Sisyphus and the fair field full of folk

Yesterday, while sitting in the cafeteria, sipping the last of my tea, I scanned the seething mob of students around me. Pockets collected around tables, laughing. Some weaved through the rows of chairs, balancing plates. Most were focused, making beelines through the groups, mumbling excuses and smiling as they dodged bodies and carts, slipping into their own chair. Others took their time, stopping at tables, picking out apples like a chef at a farmer’s market.

Image courtesy of Vanderbilt library
Image courtesy of Vanderbilt library

Each person had a way of being. Some wore exercise clothes, others had prim button-down Oxfords, most shuffled through lines in pajamas. They had places to go, things to do–or an absence of things to do that they filled with conversations and distractions.

Having spent the morning reading William Langland’s Piers Plowman, an allegorical dream poem from the 14th century, I recalled one of the more famous lines. The narrator, a mysterious figure named Will, falls asleep and finds himself in the midst of a strange country. He describes it:

I saw a tower on a toft · worthily built; 
A deep dale beneath · a dungeon therein, 
With deep ditches and dark · and dreadful of sight 
A fair field full of folk · found I in between, 
Of all manner of men · the rich and the poor, 
Working and wandering · as the world asketh. 

Will then goes on to describe these “fair folk.” Some toil in fields, while “Wasters” devour their products in gluttony. Some seek after salvation, becoming monks and anchorites; others wear the habit as a means to a escape poverty and cheat others. Merchants sell wares. Pilgrims travel. Kings rule, judges judge.

The poem describes a diverse spectrum of life, from highborn to low, and sandwiched them between these two towers: the one on a hill, the other in a ditch. We later discover that the tower on the hill is the tower of Truth, a symbol for God and salvation. The tower in the ditch belongs to Wrong, providing a symbol for a wasted life and a doomed afterlife. As the poem progresses through it’s many “steps,” visions chronicle Will’s search for salvation through Truth.

In the cafeteria, I considered Will’s vision, particularly this “fair field full of folk,” buzzing, weaving, laughing, and living around me. Where are they all going? I thought. What are they doing? Why are they here? A surge of compassion welled up in me as these questions turned over in my head, rolling one to the other. I felt connected to everyone and detached at the same time, an outside observer with a unique stake in the observation.

Sill in the Piers Plowman mindset I considered salvation, the horizon-like endpoint this tower of Truth promises. This tower separates humanity from other forms of life. Little differs from a family toiling in a wheat field for food and a mouse gnawing through a board to get a collection of grain. Both work to eat, and by eating, they survive. Agriculture may be more involved, but in my opinion, the ultimate end–the teleos, as Aristotle would say–remains the same: survival.

Other tasks echo this basic striving for life: shelter, community, warfare for goods and territory, fear. Some evolutionary biologists would extend the list further, including everything as a means to survival. For them, all our behaviors reflect the pre-set wiring encoded in our species’ history and our DNA. Back in the 1800s, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had a similar view: our bodies, our thoughts, and our actions reflect a deeper “Will to life” that spurs nature forward. For example, as he said, “Love is a trap for the propagation of the species.”

We’re not so different from the ants and vermin that scurry at our feet.

And some would argue that salvation fits this schema too. Somehow, the notion that things must have a unity or a meaningful conclusion has helped our species survive. Perhaps it shaped a moral code that keeps us from killing one another. Perhaps it pushes us to work harder, push harder, and therefore, go farther.

This may be right. I don’t have a solid argument against it.

But I feel that our individual lives differs dramatically from individual nonhumans because of salvation and things like it. Take my cafeteria moment, for example. It was poignant because I wondered where everyone was going and what everyone was doing. Such questions only gain significance because people can do things for reasons besides survival–illusory or otherwise.

If I were watching a fair field full of squirrels, I may be interested as they gather up acorns and stuff them in the earth, but some level of predictability limits the experience. Like the law of gravity or the rotation of planets, squirrels have a certain regularity. I don’t wonder why they do things. Likely, they don’t wonder either.

But people do wonder. They ask why. They do things for reasons. They sometimes associate abstract consequences to things–like damnation and salvation. They make dreams that won’t ever take place, that have no ability to take place. A child wants to fly. An adult wants to be a child again. A husband wants a wife to live again.

And beyond that, we tell stories, compose music, and write poetry about such things. And these influence us further. We may go for a walk before dawn, as the fog still hugs the dewdrops to the grass, and visit a grave, remembering the name etched above the epitaph. Later, we recall that experience. It becomes a story we remember, fitting into our lives, giving it texture and depth. Such moments are meaningful, sometimes much more meaningful than the things we do for survival.

And this leads me back to salvation.

For me, salvation means more than what the tradition tells: a divine reward for a virtuous life. Perhaps this is enough, but I think salvation and the tower of Truth have a lot to teach a secular world as well.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus tackles the question, Why should we keep living if life is meaningless and painful? If God is dead and salvation is an illusion–if we only have this life of toil and ephemeral moments–why not just kill ourselves? In the end, he concludes with Sisyphus, a man sentenced to roll a bolder up a hill just to see it roll down again for eternity. This mimics our meaningless toil. But Camus concludes, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

(Image courtesy of the New Yorker)
Image courtesy of the New Yorker

And I would add the struggle is enough to fill our hearts because we can see life as more than survival. As Nietzsche puts it, we can make it a work of art. We can also make it a means to salvation through our poignant capacity to layer our lives with meaning, and stories, and endpoints that may or may not actually exist. We can build a tower of Truth whether one exists or not.

Perhaps in reality, we’re just a mingling of compounds bound by physical laws living out a pre-set life, a meaningless path from birth to death, and all our poetry and life lessons are byproducts of evolution. But, even so, as Nietzsche says elsewhere, “We have art to save ourselves from the truth.”

And perhaps Truth with a capital T, as Langland sees it in Piers Plowman, is not alien to art or our existence. As we rejoin the fair field full of folk, nose to the task at hand, we can hopefully look up now and then and consider that certain things do matter because we make them matter. Like Sisyphus, we must pick up our burdens. But like Will, we can also chase salvation and make our lives meaningful through our actions or through our perception of actions. 

When I have such thoughts between tasks, I try to hold to them as long as I can. I cling to the feeling like a tableaux at the conclusion of a play: it lasts just long enough to stick with me, to lingerer as I hit the road again and drive back into my existence with the “fair folk” in everydayness. And from the collection of such moments, my life clarifies. They’re like the brush strokes that build my being and form my life. In the end, they make a complete painting. 

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5 thoughts on “Sisyphus and the fair field full of folk

  1. Non-human animals don’t have to tell themselves stories and create art to silence their existential angst. Maybe we should envy them for this? It certainly gives us no right to elevate ourselves over all other creatures. As Darwin taught us, life has always been about survival and only survival. Your genes care about nothing else other than propagating themselves. Nietzsche and Camus tried to soothe the pain of this harsh reality, but in adopting their stories you are merely accepting a secularized version of the religious doctrine of salvation, and with about as much substance behind it.

    1. Agreed, Malcolm. I remember writing a similar thought once, about how animals take up existence without question, while people do, making a whole lot of problems out of nothing. Moreover, many people don’t question existence, either out of ignorance or out of a scientific, stoic mindset that it is what it is. So, as far as scientific, collective reality goes, I think you’re right.

      But I guess I’d also like to argue that as far as individual experience goes, illusory or not, life could be about more than survival. In other words, “reality” becomes more slippery when it comes to the subjective sphere. One person’s reality differs from another. Sometimes, this creates significant issues, and for the most part, I think that we should try to find a more object viewpoint, especially when it comes to decisions. Like Carl Sagan says, Reality is preferable to delusions, and it’s better to face the cold, hard truth that to persist in a reassuring fable.

      But sometimes, I find myself nourished by things that some may qualify as a reassuring fable–like what I put above. For example, we don’t write poetry because it’s correct but because we’re human. And in that regard, I guess it comes down to what Wordsworth writes in Tintern Abbey about the sublime: “If this be but a vain belief, yet, oh! [h]ow often has my spirit turned to thee!” Subjectively, such illusions make life beautiful and therefore worthwhile regardless of scientific truth value.

      Sorry for the long reply. I appreciate the comment. It got me thinking, haha.

  2. This is amazing writing: lucid, articulate, coherent, and crisply elegant. I love it ! I, too, am reassured (more than just sometimes) by a reassuring fable. They do make life beautiful, even if Wordsworth never quite got there! I’m glad to have found your blog. Thanks ! Mark

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Mark.

      I’m glad I found your blog as well. I’m looking forward to reading some pieces on it. I appreciate the compliment as well. I’ve always loved writing–although that doesn’t make it easier–so hearing a fellow writer compliment my stuff means a lot. I think one could say lot of similar things regarding your own prose. Thanks for stopping by.

      Cheers,
      Brett

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