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Tuesday 5 June 2012

Remaining Aeschylus

Next on my list was the rest of Aeschylus. The remaining plays being Persians, Seven Against Thebes, Suppliants, and Prometheus Bound.

Persians is a recounting of a Persian defeat at the hands of the Greeks from the perspective of the Persian count when they first hear the news. Interestingly, Aeschylus was actually present during the conflict and so it is generally assumed that his portrayal of events is at least somewhat accurate. It reads like some elaborate ancient theatrical equivalent of tea-bagging. The only thing that really caught my eye was a brief segment where it is explained that Persia and Greece are sister nations, born of the same parentage. Linguistic evidence certainly supports this, Persian and Greek both being Indo-European languages. I just find it somewhat surprising that they were still vaguely aware of their common ancestry and that they were willing to acknowledge such a kinship with a nation they were continually at war with.

Seven Against Thebes is the story of Oedipus' sons' fight for control of Thebes. They were unable to rule together peacefully on account of their cursed parentage. The bulk of the play is spent describing who will defend which of the seven gates against a corresponding number of enemy commanders in elaborate detail. The actual battle is mostly skipped over in the text. The story resumes after the battle, the defenders having won but the two brothers having killed one another. Because of the characters involved, I probably would have gotten more out of this if I had already read Antigone and the Oedipus plays first. Fortunately, those are all first up when I move on to Sophocles next. On a sad note for any Japanophiles who may read it, however, this play definitely undermines a lot of the claims regarding the stunning originality of Seven Samurai. But classic literature does that to pretty much everything.

Suppliants picks up the story of Io, the girl who was turned into a cow by Hera so that Zeus wouldn't sleep with her only to have Zeus turn himself into a bull simply to sleep with her anyway, several generations later. Io had wandered to Egypt in cow form where she was made human again. She had Zeus human-ish child. Several generations later, one of her descendants returns to Greece with his daughters in order to avoid forced marriages to Egyptian noblemen who happened to be their cousins. The people of Argos and their king choose to defend them when the Egyptians show up and they all presumably live happily ever after. The story is a pretty strong condemnation of involuntary marriage. It also serves as a kind of founding myth for Argos as well as an explanation of Greece's supposed kinship to Egypt.

Prometheus Bound opens with, well, the binding of Prometheus in "unbreakable" chains by order of Zeus. Though he helped Zeus in his glorious revolution against Cronus and the other Titans, Zeus became enraged when Prometheus gave mankind knowledge of fire and mastery over his own thoughts. The bulk of the story is told by means of Prometheus recounting his story to Io who just happened to wander by in cow form. Zeus is described as something of a power-mad tyrant and a fool who would not have won against the Titans without Prometheus' advice. Given how strongly this clashes with normal depictions of Zeus, even Aeschylus' own depictions in his other plays, I really wonder how well this played with its contemporary audience. On the surface it seems like blasphemy. But can a society that continually reworks the stories of its gods as popular entertainment really have a sense of blasphemy like us silly moderns? Probably not.

Thursday 3 May 2012

The Oresteia

Next up on the list was Aeschylus' Oresteia. In summary, it is a trilogy of plays recounting Agamemnon's death, his son Orestes seeking vengeance, and then Orestes seeking absolution by a court of law convened by the goddess Athena. I chose a translation from a new series from Oxford University Press. It is a verse translation. I'm usually more of a fan of literal prose translations but I found this edition surprisingly readable and sensical. And it definitely livens up the Chorus sections of the plays.

On the topic of the Chorus sections, they do certainly need livening up. Whenever possible, it is preferable to see a play rather than read it. This is true of all theater, not just ancient Greek theater. You simply lose too many elements reading the text alone. The Chorus, for example, would have originally involved singing and dancing. On the page, you lose that and are instead left with large, long-winded sections of the play that seem to convey very information per line and generally just bog the play down. Unfortunately, unless some serious revival of Greek theater happens, the text is the best most of us will ever get.

And regarding the actual narrative, the first two plays of the trilogy, being Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers, do little to flesh out the story beyond what was summarized in passing in the The Odyssey. It is a simple retelling with little embellishment. Keep in mind, however, that The Odyssey had already been an established part of the Greek canon for approximately 600 years and it is unlikely that Oresteia was even the first to revisit the fate of Agamemnon and his household. And even today, adaptations of known stories are often balked at when they try to stay as true to the original as possible. This was likely true to at least some degree in Aeschylus' time.

The final play in the trilogy, The Eumenides is definitely the creative heart of the trilogy. It deals with the practical and ethical issues surrounding revenge, polytheism, and "zero tolerance" punishment. Agamemnon killed his daughter, his wife killed him, his son killed her, and then the Furies attempt to kill him. Seeking one's own justice simply encourages others to do the same, potentially creating an endless web of retributions, as happened in several cities in Renaissance Italy and the medieval Icelandic Commonwealth. Such a cycle could even grown into a civil war. The more powerful the parties involved, the more dangerous revenge is to the social order. Humanity's solution for this problem seems to typically be the creation of courts. And with the help of the goddess Athena, Orestes is able to receive a judgement and end the revenge cycle.

The trial reveals a practical problem of polytheism: the god Apollo advised Orestes to kill his own murder while the Furies outright condemn the slaying of any mother. Morality is not uniform across the pantheon. What pleases one god may displease another. And before you know it, the gods are divided and you are stuck fighting besieging Troy for a decade. On the other hand, acknowledging the fickleness of the gods as a whole does a lot to undermine any potential theocracy and the influence of augurs on political matters.

The Furies have something of a zero tolerance policy for matricide. If you kill your mother, revenge ghosts will hunt you down and kill you. This sounds fairly reasonable at first. Why kind of sick bastard kills his own mother? The complication lies in the fact that it does not matter how awful of a person the mother may have been. This effectively leaves children no recourse against evil mothers. The point Aesychlus makes, through his characterization of Athena, is that circumstances and motive matter in judging a crime.

Saturday 28 April 2012

The Odyssey

Next up on the list is the Odyssey. This was actually my first time around for this one. It has been a long time coming. This being my first time, I opted for the more traditional Fagles translation: The Odyssey Also, while Stephen Mitchell is planning an edition of the Odyssey, it doesn't have a release date yet. And the repetition of the Odyssey seems a lot milder than that of the Iliad, thus somewhat lessening the effect of Mitchell's approach. Anyway, in roughly the same rambling format of the Iliad entry, onward!

The Odyssey consist of about one third in which Telemachus tries to find out what happened to his father, Odysseus, who never made it back from the Trojan War despite having survived the war which ended about ten years before the opening of the Odyssey, one third in which Odysseus tries to get home, and one third in which Odysseus is back home and masquerading as a hobo in order to better murder all the guys hanging around his house trying to get into his wife's pants. This provides ample opportunity to discuss the relationship between a host and his guests or a lord and his suppliants. Sometimes the commentaries are quite overt, "The rights of suppliants are sacred." And it is also stated that Zeus is the zealous defender of said rights. Other times, the nature of the relationship is merely demonstrated as in the case of the suitors who hang around eating all of Odysseus' food while he's away. Their deaths at the hands of Odysseus suggest that greedy guests who overstay their welcome are likely to get a good stabbing. I had one professor, J- M-, who always insisted that, combined, the Iliad and Odyssey taught a Greek everything there was to know about life. Not being an ancient Greek, I can't really say whether or not these works succeeded; as a modern reader, it seems obvious that the author(s) at least made a damn good try of it. On the other hand, aren't wandering blind poets often guests of a sort? If so, the Odyssey provides some pretty strong hints that gifts and booze are expected.

Telemachus is quite interesting compared to certain other young Indo-European heroes. Other heroes, like Sigurd and Cuchulain are described as having exceptional features when they are children, such as flowing beards or super-human strength. Telemachus is a teenager by this point of the story, just barely reaching adulthood. But he is unable to deal with the suitors occupying his household. He's not a great hero who can hold back dozens of men all by himself. He cannot even pull back his father's bow. But this is seen as okay. Odysseus, Menelaus, Nestor--still alive but finally taking it easy after 120 or more years--and others acknowledge that Telemachus is well on the way to being the equal of his father. This may seem perfectly natural to the modern reader, but having read other Indo-European epics, I was kind of shocked by this realistic concept that even heroes need time to mature and grow into their full strength.

Overall, I found the Odyssey to be a much more "modern" work than I expected. By that I mean the story was far less repetitive and much more plot-driven than the Iliad. Further, its story is non-linear in that much of it is told in parallel, switching between Telemachus and Odysseus during overlapping time periods. Scholars often tout the Iliad's "revolutionary" method of beginning the story in media res. However, that assertion entirely ignores the fact that the Iliad is just a single story in the larger Epic Cycle, most of which is now lost to us outside of the Iliad and Odyssey. But who knows what counted as a truly revolutionary literary device then? Our knowledge of Greek oral literature before the Epic Cycle is very limited and we are almost entirely ignorant about its proto-Indo-European precursors. The peace-time setting of the story also helps prevents one of the Iliad's major problems: introducing characters simply so that they can be murdered. To extent the suitors present a similar problem but the named suitors are kept to two or three and they pop up frequently enough that they do have some definite character to them. It may not be a lot, but it is certainly more than Trojan-dude, son of Trojan-dude, who gets stabbed through the nipple at the end of the paragraph.

I guess that's about it. Surprisingly, I didn't find the Odyssey nearly as thought provoking as the Iliad. But damn if it wasn't way more fun, and the Iliad was pretty fun in itself.

Sunday 8 April 2012

The Iliad

This is my second time reading the Iliad, having read through it under the guidance of one Professor D- R-. during my undergrad years. Since this was my second time through, I picked a new, rather unorthodox edition "translated" by Stephen Mitchell (not the Old Norse guy at Harvard): The Iliad: (The Stephen Mitchell Translation) I put the word "translated" in quotes because Mitchell may not actually know Homeric Greek at all. In any case, this edition is based on some real scholarly work which has tried to excise the repetitive and superfluous parts which have crept into the story as a side effect of the story's original oral nature. Under normal circumstances, I would say that all that cruft is fairly essential to understanding Homer and epic poetry in general. Without it, you can't really have a good discussion about orality and Homer is the only author in the Great Books who straddles the worlds of oral and written transmission. This is partly because the Great Books entirely ignores medieval Scandinavian literature which occupies a similar space in the oral versus written spectrum as Homer. The reasoning behind this omission being that while the Western canon influenced Scandinavian literature, Scandinavian literature did not really influence the Western canon. But since I have personally spent many years obsessing about issues of orality, it was kind of refreshing to give the Iliad another look without wondering whether or not Achilles is "swift-footed" for narrative or metrical purposes in any given instance. This allow me to concentrate more on the larger, more enduring themes, or "ideas", as Adler would call them. But if this is your first time reading the Iliad, definitely go with a more traditional translation like the Fagles: The Iliad (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

Being set in the middle of the Trojan War, war itself is obviously a major theme in the Iliad. It depicts a time when every soldier had a name and lineage known both by his compatriots and his enemies. Kings and commanders led their troops personally. Each loss was mourned and every corpse recovered whenever possible. But as much as the armies valued the corpses of their own, they equally reveled in the desecration and looting of the corpses of the enemy. One can easily see how either practice increases the necessity of the other. It was also a time of an emphasis on one-on-one combat. There's even a point where they try to decide the whole outcome of the war based on the results of a single duel, only to be thwarted by the intervention of the goddess Aphrodite. They also had a clear and simple objective: retrieve Helen. While this type of warfare may very well never have been an accurate depiction of Greek warfare at any stage of development, one cannot help but feel that, corpse desecration aside, this is how wars ought to be fought. Today, our ruling class takes no part in warfare. The ability to declare war and the responsibility to do the actual fighting are wholly divorced from one another. We box up our dead by the hundreds and thousands, giving a handful a tiny mention once in a while. The enemy dead are wholly anonymous in their staggering hundreds of thousands. We don't dedicate our entire army to a decade of conflict just to overcome the enemy's defenses. We casually fight multiple wars at a time, crushing the enemy in a matter of weeks, and then insanely linger for years because we had no clear reason or purpose for fighting the war in the first place, thus depriving us of the ability to determine whether or not we had achieved that purpose. War has become both easy and pointless. Afghanistan started out straightforward enough: revenge. But then we wholly lost of sight of the objective and only achieved it a decade later. And having lost sight of the objective, actually achieving it had little effect on our decision to stay or leave. Iraq was utterly pointless. One might argue that it was an attempt to tie up loose ends from the Gulf War. But why did we even fight that war? Some argue it was about oil and profiteering. Except virtually none of the oil resources ended up in American hands and what little did nowhere near compensated us for the cost of the war. Honestly, I'd prefer shameless pillaging and annexation to that weird clusterfuck of a war.

One curious thing about the text is that it takes place in a semi-mythical past, straddling between the worlds of pure fable and actual history, much in the way that it straddles oral and written culture. While the modern scholarly opinion is that the Trojan War happens, the Iliad has links to a more obscure past. Nestor is arguably the strongest of these links. By the time of the war, Nestor is well over a hundred years old. He survives from the time of the Argonauts and the War Against the Centaurs. Even in his old age, he is one of the mightiest Greek warriors, out-matched by only some of the other commanders. He often laments that his abilities are not what they once were and that men in general were not as great as the men of a generation or two before. It is plausible that a youthful Nestor, being from this mythological past age of greater men, would severely overshadow all others in the war. Without hobbling Nestor with old age, these two eras could not overlap with any plausible narrative consistency. Even the mighty half-god Achilles falls short of the renowned half-god of Nestor's generation, Hercules. I'm not really sure if there is any deeper significance to this but I definitely have a soft spot for stories of old heroes long past their prime. Though, perhaps Nestor simply serves as a reminder that the old were not always so and that the frailty of old age can mask a past of ability surpassing that of those that came after.

Perhaps the most overt theme of the Iliad is the danger of immodest anger. Achilles remains out of the fighting for most of the story because of his anger at Agamemnon. Further, he leverages his influence with his goddess mother to get Zeus to punish the Greeks, Achilles' own people, because of this anger. The Greeks are nearly utterly destroyed, overwhelmed so suddenly at one point that retreating on their ships was simply not feasible. Achilles only returns to the fighting because his cousin/bestfriend/secret gay lover takes pity on his fellow Greeks and enters the fight without Achilles, only to be killed by Hector. In the end, Achilles and Agamemnon are reconciled. Achilles acknowledges at length that his anger ultimately achieved nothing. Many Greeks died needlessly and the extent of his anger prevented him from accepting reparations from Agamemnon when they were offered. Anger in itself achieves nothing. Simply being angry wont fix the problem that originally inspired the anger. And holding on to that anger in defiance of any attempt to ameliorate the situation only harms the angered party.

It is hard to know what to make of the gods in the Iliad. Taken literally, the gods overtly intervene at nearly every stage of the conflict. They physically stand beside warriors and deflect spears. They pull wounded soldiers from the fighting. Zeus hurls lightning bolts at the Greeks. This can seem somewhat jarring to a modern audience. What is the point of man's choices and free will if the gods consistently dictate fate so blatantly? Achilles knows full well that he will die after killing Hector. Hector likewise knows when his end approaches. Fate seems fixed. Perhaps the literal interpretation is the wrong one? Rather than a god physically deflecting spears, perhaps a spear misses in the normal way and it must be attributed to a god out of a belief that the gods are responsible for all things? And the seeming immutability of Achilles' fate may merely be a symptom of the literary mode, prophecy being merely a crude form of foreshadowing, not a reflection of general Greek beliefs about fate.

On a minor note, this translation opted to describe the two Ajaxes as "Ajax the Tall" and simply "Ajax". It also tried very hard to keep the two Ajaxes from being confused. In some translations, the impression is that Ajax the Tall (usually Ajax the Greater) is the one doing all the great deeds while the other Ajax (usually Ajax the Lesser) is some kind of lame sidekick. In this translation, the impression is more that they are both total badasses and one of them just happens to be tall. This definitely improves the Ajax/Ajax dynamic, in my opinion.

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