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Welcome to the Age of Sisyphus

It is the pathos of modern philosophy and theology to try to figure out the nature of modernity and late modernity on the basis of which mythological Greek figures things correspond to. Nietzsche’s notion of Dionysus against Apollo (and “the Crucified”) has become a standard way of talking about the matter. Also common is to talk about the movement way from Promethean modernity into Dionysian postmodernity.

In his erudite diagnosis of modern culture, Hoekendjik argues, in contrast that the image of our age is not Dionysus, but Sisyphus. “Previous generations found their symbol in Prometheus, the undaunted revolutionary who has dreamed up a new future for mankind and who now is going to bring it about, striving boldly after the divine crown. . . . Our generation is in the process of exchanging this symbol for another one: Sisyphus, the ‘hero of absurdity,’ who mockingly plods along, although he knows that the whole business does not contain a single promise.”Contrary to understanding the late modern age as a period of unbridled exultation in pleasure and excess, “this sisyphean existence is marked by incessant boredom.” (p. 49)

This goes along with David Bentley Hart’s incisive comment that “the precise symbol of this anesthesia [of modernity], perhaps, would be not wine (which speaks of creation’s goodness and tends to disorient the acquisitive rapacity of a keen mind) but aspirin (which speaks of the world’s oppressive glare and thins the blood).” The notion that the late modern life is one of over-jubilation and excessive gratification is skewed. The pathos of modernity is a life of yawning impotence. Viagra, anyone?

Again, as Hoekendjik says, “This yawning boredom lies behind so much busyness and noisy ideology. It is often as if in an opera we hear the whole chorus sing fortissimo, ‘We are marching! We are marching!’ but nobody advances. We will not understand the bragging song if we do not notice that in the meantime everybody in boredom is marching in place; we don’t understand the ideology quite right if it escapes us that it is often used merely as a hand to cover the yawning mouth. We overestimated the rebellion if we forget that it is the resistance of a conformist, who really discovered a long time ago that it is all so meaningless. It is the scream of a trapped animal.” (p. 50)

The person of the modern age is a listless wanderer who trudges around, moving from one stupid pleasure to the next, never enjoying much of anything in the process. This sort of sentiment is captured perfectly by Stewie Griffin in “Family Guy.” In the process of trying to win a bet about being able to pass as the coolest kid in a high school, he takes on the persona of “Zac Sawyer” who just transferred in from “rich, expensive, car driving, sex having high school.” Upon being told that “that’s sooo cool” he replies “No, it’s lame. Everything’s lame.” At once he is received as the coolest kid in school. And there you have late modernity in a sentence.


  1. Rasselas wrote:

    The person of the modern age is a listless wanderer who trudges around, moving from one stupid pleasure to the next….

    Or, as Dean Donne would have it:

    “Take heed lest these sins carry thee farther, than thou intendest: thou intendest but pleasure, or profit; but the sin will carry thee farther; Quaeris quo? says that father; Dost thou ask whither? Ad cor durum, To a senselessness, a remorselessness, a hardness of heart: Nec pergas quaerere, (says he) quid illud sit; Never ask what that hardness of heart is: for, if thou know it not, thou hast it.”

    Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at 2:18 pm | Permalink
  2. kim fabricius wrote:

    Too neat. Ennui, yes. But the bored don’t snort acetylsalicyclic acid, while they certainly do seek excessive gratification – only, however, to find that, as disciples of hedonism, they are bored-again.

    And impotence. Okay. But the Greek we’re looking for here is not Sisyphus but the self-desiring Narcissus (who is also the patron saint of botoxiholics and anorexics). Besides, as Camus suggested, despite the futlilty of his condition “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

    Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at 4:00 pm | Permalink
  3. adamsteward wrote:

    Viagra as the escape from futility seems to me so clearly demonstrated by the affair between the Silk Spectre and Nite Owl. Failed vigilantes with no hope of effecting any meaningful change in the face of the nuclear self-destruction of Earth, they go out and save a few people from a fire for kicks. This temporary entertainment of the illusion that they could do something that would change the fate of annihilation works – Nite Owl finally gets it up and they get it on. The irony of this seems to be lost on Zach Snyder, who (sex-obsessed chauvanist that he is) paints the scene as this epic, slow-mo stay against confusion (the scene, to me, best highlights Snyder’s attempt to make Watchmen into a 300 type of go-out-with-a-bang tragedy – evincing the fact that he utterly misses the point). Really, though, it’s just an indulgence in and embrace of meaninglessness – “well, you’re lonely, my husband’s on Mars making a giant clock-thingy, and the world’s about to blow up, so you wanna bone, or what?”

    Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Well, certainly Sisyphus is not the whole story. BUT, I don’t know that Narcissus is really a personification of impotence. Not quite, anyway.

    Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at 4:30 pm | Permalink
  5. kim fabricius wrote:

    Another thought: how about a place in the postmodern pantheon for Mercury: the god of commerce and profit (enough said); of travel (see Zygmunt Bauman on the tourist and “the avoidance of being fixed”); with his winged sandals, of speed (see Paul Virilio on velocity and violence); and of the (text) message – sent by people with nothing to say.

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 1:06 am | Permalink
  6. kim fabricius wrote:

    A final thought: that picture of Sispyhus pushing the … – you know those nature films of dung beetles …

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 10:59 am | Permalink
  7. Roshi Doshi wrote:

    And how do we know we are not Sisyphus… all we commentators, we clever, clever bloggers?

    Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 10:50 am | Permalink

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