Monday, April 18, 2022

Euripides' house

I am going to attempt to make a claim about Euripides' Hippolytus, building an argument from the text of the play, but I am considerably under the weather of late so this trick has, for me, a high degree of difficulty. Wish me luck. I guarantee nothing, including complete sentences and coherent thought. Ready?

Tom at Wuthering Expectations has been hosting a read through of all the extant ancient Greek plays (see here for the pre-event notice). It's a mad idea but it's been a lot of fun. I read about twenty of the tragedies back in 2015, and this readalong gives me a reason to pick up the second volume of Euripides, which I never got around to seven years ago. Plus, Aristophanes' comedies, of which I've only read three (Clouds, Lysistrata, and one other I'm sure but I can't tell you which it is. The Birds, maybe?). Last week's play was Hippolytus. Read Tom's post here. He mentions in passing the theme of houses, and I said in a comment that I thought this was a pretty important theme in the play. In fact, while I was reading the play last week, I made some pretty extensive notes on this theme and what I want to say about it is just too long to fit into a comment on Tom's blog, so I'm going to dump my ideas here in my own sandbox and see what they look like. 

I'm not really going to talk about the play as story and characters, etc. Let me just say that Hippolytus is a mature, well-formed work of art, one of the best things in the history of theater and you should read it. Euripides' language is endlessly inventive and surprising, and also poetic and beautiful. The characters are vivid, the plot is gripping, etc. It's a perfect work, an achievement of the highest level of craft and art. I do not exaggerate. But I'm not really going to talk about the play as a drama.

I have a theory that the best fiction employs three distinct but often overlapping levels of discourse:

1. Characters speak to each other, within the closed world of the play, as part of the dramatization of the story. ("Who goes there?" "A friend to this ground." etc)

2. The characters' speech is an aesthetic creation for the enjoyment of the audience, the artfulness of the speech in no way necessary for the mechanical functioning of the drama. ("To sleep, perchance to dream" etc)

3. The playwright speaks more or less directly to the audience via figurative language and irony, the meaning of which the characters within the drama are usually unaware. 

This third form of discourse is the domain of Euripides' "house" theme. (I'm not at all sure that my categories of discourse are clear to my reader; they make sense in my head, though. I have not yet put a great deal of thought into this theory so my prima facie case could well be weak. Nonetheless.)

Hippolytus is a play about desire. Apparently, the version that came down to us was Euripides' second attempt at the story. His first script was banned from performance because it was "scandalous." One can only imagine what Euripides tried to get away with in that one. My hunch is that Nurse's pandering of Phaedra to Hippolytus was quite explicit. In any case, we have a story of forbidden desire, a queen lusting after her husband's bastard son. A sin carried on within the king's own house. Some bits about houses:

Nurse: Kypris is no goddess, but something far greater than a god, for she has been the ruin of this woman, and of me, and of this whole house.

Chorus: Some strange event will come to pass in this house.

Phaedra: How then, lady Kypris, my mistress, do these women look their husbands in the face without fearing that the night, their accomplice, or the walls of the house may find a voice?

Nurse: not even the roof with which a house is covered would you complete precisely.

Hippolytus: Then the husband who takes the plant of doom into his house happily lavishes a fine display on his sorry idol and struggles to keep her in dresses, poor fellow, squandering his house’s wealth.

The idea of one's house was important to the ancient Greeks, and references to one's house are common in the tragedies. The house was a metaphor for the family, for the city, for the kingdom. In fact, Phaedra refers to Troezen, the city where the play is set, as part of a house, "this extremity of land, this anteroom to Argos." During the Peloponnesian War, Troezen was enemy territory. I just looked it up in Thucydides, in case you wonder how I knew that.

So where was I? Houses, yes. Hippolytus is a play about desire, a sin within the king's house, a plague that could spread through the whole "house" of Greece, maybe? I'm not sure, however, that Euripides is concerned with Phaedra's lust as much as he's concerned with Nurse's response to Phaedra's unhappy state. Nurse suggests that Phaedra seduce Hippolytus, adding that Phaedra's husband will be happy to turn a blind eye ("it is the wise man who leaves everything ugly hidden in the darkness"), following up with a "virtue is just ugly pride" argument.

Phaedra's initial response to Nurse is that "This is the deadly thing which devastates well-ordered cities and the houses of men: this art of oversubtle words." Theseus (Phaedra's husband) uses much the same language against Hippolytus later in the play: "You plead the cause of wrong so well." These two lines of dialogue, I think, are central to Euripides' meaning in this play.

The characters inside the drama itself are concerned with what appears to be a contest between Aphrodite (who puts lust in Phaedra's heart) and Artemis (to whom Hippolytus has dedicated his virginity), and how the opposing desires of the gods wreak havoc in the lives of innocent people. Meanwhile, the playwright is talking about the uses of speech, especially speech used to violate social norms of acceptable behavior. This theme of speech twisting sinfulness into virtue is aimed at the audience rather than at the characters onstage. The words come out of their mouths, but their concern is what Phaedra will do, or what Hippolytus may have done.

Phaedra tells us that "when wickedness approves itself to those of noble birth, it will surely be approved by their inferiors." This is the plague which will infect the whole house of Argos? I admit that I am not sure what Euripides is saying to his Athenian audience. Possibly something about wicked behavior in the house of Argos/Sparta, and how it is a danger to the house which is Athens, and how this wickedness is communicated through twisted language.

This all looked much more forceful and interesting in my head, and in the tangle of notes I took when I was reading the play again. Alas, here it seems weakly reasoned and doubtful. But I'm just aiming my virus-addled brain at one possible aspect of the play, and even if I'm entirely wrong, Hippolytus is a masterpiece and you should read it. It's not even very long, so the rewards greatly outweigh the effort. I'll have to work on the "three forms of discourse" idea. I think it has possibilities.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

The problem with Aristotle

For a variety of reasons, I have been thinking about tragedy for the last year and a half. What it is, how we respond to it, how and why tragedy is represented in art, all of that business. I tell myself that I approach tragedy first as a human being, and then as a writer of tragedies. I do not think about tragedy as a philosopher, nor do I claim an intimate familiarity with philosophy. Nonetheless, today I'm going to have a bit of a go at Old Man Aristotle. At least I've read his Ethics and Poetics, so I am on somewhat less shaky ground than usual when I wear my ill-fitting nonfiction cap. Off we go.

My first exposure to tragedy, or at least the idea of tragedy as an idea, was a reading of Oedipus Rex in high school, with an attendant discussion of Aristotle's theories about tragedy. I think this was pretty common among my generation in American schools. Possibly not, but there I was with my classmates, wrapping our heads around the idea of Oedipus' tragic flaw, his heroic suffering, and how the downfall of this "preeminently good man" would lead us to a catharsis in which we'd learn something of virtue. We also learned about Aristotle's ideas of dramatic unity and a few other bits of nonsense. I say "nonsense" because even at the time, I could see that Aristotle's unities did not apply to Oedipus Rex, and a few years later, at university, I began to come across claims that none of the extant plays, even those to which Aristotle refers in Poetics, actually follow Aristotle's rules for good drama. Nonetheless, Aristotle's ideas have somehow been passed down through the millennia as valid and applicable to tragic writing. I have never, from the beginning more or less, been able to square Aristotle's ideas about tragedy with actual tragic drama. I believe that looking to Aristotle to help us understand the ancient Greek authors is counterproductive at best.

Where to start, after that somewhat gentle broadside? Let's begin with the historical gap (all dates to follow are B.C.E.). Aristotle was born in 384. In that year, Aeschylus had been dead 72 years, Sophocles and Euripides both had been dead 22 years. By the time Aristotle was writing about tragedy, maybe in 335, it had been seventy years or so since any of them had written a play. So Aristotle was not writing about his contemporaries by any means, even though plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were still being performed in Greece. Aristotle did not live in the Athens of our three playwrights.

Which brings us to the second gap, that of culture and philosophy. Ancient Greece was not an unchanging, homogeneous, monolithic culture. In the hundred and forty-one years between the births of Aeschylus and Aristotle, a lot of changes took place. The Greece of the fifth century was also not the Greece of Homer and Hesiod. It was the age of the pre-Socratics, folks like Pythagoras and a lot of similar competing schools who taught that the Homeric perception of the gods was false and naive; that if there were gods then they were likely all facets of one god, who was unknowable and nothing like a human; and that the god or gods did not and had not had a direct hand in the actions of humankind; that our individual actions belonged to us, and that any irrationality in the universe was due to our passions, not the passions of some god or other. It was also the time when the Orphic cults were spreading, with their belief in a god who dies and is resurrected (this cult lasted a long time; Paul of Tarsus had grown up with Orphic beliefs, so when he had his Damascene moment, he was already prepared for some of the theology of Christianity). Meanwhile, in Athens itself, alongside its movement to a mechanistic view of the universe, you had the new cult of Dionysus, and the festival where our famous tragedies were performed. These performances were not didactic; Dionysus was the god of ritual madness, religious ecstasy, and also fertility (witness the processions of giant phalli carried to the theater before the festival began). Bulls were slaughtered in the orchestra before the stage, a day of drunken revelry (the komos) preceded the first performance of tragedy. The worship of Dionysus centered on ecstatic immersion in the passions; chaos and disorder, not repose and reflection. Dionysus was assumed to be present himself during his rites, and all participants in the annual festival (writers, actors, and spectators) were acting as sacred servants of the god. So all of this mishmash of belief was present in Athens during that golden age of tragic drama, and Aristotle was yet to be born. Socrates, who was a contemporary of Euripides, argued that the gods existed, and were wise and just. This was not the popular take on the gods in Athens at the time, and the Athenians, of course, had Socrates put to death for corrupting the youth, whatever they meant by that. Aristophanes, in The Clouds, depicts Socrates as a comic atheist. Socrates' idea that virtue was knowledge was passed on to Plato, who gave it to Aristotle, who gave it to the rest of us, all the way down to Thomas Aquinas. It's the great intellectual poison still pumping through our cultural blood. But it was not a common idea during the age of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Plato, who no doubt attended some of the original performances of the tragedies, worried that the audience too much enjoyed wallowing in the sense of tragedy, co-opting the heroes' pain as their own, a feast of narcissism. One doubts that Plato was attracted to the Dionysian rites. Aristotle disagreed with Plato, but Aristotle was projecting onto the plays an idea of how he thought a rational man should respond to tragedy. He was writing from the perspective of a man who believed that the ultimate good was to be Aristotle, the rational philosopher. He was not describing real-world events, he was not writing about the tragedies as imagined by the men who wrote them for performance at a religious festival.

This brings me to the question of the purpose of the tragedies as part of the festival of Dionysus. What was the festival of Dionysus for? If the Great Dionysia was a religious rite, then it was to celebrate the god of wine, a god of disorder and madness. What if the point of the tragedies was not, as Aristotle would have us believe, to view a presentation of "exemplary suffering" of a "preeminently good" man in order for the audience to experience catharsis and cleanse ourselves to achieve resolution and some sort of intellectual clarification? What if the disorder within the plays is the point, the primary intended effect? A release, an unshackling of certainty about the gods, ourselves, and the general organization of the universe, a ritual and holy madness contained on the stage but not actually resolved, only opened and closed in real time? Why were the tragedies performed alongside satyr plays, which burlesqued heroic subjects? 

Dionysus, I remind you, was a mad winged god riding a tiger. He was not a contemplative god, making careful plans and weighing options. He is the god who wandered insane across the earth, who crossed between the worlds of the living and the dead, who straddled the civilized and uncivilized, the known and the unknown. He was not a rational god, and his rites were not rational meditations. I am inclined to believe that the writers of the Dionysian plays--the tragedies, the comedies, the satyr plays--were encouraged and expected to follow Dionysus into irrationality, like ancient Dostoyevskis, to tear the fabric of the old myths apart and toss them into the air to the wonderment of themselves and of their audience. This makes sense to me, and I see it in the plays themselves. What I have never seen, and what nobody can make me see, is compelling evidence of Aristotle's claims about catharsis (whatever he meant by that--he never actually defines the term in Poetics) or dramatic unity. It is the disunity, the chaos, the multiple possible meanings and simultaneous meaninglessness, of the ancient tragedies that give them their staying power. The tragedies tell us that tragedy is not a lesson; it is not something that can be made intelligible and useful as a tool to attain a certain idea of virtue. Tragedy is chaos, it is terrible, a rent in the stuff of life, and sometimes we bring it on ourselves, and sometimes we do not, but the meaning of tragedy is the fact of tragedy itself. 

Doubtless I've misunderstood Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, the pre-Socratics, and the playwrights as well. At least in part. I am not particularly attracted to the classic philosophical mode of expression, but I've read enough Aristotle to wish that I could travel backwards in time long enough to give him a good wallop.