Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Eleatic Stranger

A wonderful commercial in the 1980s began, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Well, I don’t even play a philosopher on TV, but I have “Philosophy” in the name of one of my degrees. So I’m going to play philosopher for a moment and say that I now have an opinion about one of the great puzzles of the history of philosophy: the puzzle of Socrates in Plato’s dialogs.

Looking back now, I can see that my ten-year plan is meeting one of the goals I set: I go through any dialog by Plato now, and I have a sense of how it fits within his whole body of work. Assuming that the order in which the dialogs appear in a complete edition at least roughly corresponds to the order in which Plato composed them, I can also see some lines of development. As I read the Sophist this month, for instance, I realized that it represents a change from some of Plato’s earlier thinking. For instance, this dialog proceeds with a confidence in its method that the earlier ones don’t.

Some of the biggest changes come in a section solving some of the paradoxes of Parmenides that fascinate and possibly trouble an earlier Plato. Here he dismisses some of the problems quickly, others with an interesting argument about Being. Plato’s arguments often include one particular weird premise, that an Idea of a quality has the quality it represents and is the only idea that has the quality, and this assumption causes big problems. Does Unity exist? Then isn’t Unity the same as Existence? Does Sameness differ from Motion? If Sameness is other than something else, isn’t Sameness the same as Otherness? And isn’t Motion always what it is? If so, then isn’t Motion the same as Rest? Or if Motion has motion, then how can we ever define this always changing thing? In the Sophist, Plato solves these problems by showing that these words must apply to the Ideas in multiple ways. That Being is not the same as Motion can’t possibly mean that Being Is-Not: how can Being not exist? Each Idea is other than all the rest, but that doesn’t make each Idea the same as Otherness (which incidentally would also make every Idea the same as Sameness). The Idea of Otherness and the otherness of all the Ideas are two different issues. The argument reminded me of Aristotle’s simple advice in his Topics: don’t let a Sophist trip you up with this mistake, since Being and Unity are simply predicates of everything. And the sudden admission that all Ideas have Being and Unity and Sameness and Otherness isn’t the only place the Sophist anticipates Plato’s most famous pupil. The dialog’s process of definition by division of species follows an extensive and systematic order that resembles Aristotle’s methods more than those of Plato’s earlier works.

Plato introduces another big change by having Socrates remain mute for most of the time. The lead in the argument here belongs to a mysterious character called the Eleatic Stranger. I don’t know who the Eleatic Stranger is, but his presence got me thinking that I understand the puzzle of Socrates a little more. Here’s the problem. Socrates didn’t write anything himself – nothing we know of anyway. All we know of him comes from secondary sources. He stars in most of Plato’s works and has a lot to say in them about wisdom and doubt and piety and rhetoric and the best form of government. Plato’s character of Socrates even explains the Forms that we usually call Platonic Ideas. But Aristotle tells us that Socrates spent most of his career working on ethics and that the Ideas came from Plato, not from his teacher. So some philosophers propose that the Socrates of the dialogs only represents the real Socrates to an extent, and looks less and less like the historical Socrates and more and more like Plato himself the later the date of the dialog and the more he talks about Ideas. But if Plato was so willing to put his own words into the mouth of his beloved mentor for most of his writing career, why leave him out almost entirely at this late stage of the game? In my new view, Plato must not have written any lines for Socrates that he couldn’t conceive of the actual Socrates at least supporting. And I’m guessing that what Plato wanted to say in the Sophist (and in its sequel, the Statesman) stretched the envelope too far, so for these he put his new teaching in the mouth of the mysterious Stranger and left Socrates sitting on the sidelines with only an occasional comment.

While Aristotle is on my mind, I’d like to update a post from last year, in which I proposed a reading list for anyone who wants to study Aristotle. I would now add at least portions of the Topics. And since my last point has nothing to do with Plato, Socrates, or the Eleatic Stranger, I have to admit that this post does not fully partake of Unity.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

What Is That, Socrates?

Eight years ago, I drew up a template to use to take notes on each Plato dialog. The template begins with a line for the subject: piety in the case of Euthyphro, justice for The Republic, and so on. The next section of the template lists the characters in the dialog. And then comes the situation: Socrates is at a dinner party with a Sophist, or Socrates is in prison awaiting his trial. At first, my template went next straight to a list of successive definitions of the topic at hand, the usual structural outline of the dialogs. But after taking notes on the first two or three, I decided I needed a new section, which I labeled for myself, “Shared assumptions (one must have some idea of the subject in order to pursue its definition!).” How can Socrates begin to define justice or knowledge without everyone having some idea what it is to begin with? As Wittgenstein put it, how can your friend answer the question “What is that?” unless you’re pointing at a “that” and he’s looking at the same “that”? You might not either one know what “that” is, but at least you both know which mysterious “that” it is that you can’t identify.

So I was very pleased to open up the Sophist and find Plato making the very point on the second page. The Eleatic Stranger (more about him next time) wants to define the Sophist, but he and his dialog partners have to be able first to identify Sophists, if only by name, so they know what profession it is that they’re defining. “You and I,” he says, “will begin together and inquire into the nature of the Sophist . . . . I should like you to make out what he is and bring him to light in a discussion; for at present we are only agreed about the name, but of the thing to which we both apply the name possibly you have one notion and I another.” Later on, they agree that Sophists are those people who say that no one can ever speak a falsehood, because saying a lie has been spoken involves asserting being of non-being. But then they have to begin the search for a definition. Is this person a teacher? A salesman? A hunter of gullible souls? An impersonator? An entertainer?

As I read and thought about this problem, I also thought about Aristotle’s Topics, in which he says that in a good, effective sentence, the predicate must be clearer than the subject. Take the sentence, “A cow has four stomachs.” And imagine an eight-year-old hearing this information for the first time. She learns something she didn’t know before. She already knows what a stomach does, and she knows from before how many four are, but she has not known that the cow has four stomachs. The sentence teaches this girl, because to her the predicate is clearer than the subject. But if she had an unclear notion of the subject, how could she really even know what the sentence was about? Because her notion was clear enough. She had a picture, a set of mental associations with the word cow. She had a sense of that-ness long before anyone ever tried to define the cow.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Malory Turns a Phrase

As I mentioned in a recent post, Sidney Lanier gave me my first real exposure to King Arthur through his young person’s version of Malory’s epic compilation. Lanier made his version by shortening and tightening Malory’s plots and by downplaying the descriptions of sex. (Actually, the sexual references are already delightfully mild in Malory. My favorite transition: “Now leave we Launcelot and Elaine all kissing and clipping and turn we now to . . . .”) But, living in the nineteenth century, when educated teens knew and could read the English language, Lanier retained much of the flavor of the English of the fifteenth century, and he made me love it. So this year, I’m picking up Malory himself again and falling in love all over. Malory, as if fully aware that he wrote for an audience of the future craving archaic language, filled his work with beautiful, quaint turns of phrase. “They were wounded passing sore.” “I will not have ado with thee.” “Me seemeth.” “Either smote other.” OK, this was really probably just everyday language for Malory. But to me the idioms are lambent with chivalry. Obi-wan would call it an elegant language for a more civilized age.

Rather than just list a lot of my favorite words, I decided to present the rest of the post in the form of a quiz. Try to match each Malory word with its more modern counterpart.

1. brast
2. durst
3. fain
4. liefer
5. list
6. maugre
7. peradventure
8. sithen
9. stonied
10. unnethe
11. ween
12. wist
13. wit
14. wood
15. wroth

a. angry
b. broke, broken
c. confused, dazed
d. dared
e. desire, want
f. despite
g. knew
h. know
i. mad, crazy
j. maybe
k. rather
l. scarcely
m. since
n. think, be of the opinion that
o. willing

Don’t scroll too far unless you’re ready to see the answers.


So be it. Sithen ye list to wit, find ye here the answers:

1-b (sometimes with a prefix: “His helmet was all to-brast”), 2-d, 3-o (as in “He was fain to take the challenge”), 4-k (as in “I would liefer go than stay”), 5-e, 6-f (best idiom: “maugre my head” for “against my will”), 7-j, 8-m, 9-c (this usually happens after the helmet is all to-brast), 10-l (“He was so stonied he could unnethe arise”), 11-n, 12-g, 13-h, 14-i, 15-a (and if you’re really angry, the last two go tag-team: wood wroth)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Which Is Better, Andromache?

After a disappointment with Orestes, I had great hopes for Andromache, the next in a group of plays by Euripides about the aftermath of the Trojan War, and the last Greek drama on my schedule this year. Andromache, the wife of Hector, is one of the most sympathetic characters in the Iliad because of her touching farewell scene in book VI, and I hoped that the later poet would preserve all that I liked about her. Happy to say, Euripides came through for me.

Not only is Andromache sympathetic here, she’s almost the only likeable character in the play. One of the spoils of war, Andromache has been given as a slave-wife to Neoptolemus, son of Achilles. The problem is, Neoptolemus has a free, Hellenic wife, too: Hermione, daughter of Menelaus. The action takes place after that of Orestes, so Hermione has previously married Orestes only to be handed over as a tribute to the family of Achilles for that demigod’s service in the war. She doesn’t seem to mind being a political pawn, though, as long as she has something to complain about. And since she has yet to conceive a child for Neoptolemus, she decides one way or another it must be Andromache’s fault. Menelaus shows up to support Hermione, and his arguments make no more sense than his daughter’s. Orestes shows up (in the interest of a cousin but mostly ignoring the fact that Hermione is his ex), and he’s a jerk, too. Apollo comes up in conversation, but all parties mostly agree that, as gods go, he’s been pretty annoying.

The success of this drama centers on Andromache being almost alone in her virtue. It’s the philosophical tensions in the dialog between Andromache and all these unsavoury characters that interested me so much as I read last week. Euripides reminded me of the man in the recent AT&T commercials as he got me thinking about about some basic dichotomies. Which is better? Freedom or slavery? Man or woman? Young or old? Reason and passion? Hellene or Trojan? (OK, that one’s maybe not so basic.) He even asks, Which is better? Good or bad? (“GOOD!” shout the adorable kids to the deadpan man in the suit.) But actually and more precisely, Euripides directed me toward thinking about what is good in each of the two sides. How is possible for a slave to be good? The kids in the AT&T ad would opt for freedom, but Andromache is good, and she’s a slave. How can that be? For that matter, how can a woman be good? She doesn’t have any of the political power or education that Greek men prided themselves in, and yet she’s a good person. How can this be? Old Peleus shows up, and he has none of the manly beauty and strength that the Greeks admired, and yet he is clearly a better man than Orestes. The Hellenic audience may have found that one particularly hard to assimilate.

Euripides presents one dichotomy, though, with no nuances or surprises in its judgment, which must have pleased his audience especially well. Like other Greek writers, he sees the Trojans as the nobler of the two forces in the semi-legendary war. For a Greek, this stance usually represents some cultural humility if the ten-year calamity is seen as a war between Trojans and home-town boys. But in Andromache, Euripides denies Athens any relationship to the Greeks who fought at Troy. The Trojan War was a war of the Argives, he makes clear, those western Greeks who lived on the Peloponnesian peninsula. And at the time Andromache first appeared, Athens was engaged in a war with the chief city of that peninsula: Sparta. So Euripides had a plan when he referred to the Argives in this play anachronistically as Spartans. The Spartans caused this war! The Spartans brought down all this woe! Which is worse, kids? Trojans or Spartans? SPARTANS!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Malory and Adventure

One of my most valued treasures from childhood is my copy of Sidney Lanier’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. My dad gave it to me for Christmas when I was seven or eight, and I opened it the first time with the greatest excitement. The very phrase “Knights of the Round Table” stirred a thrill in my soul or ever I knew what manner knights these be (as the book would say). So I turned to the first page and read: “It befell in the days of noble Utherpendragon.” And my heart sank. I didn’t know the word befell and had no way of figuring out what it meant. And I’d never seen a word with as many letters as that Questing Beast at the end of the sentence. But I wanted to understand, so I put the book on my shelf and waited a few years before again attempting the adventure. When I did read it a few years later, I fell hopelessly in love. I read it again and again, each time feeling that I had become more worthy of a place at that Round Table.

Later still, I learned the meaning of the words on the title page: “From Malory’s Morte d’Arthur.” and bought a volume of Malory in the original language and spelling. Here was a treasure indeed! More details. More stories (including some parts about the ladies that Lanier left out of his children’s version). More strange spellings and archaic words. More adventure. More noblesse. Why did I drop it after just a third of the book? (It may have had something to do with a graduate degree.)

But now I’ve picked up the quest again at long last. And here it all is again. The Round Table with its golden letters appearing mystically to show each knight which of the one-hundred fifty sieges (i.e., seats) to sit in. The Siege Perilous, which no knight may occupy save he for whom it is appointed. Sir Dagonet, Arthur’s knighted fool. The code of honor. Yes, these guys were adulterous. (Lanier made that much clear.) But they kept their word, fought to develop courage and prowess for the day of testing, set aside all combativeness to act gently while indoors, defended the defenseless, punished the wicked, honored the honorable regardless of poverty or wealth, and gave young people a chance.

My favorite part of the world of King Arthur is the sense of adventure, in its original meaning,which heartily takes on whatever comes its way. A character in Malory will say, “Promise me what I shall ask” or “Grant me a gift,” and the knight he’s speaking to will promise first and then find out what he’s committed himself to. And he does it, as long as it’s honorable. (Don’t make this promise to King Mark!) Wandering through the woods, the knights-errant often come across a castle or a bridge defended by a scurrilous knight who says that no one may pass without first jousting with him. King Arthur’s knights never just go around. This adventure has come, and they accept it. If they win the fight, a thug has been eliminated and the woods are safer. If they lose, they go to the dungeon without a complaint and simply wait a few days for a better knight to come along. (Hope that Launcelot or Tristram aren’t far behind!)

The best adventures begin on Pentecost. King Arthur expects all knights to join him for a feast on Pentecost if they can. (Why Pentecost? Because the greatest adventure ever began on that day?) So each year, the great and noble fellowship gathers once again, and then they sit without eating until someone unexpected, usually a damsel, comes into the hall with a quest. “Sir King,” she says, holding a shield and apparently totally unaware that she’s just happened to come by on a day when a hundred and fifty knights have been waiting for an adventure, “a treacherous knave killed my brother. Who will take my fallen brother’s shield and find this recreant and punish him?” And then someone accepts the quest – preferably a kitchen boy who hasn’t yet had a chance to prove his mettle. Is it too corny for me to say that I still need what this book teaches?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Orestes Development

I don’t know why I originally put Andromache before Orestes in my plan for year 8. I didn’t know exactly what stories I’d find in these two dramas, but obviously any part of Orestes’ story goes with the travails of his sister Electra. So I switched the order when I got to them this month, and I’m glad I did. Euripides’ Orestes begins six days after his Electra ends. It isn’t exactly a sequel, though: the world of Orestes is slightly different, since its Helen actually went to Troy with Paris, where the Helen of Electra, as Euripides proposed in his play named for the woman whose face launched a thousand ships, was taken by the gods to Egypt while a doppelgänger went to Troy. But Euripides needs the more conventional Helen here, since he wants Orestes to wrestle with the question of blame.

Six days after the killing of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus (his mother and her second husband, both of whom conspired to kill Orestes’ father, Agamemnon), Orestes is wracked with guilt. Apollo may have told him to commit matricide, but that doesn’t make the act any the less hideous. As handy as it would be to blame Apollo (as Castor and Pollux do at the end of Electra), Orestes himself still made the decision to plunge the blade into his mother’s neck with his own hand. Menelaus shows up with Helen to drive home the point. He scolds Orestes and gets the town council to sentence him and Electra to death. But this act gets Orestes’ blood boiling, and decides that maybe Helen is to blame, since if she had stayed with her husband instead of going off with Paris, the Trojan War would never have happened, Agamemnon would never have been killed, etc. So Orestes, using the bad reasoning that desperation runs on, tries to kill Helen. Naturally this only enrages Menelaus, so Orestes grabs Menelaus' daughter, Hermione, and threatens to kill her if Menelaus doesn’t overturn the death sentence. At this point, Orestes has no philosophy left except self-preservation. The drama is over. Life is tale told by an idiot.

With no tension of ideas left, what does Euripides do? Suddenly Apollo shows up and tells everybody to calm down. He says he snatched Helen away and made her a goddess before Orestes had the chance to kill her. Then he admits that he made Orestes kill his mother and says that everyone should just accept it since he’s a god. Then he tells Orestes to take the knife away from Hermione’s throat and marry her instead. Somehow, this deus ex machina satisfies everyone. Nowhere to be found is the interesting and vital critique of Apollo’s terrible plan that Electra provides us. All the human characters here just accept Apollo’s word with a shrug. Orestes drops the knife and agrees readily to marry Hermione (ignoring the fact that she’s his first cousin), and Hermione agrees to marry Orestes (ignoring that fact that he has just dropped the knife he almost used to kill her). Menelaus’ anger toward the young man who killed his brother, tried to kill his wife, and threatened to kill his daughter disappear like a wisp of smoke in the wind. Ancient Greek drama has never disappointed me before now. But this ending doesn’t resolve anything and doesn’t make me think deeply about anything other than bad endings. Now there’s another reason I’m glad about the last-minute change of order in my reading: I still have Andromache to look forward to.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Beowulf's Tales of Glory

I grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis, where the streets are weird. No kidding. Really weird. In St. Louis, it’s possible to be traveling west, and then turn right to go south. (Looking at the map right now, I can’t find the intersection where this actually happened to me once, but I do note that South Big Bend Blvd. is at the northern end of Big Bend Blvd.) St. Louis also used to have a road named after a street: Olive Street Road. On top of it all, in my suburb of Florissant, most throughways changed names several times, while on the other hand, three different streets bore the name of Florissant Road. I used to wonder: if they could come up with three perfectly good names for one road, why couldn’t they come up with three perfectly good names for three roads?

The names in Beowulf remind me of those streets in Florissant, Missouri. Many times I don’t know who I’m reading about because the author uses (or authors use) a nickname or a descriptive moniker or just a cryptic reference to “the one.” Too many names for the same person. On the other hand, the reader comes across a character named Beowulf on the first page that has nothing to do with the rest of the story. Confusing.

Reading Beowulf is a strange experience in other ways, too. I end up thinking back on it and enjoy all my memories: defeating Grendel by holding his arm until it rips off, diving into the mere to battle Grendel’s mother with I-know-not-what method for breathing underwater or holding breath, a barrow treasure with a curse, an epic battle with a dragon. I love that kind of thing. But going through Beowulf’s unfamiliar narrative style with its sparsity of descriptive details requires effort and doesn’t exactly seem fun at the time.

As a result, I find my mind wandering a lot when I read this epic, and this time through I thought a lot about tales of glory. The poem, itself a tale of glory, includes scenes in which warriors regale each other with tales of glory. Sure, the story of monsters and dragons puts a thin veil over a culture of bloodthirsty, marauding berserkers. But they do model and inspire courage in the face of daunting circumstances.

And that got me thinking about the stories my family passed down. My grandpa used to tell me a story of his own grandfather swimming across some river during the Civil War. Was it inspiring? I don’t know. I think my Great-Great-G was trying to get away from a battle, so maybe it inspires that better part of valor. Then there’s Charlie Cain, the neighbor from my dad’s little country town who woke up friends in the middle of the night to play cards, and who once dropped his plow in the middle of a furrow to join an expedition to California just to see, he said, if his corn would “make” without any further work. It always made me laugh, but is it a tale of glory? I used to hear about a great uncle who supposedly saved his brother’s life by plunging a knife into his side to relieve the pressure from a ruptured appendix. That one definitely has never encouraged me to perform major surgery with a kitchen utensil.

I’ve told my kids these stories, of course, because that’s what families do with stories. But we have others that I should remember to tell. How about my grandpa moving twice and taking on any work he could find to get his family through the Depression? How about my uncle who served in the Navy in World War II? How about my dad, who earned the money to become the first in his family to go to college? Or was he second? See, I don’t know, because my family hasn’t told these tales of glory enough.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


As a small child, I told my mom one year that I thought, since it would be hard to make a delivery at every home in the country in a single night, there must be one Santa for each state. (I had a magnetic puzzle of the United States. I guess I didn’t know about other countries. In my defense, I was only about four.) I wasn’t ready to disbelieve in Santa Claus; I just needed to fit him into the universe I knew to be true. I sometimes read that Euripides didn’t believe in the gods. But they sure show up in his dramas a lot, and I wonder if he faced a crisis like mine with Santa: he wanted to believe, but the stories about these all-too-fallible masters of Olympus just didn’t make sense.

After finishing Sophocles’ Electra at the beginning of this month, I then read Euripides’ version of the story. He covers the same ground: Orestes comes back after many years of exile to find his sister Electra and to avenge his father’s murder by his mother and her now husband, the usurper-king Aegisthus. Euripides introduces four big differences in the plot, though. First, Electra has a husband in this version. Her mother and step-father have allowed her to marry a peasant so that any children she has won’t be accepted as heir to the throne of Mycenae. She still mourns her father for twenty years, but Euripides lets her have some calm, tender moments with her spouse rather than letting us imagine that she never says a word about anything other than unpaid justice throughout all the days of her life. Second, Euripides makes Aegisthus a continually horrible man, frequently desecrating the grave of his victim, Agamemnon, and taunting the absent Orestes for not having the courage to come and wreak his vengeance. Third, a result of the second difference, the people in Euripides’ Mycenae aren’t happy with Aegisthus as king. They enjoy no happy status quo here, as they do in Sophocles, and have no reason to resent Orestes’ arrival. In fact, when he does show up and kills Aegisthus, the people crown him on the spot. And the fourth difference: in this version Electra is willing to kill her mother (although she only helps Orestes hold the sword in the end), while in Sophocles’ telling, she is “only a woman” and must wait for Orestes to do all the hard work.

All these changes support a running theme in the play: character, not wealth, determines a person’s worth. “Learn to judge men by their converse, and by habits decide who are noble,” says Orestes. And Electra says to the corpse of Aegisthus, “Herein lay thy grievous error, due to ignorance; thou thoughtest thyself some one, relying on thy wealth, but this is naught save to stay with us a space. ‘Tis nature that stands fast, not wealth.” Aegisthus thinks that marrying a rich king’s widow and pairing his step-daughter with a poor peasant will assure his ascendancy, but his evil deeds lose him all the popular support a good man might have enjoyed. Electra, on the other hand, may be poor, but the scenes with her husband show her to have some social graces, and her assistance in the final bloody deed exhibits her courage.

But then there’s a twist! Clytemnestra’s brothers, the recently deified Castor and Pollux (aka Polydeuces) show up at the end to judge the act of matricide. I said in the last post that Sophocles makes assumptions about the divine oracle that we could doubt. Well, Euripides raises that very critique. Orestes hesitates before killing his mother. He says here (for the first time in this play – Sophocles makes it clear from the beginning) that Apollo’s oracle has told him to deliver justice, and he has no trouble following the command where Aegisthus is concerned. But ending the life of the woman who gave you yours isn’t just an execution of justice, and perhaps, Orestes says just before entering his home to do the deed, he heard a demon speaking for Apollo. Critique Stage One. But after the blood is spilled, his divine uncles tell him that Apollo himself is to blame: god though he may be, he made a bad call. Critique Stage Two. In this play, the standard of right and wrong is greater even than the gods.

Christians can – and some do – claim that we can get nothing out of a story based on a false religion. But, as C. S. Lewis points out several places, a false religion isn’t necessarily false in every detail. I, too, believe in right and wrong. I, like Orestes, live in a life of moral dilemmas. I have words from God, but I often need additional wisdom to put them into action in specific circumstances. I’m grateful that the theological dilemma of the play’s end (if god is greater than goodness, then goodness is arbitrary, but if goodness is absolute and above god, then god isn’t supreme and doesn’t get a capital letter) finds resolution in the existence of one God Who is the Standard of Goodness. But still I learn from Euripides and his troubled characters. As the chorus sings: “Tales of horror have their use in making men regard the gods” – or God.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Tensions in Sophocles’ Electra

Tensions of duty fill the dramas of Sophocles. Honoring the dead comes into conflict with king’s command. Personal justice comes into conflict with the needs of the larger society. The commands of the gods come into conflict with tradition. As Electra begins, the title character, daughter of the slain Argive warrior Agamemnon, grieves that her father’s killers go unpunished. Her view, though, directly opposes that of the king, who happens to be her stepfather and one of the murderers. Life has gone on for years, so what’s the right thing to do? Maintain the status quo or upset material tranquility in order to settle an old score? Tensions for Electra. Tensions for us.

Queen Clytemnestra simplifies the problem by waving aside her guilt with a Podsnappian flourish. She imposes duty only on others and simply enjoys her pleasant life. When she hears the rumor that her son is killed, she frankly expresses relief that all this business about revenge can be over now. But Electra does no better merely cutting off the other horn of the dilemma. Dismissing pleasure and makes vengeance and filial duty absolute. Are we seriously supposed to identify and sympathize with a girl who mourns every minute of every day for years?

Electra’s sister Chrysothemis just tries to balance everything, running from issue to issue like a plate spinner. When she sees her sister mourning, she tells Electra that life can go on after so many years. On the other hand, when she herself hears that her brother has died, she mourns. But when she sees Electra mourning Orestes, she reminds her that we all have to die sometime. She understands justice at the moment someone explains it to her, but she also understands that the king’s gifts to her are quite nice. Chrysothemis doesn’t feel torn at all, but not because she has found a solution; she doesn’t even rise to the level of the conflict.

To my mind, the only character who resolves any tension is Orestes (who isn’t really dead after all). If no one punishes any murderer, the wicked will run free and justice will never be served. But if someone just keeps killing every person who kills someone else, the cycle of vengeance will go on forever. Orestes, though, has divine instruction: the oracle of Apollo has told him to make return home libations and effect justice. And as if the decree of god weren’t enough, Orestes invokes the name of the law at the end of the play. In Sophocles’ world, one person cannot rightly decide on his own to act against the law; divine decree sanctions law, and only divine decree (not even royal decree) can supersede law. We can, and should, make one more step back and ask how humankind can know the divine decree (placing human reason to an extent over our knowledge of God’s will, not over God’s will itself). But everybody in the mythological world Sophocles presents accepts the word of the oracle, so it forms the basis of the only possible way out of the moral dilemmas Sophocles loves to explore.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Sea of Stories for the Holidays

As part of my holiday reading over the last week, I read a modern fairy tale by Salman Rushdie called Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I’d read somewhere that Rushdie’s book drew from and paid tribute to the 1001 Arabian Nights, which is on my schedule for this new year, so it seemed a good time to fit it in. As it turns out, I heard echoes of many magical classics in the Sea of Stories, as well I should, since the Sea of Stories itself contains all stories.

The tone reminded me most of all of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, which turns many familiar figurative phrases into literal situations. While Juster’s Milo jumps to the island of conclusions, Rushdie’s Haroun hears of Plentimaw fish and then finds that indeed there are Plentimaw fish in the sea. I also thought of Jasper Fforde’s Lost in a Good Book, which also has a library of all possible stories, a platonic realm of possibility turned physical. The Wizard of Oz came to mind as well since Haroun picks up a troupe of friends on his adventure – even including one made of metal.

I won’t even begin to name the ghosts of stories evoked by the plot of Haroun. In fact, it would be difficult to find a story without parallel to a book in which a boy comes of age, travels to the moon and learns its human and physical geography, fights darkness, rescues a princess, saves a world, and restores his father’s reputation. The book both contains and is contained by the Sea of Stories.

As for connections to the Arabian Nights, Rushdie’s tale has a genie, granted wishes, and references to the great Caliph Haroun-al-Rashid in the names of its hero and his father. But I didn’t come across any flying carpets or doors with magic passwords. But then I haven’t actually read the medieval classic, so maybe I’ll have more to say later this year.