Posts Tagged ‘Euripides’

“Pacing the cage of her own clarity”

January 22, 2013

Euripides rewrote the tragedy Hippolytos in response to general outrage over his first Phaidra, and little is known about the original beyond what he says in a short essay on the changes. “I don’t understand, I could never have predicted, your hatred of this woman. It’s true she fell in love with someone wrong for her but half the heroines of your literature do that, Helen, Echo, Io, Agave, all of them.”

An incidental victim entwined in Aphrodite’s schemes against a young man who sets another goddess above her, Phaidra is merely a pawn of convenience, being used to punish the impudence of her own step-son Hippolytos, through her secret infatuation with the boy. She is to be destroyed – not for any crime of her own, but because Aphrodite is pitiless about using Phaidra’s inability to turn away from the force of an unsanctioned love.

In Anne Carson’s translation, the essay on the lost play evokes what has since become a classic Hollywood cliché: “But she cared (was this what you saw?) about the core. Eros itself. She knew that was real. And knew she would fail it.”

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“…Here’s the mirror, behind there is a screen…”

Too brash, anarchic in her unmasked emotions, she defied the expectations of the audience in ways too far ahead of her time to keep the stage. “There was shame in her but not the kind you wanted to see, not woman’s modesty. She was ashamed at the core. Ashamed to have veiled Hippolytos in himself. What do we desire when we desire other people? Not them. Something else. Phaidra touched it. You hated her for that.”

We recoil from emotive possession writ large, though we should recognize its diminutive form in our every petty motivation. “Her people feared her. Her own spirit feared her.”

If her death is for a forbidden love that Aphrodite knew she could bank on, this Phaidra is hardly reconciled to it out of piety. “Phaidra’s love was for her stepson, and it excited you badly, maybe not the incest so much as a question of property rights – ditch the old man, marry the son, keep the estate. Truth is often, in some degree, economic.”

Yet the playwright says that her concerns for the estate are all talk, a womanly way of “veiling a truth in a truth.” That she really loves the boy. Euripides describes this mode of self-deception as Phaidra’s “ability to move, hunt, negotiate among them … finessing the terms of the world in which we find ourselves.”

“PUT off that mask of burning gold ..”
“But lest you are my enemy, ..”

This was her undoing, the refusal to be reconciled with her own sincerity. “Too many truths in between and Hippolytos just one of them, the lovely, careless, wry boy.” Shouldn’t a test be possible to fail?

after Rainer Maria Rilke and Paul Celan

Before the lyre forgot romantic love
and moved the world to sleep in perfect peace,
love was lost and mourned in the world above,
a woman so loved lamenting released
her from the underworld. At first the piece
he played for her stirred up the vast unreal:
A whole world of lament arose, wild geese
and mountains, roads past cringing huts that kneeled
beneath disfigured stars. Torment unsealed –

I dwell on the sea, standing at the stove.
What I have written grows hollow, things we’ve
said, sea-green, burn like embers in the cove.
…the sea immortalizes those who leave…
The coffee sputters, bitter now and strong.

Romance is addressed like a plan among sensible women, respecting the laws of logistics. Love sounds as good as a death wish when instead, it moves the soul on impulse with its own momentum. Do women not know how to control it?

After struggling with the rejection of this Phaidra a while, Euripides allows this much: “we all burned our hands on that Phaidra, didn’t we? It was her shame that ate the play. And her shame wasn’t simple. It pullulated and turned on itself and stank at the bottom of the pit of the question of desire – what is the question of desire? I don’t know. Something about its presumption to exist in human forms. Human forms are puny.”

These days the Greek tragedies tend to be quoted in short, and a nightingale only  reminds us how often a woman might claim to feel silenced, in every particular until the last straw, if she can even discern one with words, and choose how to react in her own thoughts.

Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is more pessimistic than even that, about women saying what they mean or finding such words. Instead of a twig-fingered daughter using a shuttle to depict her own fate in one picture with thread, a housewife makes protest music out of the only piano piece she even knows, playing the tarantella a bit more expressively than usual, stress-testing a “trammelsome” bird’s cage. (From The Lord of the Rings, “a hutch to trammel some wild thing in” in the text.)

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
..
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

from Shakespeare’s sonnet 29

Phaidra abandons hope adrift in the space of longing for another as if she had no way of communicating with him, because she chooses her words without any thought of casting anchor in the intelligible world. Why else would someone in love add discrediting complications to the inconsolable reality of desire?

Look at the missing lines in the sonnet quoted above. There is love lost here, but its loss is definitive. Saying “I love you” to Nyeri did bring her character more fully to life in the acting-Avatar performance moment at the end of this fan video, temporally within the film.

Did bring the actress into character? Moreso than an actress would be able before the performance moment of this kind arises? This is frightening in a real way.

“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
.. The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
.. I have spread my dreams ..”

In her own introduction to the revised version, Anne Carson says: “The Hippolytos is like Venice. A system of reflections, distorted reflections, reflections that go awry. A system of corridors where people follow one another but never meet…”

When you think about it, unconditional love is almost unflattering – it has an air of promiscuity to it.

I HAVE heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow.

.. Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,  ..

Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche

– LAPIS LAZULI

What we do find precious by way of danger, too difficult to promise each other at need, is what love cannot be moved by circumstances. But that part of each of us that can survive any change in circumstances at soul is faceless when we try to imagine it naked, not the persona we know as our own.

So we find it best to begin with love at first sight, some particular barb in Cupid’s arrow, and if it will not be dislodged, then to deepen our hearts toward the unconditional, if the world allows it.

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.”

Lincoln

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?

flat_brush_hint

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.

Agora_Hypatia_of_Alexandria

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.

Why a sword of truth and a book of secrets?

January 7, 2013

When Euripides has taken Herakles to the scene of Hera’s final revenge (for his father’s infidelity), he has his friend Theseus find him there, and speak to him with great compassion, knowing few things will bring a man so reduced by grief to his feet:

Theseus: “Is this the all-heroic Herakles talking?”

Herakles: “Not all-heroic. There has to be some limit to pain.”

Is this the final judgment on violence, power exercised through brute force – that all will come to ruin, and our greatest heroes will despair? We have had over two thousand years to think about it since this writing. Why else would our gut feelings favor unselfish fairness? The body knows it has to eat.

It would be nice to think the gut takes the long view, detached from mere questions of opinion, and remembering that we are social animals. Maybe the trouble is that the cognitive dissonance that comes from pretending not to know better isn’t just a private demon – it undermines your ability to trust others, even when they propose to make themselves helpful, instead of acting as your enemies.

Hypocrisy fear drives us to look for all sorts of alternatives to assuming strangers are negotiating in good faith when they make promises. Shell games have the potential to be the most profitable ploys on the market. What could beat getting something for nothing? Claims on expertise are indistinguishable from shell games until the results of acting on the paid advice are in – the product is bought unproven, and usually comes without guarantees.

Then there is an infinite series in the scope for rebounding hypocrisies: when caught we may naturalize or rationalize what were actually intentionally misleading claims as though they were accidental errors, without even knowing how many of those we’ve been lying to were only pretending to not hear the tell in the lie.

Faked susceptibility to lies is actually rather commonplace, so one risks being tricked into believing one’s own lies are believed by others all the time.

king_arthur_banners

The pervasive and easily downplayed normalization of hypocrisy helps explain how the professional witnesses of war crimes at the ICRC can begin to earnestly second-guess whether it is appropriate to report on atrocities that were staged precisely to exploit the mass media’s interest in certain types of atrocity photos. If the soldier is allowed to face death saying “shit life,” the humanitarian faces work in the crossfire or nearby with the epithet hyper-désagréable.”

Threat credibility is a bloody retreat from the intellectual. The value of verbal threats to signal credibility is diminished whenever “brave words” turn out to be nothing more than that (#NotIntendedAsAFactualStatement), but those who would trade on the reputation of a “straight shooter” restore its value arbitrarily on impulse, brawling on slight pretext and then priding themselves on mere willingness to follow through on a bold if-then threat whenever put to the test.

It makes them seem more predictable than those who try to get what they want with promises of what they would do for you in return. And if they aren’t that predictable, at least they’re not insulting your intelligence.

Anti-heroes like Harvey Dent win us over by bluffing as a rule, to make a secret of having a personal commitment to restraint, and still better intimidate especially dangerous foes than an honest pacifist. The Two-Face origin story in The Dark Knight captures the danger in this seemingly noble hypocrisy.

two_face_craig_horner

“Covenants without swords are but words.” – Leviathan

The threats he made on a coin toss turned out to be a slippery slope into flagrant use of force that has a momentum of its own, as game play, long after the devotion to duty has died. And cruelly, through the game he relives the trauma of losing that love and self-respect.

So an action hero will be quick to warn against bluffing with respect to violence. Use of deadly force is not threatened lightly, simply because a credible threat would motivate the opponent to contemplate a preemptive deadly counterstrike, to prevent you from carrying out your threat.

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 –”

stargazer_hunter_thief

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.