Of late it seems that I am being haunted by intertextuality. Each book that I pick up seems to slot into the vast Connect Four board of hermeneutics that is my reading life, and with everything I read, I find my to-read list growing ever broader and ever deeper.
I seem to be at a stage in my reading where so many unknown unknowns are swiftly becoming known unknowns. It’s a tantalising, maddening point to reach, and my reading has slowed dramatically as I find myself digging not just more deeply into individual works, but in my attempts to see how they connect to each other.
While reading Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which I read just after Chaim Potok’s In the Beginning, I happened across an article on breath and breathing by Sebastian Normandin that somehow tied the concepts in the two books together for me.
All three texts evoke in me a mental image of a pendulum, an image that I think is quite aptly applied to where I find myself in my own reading and writing and desire for understanding.
In Sisyphus’s endlessly repeating task, as in breathing, as in the quest for knowledge, there is a precipice, a turning point, that must be negotiated. There is the point where Sisyphus’s boulder reaches its gravitational apogee, at which it will begin to descend again; there is also the point where Sisyphus pauses, reflects, then commits to beginning his task anew. The same sequence occurs with each breath that we take.
But each instance can never be the exact same beginning as the last one. You might argue that all beginnings are turning points, and all turning points are beginnings. Each change, each realisation, each opportunity for growth involves seeing the boulder tumble back down, ready to be pushed up again to that cruelly insurmountable precipice.
In the Beginning is filled with these moments. A lyrical, formidable bildungsroman, it’s many things, but for me it’s most saliently a celebration of the courage involved in not just recognising a new branch in the ever unspooling fractal of one’s intellectual life, but in deciding to take this branch.
It’s a celebration of curiosity, of the sometimes destructive human thirst for knowledge and understanding, of the breath-stealing moment that is standing at that edge and wondering just where the pendulum will take you.
“All beginnings are hard,” writes narrator David. “Especially a beginning that you make by yourself. That’s the hardest beginning of all.”
Indeed, David’s battle is one that bears many similarities to that of Sisyphus–and Camus would surely quirk an eyebrow at the absurdity (in the Camus sense) of a young Jewish boy devoting a life to biblical study. It’s an absurdity that Potok acknowledges in the narrative through the unanticipated precipices that he throws David’s way:
“I have accidents all the time. I killed a canary and a dog by accident. And I fall and hurt myself. And I almost started a fire once in our kitchen. And I almost fell out of my window…Every night I dream about having accidents…sometimes I think there’s something wrong with me.”
But like Sisyphus, David persists despite the many and myriad obstacles in his way. When he muses: “when you didn’t expect something to happen and it happened, that was also an accident…” it’s hard not to think about this in terms of unknowns and turning points. Accidents are, obviously, an outcome of sorts, and therefore represent a turning point; a possibility for a new beginning or that moment whereupon a Sisyphean hero takes that breath and makes a decision to continue.
By persisting in his search for knowledge in the face of these accidents, David is constantly reasserting his humanity. It’s those who don’t struggle, who don’t seek those turning points who slip away into nothingness, into intellectual and spiritual stagnation:
“What’s a sacred heart?” David asks at one point, to which he receives the response: “I don’t know. I don’t interest myself in such matters.”
Apathy requires disengagement, a stepping away from involvement. It’s the safe route, but what’s the point of it? Sisyphus might, after all, simply step to one side and let his boulder slip away and come to rest. But then what? If he did so, who would he be? What would be his purpose? What would he have achieved but that single event?
“Anyone who knows very clearly what he’s doing with his life will have people who dislike him,” David is told. Perhaps what is meant here is not dislike so much as lack of understanding, of appreciation.
I think that the reason that intellectual journeys are so challenging to appreciate and comprehend is their lack of resolution, of a clear outcome. Learning is a process, and it’s a strange, cyclical, self-referential one, much like Sisyphus’s lifelong task. It is its own reward.
During a tango workshop a few weeks ago, my teacher mentioned that everything comes back to basics, that it’s all about the walk. Every time she takes a step, she’s achieving something: she’s bringing a new perspective, or experience, or simple reaffirmation to this most basic element of dancing.
It’s an ongoing effort to refine, to improve, to seek a change.
Camus and Potok have something fundamental in common. Camus tells us to imagine Sisyphus happy, and perhaps he has a point. The Sisyphean existence isn’t devoid of meaning. In fact, it’s about finding meaning.
As David’s teacher puts it:
“A shallow mind is a sin against God. A man who does not struggle is a fool.”
It’s a surprising achievement to realise just how much you don’t know, and it’s kind of exhilarating to stand there with a boulder, take a deep breath, and seek one of many, many new beginnings.
As a reader, I’m a very, very happy Sisyphus.
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Other books by Chaim Potok: