The Women in the Life of Sisyphus: Lost in the translation of Albert Camus
Sisyphus, pen & ink drawing by the author, 3" x 8", 1991
A few days ago a friend in Caracas, Venezuela, sent me a video-clip of a contemporary dance and acrobatics performance installed in 2017 by “motion philosopher and choreographer,” as he defined by art critics, Yoann Bourgeois, inside the very historic PANTHEON of Paris, where the likes of Voltaire and Victor Hugo were interred with honors in their day. Although my Venezuelan friend forwarded me a doctored version of the Bourgeois dance event, so that it would illustrate the so-called Sisyphean effort of contemporary medicine to find a cure to the COVI19 Pandemic, I was struck by the reference of a literary figure whom I had first heard mentioned in my high-school classes in Delaware, and later in Homer's Odyssey, a text whose various scenes I began to illustrate in the 1990s, this time I was fascinated by the contemporary reading of Sisyphus and the placement of his story as metaphor inside a great French place of memory such as the Pantheon.
Indeed, I saw through the video that the metaphor of this Greek hero had been given pride of place under the dome of the great Paris mausoleum, just a few feet away from the
neoclassical sculptural monument by François Leon Sicard in honor of the National Convention that constituted the core principles of the French Revolution and the Rights of Man, if you will, as conceived in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the same central spot of the Pantheon, physicist Leon Foucault demonstrated in 1851 the veracity of the laws of the earth's gravitation and rotation with the famous pendulum suspended from the center of the dome and oscillating almost mystically in its periods back and forth so as to trace the Rose of the Winds on the floor. This mariner's rose, since remote Mediterranean epochs, guided ships on the high seas by defining the directions of north and south, east and west, according to the major winds of the earth's sphere. The story of Galileo Galilei discovering the same almost imperceptible motion in one of the oil lamps of Santa Croce Basilica in Florence, however, leading him to posit his ideas regarding the earth's place in the solar system and its rotational motion, etc., would lead to more modern readings of man's place and navigation on earth -- but these readings about meaning and direction were definitely connected to the old Rose of the Winds of ancient mariners, even as they subsequently led to the laws of gravitation by Sir Isaac Newton 1700s concerning gravity and inertia of bodies in space and Foucault's various demonstrations of motion with his pendulum.
These and other mechanical philosophies lay under the 2017 installation by Yoann Bourgeois, but the work of this 21st-century philosopher choreographer involved trampolines and acrobatics, and no few scenic design elements and costumes in the absurdist style of Jean-Paul Sartre's theater performances of the 1940s and 50s, or even of Ernest Hemingway's short story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," to name but a few. As New York Times art critic Wesley Morris pointed out in his review of the installation by Bourgeois when it opened, the 21st century installation addressed the “Live Free or Die” theme of the French Republic from the perspective of absurdist philosophy, and no few stabs against masculine paternalism and liberal economic theory. Who knew?
However, in the present essay my main interest is in exploring how Bourgeois' contemporary dancers take us back to the unending punishment of Albert Camus' Myth of Sisyphus (1942) and the idea that even freedom itself is nothing but an unending cycle of birth and death, and of futile efforts to achieve a goal and an uphill climb.
Interior view of the PANTHEON, with a Foucault Pendulum installation in the foreground, and the Monument to the French National Convention in the back..
Photo image of the dance choreography by Yoann Bourgeois inside the PANTHEON of Paris: The Mechanics of History (2017).
Again, the video that my friend in Caracas recently sent me came tagged with the adjective "Sisyphean," and it is visually powerful in its depiction of the absurdist philosophy tradition of the 20th century and its praise of the beauty of the struggle of man despite his awareness of the futility of life, as Camus refers to the human condition in his aforementioned essay on Sisyphus. In short, Bourgeois' The Mechanics of History illustrate through dance in and around a spiralling stairway and an unending cycle of rises and falls, contemporary Sisyphus. I recommend reading Wesley Morris’ review of the art and dance installation, attached below.
I have also included the full, 15-minute video of the work entitled Passants presented by the choreographer to close the 2018 Dance Biennial held in Lyons -- by the way, before the congregations of such large audiences was banned in France and other countries of the world, in response , Sysiphean or otherwise, to climb over the pandemic. (You may view this video by clicking on the IMAGE arrow below.)
Video of the fuller, 2018 dance choreography by Yoann Bourgeois, PASSANTS, staged in Lyon, France, to close the Biennial of Dance. The shorter performance in the PANTHEON, The Mechanics of History (2017), belongs to this longer version of the artist's exploration of modern Sisyphean man.
Point-blank, what calls my attention in the contemporary references to the ancient Greek Sisyphus myth is the disconnect between the theme of punishment faced by this hero and the roles played by females in his life and fate. Before the 20th century, there is a long history of fascinating uses of this myth, dating all the way back to Homer's Odyssey and IIliad in the 8th century B.C., as well as to numerous 6th-century B.C. Greek “black figure” vases showing the punishment of this King of Corinth. There are also late Etruscan funerary reliefs of the 3rd century before the Christian era, in honor of the deceased in tombs found in Tarquinia, Italy, and no few passages in poets like Ovid in the time of Caesar Ausgustus, or Apollodorus, who refer to the deceitful figure of Sisyphus. Jumping in time to 16th-century Italian painter Titian and the Spaniard artist Joseppe Ribera, active in Naples, Italy, in the 1600s, the iconographic fascination continued for the figure of the hero pushing the rock up the side of a mountain in Tartarus. In the 6th-century B.C. ceramic vase, the female deity who rules with Hades in the Underworld is shown in the center of the composition watching Sisyphus as he is about to push a (white) stone up the infernal mountain.
Sisyphus carrying out his task, 16th-century oil on canvas, Titian, Prado Museum
Sisyphus carrying out his task, 16th-century oil on canvas, Juseppe Ribera, Prado Museum
For Camus, the endurance of the penitent Sisyphus is nothing but the human steadfastness to own the absurdity and meaninglessness of life, regardless of its emptiness. He states, “There is scarcely any passion without struggle.” And again, “Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” He also affirms, “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” In yet another section of his iconic “Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays,” the author of The Plague, explains:
“Likewise and during every day of an unillustrious life, time carries us. But a moment always comes when we have to carry it. We live on the future: “tomorrow,” “later on,” “when you have made your way,” “you will understand when you are old enough.” Such irrelevancies are wonderful, for, after all, it’s a matter of dying. Yet a day comes when a man notices or says that he is thirty. Thus he asserts his youth. But simultaneously he situates himself in relation to time. He takes his place in it. He admits that he stands at a certain point on a curve that he acknowledges having to travel to its end. He belongs to time, and by the horror that seizes him, he recognizes his worst enemy. Tomorrow, he was longing for tomorrow, whereas everything in him ought to reject it. That revolt of the flesh is the absurd.”
Not once, however, does Camus in these or other texts pay much attention to the role played by women --- in Sisyphus’ life and eventual exemplary figure – or to his feelings with relation to these female figures. It seems to me that his plight came to mean a very different thing for audiences not only in 6th-century Greece, but in 17th-century Europe. Not only for audiences, but in fact for artists and philosophers.
There is no one text from Antiquity, especially, that tells us all we ever wanted to know about Sisyphus. A consultation of Robert Graves’ Greek Myths or of the Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology reveals a myriad of fragmentary, but telling, references ranging from Homer’s epic poems to Euripides’ plays and Plato’s Apology, or even Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which may be more or less combined into a linear discourse spelling out his having been the King of Thessaly (inheriting the crown from his father Aeolus, also a monarch, who in Homer’s Odyssey gives Ulysses a leather bag tied with a silver chord, containing all the winds of the Earth, etc., and so the possibility of navigating safely to his home in Ithaka after the completion of the Trojan War). In fact, like Ulysses and many of the gods of Olympus including Zeus, Sisyphus’ entanglement with females, some in bed, others more “platonic” in nature, leave a significant memory that poets will henceforth refer to in their plays and verses, for instance, his fathering of Ulysses himself. This, by the way, is a very surprising bit of Sisyphean gossip, for in the Odyssey, where one of the most climactic homecoming scenes of the epic involves Ulysses’ reunification with his father Laertes, viewed from a wider bedrock of stories about Sisyphus leads us to understand that old Laertes was indeed only his official, not his natural father, who had engendered him by ravishing his mother Anticlea the night of her wedding to Laertes, prior to the ceremony!
In the course of mythical time, this and other love affairs by Sisyphus define the figure that the Black-figure ceramists of pre-Socratic Greece show us next to the queen of the Underworld, Persephone, fulfilling his penitential task, over and over again (the large white rock or disc on those venerated ceramic vases being often read as a metaphoric mirror image of the sun rising and setting out in the world of the living!). In brief, I will come back to Persephone and her own role in the ancient meaning of Sisyphus, but it must also be pointed out that while the hero’s name was to become synonymous in Greek with deceit and astute lying in order to achieve an end, and that in the case of Anticlea’s rape as that of Tyro, daughter of Sisyphus’ own brother Salmoneus, there were reasons for, well, his wrongdoing in these situations, which may be consulted and considered in the deceiver’s curriculum, so to speak, but which would make this essay a bit longer than I wish it to be now, if I were to summarize these stories. But two very significant pieces of evidence that enable us to form a very different understanding of Sisyphus than that offered in the philosophy of the Absurd, involve, first, Sisyphus as a sort of engineering benefactor of the old city of Ephyrus, which we know as Corinth, when he sells to a river deity named Aesopus the information on the identity of his daughter’s rapist --- none other than Zeus, high god of Olympus! – if this same Aesopus shows Sisyphus how to bring water to the town of Corinth. Essentially, Sisyphus promotes commerce and turns the port into a key point for the navigation and history of that time and afterwards, by that revelation and trickery. Of course, this will be one of the many charges brought against him when he is sentenced to go to the Underworld and assume his punishment, … or punishments, I should say, since there is more than one occasion for such sentences pronounced against him.
City of Myth, pastel painting by the author, 19" x 25", 2008
Again, because many of the fragments in ancient literature regarding Sisyphean deeds such as the two mentioned or others to follow here, are detached from before’s and after’s which our linear minds usually pursue, perhaps Albert Camus or other writers of the Absurd did not think that those deeds merited much discussion. But one of them in particular leaves a very different kind of imprint or kernel of truth in the tragic figure of the human being who is made to perform the unceasing task of pushing the rock in Tartarus : his having loved MEROPE, one of the so-called Seven Sisters who would eventually give the name to the constellation seen as first sign of spring by sailors, and, conversely, as first sign of autumn, as these stars decline to set in the western sky prior to winter. The Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, were daughters of a sea nymph named Pleione, and the Titan Atlas, who were themselves pursued for their beauty by the hunter Orion, and metamorphosed into doves, first, then stars up in the heavens. Perhaps one day we will find the play or poem where the ancients tell us the story of how one of those immortalized ladies falls in love with Sisyphus, and for that reason “dies.” This is why at a certain point in remote times, mariners or astronomers noticed the disappearance of one of the members in this cluster of stars located near the constellation of Taurus. Merope’s disappearance, then, is an exemplary event, much like that of Sisyphus’ many such misdeeds, rooted in her falling in love with a mortal. And it is in her absence from the cluster that story becomes more lovely and poignant, despite that the group will still honor her by being called The Seven Sisters, not the Six! Moreover, she falls from eternal grace, much like Sisyphus does everytime he but reaches the summit or goal, or almost does so.
Sisyphus, in time, institutes the great Istheman Games which on the isthmus where his city of Corinth is located, brought together all the best athletes and artists of Antiquity to compete for their gold or silver crowns. The Isthmean Games were second only to the Olympic Games founded by yet another also imperfect hero named Hercules, perhaps two centuries before the time of Sisyphus. I confess I have a hard time understanding how the hero that epitomizes what Camus understood by the Absurd can also be credited with a celebration of competitions aimed at the pursuit of excellence, which gave so much meaning and prosperity, along with other less glorious byproducts, to the human beings of that remote time period. But more importantly, it is precisely while he is married to a mortal lady on Earth – Merope? – who probably felt quite proud of Sisyphus for these and other achievements of his, that he earns another of the charges imputed against him. He shackles THANATOS, death itself, when this deity of the Underworld comes to find him out and take him to Tartarus to pay for crimes against the Cosmos, and against Zeus’s order of things. In what was probably represented as a very comic scene on the stages of Taormina, Corinth, or Athens in the days of Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, Sisyphus would outwit Thanatos and that world order that dictates that all mortals must be mortal… Sisyphus shackles and thus abolishes death itself. He is a prefigure of Jesus, with all respect, as he is able to take death’s “sting” away from life. When Hades, king of the Underworld with his Queen Persephone eventually overcome and correct the misdeed by Sisyphus, and dictate that he must gross the entrance of the Three-Headed Dog Cerberus again, the father of lies and trickery schemes up another way around death, by instructing his wife, Merope, to leave his burial rites unattended and his body not properly interred. Once he is in Tartarus, and the news of this stoppage of the flow of the dying into the realm, by Sisyphus’s deceit, it is Ares, or the Olympian war god himself, who is the taskmaster executioner called on the scene to overcome him, and to bring death again to world of the living.
Aeolus gives Odysseus the Bag of the Winds, pen & ink drawing by the author, 8" x 5", 1991-2020
The figure of Sisyphus pushing the proverbial rock up the mountain of the Underworld thus becomes the embodiment of defiance illustrated by not only his anti-gravity push of the rock --- what interests contemporary Yoann Bourgeois or Albert Camus – but of a richer cluster of heroic sins or hubris which the pre-20th-century world understood much better, and probably as rich an explanation of the cycles of life and death and agricultural fertility, than what it came to be for Camus and other artists of Existentialism.