8 September marked the Mid-Autumn Festival this year. Popular Chinese folklore tells the tale of Chang’e, a mortal woman who accidentally takes a pill of immortality and, soon after, finds herself levitating towards the moon and away from her husband, who remains a mere mortal. Lovers torn apart and all that. Chang’e is accompanied by a rabbit instead.
But popular Chinese folklore is largely silent on the moon lady’s other companion, Wu Gang. As punishment for murdering his wife’s lover, he has been banished to the moon, where he will spend the rest of eternity chopping a tree that heals itself instantly upon each beheading.
The concept of meaningless and unrewarding routine as punishment is shared in the Greek myth of Sisyphus, which tells of a former king who has been condemned to roll a boulder up a hill, watch helplessly as it rolls back down, and repeat this action for all of eternity, because the gods have deemed him too clever for them.
Albert Camus makes the argument that Sisyphus, rather than having his being hollowed out by this unending torment, transcends it. Camus writes:
“The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”
In other words, recognising the emptiness in such an existence is itself an accomplishment. One may be physically compelled to the routine, but one’s mind may by the same token refuse to validate the punishment.
It is understandable if the reader sees this as no different from being in denial. Because Camus’ position begs the next question: Pray tell, what transcendental thoughts occupy the minds of Wu Gang and Sisyphus, as the tree sprouts yet another head, as the boulder makes yet another descent down that wretched hill, apart from the continuous assertion that ‘one shall not cave’?
Perhaps Wu Gang is allowed a tea break as the tree, which is said to be an osmanthus, extends its leaves and pollinates its yellow flowers, during which he contemplates the evolutionary mysteries of plants. Perhaps Sisyphus, wiping his brow at the foot of the hill, was actually the first to recognise the law of gravity.
There is indeed something heroic about one’s refusal to validate a dictated fate. But this writer thinks that such heroism must not be mistaken for freedom. Rather, it is little more than an intelligent recognition that precedes a much braver decision: to occupy one’s mind with thoughts other than those of the prescribed punishment, no matter how difficult that endeavour may prove to be.