The Myth of Sisyphus

I followed my train of thought since this morning and ended up reacquainting myself with the The Myth of Sisyphus. Too much contemplation is not healthy for one’s own mental health, but I’ve been unconsciously crafting something in my mind and I finally feel like I have a hold of a few threads. Golden threads of being? Looms? A reminder of the first time I ever saw my own soul during an Ayahuasca session. Finding one’s own soul is an excavation.

The soul always knows what it wants and what it needs. It requires a certain amount of openness to let the light in. Courage, mental concentration, patience, and a generous amount of attention to that little voice within. Once the light penetrates through the hubris of mindless thoughts (habitually created negative self-talk or repetitive/unproductive ways of thinking), it reaches the source. There are many ways to reach the source. For me, the practice of yoga, the process of walking, and the mechanism of writing helps me get to the source.

For what appears to have been months, I’ve been visualizing “the source” as a natural water source deep in the mountains. To return back to oneself, one returns back home. To return to the soul, one returns to the origin. I was born in the foothills of Carpathian Mountains and I know that my soul is connected to the rich, black soil of Ukraine and the majestic mountains stretching the borders of Western Ukraine and Romania. As connected as I may be to the natural mountains of my birthplace, I’ve also considered mountains to be a metaphor for the cycles of life. I climbed a “little mountain” between 2017-2018 and got to taste that fresh water at its source. Between 2018-2019, I began climbing another mountain – that I’m still climbing – with many twists and turns where I wandered of and lost myself, lost my soul, lost my sense of self. My identity, if I may call it that.

Let’s go to the beginning of today’s train of thought. As I was putting on my jeans this morning after my yoga session, I was reminded of a dinner date two years ago. The Springtime of my life, with Spring being the most spiritual season of the natural cycles of Life. Talks of DNA strands, mending broken porcelain, and thoughts of historical artifacts and art objects. A conversation between two artists. In hindsight, a conversation about healing. Art as a process towards healing. I was reminded of The Myth of Sisyphus through the performative act of revealing a stone on his back. I’ve always been the philosophical, contemplative type. Can’t help myself. The fragment of this memory made me think of Jana Sterbak’s conceptual artwork Sisyphus Sport (1997). A stone designed as a backpack with leather straps and metal buckles. Ironically, or maybe not so, my graduate school research focused on Sterbak’s work.

Jana Sterbak, Sisyphus Sport, 1997.

Although I wrote extensively about the relevance of her most well known work, Vanitas: Flesh dress for an albino anorectic (1987), I was more interested in the artist’s forging of art objects that explore freedom. Drawn to notions of doubling, physicality, and self-awareness, Sterbak explores human vulnerability, the futility of pleasure, and the quest for freedom beyond corporeality. On a surface level, Sisyphus Sport can be easily interpreted as a work symbolizing the daunting burden of graduate school research and the quest for meaning of it all. There is the question that haunts us all, is this pointless? What is the meaning of getting an advanced degree? Questions that quickly lead a student down a dark path further away from that fresh water source. Further away from self-love, happiness, and inner peace. The past two years with all the life’s experiences in between had killed my spirit. That is the best way I can describe my journey without going into full details.

Now, what is the Myth of Sisyphus? How is it connected to what I’ve laid out so far? What am I trying to say? Why has it been so difficult to shake of the dust of depression of the last few years? Am I asking the wrong questions when seeking purpose? Am I responding in a productive way when I find meaninglessness or am I falling into despair when I aimlessly search for meaning that does not exist?

In Greek Mythology, Sisyphus was a king who was punished for cheating death. Sisyphus was a trickster, as many artists are. For cheating death, he was forced to push a heavy stone up a mountain only for it to roll down once it reaches the top, being caught in the repeating action for eternity.

Sisyphus inspired Albert Camus’ revolutionary philosophical essay The Myth of Sysiphus. Camus claims that Sisyphus is the ideal absurd hero and that his punishment is representative of the human condition: Sisyphus must struggle perpetually and without hope of success. So long as he accepts that there is nothing more to life than this absurd struggle, then he can find happiness in it, says Camus.

The central concern of The Myth of Sisyphus is what Camus calls “the absurd.” Camus claims that there is a fundamental conflict between what we want from the universe (whether it be meaning, order, or reasons) and what we find in the universe (formless chaos). We will never find in life itself the meaning that we want to find. Either we will discover that meaning through a leap of faith, by placing our hopes in a God beyond this world, or we will conclude that life is meaningless. Camus opens the essay by asking if this latter conclusion that life is meaningless necessarily leads one to commit suicide. If life has no meaning, does that mean life is not worth living? If that were the case, we would have no option but to make a leap of faith or to commit suicide, says Camus. Camus is interested in pursuing a third possibility: that we can accept and live in a world devoid of meaning or purpose.

The absurd is a contradiction that cannot be reconciled, and any attempt to reconcile this contradiction is simply an attempt to escape from it: facing the absurd is struggling against it. Camus claims that existentialist philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Chestov, and Jaspers, and phenomenologists such as Husserl, all confront the contradiction of the absurd but then try to escape from it. Existentialists find no meaning or order in existence and then attempt to find some sort of transcendence or meaning in this very meaninglessness.

Living with the absurd, Camus suggests, is a matter of facing this fundamental contradiction and maintaining constant awareness of it. Facing the absurd does not entail suicide, but, on the contrary, allows us to live life to its fullest.

Camus identifies three characteristics of the absurd life: revolt (we must not accept any answer or reconciliation in our struggle), freedom (we are absolutely free to think and behave as we choose), and passion (we must pursue a life of rich and diverse experiences).

*to be continued*

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