cannot learn from it and no change will come about because of it. Like Hell, its only conceivable purpose is revenge. But one must then ask, what’s the point of that? It is, in fact, all rather too much, too late.
And where does that leave us? Well, let’s not labour the point. Recent months have brought us all closer, much closer, to mortality, our own and that of those all around us. Yet here we are, so very far from the end, being driven back to ‘normality’ and striving with all our might to get there. Sadly, however, ‘normal’ is no longer there; and while the striving itself is, apparently, normal, it may not be healthy; that is to say, potentially fatal and not quite sane. Worse still, this ‘normality’ we yearn for, it is absurd, clearly and unequivocally. It is not worth grieving for, this ‘normality’. Not now that we have learned the truth of Doctor Rieux’s words: that ‘goodbye’ is no longer a mere formality. (Those of us with loved ones who work in hospitals and Health Care are still learning it, we learn it anew each day.)
It does not, of course, matter one jot or tittle whether we agree on this, whether we believe or not; as the good Doctor says, the plague makes opinion redundant. Even faith can’t save us.
So where does this leave us? Simple. Like Hector, atop the shining towers of ancient Ilium; below, the city walls, impregnable, yet girt by fate and bloody battlefields.
The point is not preach inertia, but to ask, can we, like Hector, knowing what we know, go on and meet what is to come. Or Camus’ question: can we live on this precipice without giving up? Can we live cheerfully and without appeal, since there is no one and nothing to appeal to? Or shall we choose negation and sedation; follow Kierkegaard over the edge; or shall we, as Lovecraft wondered, surrender and go mad from the revelation, fleeing into the peace and safety of a new dark age?
We shall see, we shall see

[1] If any readers are able to access it, BBC Radio 4 has broadcast Neil Bartlett’s stage version, recorded during the 2020 lockdown while the actors were isolating in their homes. It’s quite harrowing, but still a remarkable play: Any references to The Plague herein are to this version.

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Inscriptions Vol 4, No. 1: Final Call For Papers


journal for contemporary thinking on 
art, philosophy and psycho-analysis

Deadline: 15 October 2020.

Ethics, the question of how to live right and well, has been one of philosophy’s key concerns from its beginnings. In the thought of Wolfgang Schirmacher the ethical life is connected to artifice: subjected to the event of technology we recognise our ethical being in mediated form, and it is through reflecting on this our present condition that we can begin regain our composition as ethical subjects.

For our volume 4, n1, Inscriptions, a journal for contemporary thinking on art, philosophy and psycho-analysis, seeks essays that reflect on, interrogate, and bring new perspectives to the notion of artificial life and ethical living in general. Key questions include:

· How must I compose myself in order to live a good, satisfying life?

· What is the good life, and what values are relevant to us in our present time?

· How has the figure of the subject been challenged by our technological order, and how may we begin to ethically reassess our present condition?

Submit your manuscript (of up to 5000 words) through our online platform. Proposals receive a preliminary assessment. All scholarship published by Inscriptions undergoes double-blind peer review. We also accept book reviews, commentaries, and short interventions of up to 1500 words.

Open Access, no APCs

Access to content in this journal remains open on the principle that making research freely available to the public supports a greater global exchange of knowledge. For this upcoming issue we will not charge authors for submission or publication.

Inscriptions is published online and in print, and is indexed by, among others, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). Our authors include Wolfgang Schirmacher, Siobhan Doyle, Christopher Norris, and Jørgen Veisland.

Our issues are archived electronically and in print by Norway's National Library.

Recent Issues

· Inscriptions 3, no. 2: Open Issue, July 2020

· Inscriptions 3, no. 1: Outsourced!, January 2020

· Inscriptions 2, no. 2: Kierkegaard, July 2019

· Inscriptions 2, no. 1: The Global Unconscious, January 2019

· Inscriptions 1, no. 1-2: Consecrations, July 2018

Yours sincerely,
Dr. Torgeir Fjeld
Editor-in-Chief, Inscriptions

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Life in the Plague Times, Part I

Stands Sisyphus, blue-chinned cheek by rocky jowl with stone-faced fate. Tendons, taut and twanging, muscles standout straining from sweat-slick swarthy skin; grunting, gritted teeth; large hands, calloused, hardup against hard; feet trenching earth below. So Sisyphus drives both body and destiny up and up and up. The rock moves slowly, but it moves.
Eventually, eternally – it seems like an eternity but, in fact, is only the smallest fraction – Sisyphus reaches the top. For a moment of eternity, stretched seemingly but a smaller fraction still, he stands in stasis, balanced on not-being. Time stops, compromising rock on the fine edge of its last up roll, lipping the first back roll. Feet plant hard against the hard, instinctively, bootless toes trying hard to root themselves bootlessly in the unwelcoming hard earth.
Pause. Breathe. A moment of pure peace, non-being-just-being-itself-a-moment.
Before, inevitably, eternally, eternity returns in time and the balance breathes out, unrolls; bootless toes uproot, unbooted, and rough rock roughly shoulders Sisyphus aside, unrolling bolderly back down a track to its resting place at the restart.
Sisyphus, still standing, stretches soundlessly and unsoundlessly: arching aching back his back. Exhaling, clasped hands above his head, he makes the stretching noise. Then, deep breathing, goes jogging down-a-down the hill, following the unrolling, to the place where his rough rock, Michael, waits beardlessly to begin again.
Breathing, back in place, Sisyphus, unsinagain, stretches once again: hip-twisting, ham-stringing and re-stringing, tiptoe touching, shoulder-rolling, neck re-rolling; three by three, east to west, sun by stars; then puffpuff and shake out. Hands to the rough rock-Michael’s face, cool under the white sun, he blows bilabially, bracing for the strain. Rock-Michael, bracing, steady strong and Robert-ready to push and pull together in common cause of common destiny, Bruce-fully back to the stop of the hill, slowly slowly.
Nearby, tantalisingly close, a bather watches from his bowery bath, the run of eternal return and rerun. He watches the rock roll for the umpteenth time while, trip-trotting comes Sisyphus, humming, tum-tumming, to himself behind. By the light of the silvery sun, the bath man makes waves, splashing a greeting as the pair rumble-trumble-never-stumble-trip-trot back to their start-spot.
--- Morning.
--- Morning Tantalus. Sisyphus rolls a wave back, slaps rock-Michael’s rocky flank. Rock-Michael, otherwise unresponsive, rolls, rocking, to a customary halt. What’s the best news?
--- Throwaway for the Gold is the word I hear. Tantalus tapped the side of his knowing nose.
--- Oh very good. And how’s the diet? Is it the keto you’re at? Sisyphus, stretching, rolling, hips and hams, shoulder, neck, sholling, nolling.
--- ‘Tis, ah ‘tis. It’s not so bad, thanks.[1] He gestured vaguely at the plump fruit above and watched as it recoiled sluggishly from feeling fingertips. And you? He asked, how are you liking the music biz?
--- Ah now, well it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, said Sisyphus, wagging his arms and legs.
--- As long as you like it.
Oh how they laughed.
Routine round-ended, dryly, daily, from uncountable aeons to uncountable aeons; mullocking chums chuckle and chortle; rock-Michael says nothing, moss-lessly maintaining stony silence. With a soft sigh and a tear in his eye, Tantalus lay back in his bath while Sisyphus and his rock brace themselves for another hill run.
--- Now tell me this and tell me more­­—
Sisyphus raised his index finger.
--- One moment, he said, timelessly, and began heave-ho-ing at the rock again.
Tantalus sloshed water and gazed up at the rich, ripe fruit sweetly swinging in branches overhead. He did not, he decided, like fruit very much. Cupping empty air from bath below, he turned his trudging thoughts to steak and kidney pie with butteryellow mashed potatoes.
--- Now what it is that I can tell you, Tantalus? Said Sisyphus, jogging alongside his returning rock back to the beginning blocks. Tantalus abandoned the examination of his water-wrinkled toes and leaned against the bank of his bath.
--- Well now, it’s like this, he said, crease-beetling brows. It’s the ‘why’ of it that puzzles me, with you.
--- The ‘why’? Says now scowling Sisyphus, The why the what? Stretch, bend back, and sides slide down each one leg, fingers to toes twotoestips, other hand up reach up and stretch skyward, steering sun by stars.
--- The ‘why’ of why you do it, do you see? That’s what I was wondering.
--- What, this you mean? And Sisyphus pressed his hands to the impassive rock-physog, sombre, stony, rough and rocky, bends to his burden once again.
Eternity unfolds, foreknowing, foliating in wide, wild leaves, lief-strewing time revealing leaves along the rock-rolled path, respiring in only only only to out release out last, long last, re-leaving, unfoliating, returning eternally to the first step.
--- I do, said Tantalus, cupped hands squeezed to squirt water, brown studiously, over the side of his bath. I do mean that.
--- Why, said stretching Sisyphus, do I push this rock up that hill? Left leg, right leg, heel to cheek to cheek to heel, then high reach and swan-dive to the toes.
--- The very question, nodded Tantalus. Why do you push that rock up that hill? More to the point, after a forever of pushing that rock up that hill, why do you still push that rock up that hill?
Sisyphus shaking arms and legs out, back twist, neck rolling, shoulder rolling, ready.
--- Ah, now there’s a question, he said and began rock rolling. 
Eternity unwinds, widely wide-eyed, waking, sweeping stretches sighing timelessly, in sweeping time-stretched time-trod unswept tracks towards the top of high hill, inhale, hold, exhale, exit top hill high, returning, trod-time track unswept to start again again.
--- So? asked Tantalus, stretching in Sisyphus time to softly finger unreaching peaches.
--- So what? Said hip-swivelling Sisyphus and seeing Tantalus’ expression. Oh the rock. Oh well, he shrugged shoulder stretching, fate isn’t it? Same as you with the reach-away bath and buffet.
--- Ah, fate. That lad. Flicking water in the direction of bath-wrinkled Tantalus-toes. Punishment, as I recall? Can you remember what for?
--- Not entirely. I’d say the gods were offended about something, however. 
--- They usually are. 
--- That’s true enough. By some more than others, of course.
--- Quite so. But the point of it, that’s what I want to know. What’s the point of any of it?
Answerless, eternity uncoils, curl, twirl and sternabout strides out, rock-rolling ahead apace, roll on and rock, on over round and up and up and up, then slowing, stopping, rolling till-terrupted. Standstill. Then rolling again in return, down to space of start and shrug and stretch and twist and toetouch.
--- The point of it? Well, it’s punishment, as you say.
--- Yes, but what’s the purpose of it as a punishment? What’ll it achieve? What’ll it ever achieve?
--- Nothing, I’d say. I think it’s not meant to achieve anything. That’s sort of the point, it’s pointless. You might say, absurd even.
--- Don’t think I’d say ‘absurd’. ‘Bloody irritating, I’d say that, for sure.
--- That too. But I shouldn’t worry about it.
--- I’m not worried, I’m irritated. I’m irritated at a destiny which consists of doing Sweet Jemima Crankshaft[2] for eternity.
--- I’m not doing Sweet Jemima Whatchamacallit. I’ve got my rock and I’ve got my hill. I’m busy enough, thank you, huffed Sisyphus, unchuffed but unhuffily. Unhuffy hands flat to uphill fate unyielding, Sisyphus and rock-Michael push up and push varder toward tophill headquarters. Tantalus watches, wondering, was it waterflows year?
Unfolding, overflowing, unwaterwinding and uncoiling, eternity relentlessly repeats its reeling rigmarole, along a dry and dusty driven track, muscle-moved upheadquarters hill before back-rolling, baconlike heat-curling and recurling rock-recursively not cursing on itself returning.
--- But what’s the point? Why bother?
--- No alternative, is there.
--- We could just stop.
--- Nope, we could just hide and that won’t change anything in the end. There is no stopping. There’s no appeal. You know that. This the only way to live, if we can find a way to live with it.--- ‘Cept we’re dead. We’re in Tartarus, the underworld, land of the dead.
--- Oh, shut up and drink your bath water.
Above and a-sudden, the sky filled with feather-flapping blackwing blows upon the slap-cracking air, whirling wings soaring and screech-reaching down with long thin talon legs and bone break fingers, clawing cthonically, cawing rookishly. Thus, noisily, cthonically, the Erinyes, garbed in mourning drapery, dropped inelegantly to the ground around the talkers.
Three maids in an Arc slyly six-eyed Sisyphus then turned two and two more Tantalus-wise and twitch a wiry eyebrow each.
--- You Atys again? They croaked, recyclingly. Quit flappin’ yer gums and get on wi’ it! They screech and flap and caw.
With a cheery Sisyphean shrug, accepting not resigned, alive to the abyss without appeal, one turns to rock and rock rolls on to well-worn trail, while Tantalus, ‘teuf teuf’, mutters moodily the words of Wooster-Wodehouse-words, ‘teuf teuf’ and reaches unenthusiastically for ripe retreating peach. Eternity breathes in and, thinking fondly of private priceless pallypeachum, does what it does best.

[1] I’ll give you this one for free, but you’ll have to work the rest out for yourself. The Tantalus being punished in Tartarus was also known as Atys: at  -- is, ah ‘tis. Geddit?

[2] To borrow a phrase from Andy Zaltzman.