Posts Tagged ‘regret’

Euripides and the shock of force

January 7, 2013

Simone Weil says of the Iliad, “Force is its sole hero,” proven when those who believe they can wield it victoriously are quickly brought down by the same. Euripides would rewrite the war stories of Homer’s epic, generations later, with an even darker sense of tragedy.

Another two thousand years, and Shakespeare would satirize the Iliad in a Trojan war play that paints their women as whores and their heroes as bombastic hypocrites.

Weil is kinder toward the figures cut by the Iliad’s heroes when they boast idly in camp:

Except when one has a spirit downcast by the enemy’s reputation, one is always much stronger than an absent opponent … [ going forth] as if to a game, a holiday free from daily care.

In every instance, the centrality of brute force survives. The complexity of its manifestations evolves alongside the civilization retelling the myth.

The significance of the sense in which the violence objectifies all it strikes down becomes more ambiguous, as object relations in a world of high technology change the way we look at ourselves.


Picasso, a fishing scene

But the theme is always rampant violence, and this violence transcends the agendas at play on the battlefield in the sense that, for many reasons, no one who inflicts it fully commands it.

Weil argues that Homer’s depiction of the war strips away heroism from everyone in the Iliad but the elemental force that overwhelms all humans caught up in its storm:

The thoughtlessness of those that wield force with no regard for men or things they .. believe they have at their mercy, the hopelessness that impels the soldier to devastate, the crushing of the enslaved and the defeated, the massacres .. make up a picture of unrelieved horror.

If this was true throughout the history of the poem’s preservation, now it needs to be said outright. Is that strange? The reader might miss it. Why is this so now?

In her peculiar literary study The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry argues that a weapon and a tool are alternating realities for the same objects, the one used to transform flesh over the objections of the sentient living victim, and the other used to transform inanimate materials into artifacts.  Like a hammer, or a nail – depending on whether one is building, or crucifying.

Craftmanship explains the tool and the artifact that seems to have an internal life in the imagination, hence suggests a metaphor between tool and weapon that has nothing to do with clubbing your roommate over the head with a screwdriver. Now we have mail order DIY kits for amateur crafts hobbies, made with disposable parts for the disappointed trier to discard without remorse after a half-hearted effort.

That leaves only the sense in which tools, like other objects, can be appropriated for use as weapons on short notice. Would someone using a weapon then assert that to use it thus is no different than using a tool? Some do, and this is a different sort of assault, a psychological one.

Pain silencing is another running theme in Elaine Scarry’s writing, and it is related to the distinction between weapon and tool. The importance of such a distinction in the moral imagination has grown hard to grasp in the life of cities. Taking gold to foxes is as obscure, far from the fluid emotional sciences of health dating to life before money-back guarantees on treatment plans, along with land stewardship among homesteaders, personal valor in war and the hunt.


A hunt in miniature.

So it is normal to think slaughter strange, and flinch from the thought of how we take our food. Yet hope of redeeming in blood survives in our work ethic, vague, neither salt nor hazard but strain itself, even strain against boredom for the sake of having suffered something for wages.

It is normal to rarely turn away from what charity disguised as work is at hand, even if the make-work is clearly more wasteful than productive, apart from keeping “idle hands” out of trouble. The grim alternative is to live off charity, while looking for work that gives traction not from resistance to misdirection, but from the dear work of choosing direction well. This alternative is called being vain and self-indulgent by those who ration charity by conditioning it on participation in tiresome make-work.

The silver perfume of the sun, the muscles of the sun
Are in that wind;
A wind that splashed the schizophrenic deadness
Of the town like honey or a swarm of native bees.
To live there is like living in a tree;
Rome, Paris, are the slagheaps of a pigmy:
Your life, like God’s, descends in heresies.

Holy Sidney

In the brutal symbolism of sacrifice, the lamb may be substituted for the human sacrifice, but at the expense of our willingness to differentiate between a lamb and an object, like an offering of incense. Successfully silencing a human in pain deepens that person’s experience of being objectified, but animals can stand in fear quietly too.

Simone Weil makes the same argument in her essay The Iliad, or The Poem of Force, that “violence turns anybody subjected to it into a thing” (paraphrased by Susan Sontag).

Simone Weil argues that Homer’s war epic rises above savagery only in glimpses of the courage to face its great cost with humanity, and to view the destruction with a steady capacity for regret. She calls this regret a “bitterness emerging from tenderness and enveloping all men equally, like the bright light of the sun.”

Though the duels of the Iliad dominate our cultural memory of the Trojan war, she finds another subject more central to the poem that made this war a major subject in literary tradition. She picks out a scene before the fatal duel with Achilles, in which Hector comforts his wife, and draws our attention instead to the courage with which they face their parting moments with unstinting regret.

The spouse, in evoking the disgraces of slavery that await his beloved wife, omits that one the mere thought of which would blot their tenderness.

How then do we remember to feel human ourselves, when we recognize our own vulnerability to the forces that surround us?


A sailing stone in Death Valley

Perhaps it is the less tender bitterness of tragedies like Hekabe that allows a playwright like Euripides to make you shudder. Whereas in the Iliad, as Weil’s essay observes, “nothing of value, whether doomed to die or not, is slighted; the misery of all is revealed without dissimulation or condescension; … all that is destroyed is regretted,” in the dramas of the war’s aftermath, Euripides makes unmistakable the victors’ slight regard for a queen reduced to captivity as a slave, mirroring the gods’ blithe disregard for the carnage their flights of fancy leave in their wake.

The Underworld aesthetic in The Legend of the Seeker evokes the imagery in the last lines of “The Show” by Wilfred Owen, a poem which begins “My soul looked down from a vague height with Death,” and details a landscape with rifts traveled by worms, whose “bitten backs curve, loop, and straighten” tellingly:

Whereat, in terror what that sight might mean,
I reeled and shivered earthward .. / And Death fell with me

.. picking a manner of worm, which half had hid
Its bruises in the earth, but crawled no further,
Showed me its feet, the feet of many men,

Anne Carson says this of the aftermath of the Trojan war evoked by Euripides in his tragedy Hekabe: “…the world after a world war becomes a simple place. It is divided simply into the dead, who are the majority, and those who have somehow managed not to die, whom we call the living. How they live is not important.”

She says this of the heedless fighting on, among survivors who turn to the silent majority, the dead, for a reason to go on and can only think of revenge.

Between irony and bitterness, where are the alternatives to simple defeat? Who survives and who will find the jokes of the gods of war funny? Again, force is the sole hero, but no longer an easily admired one.

Tolerating cognitive dissonance

November 4, 2012

The ability to live easily amidst contradictions is something Fitzgerald famously celebrated as a mark of intelligence. It is readily mistaken for the key to intelligent self-interest, one step up from lying to oneself for peace of mind when pressured to accept a falsehood, and one step down from admitting that even if the apparent truth would be risky to endorse, it is more likely to be true than the official line.

But as our troubled gut feelings like to remind us, like it or not, on some level we are all concrete thinkers who reject many apparent contradictions at face value. A sense of hypocrisy is tolerable up to a point, but there are times when we experience that dissonance physically as the focus of a passing feeling called regret. Conveniently, this dissonance can be resolved in hindsight, by rationalizing the regrets away.


Rationalizing and giving a dissimulating excuse are internal and external versions of the same arguments, but the only motive for rationalizing (internally) is fear of experiencing private shame. After all, privately felt dissonance carries no risk of embarrassment or punishment, unless somehow the belief you had done wrong would drive you to confess against your own self-interest to avoid the further private shame of hypocrisy.

If shame inspired no such fear perhaps it would not safeguard right action, but freedom to rationalize makes it a poor guardian of good conscience. Poorly armed against the self-serving biases of the ego, vulnerability to shame is easily rebuffed on principle as a slave mentality – as if willingness to confess against one’s self interest were a capitulation to the mob and not to a sense of higher purpose that the penitent wrong-doer shares and takes refuge in if the mob proceeds to condemn him on his own testimony.

Pervasive apathy towards injustice certainly suits the “sensible knave” described humorously by David Hume: “That honesty is the best policy, may be a good general rule, but is liable to many exceptions; and he, it may perhaps be thought, conducts himself with most wisdom, who observes the general rule, and takes advantage of all the exceptions.”

Hence the refreshing quality to antisocial aphorisms like those of the banned Soviet poet Kharms (the pseudonym of Daniil Yuvachev, who apparently starved to death in a lunatic asylum).

  • “Poisoning children is cruel. But something has to be done about them!”
  • “Old women who go around thinking sensible thoughts should really be apprehended with bear traps.”

Perhaps it is only the self-righteous who are completely unwilling to admit that any of their motives are selfish. In secular societies people worry little these days about self-righteousness. But whether inspired by religion or not, self-righteousness is characterized by the kind of self-serving bias that doesn’t discriminate at all. It gradually poisons one’s instincts by requiring unswerving indifference to cognitive dissonance to rule out any vulnerability to self-doubt.

This keeps the emotions boxed in, until they override reason with a more convincing deception that leads to seemingly self-defeating adaptive depravities instead – going mad, seeking escapism in addictions, etc. Indeed, refusal to take morality (or reality) seriously may be a more authentic description of a slave mentality, a reactionary hostility to the idea of justice in a world that excludes you from access to justice when you are the one being exploited and victimized.

But there is something nihilistic about rebelliously refusing to be shackled by a capacity for regret on principle, for it leads to rejecting all attachments that could be lost through one’s own choices, just to avoid ever circling back to bitter regret.

What sort of secular consensus could we reach as social animals to avoid these false alternatives? I especially like the way Eckhart Tolle cites an alternative translation of the Biblical word for “sin” in A New Earth, understood as merely missing the point of human existence, conveyed in a word also used for “missing the mark” with connotations of living “unskillfully, blindly” and merely through clumsy error “thus to suffer and cause suffering.”

In this context perhaps a wiser course than rationalizing away any personal regrets would be to live in a way more responsive to dissonance when deciding how to act (i.e., “acting in good faith”).