My first encounter with Sisyphos came in Sixth Form Latin class at QRC when I was in my mid-teens. And a decade or so later, I was halfway between 18 and 28 in 20th Century French Literature class at UWI when I was introduced to the Camusian version of the Greek villain.
This new and improved Sisyphus was still shoving a stone up a steep slope. His chances of success in getting it over the top were still nil. But, the philosopher was suggesting, he had a spring in his step, a song in his heart and a gleam in his eye. He was, Camus insisted, happy.
Existentialist bullshit, I told my now late lecturer, Randy Hezekiah; it’s nothing more than a white man’s metaphor to justify slavery.
This was post-1970, remember. For my generation, the country if not the world was still, like television, starkly black and white. In Mexico in the summer of 1968 with two upraised black-gloved fists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos had sparked off the simmer.
That had led by zigs and zags to T&T’s historic ‘African and Indians unite’ march. It may also have in some way inspired the lieutenants three, Raffique Shah, Rex Lassalle and Michael Barzey, and the Teteron Mutiny. And it certainly made inevitable the eventual conflagration at the start of the spring.
So in 1972, Geddes Granger’s NJAC-inspired shouts of ‘Black power!’ and “Power to the people’ were still ringing in the ears of hot-blooded youth. And thanks to the Mighty Duke, we had already begun, with our black and proud dashikis and bulging afros, to genuinely believe that black was beautiful.
It was, as Dr Claudius Fergus recently pointed out here on Wired868, not the necessary, sophisticated understanding of the extent of our indoctrination. I had no problem with Sparrow’s Congo man rubbing he belly and mumbling lasciviously at the prospect of eating a white meat. Or even of his being depicted as lusting after a white meat. And I can’t think of a single one of my friends, black-conscious though we boasted of being, who did.
One retirement, fifty shades of grey and almost five decades later, the world, like this country, is a different place. Black remains beautiful. We in shithole countries, however, no longer have to bellow it from the rooftops; for us in T&T, despite banditry’s best efforts to persuade us otherwise, black lives matter.
Fifty shades of grey, almost five decades and one retirement later, my vantage point is different. As are my views on the once hopeless, hill-climbing, stone-pushing hero whom I now see through Camusian eyes.
What has altered my perspective on Sisyphus is a sequence—it doesn’t really qualify as a concatenation—of recent events. Taken together, they have helped me to perceive the hitherto hidden happiness of the hilltop hero.
And they have also altered my perspective on what lies ahead for me.
Randy’s call had come out of the blue one April afternoon. “I was cleaning out my cupboards,” he said, adding that he had found something he wanted me to have. The ‘something’ was a 1972 photograph of me receiving a prize from the then French Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago.
By the way, no less black-conscious but older and wiser, Randy had taken me aside after the class to set me right. Camus was, he said, wagging a disapproving finger in my face, a pied noir, born in Algeria to French parents; if anything, he was a victim of racism. There was nothing to suggest, he emphasised, nothing at all to suggest that he might even have thought of defending slavery.
In late October, six months after that April call out of left field, I was putting the finishing touches to a eulogy when an email notification popped up. Randy had passed.
Since then, more than half a dozen people I know well, including former QRC and COSTAATT students of mine, have departed this life. And I have seen my late mother and my dearly departed sister as clearly as I see my grandchildren in the USA when they facetime me.
What all of that seems to me to be saying is that the circle is tightening; the dots are being constantly connected, the degree of wiggle room steadily reduced. Who knows for certain how many dots are left? Who can say with any certainty when the call will come?
Va-t’en voir là-haut si j’y suis. (Check upstairs and see if I’m up there)
But don’t you go thinking that that lugubrious interpretation of those events has triggered in me some funereal moping, some doom and gloom pall. It hasn’t! Quite the contrary, in fact. And not for nothing.
A year as a retiree has allowed me a kind of leisure Sisyphus never enjoyed. Free of the metro-boulot-dodo (subway-slog-sleep) treadmill, I had reached, in Sisyphean terms, the top of the slope. And I had taken the time to look back and see where I had come from.
What accounts for his hero’s happiness, Camus says, is the value of the work done to get the stone to the top of the hill.
I hear him, loud and clear…
A former QRC student of mine worked with me at the Guardian and then at the Express for almost ten years as a sports journalist. Since my departure, he has continued to work in sports for another 15-plus years. He described a recent presentation of mine on the subject of sport reporting as containing “thought-provoking perspectives.”
Thought-provoking! After 25-plus years on the job! Ideas I have been pushing (uphill?) for over two decades…
For a class magazine, one of my former students at COSTAATT wrote a seriously flattering story on my tenure at the College. When I challenged her on its lack of balance, she insisted that she could find no one willing to say anything negative for the record.
Surprising. I had for years been pushing a retirement head. But I had only let myself be pushed out the door when one of my students pushed a knife in my back, sharply criticising me for what I had always perceived as a real asset.
“Best is a perfectionist,” she said contemptuously, unaware that I was hearing, “I hate he.”
To my surprise, there was no applause. And consternation when, half a minute later, I came into view…
Hired as a Spanish teacher, I had spent most of my best years and energies teaching cricket and French at QRC. So when the Royal ’72 Champions honoured me with a plaque at a function last November, it made not my day but my life. Put another way, not only did my stone not roll back down the hill but it actually went over the top.
“Royal 72 Champions,” the plaque reads, “honour and celebrate Earl McDonald Best, esteemed coach, mentor and inspiration behind the all-conquering Queen’s Royal College cricket team…”
Really, now, what more can a man on the downward slope of his life ask? In a completely corrupt society with which you refuse all compromise, the young people reject you as a perfectionist. Your hard-back colleague of over a decade confesses that he is still able to learn stuff about his craft from you.
The grown men who have evolved out of the boys you helped guide 40-plus years earlier publicly acknowledge looking up to you as a mentor.
My cup runneth over and I have all the zeal needed to start cleaning my cupboards. And it’s neither to the tune of Bécaud’s Mai 68 or Brassens’ Le testament (The Will) but to the strains of another French song, Jacques Brel’s ‘Les Vieux.’
“La pendule d’argent,” he warns, “qui ronronne au salon, qui dit oui, qui dit non et qui nous attend.” (The silver-haired clock tick-tocking away in the living room, saying yes, saying no and waiting for us all.)
I don’t know that he has but I sense that somewhere Guitry has commented on how pathetic are those men who no longer have dreams. I sense that he fully approves of Brassens’ rêve d’encore m’enjuponner (dream of getting under a few more skirts). As do I.
But I have left all my stones (in the Sisyphean sense) behind me and I look forward to the start of every day. I don’t, however, expect ever to get to the point where, like CJ, I am looking forward to starting my diabetic day with a prick.
Or, to be completely frank, even less without one.
Jean-Paul Sartre, that other existentialist giant, has said that “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (Hell is other people). If he is right, maybe going to hell is not such an unattractive proposition after all. Particularly if many of the other denizens are going to be like CJ.
But my hope is that, when the call comes telling me to go upstairs and see if the Master is at home, I’ll be ready. I shall have the courage, like Bécaud in “Charlie, t’iras pas au paradis” (You’re not going to heaven, Charlie), to reply, “Je m’en fous; j’y suis déjà (What the hell do I care? I’m in heaven now!)