The gods had cursed Tantalus for his deeds, leaving him to reach for water that was a bit too far and fruits that were a tad too high. The deities of Olympus had seen within their creations a pain they deemed to be the ultimate retribution; to reach for happiness and never secure it.
Tantalus was a king and friend to his creators; titles filled with renown, that is certain, yet Tantalus was a cruel ruler and mischevious ally. Tantalus’ crimes against the gods have been retold for centuries. Varied in their severity, we know the worst involved trickery, deceit, and inhumanity. Tantalus was invited to dine with the gods and believing he could conquer their omniscience, fed his own son to them. Odysseus had seen Tantalus in the depths of Tartarus and spoke of his wretched fate at length. Tantalus had water and nourishment inches from his fingertips and with each thought of obtaining these necessities, they moved further away from his hands. The gods brought his son a new life with a shoulder cast in ivory. So, both father and son lived a new life apart from one another chosen by the heavens for their actions or lack thereof.
We will stop our observations of Tantalus the man and now direct our focus to Tantalus the condition. Even a king will face judgment from the stars and Earth for his mistakes. One single second of our lives taken in poor judgment can many times affect the majority of hours we spend for the rest of our days. Fallible are we creatures spun from millennia of particles that now observe themselves for a moment as the whole of it all continues coldly and silently in darkness we have only begun to understand. We are all a reflection of Tantalus who could not see the consequences of his actions. For that one action, we can see him now hungry and thirsty, hands pushing away what will always feel so close in his mind, and close food and water remain, untouched. The water retreats into itself and the fruit rises and falls away from his presence. Finally, when he has stretched himself so that even the most solitary atom within his body has moved towards that which he desires so intensely, he is overcome with frustration that beats within the hearts of all his fellow creations.
In that singular moment of hopelessness, I am captivated by Tantalus. The terms of his punishment are eternal and absolute, yet Tantalus still reaches out to the world around him. Time is no longer dictated by seconds, minutes, or hours, but by each stretch of his arms. At each stretch of his arms, he has then made one victory against his fate, damned only by the divinity of it’s destined conclusion. At that moment, all he may do is reach, so reach he does. Should he continue to reach, he should then continue to make the most of his condition.
Tantalus’ grave error has left him with but two choices that Zeus himself mandated to have only one outcome, yet he continues on in disbelief of it. We too continue on reaching for our desires. We are not free of the absurdity of our condition, no matter our location. Tantalus himself is aware of his destiny but overcomes it when he believes that, in this next stretch of his arms, he may attain the fruit and water. This man, small as he is compared to the realm of planets and suns that spawned him, defies the rules set for his existence and reaches although he knows he may never feel the cooling water and succulent fruits within his grasp.
In all of his hopeless extensions, it is then possible that many of these were hopeful. He meets his defeat only after he has attained his victory. In his failure, we perceive then our own failures. It becomes necessary to abandon our pursuit of what we wished so dearly to have and sigh in desolation. Job now curses the day of his birth. But soon we forget the terms of our existence. Daedalus warned Icarus well of the dangers their flight would present. We should realize now Icarus faced two decisions that would lead to the same outcome. In his first wingbeat, Icarus is blissfully unaware of the consequences that would follow from his hubris but in that final, hopeless wingbeat he accepts his farce knowing that the warmth of the sun and the excitement provided by the heights would make a better story than having never flown so high and free. Of many commenters, Wilde’s observation rings truest: “Never regret thy fall, O Icarus of the fearless flight. For the greatest tragedy of them all Is never to feel the burning light.” Diodorus’ Icarus, like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby shows us the temporary and permanent glory of our reaches. An antiquated story is revived by a modern one.
Our constant reaching towards happiness and its fleeting presence within our lives creates a void in which we may see absurdity with lucid eyes. Happiness and absurdity then are but matters of perspective. Can we not be made happy by our unhappiness? Can we, like Icarus, paint our failures as victories? Would it be impossible to divine our freedom to reach as happiness rather than the outcome of our reaching? “…For the greatest tragedy of them all Is never to feel the burning light.” Wilde’s observation paints humanity’s freedom in one stroke. In a prison of our decisions, we may still find happiness. God may have chosen Tantalus’ punishment, but God could not take away Tantalus freedom to reach. It is Tantalus, not God who decides if he shall reach or not.
Tantalus’ happiness is possible even in the absence of happiness. Conventionally, it is known that we must receive that which we reach for to be happy. Many times we have reached as Tantalus has reached and grasped at the air to our dismay. He himself is free who is at peace with his condition, not tortured by it. Happiness is then working with the universe; misery is working against it. There could be no other recourse in understanding the universe with its varied responses towards our proclivities. In each stretch towards our desires, we must remain resolute in our beliefs that, in one more stretch, we may hold our happiness within our hands, if even for a brief moment, and accept its retreat back into the fickle abyss from whence it had come. We are forever liberated from this condition of wanting that which is but a horse’s hair away from our grasp in finding joy as we reach. We will reach happily no matter the outcome and continue on with a boundless hope that drove Icarus to the heavens and not the waters below. Unlike that angry fox, he is still reaching as fruits and water retreat ever so gently.
I leave Tantalus alone on his island! One will always find another desire to reach for. But Tantalus teaches the higher fidelity that proves freedom and reaches farther still. He has flown just as Icarus has flown. The universe is but a medium of reflection; not a giver of happiness or despair. Each attempt at securing peace and happiness is within itself a reason to feel peace and happiness. The persistence itself to grasp those inalienable rights is an inspired flame to stoke even the coldest soul.
One must then perceive Tantalus as unbound.