The Women in the Life of Sisyphus: Lost in the translation of Albert Camus
A few days ago a friend in Caracas, Venezuela, sent me a short video-clip of a contemporary dance and acrobatics performance installed in 2017 inside the great PANTHEON of Paris by Yoann Bourgeois: as he is defined by art critics, the Belgium-born Bourgeois is a motion philosopher and choreographer. The first of the LINK buttons immediately below shows us a moment of the elegant dance installation created by this artist.
Sisyphus, pen & ink drawing by the author, 3" x 8", 1991
The second LINK above, "The Pantheon in Movement," shows us a longer series of sequences contained in the 2019 feature film, Les Grands Phantomes, directed by Bourgeois and Louise Narboni, about a group of young people who occupy the venerable national shrine of Paris, itself a modern neoclassical replica of Emperor Hadrian's PANTHEON in Rome, built in 138 A.D.
The synopsis of the 2019 film by Narboni and Bourgeois sums up the plot of the movie thus:
Dancers have infiltrated a phantasmagorical Pantheon where they try to brave
in a dizzy and musical way the laws of gravity. Their bodies seem to be part of
an eternal movement. How far will they go? And until when?
The superb camera work and haunting soundtrack of this long feature film, Les Grands Phantomes, frame the various "dances" taking place, in the tradition of the Cirque de Soleil, in each of the quadrants of the Paris building, to illustrate the idea that time and perpetual motion are the only realities of which we can have certainty, and that neither the Earth or the universe, at their core, know REST. Another subtext comes from the significance of the Parisian PANTHEON and its relevance to modern politics and the Declaration of the Rights of Man heralded by the French Revolution --- the implication being that politics and history are "mechanical" products of forces like gravity and centrifugal pull. But I suggest that the plot of Les Grands Phantomes behind the stunning visuals is itself the mechanical byproduct of a very thin reading of the famous punishment assigned to Sisyphus, the king of ancient Ephyros -- CORINTH -- to push a rock up the incline of a mountain in Tartarus, only to see it escape his hold and roll back down the mountain again, ad infinitum. Sisyphus, it turns out, was as much an astute and brilliant businessman when he ruled Corinth and put the city at the center of the map of the Peloponese as a trading and navigation hub for that time period, but he was a lover of life who is able to defy death and for a while abolish mortality for human beings, essentially shutting down the Underworld and the business of funerals, etc., established for us by Zeus and the other higher gods.
Of course, when my Venezuelan friend sent me the first of the clips above, it came with a supra-script imposed on Bourgeois's perpetual spiral climb and fall of the male dancers as commentary on the "sisyphean" efforts throughout the world at present to find a cure for the COVI19 Corona Virus epidemic. According to this reading, then, in other words, hard as we try, we will never reach the desired goal of finding a cure for this epidemic or other ailments that send countless humans to the Land of Shades. And even though there is no rock being pushed or any rocky incline in the montages of Bourgeois, some, er, ghostly resemblance does come across to the figure of Greek hero Sisyphus in the Underworld of Hades, forever pushing and falling. But I took the challenge of not seeing the mountain or the rock as props and setting for the Sisyphus/Corona Virus parallel, as an invitation to investigate other aspects of the Corinthian hero's tale, and I discovered much to think about!
As a person with a lifelong interest in myths of the Greek and Roman worlds, when I viewed the various videos included here of Bourgeois's work, I was immediately very taken by the video of Sisyphus in the Paris Pantheon, and I was thrilled to see young artists going back to the world of the Trojan War and the voyage of Ulysses back to Ithaka, in order to make sense of their modern context, but I soon realized that Bourgeois was intentionally showing us a Sisyphus taken out of his context -- and fulfilling the futile penitentiary sentence of pushing the rock up the mountain with no relevance at all to other aspects of this hero's life. As stated, Sisyphus was the king of Corinth, and he inherited from his monarch father AEOLUS (the "father of winds" who appears in the return of Odysseus to Ithaka by Homer) not only the crown and scepter for governing the region of the Isthmus of Corinth in the Peloponese, but he receives from Aeolus his dad's penchant for telling lies and deceiving others -- particularly travelling salesmen and pilgrims passing by the Corinthian Isthmus. In ancient Greek, the name of the father and of the princely Sisyphus are synonimous with deception and wile, in fact, and so much so, that Sisyphus is credited with fathering none other Odysseus himself, perhaps THE greatest deceivers and storytellers in all Western literature. (For example, according to some archaic poems dating back to Homer's 12th-century time period, Sisyphus outwits another trickster like himself, Autolycos, by figuring out that the latter was stealing his cattle. Autolycos, rather than throwing a major comercial fit, and quite impressed by the astute wiles of Sisyphus, whispers to him the secret of how to get to his daughter Anticlea's chamber the night of her wedding, so that Sisyphus could embrace her and be the father of her first child. Before the groom, Laertes, makes it to the room in his tuxedo, Sisyphus had raped Anticlea. The sisyphean DNA, then, explains how the force of wile and storytelling in Odysseus came from no futile effort on the part of Sisyphus.
This is just the beginning of Sisyphus's career, however, and in a second major "victory" that he scores against Zeus himself in one of this high god's many womanizing adventures, the God of the Thunderbolt in fact sends Sisyphus to the Underworld -- that is, he kills him -- and sentences him to serve as an example to mortals so they will not defy Zeus or the laws of Death. This punishment then becomes synonimous with the name Sisyphus.
Although there does not exist -- except in Robert Graves' Greek Myths, or in similar encyclopedic compendiums like that of Karoly Kerenyi -- a concisely linear resume of all the reasons why Sisyphus was punished, it is worthwhile to consult Graves' bibliography for the other feathers in this king's archaic cap. He was, like Hercules for the Olympics, the Founder of the Isthmean Games. We learn this and plenty more if we look up the name Sisyphus in writers like Apollodorus, Pausanias, Sophocles, Homer, Plato, and Ovid. In his Apology, Plato tells us that Socrates looked forward to meeting Sisyphus face to face in the Underworld, of course after he swallowed the final drop of the hemlock given to him for his transgressions, as punishment, by the judges of Athens! And Ovid sings in his Metamorphosis that when that other famous hero, Orpheus, does the impossible and visits Tartarus briefly to bring his lady Eurydice back to the land of the living, Sisyphus somehow interrupts one of his infinite climbs and falls up and down the mountain of Tartarus and sits down -- on the rock? -- to listen to Orpheus's charming music. This, to me, is Ovid's way of comparing Orpheus's own power of going against the laws of death to that of Sisyphus.
Yes, Sisyphus had this in common with Orpheus, or Orpheus, rather, had this similarity with Sisyphus, they eventually fanagle their entry and exit from the land of death, in connection not only with their powers to, er, persuade or rhapsodize, so great a power that it enables each of them to pass three-headed dog, Cerberus, one or several times, but that these powers were ultimately corollaries to these heroes' defiance of the natural law that says that all men and women must one day die, and that in varying manner, their triumph over death was related to a female figure. In the case of Orpheus-- Eurydice. In the examples of Sisyphus, his wife Melpomone (one of the Seven Sisters in the constellation of the Pleiades).
Great painters, the likes of TITIAN and of Giuseppe Ribera in the 16th and 17th century, as shown by the photos of these oil paintings below, have focused on the mythic figure of Sisyphus -- but for their respective masterpieces, they have diregarded the women of Sisyphus and stressed the relentless stubborness of the lone male hero and the tangible physicality the rock he is punished by the high gods to push forever. In fact, in 1942, Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus also bypasses the sentimental side of the Sisyphean heart and uses the ancient image as image of modern man in a universe without any meaning or respite from the absurdity of the human condition. From Camus during World War II and existentialism to the contemporary focus by Yoann Bourgeois, to paraphrase Napoleon's famous quip, from the sublime to the ridiculous, il n'y a qu'un pas, there is but a single step and the inevitabilty of losing grip of the rock and of falling back down the slope almost just conquered.
Sisyphus carrying out his task, 16th-century oil on canvas, Titian, Prado Museum
In the 19th century, romantic painter William Bouguerau depicted the Seventh Pleyade, Merope, in all her feminine splendor. I would think that when and if the stories circulated in the ancient world of how Sisyphus had with his attractions held such sway over one the likes of an immortal star, this would have made for some very fantastic narratives, both oral (in song) and visual (in frescoes or ceramic vases)!
Sisyphus carrying out his task, 16th-century oil on canvas, Juseppe Ribera, Prado Museum
Merope, the Seventh Pleyade, 19th-century oil on canvas, William Fredrick Bouguerau,
Although as of yet, I have not located any archaic period vases showing Sisyphus and Merope, the pictures we have on Greek vases dating back to the 6th and 5th centuries are enough to get us started in our appreciation of exactly how much Yoann Bourgeois and other contemporary readers of the myth have missed. For example, the icon of the hero carrying the large white disc-like rock next to a large female figure of one of the most fascinating deities of Hades -- Persephone -- reveals how much playwrights and rhapsodes of those remote centuries might have enriched the Sisyphus repertoire in their day. (It is interesting to think, too, that as daily vessels used in the dining areas or bars of antiquity, these vessels reveal what figure Sisyphus cut in contemporary culture!)
Persephone. Queen of the Underworld, sentences Sisyphus to push the Rock, 6th-century, Black-figure ceramic, Munich: Staatliche Antikensammlougen
Persephone. Queen of the Underworld, sentences Sisyphus to push the Rock, as Hades, King of the Underworld, watches., 6th-century, Black-figure ceramic, Munich: Staatliche Antikensammlougen
The female-rich saga of Sisyphus thickens, therefore, when we do just a little bit of researching and reading around Graves' bibliographical roster of Sisyphus appearances in the literature before and after Homer, and I suspect that Yoann Bourgeois's own adaptation of the Sisyphus figure's silhouette for use in his 21st-century choreographies, purposely restricted his understanding of the hero climbing an ascent, only to fall and to fall and to fall, to the existentialist text of Albert Camus, blocking out essential narrative passages about Sisyphus's arrivals to the underworld and ultimately distorting who he was, and why the likes of Socrates and Ovid would have regarded him as more than a "woe is me" type existentialist hero.
In the two so-called black-figure ceramics from 6th-century Athens, for example, the ceramists and/or painters of these two amphorae show us, in the first, Sisyphus carrying out his task as he is watched by Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld, and, in the second, Sisyphus between Queen Persephone holding stalks of wheat, and Hades, her kingly husband in that region for 6 months of the earth's year. Of note here is the question as to why Persephone should figure in to the punishment story and what relevance wheat or in essence, agriculture had to do with the repeating cycles of spring and fall harvest that are quintessential to Persephone's myth and her importance for life to exist on the Planet. Some authors underline the cyclical rising and setting of the Sisyphean rock as a cycle within the larger circle of agricultural life and death and life. This much of the narrative, gleaned from the Archaic period ceramics, begins to shed lights unimagined into the realm of the Shades of Hades, and it certainly made me appreciate the value of going beyond Bourgeois's very elegant re-make of the story as it debunks the "futility of it all" view about modern man as a Sisyphus, and his incessant efforts to work and push to a goal as a deception in its own right, by, well, modern artists like Bourgeois ... or Camus.
By the way, if the scene of his punishment alongside Persephone is second to that of Zeus initially casting the Corinthian king to Hades, it is very fascinating to read around the image of Persephone in the Sisyphus saga. The story is told that Sisyphus makes a first escape from the hands of Death when he in fact tricks this god when he comes with shackles to take the criminal to Tartarus, by asking him to let him, Sisyphus, try out the handcuffs on the arresting officer. In essence, Sisyphus comes to us in song fragments from the archaic period, as one who handcuffs Death, and thus abolishes this fate for humankind. As a corollary narrative, when Hades is set free and he comes to make Sisyphus die again, the hero has given instructions to his wife -- the Pleyade MEROPE -- to leave his dead body unburied, so that when he is in Hades, he can argue with a lawyer before the court of Persephone and her husband Hades, that he must be allowed to resurrect briefly so he can make his wife give him the rightful funerary honors, without which Hades was weakened on Earth!
In the 1990s, while teaching English composition at the University of Miami, I began to think about the relationship of visual images and literary passages, and began to illustrate vignettes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, written in the 1st-century B.C. at the time of Roman emperor Caesar Augustus. One of these illustrations, shown at the beginning of the present page, shows Sisyphus as a thin, almost delicate male figure, in the act of pushing the Rock up the mountain in the Underworld. But some years later, shortly after making Rome, Italy, my home in 2008, I drew with color pencils the Dance of Ariadne, the woman who gave Athenian hero Theseus "the golden thread" with which to enter and exit the labyrinth designed by Daedalus, where the task of Theseus was to slay the Minotaur, half man, half bull son of the Cretan Queen Pasiphae. In Italy, not content with the information about this myth which I brought from my time in Miami and from my college days, I was fascinated to learn that according to an ancient poet Ariadne's thread was in fact her dancing of the line or thread of steps that Theseus would have to remember to "dance" himself on the way to the Minotaur's hiding place and back.
There is a wide repertoire of images showing Ariadne's role in Theseus's heroic act -- and this repertoire includes Greek vases, Pompeyan fresco paintings and mosaics visible today in Naples' great Archaeological Museum. There are as well Renaissance ceramics in fajolica, Florentine panels in tempera, and Roman canvases from the Baroque period, depicting Theseus, or, perhaps more often, either the Abandoned Ariadne -- or the Ariadne Redeemed by Bacchus story, the happy ending, so to speak. Yes, the theme of Theseus's less-than-heroic Abandonment of Ariadne complicates the repertoire, taking us to the opera stage of Monteverdi, George Frederick Handel, and other musicians who drew from the sentimental side of the Theseus stories. But to bring all this back to the topic of the present essay, the sentimental side of the tragic figure of the King of Corinth, being quite present and recurring in the fragments we have for Sisyphus, throws a radically different spin on the story --- of course absent in the contemporary reading of the myth by Bourgeois, as seen in the above video clips.
The Dance of Ariadne, pencil drawing by the author, 8” x 11”, 2009
The almost male-only, contemporary reading of the Sisyphus saga and its placement 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, dettach his penal narrative from that of Merope and Persephone, or from his swahbuckler handcuffing of Death, and juxtapose it on the core principles of the French Revolution and the Rights of Man honored in the Parisian building and mausoleum. Moreover, visitors to the Pantheon in 2017, might have "gotten" the connection with science of the Bourgeois installation/performance of his acrobats. Specifically, in the crossing of the quadrants 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 as a young boy discovering the same almost imperceptible motion in the periodic swing of one of the oil lamps of Santa Croce Basilica in Florence led him to posit his theories regarding the rotation and movement of planet Earth around the Sun. Therefore, for contemporary visitors to this site in 2017 and for us viewing video clips of it, Bourgeois was giving us a choreographic metaphor about man's place in the universe and for the navigation of earth and its human race around the solar system -- no small metaphor. 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. In short, they would all lead to the idea that everything that comes to be and to live on earth is not only bound to physics but has little if any meaning beyond it. Certainly none connected to the lives and loves --seductions and abductions, etc.-- that ancient poets sing about more freely than young artists think to do today.
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?
In this context it is interesting to visit briefly the central 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.
Photo image of the dance choreography by Yoann Bourgeois inside the PANTHEON of Paris: The Mechanics of History (2017).
Interior view of the PANTHEON, with a Foucault Pendulum installation in the foreground, and the Monument to the French National Convention in the back..
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, then, for Albert 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 romantic 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’ play The Madness of Herakles 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, as illustrated above by the various vases from Munich's Staatliche Museum of Antiquities, this and other love affairs by Sisyphus underline the importance that the Black-figure ceramists of pre-Socratic Greece saw in Sisyphus's "dance" up and down the fateful mountain of the Underworld, His punishment is, if the reader will allow me, a precursor of a Jesus carrying the Cross! And Persephone, making sure that the condemned fulfill his penitential task, over and over again, opens yet other dimensions to the way this myth richly addressed the problem of death and dying in the world (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 Asopus the information on the identity of his daughter’s rapist --- none other than Zeus, high god of Olympus! – if this same Asopus would pay Sisyphus for this information. Amazingly, Asopus pays him for the revelation by bringing fresh water to the town of Corinth, the city where Sisyphus, and his father before him, reigned as monarchs. 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 affront to Zeus 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.
Epilogue: The fruits of one's labours
In so many ways, experience and personal history are like best books or stories, containers of valuable lessons that we can and should learn from, in order to live lives that lead us to say, when it comes time to die, that we have led a good life and have the serenity (so to speak) to give up our ghost.
As a child growing up in my native Camaguey, Cuba, I must have walked many times on very lovely granite pavement slabs such as the one pictured in the above photograph, as I accompanied my parents and sisters or my godmother, Fe, who took me with her to see the newest film releases in our small, state-o-the-art cinemas, Encanto, Alcazar, or Casablanca. After our family disbanded and we left everything behind, seeking refuge in the United States in 1963, I did not return to Camaguey until 1999, at which time these sidewalks with the head of the Greek god of commerce, Hermes, or the Latin equivalent, Mercury, were still there in the most central commercial streets of our once-prosperous cattle-rancher and agricultural city. In more recent times, I was dismayed to learn that a major redesign of those central streets had ended up in utterly removing these evocations of city efforts to represent and unite private efforts of businessmen and industrial entrepreneurs under associations directed at making sure that such activities were for the good of the city as well as of its individual members. Of course there was in me a nostalgic sadness at the news of the removal of a material tie to my childhood, and at the same time an ironic smile at my realization that such symbols of mythology had in some way been part of my vocabulary when I was but 7 or 8 years old. (The winged head of travelling god Mercury is framed juxtaposed on the large clay rain-water receptacles, amphorae of sorts, that were the symbol of our city -- at once, symbolic or industry and foresight, sense of hygiene, etc.).
It turns out, too, that all this ties in with the present essay on Sisyphus! I shall explain myself.
One of the most studied books from the ancient Greek world, whose Latin title -- The Republic -- would indicate that it deals, as most people would think, with the Ideal City or type of government, actually begins as a conversation between Socrates and his friends Glaucon, Thrasymachus, and Cephalus as to what defines a human being as just. In other words, the "how to book," is Plato's Republic, on how we can follow a path of reaoning and effort that will ensure that when we die we will do so with serenity and with a sense that we have used wisely what provisions we were born with, or those that we earned through our efforts. Among so many other subjects, one of the main lessons gleaned from Socrates' lengthy dialogues in The Republic, the idea that human life is not futile, or need not be so, and that therefore if Albert Camus's reading of the figure of Sisyphus solely deals with the paradoxical value of the futility of the hero's climbing and pushing the stone up the mountain in Hades, no human should even dream that any obstacle placed before him or her during their life has any worth beyond that of its being "Sisyphean."
Nothing in the end is achieved. In some ways, images like that of prospering Mercury/Hermes should be removed from city sidewalks, or destroyed; at best, they should only be kept in museums of worlds and times goneby, when people in cities felt that commerce and enterprise could be prosperous, and that this was a noble feather -- or wing -- in a citizen's cap.
As I close this essay, I must put in a word or two about just what it is that the rich, although fragmentary, iconography of Sisyphus says to us regarding this problem of how to lead our lives and how to view achievement. In her fascinating 2019 IL Mulino edition or publication entitled, Senza Paradiso, author Doralice Fabiano explores a rich repertoire of texts from the Greek and Roman world (from the 7th century B.C. to the first or second century A,D.) which in some way help us to understand, as the book's title suggests, that in this Greco-Roman culture there was not any sense of the afterlife as a Paradise or place of atonement, for example, as depicted in Dante's Divine Comedy, where the paths or hell, purgatory, or ultimately heaven, are respectively associated with either virtues or sins, and the purification of the latter.
Fabiano essentially dedicates the second part of her study to the figures of heroes like Tantalus, Prometheus, or Sisyphus, whose figures in the Underworld were not only popular subjects for ceramists for their vases, but for poets such as Homer or Ovid.
The author spends some time, in this context, discussing just how it is that Sisyphus comes to us by way not unlike my native town's sidewalks, as exemplum of how to either strive to be like him, if we wish to outwit death and mortality, or to avoid exercising our own version of his wileful sagacity, since in the end, we, too, must face the consequences and pay for our excessive pride. Fabiano cites passages from the poet Alceo, for example, who in the 7th century B.C., tells us in poetic lines that such sagacity and trickery as Sisyphus had, earned him little in the long run, and that if anything, his exemplum should at best show us how to "seize the day" and live our short lives in the best way possible. Alceo uses Sisyphus, too, to caution us that our friends will probably forsake us if we are down and out with no money, and so that ancient author's "carpe diem" even has monetary overtones as to what attracts friends to us, certainly not material insolvency.
But other ancient authors examined by Fabiano include those in a 6th-century B.C. anthology entitled the Teognide, as well as Lesbos-born contemporary of Sappho in the 6th century as well, who actually hold up Sisyphus as a human figure who, through his vision, is able to enchain and thus disempower Death itself when Zeus sends him to handcuff Sisyphus and take him to the Underworld for his transgression of tattle-telling Zeus's rape of Aegina to her father Asopo, the river deity. (In this achievement of Sisyphus, this astute king's city of Corinth comes out wining, for Asopus brings fresh water to the town, as payment to the king for telling him who had abducted his daughter! This was briefly discussed in the first part of my essay here.) One day perhaps archaeologists will dig up in either Greece or Etruscan Italy a 6th-century vase showing Sisyphus handcuffing Death, with the ruse of his wanting to see how the correctional gadget worked, etc., and as a result, abolishing not only his own death but that of other mortals. As Fabiano remarks, Sisyphus's virtue consists of his using the binding forces of Death to bind Death himself.
If we reflect on this side of the Sisyphean research into the COVID19 Virus, what would this mean? I am thinking about the reversal of some inherent force in the virus to turn it against itself.
Around 570 B.C., again Doralice Fabiano tells us that yet another poet sang verses about this episode of Sisyphus with the handcuffs reversed, and that he sang the praises of Sisyphus for eventually persuading Persephone to let him serve his sentence by briefly going back to the world of the living to make sure his wife -- Merope, the former Pleyade -- would do something she had neglected to do when he died, that is observe all the prescribed funeral rites, and finally interring his (dead) body in Corinth. For this 6th-century poet, Terecide, Sisyphus's character had indeed made all the difference -- his stubborn sagacity or will to live and to give Corinthians immortality had somehow earned him the unique ability to remember things on earth, once he was in the Underworld, and thus he had had the power somehow to confront Persephone and deceive her into allowing him to return to his wife, in order to make sure the Queen of the Underworld's laws about burials and other funerary rites were carried out.
At the very end of her text, Doralice Fabiano essentially argues that the iconic heroes that we see in the Greek and Roman world, Sisyphus included, though perhaps in ways less heroic than Theseus or Hercules, still teach us how tasks that we come upon or that somehow are imposed on us in our lives, are an honor and an opportunity to show what our character is made of. They are not a symbol of a futile longing for achievement or prosperity. Fabiano underlines how at the heart of these myths there is a finality or telos ("that for the sake of which"), for which even the unthinkable, and the ungodly, is undertaken. Hades, the realm of shadows and death, for Fabiano, is an image of the antithesis of achievement, it is a place where memory does not last, per se, in the shades of thos who have died. It is a stage where the cosmos metes out its justice, underlining the futility and impotency , especially of mortals, in the face of larger justice. But Sisyphus meets his task or labour, and in doing so, turns the task itself into an image of the sagacity and fruitfulness of his defiance of limitations.
Along with those lost vases perhaps showing the comic binding of Death, Doralice Fabiano's book also makes me hope that one day in some old monastic transcriptions some young searcher, not won over by Yoann Bourgeois's contemporary eskewed vision, will find a path to locate even Aeschylus's play, Sisuphos Drapetes -- Sisyphus the Fugitive -- of which as of now there are but a few extant lines in anthologies, because at some point that text was removed from circulation. Finding, then, Sisyphus the Fugitive would be comparable to what I would have to do to bring back the old city sidewalks with the head of winged Hermes and the Rainwater containers to my not-forgotten Camagüey!