Marilena Karra

We must think of Sisyphus as a happy man

Upon his death, the mythical hero Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to the hard labour of constantly shoving a stone to the top of a mountain, using his hands and his head. But just when he is about to reach the top, the stone always rolls back to the floor of the hill. This process is repeated incessantly, since the essence of his punishment it this very endless, hopeless, useless and fruitless effort.

Sisyphus is seen as a tragic figure because he is fully conscious of what is happening to him. This consciousness is above all his and cannot be described in terms of values, moral or other, nor in universal terms. It is the awareness of the paradox of existing in a world where one has found oneself by accident. It is the awareness of the distance between the insignificance of this existence and the quest for authenticity. According to Heidegger, the will to realize this distance corresponds to the state of indebtedness or wrongdoing in which this being is, and opens the way to as sense of responsibility.

Sisyphus is responsible, assumes the responsibility for himself – the responsibility to turn his life into destiny, as Malraux would say. After all, the only demand conscience makes is that the being take charge of its destiny and avoid verbosity and non-authenticity. Therein lies the heroic aspect of Sisyphus, and his heroic ethics. For in this case the awareness of indebtedness or wrongdoing cannot be limited to a level of moral judgment or of the commonly accepted ethical norms.

Sisyphus is an eccentric hero; we know what his punishment is but we are uncertain about its cause, and the various speculations about it are contradictory: on the one hand he is described as cunning, sly, an irreverent and avaricious thief, on the other hand he is included by Socrates among the wise men he would have the pleasure of meeting in Hades. He is also eccentric because he is master of his destiny – of his personal destiny. His fate belongs to him as he has decided to follow it ungrudgingly, to adopt the stone as his absolute truth and its carrying to the top as his purpose. The awareness of his constant return to the foot of the hill is what makes him superior to his destiny and reveals his freedom to him, as Camus says. The inappropriateness of his debt is a way to come out of himself and lose his familiarity with such concepts as end, purpose, outcome, benefit, achievement, usefulness, hope… Although this may give rise to an agony, this agony forces him to confront his freedom. For the agony is not only the moment at which everything is shaken, but also the moment that reveals a person’s freedom and potential. “Agony is the awareness that we are our future in the form of non-being”, writes Sartre in L’Etre et le Neant.  Agony shows us that we have become separated from ourselves because of this fragile non-being, which becomes freedom exactly because the state of non-being can be overcome through intention and freedom. And since freedom must be founded on principles so as not to be an accidental choice, intention can serve as a principle, even if it does not lead to results.

Sisyphus is an eccentric hero because he achieves freedom not through death but through a non-ending agony.

In a situation like that of death, where everything is inert, there is nothing to be done, even the probability of the attainable is absent and there is nothing one can look forward to, the eccentric Sisyphus remains active and industrious; he preserves in a task, an activity, an end, disregarding the lack of effect and alluding to what Heidegger calls the “feasibility of the unfeasible”. Conscious of the nature of his punishment, he does not expect to push the stone to the top; he expects it to roll down each time. His expectation that “this” will go on confirms the everlasting character of his case. So pushing the stone up the hill becomes a habit, an almost organic habit, like the pumping of the heart, the tensing and relaxing of muscles and the twitching of nerves, the secret life of cells.

Besides, according to British philosopher Samuel Butler  , habit is what guarantees continuity. So Sisyphus starts the same procedure over and over again, but each time it is different. For habit takes away something new from repetition and this new thing is the difference. Also, because habit is independent from repetition since it includes action, and acting never means repeating.

Every time he goes back to his stone, Sisyphus “contemplates this succession of unconnected acts which becomes his destiny, a destiny created by himself, which acquires cohesion in his memory and will soon seal his death”, as Albert Camus writes in The myth of Sisyphus. This is the present within which time unfolds. His past and his future are parts of his present. It is at that point that physical fatigue coincides with mental weariness. This physical fatigue is associated with an earthly weight: the stone, as well as the mountain, is earth; each grain of it is a reflection of earth and the life upon it; the fatigue of the tense body, the distorted face and the taut muscles in an earthly sensation. The nontransparent, earthen body is the mediator between being and non-being and according to Merleau- Ponty, the only means by which we can get to the core of things, the thing with which we enter the world – a world that is flesh. Mental weariness is associated with contemplation of his destiny, which is broken into a series of acts which condense an indefinite duration.

The reason we talked so much about Sisyphus is that, although absent as a ‘tactile’ presence from the work of Christina Sarantopoulou, his ‘visual’ presence is evident in the constant movement of the sphere along the slanted plane, in the continuous action that unfolds in front of the viewer’s active gaze. It is evident in the layout of the content, which, in terms of semantics, is differentiated from the layout of expression ; it is also evident in the perceiving conscience, which is differentiated from the image-making conscience  . Sisyphus here is the invisible wrapped around the visible, a vibration, a non-corporeal sensation which is beyond the realm of the palpable and transcends the superficial film of visual metaphor and perception, i.e. of representation.

His presence is attested to in the slow, prolonged climbing of the sphere and the swift, rushed descent – the moment of absolute insightfulness, the moment of foresight which is also the moment of conscience, the moment when utopia coincides with a heroic ethic, as it happens with all utopias – the moment at which disdain triumphs over fate. He is present in the organic gaps of the perforated sphere, where the touch and the pressure from the hands has been imprinted, where prints turn into breaths, where transparence becomes escape, where decisiveness and acceptance makes the load lighter, where the world of Sisyphus becomes narrower and wider at the same time: a world made of flesh because it feeds on the hero’s flesh, and at the same time it reflects this flesh and the traces left on it. He is present in the sound which resonates of breathing, contractions and expansions, charge and discharge, pressure and decompression, with an equally organic rhythm which affords the security of continuity. He is present in the live red of tension and the effort which colours the pointed triangular arrow that points towards freedom, along a constantly reversible course; yet even its reversal leads to freedom – is freedom.

Even if the sphere stops at a critical point along its course where it starts going uphill, again its immobility hints at the effort; even more so, in fact, because of the inertia which attests to a silent but significant experience.

Nothing here is inert or impassive, nothing points to stoicism, apathy or resignation. On the contrary, there is an underlying promise that all in not over since the reserves of physical energy, patience and mental stamina have not been depleted yet, there is still the will to carry out the task.

Emerging from this state of agony and burden is an austere, rough, down-to-earth kind of pleasure; a silent relief through the body that “knows” its personal fate and, armed with this knowledge, transcends the superior fate which is irrational and contemptible. So let us leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain, for it is there that conscience coincides with freedom.

Marilena Karra
Art Historian