Hellbent: The Existential Hero in Albert Camus and Dr. Who
Updated: Jun 8, 2022
Greek mythology tells of Sisyphus, son of Aeolus, punished in Hades for his misdeeds in life with the eternal task of rolling a large stone to the drop of a hill, from which it always rolled down again. Different stories explain Sisyphus' punishment. The first suggests that Sisyphus betrayed Zeus' trust, by informing Asopus, father of Aegina, that Zeus had kidnapped Aegina from her home in Corinth. According to this story, Sisyphus did it in exchange of a citadel.
The second explication intimates how Sisyphus imprisoned the spirit of death. Sisyphus stopped humans from dying, but the gods undid Sisyphus' challenge by unchaining death's spirit. Targeted by the gods for punishment, he went to the underworld for a pardon and brokered a second lease. Back on earth, Sisyphus refused to return to Hades, but died of old age and made a comeback to the underworld to endure eternal punishment.
The philosopher Albert Camus, argues in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, that the Greek gods concocted the cruelest of tortures by condemning Sisyphus to an eternal life of futile labor. He identifies Sisyphus as the archetypal representation of absurdity since his behavior on earth and his subsequent punishment in Hades convey his scorn for the gods, a hatred of death, and a passion for life, which inexorably led to his tragic outcome. The pathos of existence, namely that beings suffer, is embodied in Sisyphus' impossible rebellion, after all, a mortal pales to the wrath of the gods.
Sisyphus' punishment apropos Camus' belief in the absurd, symbolizes life's hopeless struggle. Albeit there is no account describing the way Sisyphus carried out his sentence, Camus was interested in hypothesizing about Sisyphus' state of mind every time the rock rolled back down. In the brief time gap in which Sisyphus walks down the mountain, Camus thinks, Sisyphus is free of his labor and conscious of the absurdity of his fate. His scenario is tragic insofar as he understands that he has no reprieve. But he understands his destiny, and in accepting it, he places himself above it.
Camus' thesis is that Sisyphus might even joyfully carry out his punishment. Naturally, Sisyphus experiences solitude, melancholy, and sadness when he remembers his life and freedom on earth. However, Sisyphus takes command of his fate the moment he fully embraces it. Solitude, melancholy, and sadness vanish through this crushing acknowledgment of the truth. Camus' extrapolates from this idea that lucidity and acceptance of the absurd nature of life is a step that renders it less crushing. Through his punishment, Sisyphus learns to accept that happiness stems from giving oneself authentically to the experience of life, and not to its denial, by conjuring faith or hope as means of escaping immediate experience. Camus concludes: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
There is a connection to be made between Sisyphus and the sci-fi show Doctor Who. Episode 11 of the 9th season, titled Heaven Sent, tells the story of how Peter Capaldi's iteration of the mythical extraterrestrial Doctor finds himself trapped inside a nightmarish castle created to terrify him. Inside the fort, the Doctor has precious minutes of freedom while a monster from his nightmares, known only as The Veil, haunts his every movement. The Veil is a creeping creature, a corpse dressed in ritual garment. The Doctor acknowledges that the monster represents terrible memories from his life in Gallifrey, his home planet that succumbed to a deadly war. By barely escaping The Veil the first time, the Doctor learns that it briefly stops haunting him when he genuinely confesses to it his memories. In his mind palace, a place designed after the Tardis, the Doctor's spaceship, he discusses with an imaginary Clara Oswald (the Doctor's companion) questions that might help him escape. What? Why? Who? The Doctor has a working hypothesis: Someone built a torture chamber designed to terrify him and to retrieve certain dangerous truths only the Doctor knows.
Every aspect of the castle instills fear into the Doctor. The creeping Veil, and the bread crumbs and clues that lead to nowhere. Clara Oswald's portrait; the sea of skulls underneath the castle; how the stars are all in the wrong place; and the absurd fate he endures. The Doctor is without hope and at the abyss. Oswald's death pains him and The Veil's haunting represents her sorrowful ghost.
But the Doctor demands answers to his questions, as he waves his fist at the dark sky. Silence. He gets none. He is alone in the subjective flow of his existence, with the eternal task of carrying the weight of his mistakes in a shapeshifting castle. The Doctor decides that it is time to confess. Void of his characteristic bravado, the Doctor utters his confessions: "I am afraid of Death; I escaped Gallifrey because I was afraid." With every revelation, a new path opens, and hope restores the Doctor. He makes his next batch of confessions: "I know what the Hybrid is; I know where it is." The Hybrid is a being of monstrous proportions foretold by Gallifreyan prophecy: Half Time-Lord, half Dalek. In the wrong hands, knowledge of the Hybrid could mean the end of the universe. A corridor reveals a long, dark tunnel. Slowly, the Doctor makes his pilgrimage to the end of it. There he finds a barrier made up of a chemical component which is near-impossible to break, four hundred times harder than diamond. Behind it is his precious exit from this terrible nightmare.
A dilemma sets out for the Doctor. Making a final confession regarding the Hybrid, and maybe, just maybe, being allowed to exit the torture chamber. Or death, while protecting the universe from the Hybrid's terrible truth and whoever wants it. In the precious seconds between The Veil's imminent killing strike, the Doctor returns to his mind palace. A sorrowful Doctor asks Oswald why it is so hard to do the right thing, why he always has to have the answers, even when they mean tragedy. Why he cannot only give up this once; he is at loss for hope, affected by the pain he has endured in his many lives. Oswald's death seems to be the tipping point for the Doctor: His light slowly turning into gaping darkness. The Doctor's imagined companion confronts him, hoping the Doctor remembers who he is: "You cannot give up. Heal yourself because I cannot be there to do it for you." The Doctor embraces his destiny. He punches the barrier with all his might. Bones break. The gate remains sturdy and robust. But he pecks at the wall as the bird of the Grimm brothers' tale, The Shepherd Boy:
"In Lower Pomerania is the Diamond Mountain, two miles and a half high, two miles and a half wide, and two miles and a half in depth; every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the whole mountain is worn away by this, then the first second of eternity will be over."
The Doctor arrives at an answer by accepting the fate of eternity, which lifts the crushing weight of truth from his shoulders. He accepts his fate, however hopeless. The Doctor restores order in himself. He is ready. The ubiquitous shadow of death is upon him. The hissing sound of The Veil's burning touch turns into silence, and then, we listen to the echoing thud of a badly burnt Doctor. The Doctor drags his burnt and broken body to the chamber where his hell began. There, he uses his remaining energy to power the machine that transported him into this nightmarish world to retrieve a copy of himself that is locked in the transporter. He falls to the ground, inscribes the word "bird" on the ashes of his previous iterations, and vanishes into thin air. The terrible truth is this: The Doctor has, for a very, very long time, millions of years, carried out this sequence of events. Over and over, he had to figure out the castle to peck at the impossible barrier, to slowly, eternally slowly, make it through to the other side of it.
Each time the Doctor accepts his fateful death, in an infinite loop, hopelessly yet lucidly at odds with himself; the ouroboros, the dragon that eats its tail. The skulls underneath the castle are all his. The stars are in the wrong place because time continued to move on. Without reprieve, the Doctor has had to carry out his destiny, raising himself above it, as Sisyphus once did. He honors Oswald's memory and his humanity, and those abstract truths representing it: Hope, Love, Amazement, Curiosity, Intelligence, Temperance, Fragility, Time, Beauty, Truth. These are things Camus imagines Sisyphus fought for when he imprisoned death. These men transmogrify into something much more. The barriers of death crumble. The Doctor and Sisyphus are free. Battled, Wiser, and Complete. Hellbent is the logic of fate, as is the voyage of the heart.
By Fernando J. Villalovs