Sisyphus and Ouspenskys’ People of Byt



From Groundhog Days – Intercourse on Time

By Melina Costello & David Arthur Walters

October 17, 2004

Dear Madame Melina,

Your remarks in previous letters raising questions about the Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence have got me thinking about Ouspensky yet again, and his boring People of Byt, as well as Sisyphus in the context of our intercourse on time.

Sisyphus’ pathetic story always bears repeating though we have heard it time and gain. He cheated time by tying up death, at least for the time being, that is, until the god of war hauled him back to the underworld because Hades complained of the shortage of bodies in the interim; from whence Sisyphus escaped by breaking his oath to Persephone that, if he were allowed to ascend to make sure his body was properly buried, he would return to shady Hades; but the perjurer did not, hence Hermes hauled him back to hellish haunts; and there Sisyphus the Runaway, now Sisyphus the Rock-Roller, is seen to this very day, serving his sentence of eternal repetition, rolling his shameless stone, evidence from the scene of a crime against Zeus, to the top of a hill; whereupon, rather than rolling down the other side, it rolls back down his side again – maybe there is no other side; thus is labor lost and Sisyphus must begin again while the gods laugh at his miserable plight. Camus says Sisyphus turned the tables on the gods, that he runs down the hill laughing at them all the way, then sets his shoulder willingly to the futile task in order to mock them yet again.

Now Ouspensky, discussing the ancient Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence, drew some vicious circles for us to contemplate, each spinning in its respective place in the vertical fifth dimension, each place being a moment along the horizontal continuum of the fourth dimension, allowing him to conjecture that we each might be reborn again at the moment of death, to live the same life over again, and again, and again, so on and so forth, until, perhaps with his help, we become aware of our habit and are saved.

Yes, saved, for even Ouspensky will not abandon the psychological essence of time, which is not the past exactly repeated, but is rather the expectation of something in part unknown and new, namely the future life, which so happens, as some of us have noticed, to fly from its past like a bat out of hell; naturally there are certain differences between birds: the Jayhawk flies backwards because he loves the past and doesn’t give a damn where he is going.

The doctrine of eternal recurrence is absurd because, as everyone knows, time moves in one direction only along its line; history does not repeat itself – time reversed would destroy the universe. But Ouspensky conjured up some sort of clearing house where times speed up and slow down and all times are instantaneously adjusted after each death, where the relationships between people’s deaths are kept constant; for instance, if I die two years before my eighty-year-old mother, I will still be born again to her when she is twenty.

There is perhaps a better solution, but we might want to drop the doctrine altogether for it is a stumbling block in several ways. If it were true and if we knew we were doing nothing but repeating ourselves, life might be hell indeed if salvation were wanting.

Now if Ouspensky had said that his doctrine was a merely a metaphor for bad habits together with lessons on breaking them with new works, we might thank him very much and proceed. But he is pushing this rolling stone at us as if he wants us to embrace it.

No thank you, Mr. Ouspensky. Maybe we do not want to repeat ourselves eternally, so why keep reiterating the doctrine? If there is a life after this one, who wants to take herself along just as she is? We dream of better conditions, yet each person is one of the conditions.

And despite the apparent progress we seem to enjoy in a lifetime, many are those who would start anew with a clean slate if only they could. And if they did start afresh, they would not know their pervious life, so why all the fuss? What is the difference between a clean slate and eternal death if one has no memory of a previous life? All do not fear death; many behold it as the ultimate salvation. Not that suicide is the solution. Hamlet’s theological studies included a course in eschatology; he then had reason to worry the question as to whether to be or not to be; his sighting of a ghost gave him even further cause for concern.

In any case, a Christian has a future for good or ill, and is not consigned to eternal repetition of the past. Ouspensky noted that Christians speak of a life after death but not of a life before birth. He found hints, however, of the doctrine of eternal recurrence in the New Testament. He claimed that the doctrine was known to the ancients; they knew it well but could not communicate the occult knowledge to others because those others were still dead caterpillars in contrast to wise butterflies that are in the know because of their transformation into a new life.

“The idea of recurrence cannot be popular in its pure form,” he wrote, “primarily because it seems absurd…. According to the ordinary wisdom of the world ‘nothing ever returns’ …. Buddhists have rejected the ‘absurd’ idea of a return into the past, and their ‘wheel of life’ rolls along with the calendar…. We are one-dimensional beings in relation to time; we have no knowledge of parallel lines…. In my book Tertium Organum I described what the universe of one-dimensional beings must be. These beings know nothing besides their own line…. There can be nothing parallel to us…. It is very difficult to accept the idea of the absolute and inevitable repetition of everything.”

It is indeed difficult, yet Ouspensky has a way out, a “necessary” way out. “The idea of absolute repetition does not agree with the idea of growing tendencies, which is also necessary.”

He does not propose that the growth itself might repeat itself; that everything possible whether growing or decaying has already happened countless times and is being repeated endlessly in eternity. According to him, “It must be recognized that as regards the character of the repetition of their lives people fall into several types or categories.”

Now only certain, “unsuccessful” types of people are subject to inevitable eternal repetition. Consider the “people of byt.” The Russian word can mean a habitual lifestyle, say, peasant-life, merchant-life, rut-life and so on; or, in theatrical life, the typical voice or tone, the typical bit part, and so on.

“There are, first of all, people of byt, of deeply rooted, petrified, routine life. Their lives succeed one another with the monotony of the hand of the clock moving on the dial. There can be in their lives nothing unexpected, nothing accidental, no adventures. They are born and die in the same house where their fathers and grandfathers were born and died and where their children will be born and will die. National calamities, wars, earthquakes, plagues, sometimes wipe thousands and hundreds of thousands of them from the face of the earth at one stroke. But apart from such events their whole life is strictly ordered and organized on a plan…. It is just this absoluteness of repetition that creates in them some vague consciousness of the inevitability of everything that happens, a belief in fate, fatalism and, at times, as strange sort of wisdom and calmness, in some cases passing into an ironical contempt for people who are restless, seeking for something, striving for something.”

Ouspensky seems to admire for this repetitious type of person, the “unsuccessful” person whose consciousness of repetition seems to save him from fate by resigning him to it. Yet Ouspensky is divided against himself. He seems to push the doctrine of eternal recurrence to rid himself of it, and then it rolls right back on him.

Was Ouspensky a Russian fatalist who dreamed of the New World? When East looks West, does West look right back? I am hoping you will look into it when you have time.


Mister Groundhog

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