Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"Evil has changed sides; he who was erst a mighty king is now turning his life backward into the road to Hades." Euripides drives Heracles mad.

All hail the marriage! wherein two bridegrooms shared; the one, a mortal; the other, Zeus, who came to wed the maiden sprung from Perseus; for that marriage of thine, O Zeus, in days gone by has been proved to me a true story beyond all expectation; and time hath shown the lustre of Heracles' prowess, who emerged from caverns 'neath the earth after leaving Pluto's halls below. To me art thou a worthier lord than that base-born king, who now lets it be plainly seen in this struggle 'twixt armed warriors, whether justice still finds favour in heaven.

The spectres of MADNESS and IRIS appear from above. The CHORUS sees them.

Ha! see there, my old comrades! is the same wild panic fallen on us all; what phantom is this I see hovering o'er the house? Fly, fly, bestir thy tardy steps! begone! away! away! O saviour prince, avert calamity from me!
"Heracles" splits wide open in the middle of the play: the returned hero is driven mad by a goddess sent from Hera, right at the moment of Heracles' triumphant reunion with his family. A minute later, the bodies of the wife and sons whom Heracles has just saved from assassination are dragged onstage, the mad Heracles having killed them himself. Just like that, with a snap of Euripides' fingers, the hero's fortune is reversed. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad, you know.

An interesting detail is that the goddess Madness acts under Hera's orders, but only grudgingly. Still, a craftsman takes pride in her work:
I call the sun-god to witness that herein I am acting against my will; but if indeed I must forthwith serve thee and Hera and follow you in full cry as hounds follow the huntsman, why go I will; nor shall ocean with its moaning waves, nor the earthquake, nor the thunderbolt with blast of agony be half so furious as the headlong rush I will make into the breast of Heracles; through his roof will I burst my way and swoop upon his house, after first slaying his children; nor shall their murderer know that he is killing his own-begotten babes, till he is released from my madness. Behold him! see how even now he is wildly tossing his head at the outset, and rolling his eyes fiercely from side to side without word; nor can he control his panting breath; but like a bull in act to charge, he bellows fearfully, calling on the goddesses of nether hell. Soon will I rouse thee to yet wilder dancing and sound a note of terror in thine ear.
Madness takes to the task once started; you see her getting carried along by her own enthusiasm. The first audience for this play had no idea what was coming. The appearance of Madness and Iris atop Heracles' palace the moment the chorus of old men is celebrating the hero's return must've been quite a jolt. I imagine it was something like the storm in "King Lear."
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!
Heracles gets nothing so fine as that speech from Shakespeare's king. The best Euripides gives him comes when he awakens from his madness, to find himself lying bound, a captive:
Aha! my breath returns; I am alive; and my eyes see, opening on the sky and earth and yon sun's darting beam; but how my senses reel! in what strange turmoil am I plunged! my fevered breath in quick spasmodic gasps escapes my lungs. How now? why am I lying here, made fast with cables like a ship, my brawny chest and arms tied to a shattered piece of masonry, with corpses for my neighbours; while o'er the floor my bow and arrows are scattered, that erst like trusty squires to my arm both kept me safe and were kept safe of me?

Friday, August 21, 2015

Her headlong haste

Descriptive of the miseries of War; from a Poem called "The Emigrants," printed in 1793.

TO a wild mountain, whose bare summit hides
Its broken eminence in clouds; whose steeps
Are dark with woods: where the receding rocks
Are worn with torrents of dissolving snow;
A wretched woman, pale and breathless, flies,
And, gazing round her, listens to the sound
Of hostile footsteps:--No! they die away--
Nor noise remains, but of the cataract,
Or surly breeze of night, that mutters low
Among the thickets, where she trembling seeks
A temporary shelter--Clasping close
To her quick throbbing heart her sleeping child,
All she could rescue of the innocent group
That yesterday surrounded her--Escaped
Almost by miracle!--Fear, frantic Fear,
Wing'd her weak feet; yet, half repenting now
Her headlong haste, she wishes she had staid
To die with those affrighted Fancy paints
The lawless soldiers' victims--Hark! again
The driving tempest bears the cry of Death;
And with deep, sudden thunder, the dread sound
Of cannon vibrates on the tremulous earth;
While, bursting in the air, the murderous bomb
Glares o'er her mansion--Where the splinters fall
Like scatter'd comets, its destructive path
Is mark'd by wreaths of flame!--Then, overwhelm'd
Beneath accumulated horror, sinks
The desolate mourner!
The feudal chief, whose gothic battlements
Frown on the plain beneath, returning home
From distant lands, alone, and in disguise,
Gains at the fall of night his castle walls,
But, at the silent gate no porter sits
To wait his lord's admittance!--In the courts
All is drear stillness!--Guessing but too well
The fatal truth, he shudders as he goes
Through the mute hall; where, by the blunted light
That the dim moon through painted casement lends,
He sees that devastation has been there;
Then, while each hideous image to his mind
Rises terrific, o'er a bleeding corse
Stumbling he falls; another intercepts
His staggering feet--All, all who used to
With joy to meet him, all his family
Lie murder'd in his way!--And the day dawns
On a wild raving maniac, whom a fate
So sudden and calamitous has robb'd
Of reason; and who round his vacant walls
Screams unregarded, and reproaches Heaven!
"blunted light" is very good. This is from the collected works of Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806), courtesy of Umbagollah, to whom I say thanks. Great stuff from Smith, of whom I had never heard until this Wednesday. The prefaces Smith wrote to the various editions of her collected works are all worth reading, too.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The 82 best books

Everyone keeps posting these "best books" lists and I feel--and have felt for some time--awfully left out, not having a list of my own. So here is a list, cobbled together hastily this morning, of the 82 Best Books I Have Read In The Last Couple of Years. The arbitrariness and incompleteness and utter uselessness of this list appeal to me greatly. The list has been sorted, mostly, into alphabetical order by author's first name, because that seems as good as anything else.

1. Aeschylus, The Oresteia (R. Lattimore, trans)
2. Albert Camus, The Plague
3. Albert Camus, The Stranger
4. Alfred Jarry, The Ubu Plays
5. American Colonial Prose, Mary Ann Radzinowicz (ed.)
6. Andre Gide, The Counterfeiters
7. Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber
8. Anton Chekhov, A Life In Letters
9. Anton Chekhov, The Seagull
10. Anton Chekhov, Tales of Chekhov, Volumes 1-13
11. Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters
12. Apuleius, The Golden Ass
13. Blaise Pascal, Pensées
14. Cesar Aira, Ghosts
15. Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend
16. Charles Portis, True Grit
17. D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers
18. D.H. Lawrence, Women In Love
19. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
20. Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading
21. Flannery O'Connor, The Violent Bear it Away
22. Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood
23. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
24. Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
25. Hannah Pittard, The Fates Will Find Their Way
26. Henri Troyat, Daily Life in Russia Under the Last Tsar
27. Henrik Pontoppidan, Lucky Per
28. Henry James, The Ambassadors
29. Herman Melville, Moby Dick
30. Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea
31. Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons
32. Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule
33. James Joyce, Dubliners
34. James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
35. John Cowper Powys, Weymouth Sands
36. John Milton, Paradise Lost
37. John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture
38. John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice (abr.)
39. Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths
40. Jose Maria de Eca de Quieros, The Illustrious House of Ramires
41. Jose Saramago, Death With Interruptions
42. Kazuo Ishiguro, An Artist of the Floating World
43. Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim
44. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
45. Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murad
46. Louis de Bernieres, Birds Without Wings
47. Marly Youmans, Thaliad
48. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
49. Michel Houellebecq, Atomised
50. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
51. Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
52. Mikhail Bulgakov, White Guard
53. Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
54. Nadine Gordimer, Get A Life
55. Nikolai Chernyshevsky, What is to be Done?
56. Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls
57. Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda
58. Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier
59. Richard Rive (Ed.), Modern African Prose
60. Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book
61. Robert Browning, The Shorter Poems
62. Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book
63. Rudyard Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King
64. Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies
65. Samuel Beckett, Molloy
66. Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable
67. St Augustine of Hippo, Confessions
68. T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems
69. Thomas Mann, Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories
70. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (Richard Crawley trans.)
71. Virgil, The Aeneid (Fitzgerald, trans.)
72. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
73. Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse
74. Vladimir Nabokov, Mary
75. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
76. Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin
77. Vladimir Nabokov, The Defense
78. Voltaire, Candide
79. Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country
80. Yasunari Kawabata, The Sound of the Mountain
81. Yukio Mishima, Spring Snow
82. Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea

Exactly half of these books first appeared in English. One of the items on this list made it in by mistake, but it's a good book so I'm leaving it. I somehow managed not to include the Norton Anthology of English Poetry or the collection of Yeats or A Practical Course in Wooden Boat and Ship Building by Richard Van Gaasbeek. Nor have I included any Shakespeare.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The gods know who began this tragedy: "The Medea" of Euripides

One of Euripides' great strengths as a playwright is his way of showing the normal humanness--the non-mythic proportions--of his mythological/historical subjects. Euripides brings the heroes down to earth and so Jason of golden fleece fame was just another self-serving schmuck, and no mistaking. Medea the sorceress, however much she loved Jason, was a scheming murderess with a temper and King Creon of Corinth was justifiably afraid of her; Medea had by now made it clear that she was not a woman to be trusted and so Creon banished her after convincing Jason to put her aside to marry Creon's daughter. Neither of those was exactly a safe move on Creon's part. Was he not familiar with the story of the Argo, Medea's magic potions, etc? Well, the Corinthians were not highly thought of by the Athenians in Euripides' audience. Maybe they could accept Creon as just another not-so-bright Corinthian. But I push too hard on the Creon subplot; Creon's mistakes in dealing with Medea are not the point of the play. Creon and his order of banishment are merely plot devices to force Medea into action. She suddenly remembers that she is a sorceress, and an angry one at that. All the magic she has used to benefit her husband will now be turned against him. Hell hath no fury, etc. Everybody step back, please.

"The Medea" also contains what may be the best stage direction in Greek theater: Medea appears above the palace in a chariot pulled by dragons, the corpses of her children in her arms.

Wait: Medea could summon a chariot pulled by dragons? This is all going to be ammunition for Aristophanes, Euripides. You have no one but yourself to blame. But "The Medea" showcases another one of Euripides' strong points, sharp and realistic dialogue:
You will suffer too and share in this tragedy.
You can be certain of that. But the pain is pleasure if you do not laugh.
Oh children, what a terrible mother you had.
Oh children, how you were destroyed by your father's disease.
My right hand did not strike them.
But your abuse and your new marriage.
You thought the marriage bed was worth your children's lives?
Do you think this a trivial wrong for a woman?
If she is a good woman. But to you nothing is good.
The children are dead. This will sting you.
They are a pollution to you.
The gods know who began this tragedy.
Then they know the vileness of your heart.
Hate me. I, too, hate your irritating voice.
And I yours. The separation is easy.
This is true-to-life breakup speech, parents arguing about whose fault the misery of their children is. One of Euripides' other strengths is to get your sympathy for characters you would not normally sympathize with. By the end of "The Medea," you feel for the title character despite her intention to murder an innocent young woman as well as the children Medea has borne Jason. The whole play is possibly a response to Pericles' public comments about the proper role of a woman in Athens, to be neither seen nor heard, to accept her fate and her man's rule, etc. "If she is a good woman," indeed. Euripides was the Kurt Vonnegut of ancient Athens, sort of.

Medea may have been mad (who am I kidding with that may have been?), but she did her best by Jason, who abandoned her when she was no longer young and convenient. Jason gets what's coming to him (and how many divorced parents have not used their children as a battlefield upon which to attack their ex-spouse?) though it will cause Medea to also suffer. Though she will not suffer as much as Creon, his daughter Glauce, or her own children. How much Jason actually suffers is hard to say; he does not strike one as the owner of much depth of feeling. The description of Glauce and Creon's death is especially vivid, by which I mean violent and gory.