Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Reading Notes #2: Oresteia

Title: Oresteia
Author: Aeschylus (translated by Richmond Lattimore*)
Publisher: The University of Chicago Press
Form: Trade paperback
Pages: 171 (including Introduction)
Date of Publication**: 458 BCE
Source: Purchased
Dates of Reading: September 2012 – January 12, 2013
The List: #66

From a book not yet 50 years old, we go to a trilogy of plays nearly 2,500 years old. What does Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five have in common with Aeschylus’s plays? Death, for one thing. Blood is everywhere in the Oresteia. Bloodbath leads to bloodbath in this rendition of the tragedies, sacrileges, illegalities, and depravities of the House of Atreus.

Blood is literally in the bath in Agamemnon, the first play of the trilogy. For the bath is where Clytemnestra murders her hated husband, Agamemnon, who has seemingly earned his fate by sacrificing his own daughter, Iphigenia, to pursue the conquest of Troy:

I stand now where I struck him down. The thing is done.
Thus have I wrought, and I will not deny it now.
That he might not escape nor beat aside his death,
as fisherman cast their huge circling nets, I spread
deadly abundance of rich robes, and caught him fast.
I struck him twice. In two great cries of agony,
he buckled at the knees and fell. When he was down
I struck him the third blow, in thanks and reverence
to Zeus the lord of dead men underneath the ground.
Thus he went down, and the life struggled out of him;
and as he died he spattered me with the dark red
and violent driven rain of bitter savored blood
to make me glad, as gardens stand among the showers
of God in glory at the birthtime of the buds.
These being the facts, elders of Argos assembled here,
be glad, if it be your pleasure; but for me, I glory.
Were it religion to pour wine above the slain,
this man deserved, more than deserved, such sacrament.
He filled our cup with evil things unspeakable
and now himself come home has drunk it to the dregs.
(Agamemnon, 1379-1398)

Aeschylus creates an intensely intellectual parable that traces the evolution of Greek justice from the blood-feud mentality of the tribal unit to the polis, invested with authority through the law. In times of darkness and barbarity, personal vengeance was tantamount to law in The Libation Bearers:

It is but law that when the red drops have been spilled
upon the ground they cry aloud for fresh
blood. For the death act calls out on Fury
to bring out of those who were slain before
new ruin on ruin accomplished.
(The Libation Bearers, 400-404)

And so it is enacted by Orestes, who kills his mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus:

My purpose is to kill you over his body.
You thought him bigger than my father while he lived.
Die then and sleep beside him, since he is the man
you love, and he you should have loved got only your hate.
(The Libation Bearers, 904-907)

It’s not hard to see that under such a system of retribution, there will be no end to the cycle of violence. Sadly, the Middle East has not taken this tale to heart.

In the concluding play, the trial of Orestes takes place, and the action is remarkable in its similarity to modern trials, at least as presented on episodes of Law and Order. The Furies prosecute, ask questions, bray to the jury of Athenians when they think they’ve made a damning point. After their ultimate defeat and the acquittal of Orestes, the Furies are only mollified through Athena’s persuasive offer to welcome them back into the society of new gods and new men. The Furies are implicitly transformed into the Eumenides, or “Kindly Ones”:

Chorus of Furies:
This is my prayer: Civil War
fattening on men’s ruin shall
not thunder in our city. Let
not the dry dust that drinks
the black blood of citizens
through passion for revenge
and bloodshed for bloodshed
be given our state to prey upon.
(The Eumenides, 976-983)

The Eumenides fully buy into the new world order, and they make clear that murder is not a private affair, but a public problem. These goddesses come to their senses and have themselves become a symbol of the civilizing power of the law, which has vanquished the cycle of retributive violence and assuaged their anger.

I won’t venture any additional critical analysis of these plays, mainly because I haven’t thought deeply enough about them to offer any other intelligent commentary. If I’m going to read a book a week, until the end of time, I’d rather spend more time reading and less time writing. More importantly, it’s unlikely that I’ll be doing much repeat business, so I intend for these reading notes to capture the essence of my experience of reading each book, rather than a fully developed critical understanding of the work.

If more “understanding” is wanted, consult the introduction to my edition by Richmond Lattimore, which has plenty of insightful nuggets, like the following:

“Each act of blood has been avenged in a new act of blood. The problems of public good have been solved through private murder, which is no solution, until the situation has become intolerable to the forces that rule the world, and these must intervene to see that the contestants and the impulses in nature which drive the contestants become reconciled and find their places in a scheme that will be harmonious and progressive, not purely destructive.” (Introduction, pp. 29-30)

*          *          *

The University of Chicago Press edition, though a beautiful object, lacks footnotes, which would have been genuinely helpful, since Lattimore has a habit of including references, especially character epithets, that would have been familiar to an ancient Greek audience, but are meaningless to modern readers. It’s one thing to refer to commonly known figures like Persephone or Hades without explanatory notes; it’s quite another to reference “Pallas-before-the-temple” without any explanation that Pallas is Athena (regular readers of Greek literature probably already know this) and that “before-the-temple” comes from the Greek, “Pronaia,” (I’m sure very few people know that) and signifies . . . well, that’s what a footnote would have been good for. I can’t speak to the original Greek, and whether Lattimore is staying strictly faithful to the original versions of these names, but there is no context in the play for some of these references, so I’m thankful for the extensive annotations in the other two translations I consulted.

Furthermore, I am not a fan of Lattimore’s non-standard (though more orthographically correct) spellings of some Greek names that already have well-established English renderings (Athene for Athena, Clytaemestra for Clytemnestra), a predilection he also indulges in his translations of Homer (Achilleus for Achilles, Aias for Ajax, Hektor for Hector). But of the translations I consulted, his Aeschylus has the most poetic grandeur, which does justice to the immense arguments and ebullient violence of the Oresteia. (By contrast, Meineck is almost too unadorned, too easy to read, too journalistic; Fagles translates as though he were shouting commands the entire time.)

*          *          *

Reading the Oresteia, and reflecting on its bloody violence, as well as the gruesome images in Slaughterhouse-Five, I am reminded of our ongoing controversies concerning the role that art supposedly plays in perpetuating bloodshed.

In the aftermath of the Newtown school shootings, a person (“person” is of course generous) like NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre has the nerve to suggest that America’s real problem is not guns, but rather, violent movies and video games. Of course, this is a man (again generous) who spends his time preaching to the country a fiction that guns don’t kill people. This tall tale, this elaborate fantasy, has become so pervasive, you might say LaPierre is something of an artist himself!

We the people are supposed to revere some romantic notion of the centrality of gun ownership in American values. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of more ammo. Perhaps in his gunslinger’s paradise, dollar bills have machine guns instead of eagles on them, and the Statue of Liberty wears a bandolier.

I wonder whether the ancient Athenians worried about the corrupting influence of violent drama and epic poetry on their children. Clearly, philosophy and knowledge are corrupting influences and must be eradicated without mercy. But art? In the Republic, Plato famously promulgates the banishment of poets, but Plato was arguably something of a poet, an artist, himself, so we may not want to interpret his words as being single-layered.

In Clytemnestra’s speech above are, if not quite instructions, at least the bare facts of how to murder someone as he bathes. And moreover, Clytemnestra glories in the act as justified and even pleasurable. In Greek drama, violent action was carried out offstage, but there is nothing tame about their language. Was there a vocal segment of the Athenian populace that bemoaned such excessive violence and linked it to the crimes of the day?

Vonnegut, too, was well aware that many people, among them intelligent people, feared that violence in art encouraged violence in real life. He quotes a friend in Slaughterhouse-Five, who “thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies.” She says, “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them.”

A decent amount of scientific research has been conducted on what kind of effect violent video games have on people, and of course the video game industry will tell you that games don’t make people more violent, just as the gun industry will probably tell you that shooting guns doesn’t make a gun owner more violent.

I have played many violent games, including those with realistic (or quasi-realistic) violence, so I am aware that there are many, many heinous video games out there. Anything called Call of Duty is probably among them, if only for the shamelessness of calling it a “duty” to lay waste to human lives.

The violent games I enjoy tend not to be the ones that ask you to kill other people. In Resident Evil, guns, though certainly glorified, are the necessary tool for taking out zombies, and anyone who would shoot at a human being is a villain through and through. The Gears of War games are sort of exonerated, again, because you’re not shooting at human beings (you shoot aliens, which is a cop-out, I know). But the one moment in the Gears series that sticks in my head is the one scene that remarks on the fragility and preciousness of human life, and the profound sorrow when even one (especially one) life is lost.

Some have argued that video games are inherently different and uniquely damnable because they put you in the position of committing the violence. But by that logic, it’s okay to watch a violent play, but no one should ever act in one? And crime novelists who come up with horrific ways to murder people in their books are sickos on the inside, right?

I think the only game whose violence has affected my life outside of the game is Grand Theft Auto (III and IV, specifically). Here is a game where steering a car is so fraught with peril and pedestrians so plentiful that it practically begs you to commit multiple, repeated acts of vehicular manslaughter just to drive the three blocks to Ammo-Nation.

I played GTA III and IV years apart, but after each one (and only about a week or two of each), I must admit that it did seem to affect my experience as a driver of a real car in the real world. I would go out driving some days and be wonderstruck at the sight of so many pedestrians crowding the sidewalks. Didn’t they realize they were a hair’s breadth away from a bloody death under the grinding wheels of my car? The ease with which I could have mowed these people down should have discouraged them from walking about so brazenly, no? I wouldn’t say I came close to blurring the barrier between game and reality, and no, I was never close to hitting anybody. Even so, I can’t pretend that violent games don’t have some desensitizing effect. That being said, Grand Theft Auto is hardly what I’d point to as a specimen of ennobling art.

To take this exercise to its logical end, I come to Star Trek, and its innovation of the Holodeck. These are the computers that generate virtual worlds within a small room. The people of the 24th century enter convincingly realistic customized worlds where they are encouraged to live out their fantasies, whether that includes romance, adventure, consulting Leonardo da Vinci, or whatever.

However, I don’t remember any of the shows depicting a fantasy of murder (or other sordid crimes, most prominently, rape). Correct me if I’m wrong, but the closest such thing I remember was Lieutenant Barclay taking out his frustrations (sexual and otherwise) on Holodeck versions of the ship’s crew, even clashing swords with Holodeck-generated Captain Picard and company.

Reader, I ask you: if Holodecks existed, would you create a program where you could kill people? Just to see what it was like? To blow off steam? More to the point, would doing so necessarily mean that you were a monster worse than Hitler? If not, would engaging in that kind of behavior eventually turn you into a monster?

*          *          *

*I also made extensive reference to the notes and translations of Robert Fagles and Peter Meineck.

**I’ve added a category called “Date of Publication” to the list of crucial facts at the top of the post. Obviously, works from antiquity, especially drama, were not “published” in the modern sense, but when I was deciding what to name this category, I figured that the relevant date was not so much when the author created the work, as this cannot be known with precision, but rather the date that it was presented to the public, whether in written or performed state. In this sense of the word, I think “publication” works well enough for my purposes. 


Henry said...

I feel it pertinent to bring up the Star Trek: Voyager two-parter "The Killing Game," in which an alien race of hunters took over the ship and used the holodeck technology to endlessly reenact World War II, with the aliens playing the part of the Nazis (alongside some Nazi holograms) to hunt members of the Voyager crew, who had been mind-hacked to believe themselves the French Resistance. The one rule was that the aliens were not allowed to kill the Voyager crew members, because the whole point was to create a game that could be replayed over and over again, as a way to preserve, in a more controlled environment, the hunter way of life that the aliens' leader saw as no longer practicable in the real world. His subordinates ultimately couldn't get on board with his ideas, because, to them, simulated violence just couldn't compare to the real thing.

A great set of episodes, more relevant now than ever!

Czardoz said...

How come the descriptions of Voyager episodes always sound terrible, even if the episodes were pretty good?

"So Neelix briefly dies and realizes there is no afterlife, but then everyone is reassured when they find that the people's ashes float into a mystical cloud in their planet's atmosphere."

"So Tuvok and Neelix somehow end up fusing into one guy named Tuvoknix!"