Adaptive depravity

January 20, 2013

“The force that kills is summary and crude,” Weil writes of the Iliad. “How much more varied in operation, how much more stunning in effect is that other sort of force, that which does not kill, or rather does not kill just yet.”

This is the dire threat said to keep the prisoners of war awake, waiting for an axe to fall – as if it will should they resist their lot in slavery. To drive home the world-shattering force of a standing threat, Simone Weil discusses a passage of the Iliad in which the lamentations of slaves are described:

When one of those suffers or dies who have made him lose everything, who have sacked his town, massacred his people before his eyes, only then does the slave weep. Naturally, for only then are tears permitted him, even required of him. But in slavery, are not tears ready to flow as soon as they may do so with impunity? – ‘She spoke weeping, and the women wailed, taking Patroclus as pretext each for her own anguish.’

This is how Weil means the statement, “No one can lose more than the slave loses; he loses his entire inner life.”


Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

In the hands of Euripides, like the revenge play in which Herakles turns away from the ruin of his home in the hand of a friend who exhorts him still not to weep, Hekabe is a darker revenge play than Hamlet. It is the unfolding of the aftermath of victory at Troy, a spectacle of hypocrisies in which the captive queen mother finds an opening to take vengeance on a family friend who betrayed the last of her sons.

Robbed of real justice, now a slave among those who chose her daughter for a funeral sacrifice, Hekabe falls on a permissible target instead, and wins this permission by flattering her fallen city’s enemy. Adaptive depravity defines the play, an ugliness born of rage that robs the pity she is offered of its warmth, and makes this king’s final concession to her appetite for vengeance a hollow, unredeeming dispensation.

In the end, for her excesses, the impenitent queen is not to be punished – through Agamemnon’s bewilderment that she refuses what is for slaves, she is left to her own devices and later flings herself into the waves “like a dog” from the mast. Is this too little or too much for her crimes?

Too many writers describe death as the only or ultimate source of significance in literature and philosophy of language. To refer to dying and all other parts of life as “an experience ending in death” assigns false significance, as if a death sentence taught the condemned something better understood by it (once dead) than otherwise, when nothing is understood by the dead. It is best to learn not to torture a criminal by stopping short of trying, but there was at least a time when to be sentenced to ascend a cross meant to be helped down later, unharmed except by exposure and never left to die there.

Why bring grief to the judge the same as to a murderer, for having failed the victim in respect of fellowship, having brought only harm and in the name of teaching not to do harm?


A sumi-e diagram with suggestions about faking a bird’s death

When the Greek commander is first confronted by Hekabe in this play, her crimes are only ambitions, a vague and terrible secret obsession with vindicating her own impunity to do harm at any opportunity. Agamemnon is unimpressed that she forgets who is king while wailing, but noticing the facts realizes her grief is profound and the news of the last son’s death fresh, and listens. At length he permits an act of vengeance, without curiosity.

He is distracted. Translator Anne Carson argues it is probably the wind he means when he remarks, “Somehow, I hope, it will all turn out well in the end. This is common to men and cities – to hope that evil will falter and decency win.” Thus he hopes for safe passage home to a wife secretly waiting to avenge his sacrifice of their daughter, again for winds, when ten years earlier there had been no wind to carry him to Troy.

Disgusted, Hekabe rails when Agamemnon hesitates to permit her revenge, merely wondering aloud whether his army would give him any trouble over humoring the mother of his newly bedded slave Kassandra:

Shit. No mortal exists who is free. Slaves to money or fortune or the city mob or the written laws –

There was the mistake. She, of all people, a queen before a slave herself, said that in surprise.

Agamemnon’s distraction is typical. He is a warlord, just like Alexander, who made great chase to Darius as if in honor of the forcing of a cup, though it cost Greece generations of poverty to coin the gold his army had to mint after he died. Alexander joked much at the Spartan city he passed traveling east for not joining his expedition, for it was the Spartans he fought in Asia, the best of mercenaries who guarded the Empire’s cities and fought in the ranks of the great king.

Darius III had been the last heir in the Persian kingdom, and was only invited to court after the last women and children in line had been assassinated by a court eunuch named Bagoas, whom Darius killed when offered a poisoned cup, in ceremony as if to be crowned, by the same usurper who had been a castrated slave.

Pushing it back on the poisoner until confirmed, he became king. Alexander pursued the assassins who acted against the king in the end to their deaths before turning away to Babylon himself, where gold had been kept in and never coined before in Persia’s empire. That it be allowed into coinage, and Alexander’s court hunted down until his mother lost an elephant siege in Macedonia, was comedy and left nothing but a recently troubled road behind the army for trade to travel experimentally as the money made chaos everywhere.

Generations later, the most fabled library of any Alexandria burned down in Egypt, not in the sack of a city but in a revolt raised by restless confusion among vagrants, beggars and slaves in a time when education began to include their number, tentatively.


Hypatia of Alexandria

Theirs was a time in which astronomy was politics, and controversy over geometry was enough to undermine the legitimacy of a regime.

As a later poet of the same Alexandria named Cavafy wrote of the spirit of those times,

He who wishes to strengthen his spirit,
must abandon reverence and submission.
.. he will stray from the accepted, inadequate straight path.
He will be taught much by sensual pleasures.
He will not fear the destructive act;
half the house must be torn down.
This way he will grow virtuously toward knowledge.

In the world outside these all devouring dreams, grace is found in the unexpected, not the achievement of things you promise yourself to pursue at all costs. The trick to escaping them may not be awakening to wanting out of the terrible pressure to succeed, but rather, finding yourself forced into a reality that will tolerate no more self-importance, no more ambition to work the fabled Archimedean lever.

After all, some things seem hard to let go when the hand remains empty. Once you feel a price has been paid, you get impatient to redeem the ticket. This is not actually possible, but it is how we try to interpret the nature of our access to hope.

Hobbes wrote that the understanding is “never enlightened, but dazzled” by the passions that set us in motion, give us our motives and thwarted desires, rob us of sleep and exhaust us, then fill us with dreams at wit’s end. Until the fever breaks, we relish the pressure from repressed emotions that refuse to die down, with boiling ambition to realize the dream so long deferred.

But all fevers do when those grown sick live on. The historical romance The Emperor’s New Clothes has a sweet take on the way out of these grand, seductive delusions. Ambitions often become justifications for short-changing mundane obligations with promises to pay it all back with dividends, someday. But in the end, all such plans only add insult to the injury of whatever common courtesy was shirked that day.

Emperor Napoleon liked to say, “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.” But Pumpkin reprimands him (in the Ian Holm version), that this preoccupation with the inspirational is not out of favor because “talk is cheap.” He has proven his seriousness memorably. As she puts it, “In my experience, talk has been very expensive.” Of course, she spoke to him because she liked to pay fairly and wasn’t unkind after saying so, loved and fairly.

Some ghosts at peace still seek out the sun on living smiles, where it greets their memory warmly or to comfort those who should be unafraid for the living memory of their own loves, long since lived but much talked of to the very day they happen to be seen again. They would not want to be feared for, if they so died.

Who wouldn’t be surprised, confronting the sun that way? So there are some tragedies, but not every one.

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