The purpose of myth is not to inform or to pass on objective information; rather the foremost function is to display the way in which we ought to live. Albert Camus, in his Myth of Sisyphus, recognizes this crucial existential element of the myth and outlines an existential model for finding personal meaning in an otherwise meaningless world. In this essay I will look at the character of Io in the myth of Argus in order to portray the existential elements present therein. Io is a woman under captivity.
In a partial excerpt of a poem by Hesiod, we are told of the erotic love affair that Zeus initiates with Io and the consequences that this affair produces. In order to protect his beloved Io from the jealousy of Hera, his wife and the queen of the Olympians, Zeus attempts to hide Io by turning her into a heifer. However, Hera, understanding the nature of the affair, dispatches the monster Argus to guard Io. With his hundred eyes he watches her incessantly, day and night, by keeping at least one eye on her while the others sleep.
In this myth the ancient Greeks may have focused on Argus in order to describe the incessant and unsleeping character of their cultured society, but if one read it from the perspective of Io, one finds an existential call to live despite the violence of forced identity and the tyranny of surveillance. First of all, Io’s identity was changed by the will of her lover and without her consent from that of a beautiful woman to a heifer. No greater violence can be done to the other, as Levinas outlines, than to transcend the sanctity of an individual’s own otherness (Peperzak 19).
Io’s predicament can be understood as a case of female objectification in the context of male exertion of power in which her otherness is disregarded: although Zeus may have had good intentions to protect her, in the end his actions still proved violent. Secondly, the eyes of Argus, with their incessant surveillance represent a threat to human privacy and autonomy along the lines of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison structure (Bentham). By exerting total power of observation, any government, individual or monster becomes a tyrant in relation to the individual.
The unbroken gaze of the guard over the captive does not allow for the necessary distance to nurture autonomy. Yet despite both of these violations against her personhood, Io continues to exist as a self. Io’s condition is the condition of every individual born in western civilization today. Power structures such as the family, religious groups, political networks, or even advertising and the commercial sector try to shape the individual’s identity according to their own agendas.
Too often they are successful. Likewise, in the wake of government legislation such as the Patriot Act, personal autonomy is under greater attack by the tyranny of surveillance and the desire of power structures to control personal information. The eyes are constantly watching. If existentialism is correct with its claim that existence precedes essence, than even greater responsibility relies on the westerner today than ever to reclaim his or her own essence from outside influence.
Just as with Sisyphus and his forced labor, we may still find personal meaning in claiming our own identities despite the violence and oppression we may experience. Modern day Zeuses may force us to become something we do not desire to become and the eyes of Argus may still cast their penetrating gaze over our autonomy, but just like Io, we may still determine our own existence in exertion of our own will to live and in this fashion claim our own identity as that which we, by continuing to exist, have clearly chosen ourselves.
Bentham, Jeremy. Panopticaon: Or, the Inspection-house. Thomas Byrne Publishers, 1791. Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. Trans. Justin O’Brien. Amor Fati, 1988. Retrieved from http://seattlecentral. edu/faculty/cmalody/eng101hybrid/docs/MythSisyphus. Peperzak, Adriaan Theodoor. To the Other: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. West LaFayette: Purdue University Press, 1993.