Montreal, March 15, 2008 • No 254




Gennady Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist and philosophical essayist, and is Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator. He lives in Chicago.




by Gennady Stolyarov II


          I am Sisyphus, and I have been slandered by the Gods. Indeed, much of what you know about me is sheer falsehood. Yes, I tricked and incapacitated Death and frustrated Ares to no end, because he could no longer watch men being slaughtered on the battlefield for his pleasure. But that was about it; all that nonsense about killing guests and seducing women was invented by Ares and his cronies to justify giving me my punishment in the underworld. Yet I am not vindictive. It has been some three thousand years now, and Ares no longer seems to be around, anyway. So I will let it slide. Besides, the punishment turned out to be a magnificent opportunity.


          You likely know my sentence – at least the beginnings of it. I was to roll a boulder up a treacherous mountain, only to have it inevitably roll back down as soon as it neared the summit. By the laws of Hades, I was bound to repeat this process for all eternity. And I still am – technically. It was grueling at first, and I had little to occupy my mind besides the sheer exertion of willpower needed to focus most of my strength on even holding the boulder in place. Only a small recess of my mind remained free to me – just enough to hold a number in my head.

          Ah, the joys of simple arithmetic – enabling progress in repetition! For you see, performing the identical task was no longer identical in my mind, if I could recognize that now I was on my second or my third upward move. After a while, the numbers began to form an inseparable part of my identity. “I am Sisyphus, the twelve-time-boulder-upward-mover,” I told myself – and tried for the thirteenth triumph. I was King of Corinth in my other life, and I had appropriated many titles to myself besides. My vanity demanded of me that I keep some manner of honorific; if I could not be king, why not be the twelve-time-boulder-upward-mover? The goal was no longer to get the boulder to the summit; who said that I should strive for that anyway? My aim, rather, was to accumulate that next number in my memory. Watching that boulder roll downhill became a mark that the nth task had been accomplished, and the (n+1)th could begin; I took a breath each time and observed the stony globe’s rumbling descent. The multiples of five were special treats, and the multiples of ten brought me sheer euphoria.

          Then Achilles came. He was bored, you see, without battles and killing and senseless heroic deaths. Just as I was beginning Ascent #100, he tapped me on the shoulder and remarked, “You seem busy – and cheerful – yet you do not rejoice in telling tales of brave blood-spilling and close brushes with death.” By that time, I had had far too many close brushes with death for my liking. “You are no hero, yet you seem happy,” Achilles noted. “I am setting an underworld record,” I replied. “No man has ever rolled a boulder up a mountain one hundred consecutive times. I am sure that all the might and bravery of Hercules, Jason, and Theseus combined would not be equal to this task.”

          My questioning of his favorite martial heroes touched Achilles’ pride. “You frail sophisticate – you could not possibly finish this task, especially if Hercules, Jason, and Theseus could not, as you say! I will bet you fifty drachmas that you will stumble and fall before you get the boulder halfway up!” I did not have fifty drachmas, but I pretended that I did and took him up on his bet. One mark in favor of incessant boulder-rolling is that it reliably builds extreme endurance. I did not have the strength or evident muscularity of a Hercules, but my limbs persevered for hours as, foot by foot, they elevated the boulder well past the halfway point.

          Achilles was aghast at his defeat, but also delighted to have finally relieved the ennui of his shadow existence. The wonderful thing about Achilles is this: he does not hesitate to admit that he has been beaten in a fair fight, and he respects the skill of the man who has beaten him. So he gave me the fifty drachmas and returned the next day with several of his friends to see me perform – as I was still officially setting the underworld record for moving boulders upward.

          Then I got a brilliant idea. Since Achilles and company had already turned boulder-upward-rolling into a spectator sport, I decided to complete the transformation and insisted on a small observation fee of two drachmas per spectator per performance. They paid eagerly; what else is there to do in Hades? Watching me probably gave them the greatest excitement of their afterlives. Every time I returned to the bottom, I collected my earnings, put them in a cloth purse, and, after I released the boulder near the summit, I deposited the money into a secure crevice – my substitute for a bank account. Nobody would venture that high unless forced to, so theft was not a concern. Now I could count my money as well as my number of ascents – and this more than doubled my satisfaction.

"By the time I finished my one-millionth ascent, I got word from newly arriving shadows that the Industrial Revolution had taken place in the world of the living."

          The authorities – Zeus and Hades – half-heartedly questioned the legitimacy of my new enterprise, but I reminded them that I was still carrying out my sentence to the letter and that I was not bound by it to forgo anything that did not interfere with my perpetual task. They grudgingly permitted me to go on collecting money; later, they warmed up to the idea as they saw its evident benefits for them. My spectators were so absorbed in watching my performance – discussing it, arguing about it, placing bets on how fast I would get the rock to the top this time or whether I would choose this path or that – that they found no time to complain about Hades’ regime or to riot against it. If you are wondering from where the later Roman emperors took their “bread and circuses” approach, this was it.

          Among Achilles’ friends who were present was Odysseus, whose business sense was as sharp as always. He approached me on one of my descents and offered to act as my proxy and general manager in exchange for a cut of the spectator fees. He could roam freely about the underworld, so he would actually be able to put my earnings to use. After I reached one thousand ascents – for which I received thunderous applause – I had enough money to hire a crew of laborers to pave some of my favorite boulder paths. Later, I had several ramps built for moving the boulder upward, and then several slides down which the boulder would roll to a predictable location. Then I commissioned an awning over the ramps to protect me from the frequent harsh winds and dust. As a result, I was able to accomplish my ascents faster and with less exertion. More was expected of me, of course, and the next ten thousand ascents were accomplished about as quickly as my first one thousand. But the spectator fee was per ascent, so my revenues increased – and the spectators’ interest increased as well. Now they could also speculate about what gadgets I would install on the mountain next, whether they would work, and by how much they would speed up each ascent.

          Eventually, the great heroes – Hercules, Jason, and Theseus – got the idea that it would be profitable for them to compete with me – hoping perhaps to draw some of my crowd and revenue to them. They tried to find other mountains and other rocks, and use boulder-upward-rolling as an opportunity to show off their strength, muscularity, and bravado. Odysseus and I decided to initiate an aggressive brand-name marketing campaign. We became the Sisyphus Rock Rolling Company (SRRCo), with the slogan, “If it isn’t Sisyphus, it doesn’t roll.” Granted, my competitors managed to retain a niche following, but they – having started later – did not have nearly enough capital to match my operations. I began offering my spectators additional perks and amenities – food and drink vendors, bards, dramatic reenactments of my ascents, opportunities to spend a day with Sisyphus, and even Sisyphus action figures for those who came to the underworld as children. In terms of advertising power, the muscles of Hercules could not even compare.

          By the time I finished my one-millionth ascent, I got word from newly arriving shadows that the Industrial Revolution had taken place in the world of the living. I used my now vast fortune to hire James Watt, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford; their skills enabled me to revamp my operations entirely. I added conveyer belts to my ramps and ordered a plethora of construction vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. One of these had a giant claw in front that enabled it to grasp the boulder and move it upward while I sat in the driver’s seat. I was still moving the rock – in the sense that I was pushing the buttons and my money was purchasing all the equipment used. Besides, the Gods did not mind. Their power had diminished to the point where virtually nobody believed in them or carried out their commands anymore; they were pleased to have someone of my prominence heeding their decrees in even the remotest sense.

          When mobile homes began to emerge during the twentieth century, I commissioned a rather extravagant mansion on wheels, with a claw attached so that it could still move the boulder. Once electronic systems became sufficiently advanced, I automated most of the mansion’s movements. This created considerable leisure time for me. Spectators continued to come to the mountain – no longer so much for the boulder rolling but for the technological variety and material splendor to be found there. Tourism flourished, and I encouraged the construction of unusual monuments, restaurants, hotels, museums, and parks – most of which I owned. Banking was well-established in the underworld by then, and I ensured the automatic growth of my fortune by simply putting much of it into certificates of deposit. I connected most of my property to the Internet and used it to purchase stocks and market products in the world of the living. You would be surprised to learn how many of your world’s businesses I indirectly control.

          I am happier now than when I was King of Corinth. Monarchical power, in retrospect, is not much in an impoverished ancient world. The life of a prosperous private citizen is the one for me. Before, I tried to cheat Death by remaining in the world of the living; now I recognize that, whatever world one finds oneself in, it is possible to create a life there through hard work, will, and imagination. There are some who would suggest that the meaning of life is to strive after unattainable ideals and to fight those who disagree with one’s conception of those ideals. You see where that got Achilles and Hercules and the rest of them. I say the meaning of life is to find one’s rock and keep rolling it upward!