The Nation, 27 April 2009

nation-27-april-2009Classicist Emily Wilson reviews Anne Carson‘s An Oresteia.  Carson translates Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Sophocles’ Electra, and Euripides’ Orestes to make a trilogy that not only tells why the legendary prince Orestes killed his mother Clytemnestra and what consequences that matricide had in their world, but a trilogy that also suggests how the moral ideas of the Athenians might have changed in response to the social and political crises of the fifth century BC.  

Aeschylus’ Agamemnon was produced in 458 BC, when Athens’ empire was at its zenith and its form of democracy seemed infinitely adaptable to whatever challenges the future might present.  In the Agamemnon, Aeschylus puts the motivations of the gods and of humans on display together, suggesting that while each may be temporarily obscure, nonetheless both can ultimately become transparent.   When Clytemnestra kills her husband Agamemnon, her children inherit from their father the responsibility to avenge him by killing their mother.  Faced with this horrifying duty, Orestes and his sister Electra seem as though they may have been plunged into an incomprehensible moral universe.  Yet democracy, Athenian democracy, will settle the matter and allow the survivors of the cycle of violence to reason together once more.   Orestes will ultimately appear before Athens’ Areopagus Council, which will sit in judgment of his case and reach a verdict that even the Furies themselves must accept. 

Sophocles’ Electra dates from a time much later than that of Aeschylus’ play, probably the last decade of the fifth century.  By that time, Athens had been embroiled in the Peloponnesian Wars for a generation.  Isolated in mainland Greece, Athens had suffered heavy defeats in one theater after another.  To many Athenians, it seemed that the war had discredited democracy.  Not only had the war the people voted to enter brought Athens actual disaster and likely destruction, but the heaviest of all Athens’ losses were suffered in a war with another radical democracy, Syracuse.  In 411, Sophocles himself would figure prominently in a move to scrap democracy and institute a government by an oligarchic group known as “the Four Hundred.”  The Four Hundred didn’t last long, but the optimism of Aeschylus’ day would never be possible to the Athenians again.  Accordingly, Sophocles’ view is darker Aeschylus’.  Wilson says that for Sophocles, “the will of the gods is hard to interpret, and the focus of the play is on the turbulent feelings of human characters and the contradictory narratives they create to serve their advantage.”  For my part, I think it would be better to say that for Sophocles, the gods are not on display- we may be visible to them, but they are never truly visible to us.  We can understand only his human characters, and then only by discovering the ways in which they have deceived themselves.  Wilson writes that “The play is disturbing in both its emphasis on desperate grief and the suggestion that the only cure for such pain is retribution reaped with scams and lies. Unlike in Aeschylus, there is no hope of a political solution.” 

Orestes, produced in 408, is in some ways Euripides’ strangest play, and Wilson labels it the darkest of the three Carson has chosen.  Euripides is closer to Aeschylus than to Sophocles in his belief that the motivations of gods and humans are intelligible, but unlike them in his doubt that understanding those motivations will bring us any closer to a world that we can judge fairly.  (more…)

The Atlantic Monthly, March 2009

atlantic-march-2009A profile of Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, focuses on this gifted theologian’s attempts to lead the Anglican communion in its effort to make up its mind about homosexuality.  Williams himself has many friends who are gay and took a consistently liberal line on gay issues before 2002, when he became the nominal leader of Christianity’s third most popular tradition.  In 1989 Williams gave a speech to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement called “The Body’s Grace,” in which he argued that a Christian understanding of grace requires us to understand that persons need to be seen in particular ways.  Sexual relationships provide one of these ways of being seen that are key to the development of the human person.  Christians must therefore find value, not only in persons who are inclined to engage in  homosexual acts, but in those acts and the relationships of which they are part.  The essay is, from one point of view, quite conservative- Williams claims that the kind of being seen that deserves this value is a kind that must be developed over time and that only one person may do the seeing.  He thus sets his face against sexual liberationists who would resist the imposition of couplehood as the one appropriate form of human sexuality, and aligns himself with those who would merely extend that imposition to same sex relationships.  Compared to other Christian leaders, of course, Williams does not seem conservative at all.  Even the view that same-sexers should be allowed to imitate opposite-sex couples and to assimilate their behavior to norms that have traditionally been imposed on them is daringly progressive in the world where the Archbishop of Canterbury moves.   

Since most of the Anglican communion’s 80,000,000 members live in African countries where homosexuality is the object of extreme cultural disapproval, it has been quite difficult for Williams to hold to his liberal, assimilationist stand while at the same time meeting the first requirement of his job and keeping the communion united. 

Atlantic editor James Bennet recalls his meeting with recently assassinated Hamas leader Nizar Rayyan.  A theologian of a very different stripe from that of Rowan Williams, Rayyan’s “bigoted worldview, and his rich historical imagination, gave him a kind of serenity.”  This serenity was nothing daunted when Rayyan sent his own son on a suicide mission against an Israeli settlement and planned to send another on a similar mission.

Those of us who call for the abolition of the US presidency (what with today being Presidents’ Day and all) will thank the Atlantic for its note of “Politicians: Be Killed or Survive,” a study finding that the only political figures who face a significant risk of assassination are those who operate in systems where power is so highly centralized that assassinating one person will effect significant change in the policies of the state.

Brian Mockenhaupt reports on an effort to persuade US combat veterans that it’s okay to seek help for psychological injuries by showing them performances of Sophocles’ plays about wounded warriors, Ajax and Philoctetes.

The Nation, July 2008

7 July– Alexander Cockburn points out the shortcomings of the late Tim Russert; Jon Wiener derides efforts to depict the University of California at Irvine as a hotbed of anti-semitism.

14 July– In “The Subprime Swindle” Kai Wright shows that many of those now facing foreclosure because of exotic mortgages are African-American, and argues that those mortgages have had the effect of siphoning away a tremendous share of the accumulated wealth of black America.  Stuart Klawans recommends the film Full Battle Rattle, a documentary about a military training exercise in California meant to simulate conditions in Iraq.   

21/28 July– Naomi Klein labels the current state of our political economy “disaster capitalism” and identifies its main instrument of persuasion as extortion.  The rise of private firefighting firms enables the rich to threaten to shut down public fire departments that serve the rest of us; the deal the big oil companies have made in Iraq, apparently giving them right of first refusal on future drilling, puts them in a position to threaten to shut down oil supplies; genetic modification gives seed producers the power to starve the world.  Klein doesn’t have much faith in the power of market mechanisms to rein in the rich, but then why should she.  

In the same issue, U Penn classicist Emily Wilson reviews John Tipton’s translation of Sophocles’ Ajax.  The play puts her in mind of war’s psychological effects.  “[B]y denying the opposition any humanity, and therefore making them killable, we risk making ourselves something less than human.”  When Ajax responds to a slight by setting out to kill his fellow Greek warriors at Troy, the gods delude him into mistaking a herd of sheep for his companions.  He slaughters them with great efficiency.  Classicists used to call this slaughter “the Ovicide” (from the Latin ovis, meaning “sheep.”)  The Ovicide (Wilson doesn’t mention the term, and it is extremely old-fashioned, but I’m rather fond of it)  occurs before the play, which focuses on Ajax’ attempt to come to terms with the fact that he has made a fool of himself.  In Ajax’ torment, Wilson sees a symbol of every warrior whose training and formation have stripped him of the ability to distinguish between human and not-human.