Sisyphus agonises. The boulder he rolls weighs heavier with every step taken towards the summit. His face contorted and his muscles screamed in protest from the immense effort to place one foot in front of the other. At long last, he nears the summit. Just a few more strides to the top … and then the inevitable happens. As it always has and always will. The boulder slides from Sisyphus’ grasp and rolls back down to the mountain’s base. It is there the silent monument remained, awaiting Sisyphus’ return.
This is Sisyphus’ punishment for his repeated defiance against the Gods. An ouroborosian toil that continues ad infinitum. Sisyphus will roll the boulder up the mountain. Sisyphus will watch as the boulder rushes down to the bottom. Sisyphus will descend and will once again roll the boulder up the mountain.
It is during that return, that pause as Sisyphus considers the futility of his task, that is the focus of this article.
The Tragedy of Consciousness
If Sisyphus’ fate is tragic, it is only because he is conscious. Sisyphus knows he essentially leads an empty existence. For no matter how much Sisyphus exerts himself, the universe is oblivious to his efforts. His protests and wishes are answered only by the deafening silence of the abyss. His endless labour will result in nothing.
Does Sisyphus’ existence differ from that of any of us? Waking, breakfast, transport, study/work, lunch, study/work, transport, dinner and sleep. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. A path so thoughtlessly and easily followed, rarely does one ever question its comfortable rhythm.
But one day, a seemingly innocuous question arises: “Why?” And in that moment, the illusions are lifted, replaced by a sense of weariness and realisation. Our daily rituals reveal themselves as habituated mechanical movements. Words are replaced by symbols strung together, further replaced by noises emitted from fleshy beings. You gaze in wonder at how those sounds and symbols managed to elicit different responses each time.
Everyday objects also reveal their foreignness. The steak on your plate is replaced by a bloodied piece of cadaver. The scented candle gracing the alter is replaced by melting wax set on a pile of rotting wood. The clothing you wear are replaced by pieces of fibre and skin stripped from dead plants, insects and corpses. You look at yourself in the mirror and ask aloud: “Why am I alive?” The mass of aging skin, flesh and bones in the reflection does not reply.
The discomfort one experiences when confronted with one’s own existential uncertainty has been characterised by philosophers as ‘angst’, ‘anxiety’ and the like. Such terms aptly illustrate our deep desire for familiarity and clarity. Understanding the world means reducing it into human terms. It means creating myths and explanations to imbue some semblance of meaning and control. If one believes that the universe is ordered and responsive rather than indifferent and coincidental, one’s feelings of anxiety would be soothed and calm restored. It’s no wonder why we desperately cling to rationalisations and comforting lies, however incredulous.
We need to differentiate between what we know and what we think. We know that man is mortal. We think that our existence serves some purpose. The former is a practical assent, the latter is a simulated ignorance. It is the latter that is unique to our species. Thought allows us to embrace ideas and ideals that give us a peace of heart. But the deeper we allow ourselves to wallow in this appearance of calm and familiarity, the greater the intensity of angst when the illusion shatters. One day, the cracks will show; the “Why?” will be asked. We know that there will not be an answer. What happens then?
Sisyphus’ boulder; Kilian’s mountain
On 27th November 2020, world-renowned Salomon athlete Kilian Jornet attempted to run for 24 consecutive hours on a track in Norway. We all know how it ended: Kilian dropped out after running 134.8 kilometres in 10 hours and 20 minutes due to an onset of sharp chest pains and dizziness. An impressive feat for any runner, but relatively unremarkable by Kilian’s own standards.
The outcome of the attempt is irrelevant. What interests me are Kilian’s thoughts as he ran loops around the track. Here is a man who pushed himself to run in ovals, covering great distances yet not actually going anywhere. The irony of this activity is obvious. At some point during his run, Kilian is bound to ask himself: “Why am I doing this?”
Kilian publicly announced that he had his sights set on breaking the 24 hour world record held by Yiannis Kouros (303.306 kilometres). But I’m certain that that is not the true impetus for Kilian to attempt his 24 hour challenge. After all, so what if he breaks the record? Kilian’s record would in turn be broken and forgotten at some point in the future. Like countless others before him, time will eventually erode all memories of Kilian’s existence and his achievements.
Why then does the young Spaniard continuously seek out new challenges? Surely not for fame and fortune. Kilian himself stated that he disliked the limelight. To prove something? To whom? What’s there to prove? Kilian himself will cease to remember his own achievements when he dies someday in the future.
For Kilian, taking on challenges is a means of self-discovery. As he explained at an interview, challenges enable one “to find out whether we can overcome our fears, that the tape we smash when we cross the line isn’t only the one the volunteers are holding, but also the one we have set in our minds? Isn’t victory being able to push our bodies and minds to their limits and, in doing so, discovering that they have led us to find ourselves anew and to create new dreams? […] I like discovering new mountains, new valleys, new places. Running is just a way to get there faster.”
Alas, Kilian’s self-imposed challenges and mountain expeditions are inert and indifferent to his efforts. Like Sisyphus’ boulder, these concepts and places do not care whether Kilian succeeds or fails, lives or dies. Yet, it is in them that Kilian simultaneously accepts and rebels against his anxious existence. It is in them where Kilian is liberated from the binds of rationality and where he fully embraces the absurdity of his endeavours.
After the 24 hour event, Kilian posted a short reflection on Twitter: “Thanks to all for your support. During the run I felt a sudden sharp chest pain and needed to spent the night on observation. Races sometimes don’t go well … so it is a good excuse to try it again ;)” Mirroring Sisyphus before him, Kilian restarts his ascent.
All is well
As Sisyphus returns to his boulder, I imagine melancholy arising in his heart. The pointlessness of his toil would shake even the hardiest of men. This is the boulder’s victory; despair sometimes too heavy to bear. But crushing truths perish when acknowledged and embraced. The sadness does not last. For despite knowing the tragedy that is his existence, the boulder is the one thing that links Sisyphus to this world. Sisyphus’ arduous fate is his own. As he observes the boulder rolling down the mountain’s steep slopes, Sisyphus remarks:
“Despite the futility of my task, I conclude that all is well.”
All of Sisyphus’ silent joys are contained in his boulder. The struggle towards the heights is itself sufficient to fill the void in man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.