Bitterness towards having been born

January 7, 2013

In Hekabe, a tragedy in which Euripides retells a great legend of the Iliad’s aftermath, the terrible fate of the Trojan queen after the city falls, we see a mother’s rage turn to madness. She rages over the unconvincing but unrelenting piety that a ghost of Achilles should be appeased with a princess as a special sacrifice, lest any doubt that a death in battle will be respected by the living, when girls were still substituted for oxen if the sacrifice was a special one.

Investing personal subjugation to force with elemental injustice destroys her humanity, for she sees the conquerors as if their flip dutifulness about treating captives with a nominal sense of decency represents a betrayal of the sense of a just cosmos she had taken for granted before. The Greeks seem to be wearing impenitence as a badge of presumed impunity, and the queen’s adaptive depravity amounts to buying into the notion that kindness or even minimal common decency must be coerced with dominant force.

This is a logic as bankrupt as the notion that love can be bought; it assumes that lack of a winning hand consigns one to hell on earth among other people. To retain one’s own capacity for good faith and generous kindness the logic of force must be rejected, and along with it the perception that people with cruel habits have taken up a latent universal license to act with uncompromised evil that lends them superhuman powers.

What is secured through cruelty must not be seen as a strength to be resented, lest one envy the capacity for cruelty as one would envy a secure and sheltered position. Otherwise the momentum is toward nihilism.

Hekabe is doomed, in part, by her stubborn sense of personal insight into right and wrong, and her willingness to throw honor out the window when she herself can no longer expect to be treated as she would think fair.

So much for resignation to the vulnerability of the soul itself to the abasements of force.

Here pride of identification with memory and every fleeting illusion of power and liberty it has ever grasped will not go down without a hungry cry. The unconscionable action Hekabe finally takes is out of despair. “Life in the light is no longer a possibility.” The lesson to be drawn from her example seems to echo this theme of Homer’s, that without hope violence becomes unhinged, and devastates indiscriminately.

Did the piety expressed in human sacrifice over a heroic life come to its close tip the scales? Doris Lessing’s first essay in Prisons We Choose to Live Inside captures the weirdness of this sentiment, describing the execution of a bull by a farmer who felt compelled to avenge the death of a small boy who had been killed by it, even though everyone assumed the death could be blamed on a childish lapse of caution, rather than any previously unsuspected bad temper in the bull.

Blood sacrifice, in these strange moods, can be not so much to avenge the victim, but merely to dignify the loss of a human life with a response. Thus Odysseus tells the Trojan queen why he will not spare her daughter’s life, his reasons so finely phrased he seems to imagine he can persuade her not to begrudge Achilles a captive princess for his funeral pyre: “You barbarians don’t know how to treat your friends as friends, how to venerate men who die beautiful deaths.” Strange response, that to prove a lost life was held dear, another life must be cast down in its honor.

Yet these are not themselves excesses of nihilistic rage – they are conceits of love and attachment.

In an essay on the rewriting of another of his tragedies, Euripides reflects on the impulse of love as a destructive force. “Desire is vast. Vast, absolute and oddly general. A big general liquid washing through the universe, filling puny vessels here and there as it were arbitrarily, however it lights on them, swamping some, splitting others, casually ruinous –”

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On the intended effect of the vanities of force aligned with desire, the playwright says this:

Aphrodite is pure shock. When she comes onstage in the prologue and tells you about a few simple stitches she is going to take in the lives of Phaidra, Hippolytos and Theseus, you feel the salt of absolute cruelty sting your face. That needle flashes in and out of living skulls.

Euripides had to rewrite his Phaidra because in the first version of the play described here, her rebellious disregard for the proprieties that most people call piety offended his audience too greatly. His Hekabe makes the same mistake differently, but both women will take their own lives for these sorts of things.

Hekabe would say the codes of conduct a queen or a woman would otherwise live by have served her poorly.

Before her daughter was slaughtered as a sacrifice on the tomb of Achilles, she pled for the girl’s life by reminding Odysseus that his life was once in her hands and is in her debt, because she herself spared him when he came as an enemy into the city before it was finally crushed.

Yet the ghost of the son she avenges later in the play, who gives the play’s prologue, sees a cold balance in her fate. “Your grief is as great as your splendor was: some god is weighing the one out equal to the other.” His voice is the chorus, and the only one to express gratitude for those parts of her life that are outside the action of the play.

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