Sisyphus and Deleuze

This paper will examine how my art practice applies ideas of classical reception theory in the production of a history of the myth of Sisyphus. As reception history reveals alterations and shifts of meaning through time and cultures, so the myth of Sisyphus can be seen as a metaphor of layers of repetition laid upon each other as each cycle of punishment begins, alluding to Deleuze’s concepts of difference and repetition. These are ideas born out of Nietzsche’s theory of eternal return, taken from the punishment of Sisyphus, first mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey.

This Classical Reception history is realised as an illustrated journal. It is an assemblage of texts and images of Sisyphus as they have appeared chronologically and explores the evolution of myth and changes in meaning. My own drawings are included, in my guise as Sisyphus, as he attempts to articulate his own story. The decision to construct a visual diary, a common device employed both by artists and by those undergoing therapy as a tool to record and explore complex processes and to unpack thoughts, ideas, and emotions, is relevant because ideas of classical reception come out of Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis: a peeling away of layers to reveal core meanings. The conceit of this illustrated journal is to explore a single idea and how it has been expressed in a multiplicity of ways. It alludes to both the repetitions found in Sisyphus’s tale and in the reproductions and re-enactments of his narrative that have reoccurred through history.

Echoing the Greek Stoic philosophers, eternal return posits that the universe is recurring and will continue to recur an infinite number of times; that “This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence” (Nietzsche 2001, 194). Deleuze, however, believed that all repetition contained differences, “the only thing that returns or is repeated is the power of difference” (Colebrook 2002).

Sisyphus’s re-enactment can be seen, according to Deleuzian theory, as a way of perceiving the same act in different ways, although the actions remain the same: burden can become determination; eternity as constant purpose, futility as endeavour. The act of pushing the boulder up the mountain only to witness it tumbling down again without hope of ever reaching the summit becomes an act of becoming; a true becoming as it has no end. To strive without resolution is to learn to enjoy the journey and the attempt. Released from ambitions of outcome, the action becomes a metaphor for faith and trust and an awareness of the present. Deleuze insists that we value action and ideas of becoming in and of themselves.

This paper will look at how the Deleuzian theories of repetition and difference were born out of the stories of Sisyphus, and altered it in turn—how the original myth can be interpreted for new readers.


Colebrook, Claire. 2002. Gilles Deleuze. London: Routledge.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2001. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Edited by Bernard Williams. Translated by Josefine Nauckhoff. Poems translated by Adrian Del Caro. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.