This Word Is Not Too Much…

From Jim Roeg’s marvellous essay on the lately-deceased Steve Gerber’s work on Marvel Two-In-One…

Available on the sidebar under “Seven Soldiers of Steve”, under the title “Two Earth-Clotted Hands”

(For anyone visiting from Stevegerblog, here’s the link…well worth reading, in my opinion…)

Quoting Camus…

“If the descent [of Sisyphus] is sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. This word is not too much….One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness….Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable….

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Yes, Jim.

Yes, to all of that.

I was troubled, not long ago, by the idea of Steve Gerber, my hero really, labouring under a severe shortness of breath. Well, I know how that feels, myself: I have sometimes been cursed with a shortness of breath, with an inability to take a breath, with the feeling that breath — what many of the ancient peoples of the Earth believed to be identical with “thought”, or “soul” — was leaving me behind.

If there is a feeling in this world which merits the name “urgent”, it’s that feeling.

When it’s a Sisyphean task to draw a breath, and live…or to not draw one, and die…

Well actually…both of those are Sisyphean endeavours, as Jim’s essay makes clear.

What does Camus say?

“If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious”?

Sorry, wrong one. Instead, it must be:

“A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself!”

I’ll stop quoting Jim’s selections from Camus, now. Because I’m sure I’ve accomplished the goal (!) of making it clear that, though he’s a mythological figure that toils on after death, Sisyphus’ story really addresses the toil of life: and the struggle to make something of it, to hold onto it, to crest the top of it. Of course one never can. Well: only once.

Breath, too, is a stone we roll up, only to have it ever roll back down again. And in that exhalation is the very “hour of consciousness” when we surpass life, death, fate, and the Gods — is it not? I like to think that in that final hour, we do at last crest the top of the hill, and see the boulder careening down it on the other side…and then we still turn our faces from the Sun, and walk down to the hollow again. Our job finally done, we go to the land, the hiding-place, of Rest. There to wait.

Well, maybe.

But we don’t know, actually.

Maybe we chase the boulder down the other side, yipping and hollering and waving our hats around!

Maybe rest is not needed!

Maybe Sisyphus escapes!

But the point is, I think, that Sisyphus has already escaped, long before the possibility arises that he may at last go over the hill…and he’s already found all the rest he needs. Well, is that not the meaning of existentialism? Sisyphus has already escaped; he has already written, and read, the manual of happiness. He has already found all the peace there is. That face, which toiled so close to stones, has already become stone itself, long since. We unfortunately live; but we must consider ourselves happy, as alien a feeling as that may be to us. We must find the peace that is here.

Because the stone we roll up, that we toil so close to, is naturally Death. Is naturally breath. Is naturally mind, and soul, and speech. And they’re all the same: inseparable. A big basket of gifts, wrapped in a single sheet of paper. I’ll quote, not Camus, but myself:

He’ll freeze the world in a tick of time/ Just to run up a path that the facts won’t find

Well the world is a hill that/ Nobody might climb

That the King of Fevers can’t/ Keep from tryin’…

Forgive me: it was fun, typing that out, and I shouldn’t be having fun today. My Sisyphean hero has made his last exhalation, either skipped off down the side of the hill that we can’t see, or peacefully made his way back down the side…well, that we still can’t see…

Having written this story that Jim’s revealed so brilliantly for us…

Having written this manual of happiness…

He has himself formed a world. Of mineral flakes; of night-filled mountains. Of the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands.

Rest in peace, Hero Steve. I’ll miss you like nobody’s business. You showed me how to push that stone around. And you showed me that it can also take place in joy.

So I leave you at the foot of the mountain!

And find my burden again.

Pleasant dreams to you, you great Teacher. Great roller of stones! I never knew a stone-roller quite like you.

Maybe, there never was one.

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2 responses to “This Word Is Not Too Much…

  1. I have this consolation, I did once tell Steve Gerber how much I was liking his stuff, in a letter of comment to his Nevada. So the other night I sat down for an elegaic re-read of the series. Our man was cooking!

    This is the one that realized the Vegas showgirl, the Ostrich and the Killer Lampshade, from that ancient Howard the Duck gag. It is essentially Gerber that when he was hyped up, his very sarcasm was liable to burst into strange, exotic blooms which people would ponder over for years. In this case, when Steve was thinking of doing something off the wall in 1996 or so, Neil Gaiman made a request for the Showgirl and the Ostrich, and Steve came through in spades.

    I’m an amenable reader, I don’t stand back from the story to analyse, until well after. Particularly, I don’t delight in pillorying the author’s Mary Sues, one day I might write a story of my own. But this time I had to notice that Steve was sort of present in the story as two of of three miserable males who can’t get a date with Nevada, but mostly in the character of Ogden Locke, a greybeard terminal wino who used to be a brilliant theoretical physicist, and who in 10-dimensional reality is, well, Sisyphus. That is, he has to defend the integrity of Reality itself, by carrying on a perpetual cosmic superhero fight scene. Things are catching up with him in real life, he’s about ready for the real death, but first he has to pass the torch to his successor. His diminished mental capability and his expanded viewpoint together make him just about incoherent in conversation, he stumbles and dribbles his food, but he’s the only non-asshole in all of hyperspace. The most self-effacing Mary Sue you ever saw.

    Well, the story is an expansive, stylish “what the hell is going on here?” piece, and the denouement leaves plenty of room for the continuation Steve didn’t get around to. But insofar as it’s the ending of the tale of Ogden Locke – mawkish interpretation in retrospect, I know – it’s sort of weird and touching that it’s about your relationship with the person you’d trust to look after reality for you, when you’re gone. Oh, and kick ass. I mean, you’d trust a trash-talking tough town survivor who’s plausibly the ancient Egyptian Goddess of Death, wouldn’t you? And you might get to have a beer with her afterward.

  2. Sounds like a plan!

    Personally, I always felt just a bit like Steve was my Mary Sue. Know what I mean?

    I really must read Nevada, damn it…everything I hear about it just makes it sound better and better.

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