Debunking Sisyphus


The con­stant churn­ing; the repet­i­tive end­ing. Such is the life of Sisy­phus, an ancient Greek heel, for­mer king and eter­nal endur­er. He’s the one with the rock and the hill, forced for all time to push the stone to near­ly its apex, only to have the boul­der slip and return to its orig­i­nal, cra­dled posi­tion at the bot­tom. The result of a life led deceit­ful­ly. Or, more specif­i­cal­ly, for hook­ing up with innu­mer­able wives, sis­ters and daugh­ters in his back-hand­ed pur­suit to rule Ephyra.

Dave Norkel, a twer­py grad­u­ate stu­dent at New York’s Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty, doesn’t believe the hype. The book­wormish nob of a young man has spent more than a year at this eccle­si­as­ti­cal school, focused on debunk­ing the long-held mythos, con­vinced that no one (real or imag­ined) would ever waste so much end­less time on such a fruit­less pur­suit as push­ing boul­ders against grav­i­ty. “I have spent my entire life know­ing that the tale of Sisy­phus can­not be true, and I am going to spend my every wak­ing hour to prove my hypoth­e­sis,” says Norkel, try­ing to impress me with using the word “hypoth­e­sis” in conversation.

Yet here I sit, in a grad dorm at this Bronx-area Jesuit tem­ple of high­er learn­ing, crack­ing open two bot­tles of cold beer and per­sis­tent­ly offer­ing one to Norkel, who con­tin­ues to refuse. “I polite­ly refuse due to my needs to con­tin­ue my schol­ar­ly pur­suits,” quaffs Norkel. “I can­not imag­ine what this would do to my stud­ies.” Each time I press the issue a lit­tle more, he seems to fal­ter. “Oh, for heav­ens sake,” he says. I believe for a moment that the bot­tle will reach his palm, he’ll take a swig and the night will go from bust to boom. But, just at the moment of con­tact, Norkel’s eyes return to the search results of JSTOR, the online jour­nal­is­tic data­base, and he alights with a squeal back to his Mac­Book Pro.

Norkel is twen­ty four, deep into sec­ond-lev­el stud­ies at one of America’s most pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties. He is also a man, who — pre­sum­ably — wants to do things like drink and carouse and, you know, actu­al­ly leave his squat cin­derblock dorm for the end­less bac­cha­nal of New York City that is only a train ride away. But his wil­lowy body seems etched for­ev­er into the stiff wood­en chair, and his arch­ing back slopes up just below the shoul­ders, then sinks away into the sides of a paunchy mid­sec­tion. It’s as if he’s been try­ing to lift him­self up over and over, only to have the weight set­tle down at the bot­tom again. He squints his rub­bery face clos­er to the com­put­er screen and scrib­bles down a note about the impos­si­ble slope of ancient hill­sides in Greece, recent­ly cal­cu­lat­ed by archeologists.

On night three with Norkel, he sud­den­ly pro­claims to no one in par­tic­u­lar that he has a date! Per­fect, I say aloud, a chance to get out of his musty hov­el and actu­al­ly expe­ri­ence the world. But the effort turns out, mad­den­ing­ly, to be impos­si­ble. Norkel can’t be both­ered to con­firm the time and loca­tion with what­ev­er unlucky woman waits patient­ly on the oth­er end of his iPhone text mes­sages. “I stand firm in my belief that if she is in pur­suit of me, she should be bend­ing to my whims.” I plead with him to chill out.

He works the key­board for a while, offer­ing irri­tat­ing counter-sug­ges­tions to her very mod­est din­ner date pro­pos­als. Instead of Maxwell’s on Third, Norkel wants Dumpy’s Piz­za, a place that he’s famil­iar with the bath­room and knows the food will be served quick­ly, allow­ing for him to return to his school­work. She thinks DiMassio’s has “a fun menu,” but he wants to grab a pud­ding from the vend­ing machine down the hall from his room. The texts trail off into the ether, and I feel my own stone falling from my throat to the pit of my stom­ach. Again, I plead with him to just be chill. He thinks I’m a moron. That I don’t get it. Anoth­er night in with this snot­ty dorkus, cack­ling over notes about boul­der tra­jec­to­ry and the fol­ly of Greek belief.

I check back in with Norkel a cou­ple of weeks lat­er, to see if the pale, wormy man­child has made any progress on life — for­get the anti-Sisy­phus the­sis. But he seems to have slunk even fur­ther into the bot­tom of his own hill, wear­ing thin the wood­en seat of his dorm desk. I half-heart­ed­ly offer him a beer, but the under­de­vel­oped kid doesn’t even look up, and I real­ize that maybe the real strug­gle is my own, try­ing to reach the top of this impos­si­ble peak known as Dave Norkel’s social life. “I heard back from the mod­ern woman who attempt­ed to ensnare me in romance. She told me she had inter­course with a gen­tle­men, which she imme­di­ate­ly regret­ted, because I sim­ply would not go have a meal with her. Did I ruin her life? Or did she try to ruin mine. My hypoth­e­sis,” he said, empha­siz­ing the last word, “is I, to use the par­lance of our times, bit the bul­let.” And I real­ize that no mat­ter what the lit­tle ass­hole ends up find­ing — Sisy­phus is real. ✦