The Sisyphus Myth today

AUG 17 — That famous story by Albert Camus depresses me, okay?

Greek hero. Pulled a fast one on Death. Death gets back at him. Sentences him to push a huge stone up a high place, only to see the stone roll down and the task start all over again. Forever. 

Ugh. The thought that someone can be condemned to a meaningless task for all eternity makes me want to pour cold water on myself. The idea that someone can be made to suffer and carry such a huge load, all the way up to God knows where, only to have it fall back to Square 1 all over again (and again and again) makes bureaucratic office work seem like a joy.

A cruel version of Snakes & Ladders meets Groundhog Day. Even worse was how this dude didn’t have the option of backing out; he couldn’t say “Screw this, I ain’t shifting this big-ass boulder no more.”

Like I said, it depressed me. However, my (then) consolation was that it was just a myth. Nothing required me to take it seriously. It was like a D-Grade fairy tale which I was free to ignore; life was never this hopeless.

And then it struck me: This myth isn’t entirely irrelevant after all. 

Take sexual desire, for instance. Like, why is the female breast so attractive to males? (I’m obviously referring to male heterosexuality here but the astute reader can easily apply this analogy across all sexual orientations). Every straight guy after puberty has a strange attraction to girls’ boobs.

But we must ask: What’s up with such allure? What is it about milk-secreting organs which become such insatiable magnets for male desire? The answer provided by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan is that boobs embody the objet petit a i.e. that impossible object which both promises to, but never can (in principle), deliver the ultimate Edenic fullness sought by humankind.

It is not that the boob itself is ‘paradise’ – it is that ‘paradise’ itself has (albeit temporarily and fleetingly) taken up residence in the (usually clothed) breast, especially in those belonging to a desirable person. Thus, desire spurs us on to pursue and grab hold of that oh-so-special item i.e. we keep pushing the rock uphill.

Ironically, as most guys realise, getting “what we want”, far from fulfilling our desire, simply transfers it to another person or another object. We have to start from rock bottom again.

Ad infinitum.

The infinite frustration of Victoria’s Secret

Doesn’t this sound like the market and consumerism?  Why do modern consumers often buy unnecessary and pricey stuff like there’s no tomorrow? 

Here’s a guess: It’s because we enjoy consuming the infinity of nothing-ness. Like someone pushing an oversized pebble up Mount Kinabalu only for him to have to do the task all over again, consumption is an eternal frustration.

Products, even useless ones, are like words. Just like there is no final word at the “end” of language, there can be no final product to satisfy our all-consuming longing.

A Louis Vuitton handbag may have many benefits but it also includes a lethal pull. An iPhone 6 allows you to take Billboard-quality pics, but it also takes you via a poisonous desire, a force fatal precisely because it tastes so sweet. Like alcoholics who are cursed with enlarging the hole in their lives with more and more liquor, today’s shopper is whammied by the pleasurable sickness of never possessing enough. 

We crave more and ooh it feels so good because it soothes some deep wound inside, except we don’t realise the bliss and the chasm is one and the same thing. The pleasure derived from “finally” owning a pair of Nike shoes is the same force which drives the dissatisfaction of no longer craving to wear the same pair of boots Ronaldo does right after we’ve bought it.

So we buy-spend-buy like there’s no tomorrow (i.e. we push the rock) but the very minute after the cashier swipes our credit cards we feel we need to buy-spend-buy some more (i.e. the rock falls back down).

Like Victoria’s Secret. What’s the secret which, uh, belongs to Victoria? Isn’t it the secret that there is no secret? Isn’t the secret simply the fact that people love to convince themselves there’s something more behind more high-priced lingerie? 

Sisyphusian translation: We keep pushing the rock upwards (seeking to finally unveil a secret) only to have the rock fall down and the task start all over again (there is no secret but we gotta keep looking for it).

Child 44

Like the desire for another person or another fashion accessory, political society, too, is Sisyphusian.

Like a dream lodged in an attractive body, or status embedded in a BMW, politics is something which cannot truly be arrived at. In Malaysia, many wish to topple BN and replace it with a (new?) Pakatan Rakyat (I’m being conservative here, not least given how recently the Drama Bulan Ini appears more like Sekatan Rakyat). Honestly, I long for this too. The lesson from Sisyphus, however, is that should it happen, there will always be something missing. Politics is impossible.

Granted the country may be better off without the endemic corruption of the present regime, if Malaysians believe they will be 120 per cent “satisfied” should BN lose the next elections, we better get ready to weep. The rock is still going to roll down. Inevitably there will be groups who will continue to feel marginalized and “cheated.” Inescapably, the newly-formed government will also be guilty of oversights, “preferential treatment” and inequality. Even should the rock of political transformation “reach the top”, it will not stay there.

We mustn’t lose sight of this paradox, especially in a climate of RM2.6 billion “donations” which creates a yearning among most Malaysians for something – anything! -- better. Frustration and lack are a guarantee in politics if only because frustration and lack are constitutive of the very society which politics exist to “battle” over. Like Sisyphus, the realm of the political can never be fulfilled.

Speaking of which, have you watched the latest Tom Hardy flick, Child 44? No spoilers here, but the key slogan which drove the movie is the one which the Stalinist regime declared was a non-negotiable truth in “utopian” Russian society in the 1940s, “There is no murder in paradise.” 

In other words, if even child after child turned up dead, the government refused to countenance the idea that a murderer could be on the loose. Why not? Because Stalinist Russia was a paradise. Therefore, all deaths had to be accidents.

It’s like, the Stalinist leaders refused to believe that the task of rolling the stone can never be completed. So even if the stone kept rolling down, they’ll keep regurgitating that their duty is done – that the rock will stay at the top.

Does this remind you of some leaders – closer to home – who act like they’re on top of the world whilst the country continues to roll downhill?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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