Friday, January 15, 2010

You-rippa-deese and the Furies, or Family Drama

Greek tragedy is always family high drama.  Something in the world goes awry, a king or queen is seduced or tricked or led astray and someone must pay.  A child say.  Or a partner.  A mother.  Now and then, as in the story of Oedipus, a father. Mere humans are powerless to stop the horror that will unfold; only a god or goddess can step in to right matters.  But first, as Artaud writes of madness, his own and van Gogh's, a little real blood will be needed.

We think that this world is far removed from our own, that its rules and insights don't apply to our lives.  After all, in our world, nobody sacrifices a daughter to business enterprise, or falls in love with someone else's child and ruins everything to have that one, right?

Right.  Anne Carson introduces her new translation of four of Euripides' tragedies thus:

Why does tragedy exist?  Because you are full of rage.  Why are you full of rage?  Because you are full of grief.  Ask a headhunter why he cuts off human heads. He'll say that rage impels him and rage is born of grief.  The act of severing and tossing away the victim's head enables him to throw away the anger of all his bereavements.  Perhaps you think that this does not apply to you.  Yet you recall the day your wife, driving you to your mother's funeral, turned left instead of right at the intersection and you had to scream at her so loud other drivers turned to look. When you tore off her head and threw it out the window they nodded, changed gears, drove away. (Carson, Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides, New York Review Books, 2006:7.)

Recently my partner Marike (whose name even after fourteen years my father refuses to speak) and I sent packages to our families for Christmas.  We sent my father an older translation of some of Euripides' plays.  On the card we inserted into the book I'd quoted Carson's first few sentences on rage and grief.  It seemed, as did Euripides' dramas, something I might want to say to my father, but in other words, not quite my own.  

A couple of weeks later, and for the first time in many years, my father sent me a letter.  He had received and read the book; he'd enjoyed it, despite its pagan status.  But he couldn't quite read my handwriting where I'd quoted Carson.

I could not make out whether the word you wrote was grief or guilt.  Either way it does not make sense to me.  I did not experience rage in reading the plays.  Nor does grief or guilt awaken rage in me.  Sadness yes, but not rage...The plays do leave one with a certain sadness, because you realize that things did not have to turn out the way they did.  
There was no mention of Marike, not a word to acknowledge how or where I've lived since the early 1990s.

At first, I was not sure how to reply.  I was, perhaps, too sad. Grief is not at all the same as guilt, nor must either emotion awaken rage, although sometimes they do, particularly in families. In the play of this confusion of words lay our whole family drama, our tragedy.  If my grief in his eyes could look like guilt, then perhaps his grief was bound up with guilt in ways I could neither see nor imagine.  Every family has such stories of loss, inattention, injustice and forgetting in its repertoire.  We mistake and misread one another from generation to generation, act on broken echos and incomplete tales; our gestures offend when we mean them to stroke the heart, and stoke the heart when we mean to offend.  We read or write fiction in part to get at these broken spaces, to give them shape and weight, to name their force in the world. 

 Euripides pulls the scab from such dark inner wounds--that's why we'd sent my father this little book of plays, even without knowing entirely what we were doing.  We were already enacting Greek drama: bodies passing in the night semaphoring in the dark. And no one awake, or with light enough to see the flags that we wave, the hopeless messages we spell into the gloom.  

In response to the gift of Euripides, my father had written a letter of Christian witness:

I was very conscious as I was reading the plays that I was reading pagan literature.  I kept thinking, "How differently a Christian views these things."  The plays do not awaken the same emotions in a Christian that they must have awakened in a pagan.  The pagan believes in fate from which there is no escape, and in large measure the tragedy is because the characters are caught in an inescapable fate.  The Christian does not believe in fate; nor does he believe in a silly and capricious god.  The pagan gods are really demons and that is how the Christians saw them (read St. Augustine's City of God).  The Christian God is a God of love, who does not stoop to the silly and vengeful behavior of the pagan gods.  The Christian also believes in forgiveness which seems to be an alien idea in the plays.  The characters seem neither to be able to forgive or to be forgiven.  

As I read the plays, my mind kept playing off Christian themes.  Alcestis laying down her life for her weak and self centered husband and Macaria offering herself as a sacrifice in
The Heracleidae, made me think first of our Lord laying down his life for us weak, self centered sinners and then of St. Maximilian Kolbe at Auschwitz volunteering to go into a starvation bunker in place of another prisoner who was the father of four children.  Was their tragedy here? Yes, but we rejoice in the great love revealed in both of these sacrifices.  The cross is the great revelation of the love that God has for us and Fr. Kolbe's life is testimony to the power of that love to transform the life of a man and make him like Christ in his love for others.  Thousands of other Christians have likewise sacrificed their lives in love of Christ and their neighbor.  

Hippolytus made me think of Joseph, who was sold into Egypt by his jealous brothers.  He was bought by a certain Egyptian named Potiphar.  Potiphar's wife began to lust for Joseph and when Joseph refused her advances she accused him of attempting to violate her.  Again, was there tragedy here? Yes, but there was something beyond tragedy.  There is a holy and dependable God here and all things work for good to those who believe in him.  Even the martyr (the witness) who lays down his life for love of God and neighbor has gained his life, and the church joins him and heaven in rejoicing in his victory.

I could just barely hear--his words came to me in a tinny old-fashioned undersea cable sort of way--what my father was trying to say about love or redemption.  I really don't believe the insights of revealed religion trump everything; this is part of the flow of grief between us.  As grief could look like guilt--and neither makes sense to him--so too, for me, Christian martyrdom did not redeem tragedy.  I couldn't see the distance between Euripides' tragedies, certain biblical tales and our own sorrow songs and pathetic misfirings.  I wanted my father, too, to see--and to feel--the collapse between these stories; he wanted me to take and to keep the measure of separation between them. 

And so our aggrieved and guilt-ridden standoff continues.

I wrote back.  I had many things to say about tragic family tales that I wanted my father to hear.

The word Anne Carson uses is "grief", not guilt.  Rage is born of grief, she writes, by which she means that rage covers and makes disappear, makes more bearable, makes "reason of"--however falsely-- the far more difficult emotion, the hollowing out emotion of grief.  "Grief and rage--" she writes, "you need to contain that, to put a frame around it, where it can play itself out without you or your kin having to die.  There is a theory that watching unbearable stories about other people lost in grief and rage is good for you--may clease you of your darkness.  Do you want to go down to the pits of yourself all alone?  Not much.  What if an actor could do it for you?  Isn't that why they are called actors? They act for you.  You sacrifice them to action.  And this sacrifice is a mode of deepest intimacy of you within your own life.....The actor, by reiterating you, sacrifices a moment of his own life in order to give you a story of yours."  

Elsewhere she says, "Myths are stories about people who become too big for their lives temporarily, so that they crash into other lives or brush against gods. In crisis their souls are visible."  I'd add, and so too then, our own....

The themes here--as Carson means them too, she is a practicing Catholic--resonate and do not square with Christian theology.  And but still....grief and rage are still very much a part of the action and messages of both Old and New Testaments.  Euripides tells, we could say, terrible versions of the encounter between Abraham, God and Isaac gone awry....Kierkegaard repeats the story over and over so as not to imagine how awry it might go, does go, in plenty of families.  (And do we know, really, how things have gone? always?)

A line came to me as I read your letter, from Isaiah.  It is a line that most recently, I heard sung in the Messiah--one of the ravaging, voice- and heart-breaking arias of the piece.  The alto soloist sings, as a part of the recounting of the Passion, "He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." (Isaiah 53,3)

Christianity as I understand it--which is perhaps not much, but owes a great deal to your teaching-- does not absolve or dilute grief; the fact of Christ on the cross IS a tragedy.  Is a matter for great grief.  And whatever joy that event also brings, the revelations of the resurrection are tempered by, marked by,
accompanied by grief; the resurrection is not an absolution or dissolution of grief. Not in this world anyway.

So perhaps the resonances are deeper than they appear?  That's what struck me anyway.  Euripides characters are mostly exemplary by their failures; the passion is another kind of sacrifice--Jesus is exemplary,
we are the failures.....and our acquaintance with that failure is expressed, in part perhaps in grief.  rage. sorrow.  and also hope.

It might be worth noting too that none of these are tales of simple or easy family relations. 

But my father has not yet replied.  Which of course is the next logical move in his argument, his call for some difference between these tales of Hekabe, Isaac, Jesus and me.  Wind whistles through the gaps opened up by his silence; it pierces my heart more sharply than words. 

Carson quotes from an essay by scholar B.M.W Knox, "who says of Euripides what the Corinthians (in Thucydides) said of the Athenians, 'that he was born never to live in peace with himself and to prevent the rest of mankind from doing so'" (Carson 8; B.M.W. Knox, "Euripides: The Poet as Prophet."  In Directions in Euripidean Criticism: A Collection of Essays. Ed. Peter Burian.  Duke University Press, 1985, pp. 1-12.)

Our drama continues, all of us playing our parts as if they've been scripted by gods.

"Fences and Impasses"  Halifax, December 2009

My title of course refers to the sorry wordplay of this classical joke:  
Euripides tears his pants and takes them to a tailor to be fixed, only to have them tear at the same spot three times. Finally the tailor tires of seeing this sad old man in his shop. He...exclaims, "Hey, Euripides, Eumenides!"
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