207 Of Papers and Politics

The first draft of the first USPee paper I've written, the predecessor of many more to come. It's a paper based on none other than the Man, Anwar, completed on the day he won the Permatang Pauh by-election and returned to the Parliament.

But first, enjoy this video:

The Myth of Sisyphus in News

Over the centuries, myths have been found to be an essential part of societies and it is entirely possible that they still exist in this day and age. Some academicians have postulated that, today, myths have assumed a new form, that is, in the news we read. Jack Lule, in his book, "Daily News, Eternal Stories: The Mythological Role of Journalism", suggests a model of Seven Master Myths that describes the different forms of myths we encounter in the news and how it affects our society (2001, 21-22). However, the model, in his own words, “cannot be considered exhaustive or complete.” (2001, 22)
In this paper, I will introduce a new form of myth as an improvement to the model based on the Myth of Sisyphus[1], from ancient Greek mythology. Based on an analysis of a news article, I will attempt to show that The Sisyphus has distinct defining features and societal functions, separating it from the other master myths. An understanding of this myth could put us one step closer towards creating a comprehensive model for understanding the relationship between news and myths.

Lule’s Seven Master Myths
Before exploring The Myth of Sisyphus, it would be apt that I briefly explain Lule’s model of The Seven Master Myths. In his model, Lule introduces seven recurring myths in the news, which are the following:

  • The Victim: An innocent person who has been struck with a catastrophe or tragedy, such as a disease or criminal act. This myth elevates the value of life, and draws sympathy and pity from the readers. (Lule 2001, 22)
  • The Scapegoat: Portrays a person who has gone against the norms of society. The myth encourage the readers to shun the person, and acts as a warning to those who which to follow in his footsteps. (Lule 2001, 22-23)
  • The Hero: The story of a man who has reached great heights from humble beginnings, and meant as an inspiration to all to attempt to achieve the same within their own means. (Lule 2001, 23)
  • The Good Mother: A figure of compassion, kindness, gentleness and maternal protection. The myth is used as a role model for society, and to show that there are good people out there. Besides that, Lule states a negative analog to the myth, Terrible Mother that reflects cruelty and evil. (Lule 2001, 23 – 24)
  • The Trickster: A crude figure that creates chaos in society, and, and as result of his acts, The Trickster is ridiculed and mocked by society. The myth primarily discourages members of society to act in such unlawful manner. (Lule 2001, 24)
  • The Other World: Stories of either paradisiacal lands abroad or places of utter chaos. The myth encourages readers to emulate the ways of these utopian lands and disregard the practices of the latter. (Lule 2001, 24 – 25)
  • The Flood: Stories of natural disasters and mass destruction that aims to remind us of the humbling power of Nature. (Lule 2001, 25)

The Sisyphus does not fully fit into any of these seven Myths, and to prove my point of contention, I shall now explain the characteristics of this Myth.

The Myth of Sisyphus Explained
According to the myth, Sisyphus was a man condemned by the gods to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a steep hill, only to watch the boulder to roll down the hill again once Sisyphus reached the top. Sisyphus was highly intelligent and eloquent man, but used his abilities to challenge authority, and subsequently incurring the wrath of the gods. Although, today, there are no gods that will curse a person to eternal slavery, the myth can be viewed from a different perspective.

The Sisyphus, as portrayed in the news, is a man who has faced repeated challenges to achieve a dream, or an ambition, only to be struck down before he reaches it. The story does not attempt to elicit sympathy[2] or anger[3] from the readers, but instead invokes a feeling of general futility and emptiness in ambition, despite the man’s great potential. The myth can be further extrapolated to include crises, be it political or economical, that have undergone several attempts to achieve a resolution, and the efforts found to be in vain at the end. The reporter’s reason for embedding the myth in a news story is perhaps as a means to reflect the frustration of the public and to serve as an indication to the government that the citizens are unhappy with the situation.

Hence, The Sisyphus is most commonly embedded in reports of political crises, such as in the political situation in Zimbabwe (BBC 2002, Africa) and more recently, the sodomy case against Anwar in Malaysia (Channel News Asia 2008). The latter of the two will be analysed in the following section to further understand this myth.

The Analysis
There is a common thread running through Sisyphean stories, based on the fact that a country’s citizens are frustrated by the futility of these political squabbling and the empty ambitions of politicians to gain or hold on to power. This interpretation of the myth is supported by the Roman poet, Lucretius, who described the pursuit for power in his poem “On the Nature of Things” as “here in this life a Sisyphus…for to seek after power – an empty name” (Lucretius 2001, III)[4]. To portray this myth, reporters tend to describe to frustration of the citizens towards to current situation.

These feelings are evident in the choice of wording of the news article’s title: “Malaysia wearily faces another lurid sodomy trial” (CNA 2008). The usage of the words “wearily” and “lurid” suggests that the reporter wants to reflect the frustration of the Malaysian citizens. In addition the reporter’s choice of material in the report further strengthens the belief that the story has a Sisyphean slant. He uses quotes such as, “A lot of people are very tired… People thought it was blatant political maneuvering,” (CNA 2008, P 5) and, “The new sodomy charges…are all a political game.”(CNA 2008, P 16)

The article does not portray Anwar as neither a Victim nor as a Scapegoat but rather as a person with great political ambition, a “charismatic 61-year old” (CNA 2008, P 11) and “the figurehead of a thriving opposition” (CNA 2008, P 2) being repeatedly struck down. The reporter neither blames him nor the Malaysian government for the current events. Instead, the reporter focuses on the repercussions of Anwar being charged for sodomy on the Malaysian people. This is shown by the fact that the reporter only uses quotes and statistics from the general public, such as “66 percent believe it is a politically motivated action…” (CNA 2008, P 13) rather than going for official statements from the politicians or the police.

These excerpts from the news article clearly shows that the reporter wishes to convey to the reader how Malaysians are tired of the political climate in Malaysia and regard all the current events as a futile attempt by politicians to achieve power. All these are not unlike the thoughts of an external observer watching Sisyphus push the boulder up the steep hill and then, watching it roll down again in the end.

Based on the analysis, it is evident that The Myth of Sisyphus is a viable addition to Lule’s model. As shown above, none of Lule’s existing seven models are able to adequately describe the mythic situation highlighted in the analysed news article, that is, the feeling and reflection of frustration and tiredness towards a recurring situation However, since this proposal is derived from analysis of a single news article, this myth has be tested in other publications outside South East Asia, and the wider media to examine whether The Sisyphus is truly a recurring myth in the news.

[1] For brevity, the “Myth of Sisyphus” will be called “the Sisyphus” or “Sisyphean”
[2] cf. Victim myth (Lule 2001, 22).
[3] cf. Scapegoat myth (Lule 2001, 22 -23).
[4] Translated by William E. Leonard


Anonymous said...

Interesting article, but the myth of Sisyphus would, under some traditions, fall under the master myth of the Scapegoat. The myth, after all, has Sisyphus committing a whole host of transgressions: killing travellers and guests, seducing his niece, taking his brother's throne, fooling the gods, refusing to die properly, and thus defying both the customary law and the natural order of things.

A good example of a similar myth would be that of Tantalus, who was condemned to suffer in Tartarus, surrounded by cool water and grapes he was never able to reach, as punishment for killing his own son and cooking his son's flesh in an attempt to fool the gods, except from what I remember, Tantalus wasn't quite as much a pain in the arse to kill.

This eternal striver you see in the myth of Sisyphus would perhaps be better characterized as a victim, or a victim-hero: someone innocent who nonetheless has bad things happen to him - in his case, repeatedly.