The Myth of Tantalus

the gods punished Sisyphus for trying to achieve immortality. his punishment, when he finally did come to the underworld, was to roll a stone up a hill each day, only to have it roll back down once he had got it to the top. he was to repeat this process for all eternity.

 Albert Camus uses the myth of Sisyphus to outline his philosophy on the absurdity and pointlessness of an uncertain life in an unknowable reality. the way Camus uses this myth is to show us how in our working lives, in our very existence, much of the tasks we have are pointless. we are very much like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill for no meaningful reason. Camus sees Sisyphus as a hero, in that he struggles in spite of the pointlessness. that struggle is what gives him meaning.

but there’s another member of the ancient greek underworld who i think plainly more applicable, at least to my own life. Tantalus. as punishment for his wrongdoing, Tantalus was restrained in a pool of water up to his neck, with fruit hanging from a branch hanging just out of reach above him. he could never reach the fruit and if he tried to drink from the water around him, it receded to nothing. as a result, he was perpetually hungry and thirsty, even though food and water were just out of reach. it’s the sort of torturous thing in these old myths that could either be played comically or tragically.

it’s right there! you can see it. you can almost grab it. but it always eludes you. most people have these hanging fruits or receding waters. some are professional, others are romantic, still others may be life goals unrelated to both. you flail for the fruit and clutch nothing but air. you sip at the water and gulp nothing but more air.

Sisyphus represents the struggle of existence but Tantalus represents something more visceral. more primal. we need to eat and drink before we can even begin to struggle through life.

Sisyphus shows us that life is a heroic struggle. Tantalus shows us that a life without certain nourishments is no life at all. but some of that nourishment is not always in your control. i guess you’ll have to get used to starving, or hope that someone dips the branch.Tantalus

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