Sunday, January 1, 2012

Reflections on the Tragedies

I am having difficulty finding the words to express what these readings have meant to me, so far. Even while trying to take the stories at mere face value, it is impossible to overlook how they contain multiple layers of meaning. I’ve tried to complete these readings with a minimum of introductions, saving the commentaries until after I finish each work. My own initial impressions, along with the critical essays, raise so many issues worthy of contemplation that I am tempted to spend weeks studying each of these classics. But in the interest of making it through the list of masterworks in a reasonable length of time, I know I must move along quickly.

A depiction of the theater in Athens

So far, I have read nothing that didn’t seem contemporary and relevant. Mortimer Adler suggests that we read these works and identify “What is the central question raised by the author?” In the three Greek tragedies I just read (by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides), the question seems to be “What is justice?” or “How can justice be achieved?”

One common thread in the three plays is that when inflexible laws leave no room for mercy or common sense, the result is something less than justice. The powerful figures who stubbornly hold fast to their principles, despite the protests of those around them, may be setting themselves up for the words of the biblical adage, “pride cometh before a fall.” Hubris - extreme arrogance, haughtiness and pride – is exhibited by many protagonists in the Greek dramas. Hubris, as it became defined in the law, was one of the most serious crimes in ancient Athens. Aristotle defined hubris as shaming the victim, not because anything happened to you or might happen to you, but merely for your own gratification.

When I was reading Antigone, where the ruler Creon comes onto stage stubbornly insisting that his course of action was the only correct one, I was reminded immediately of the unbending arrogance displayed by modern politicians like George Bush and Dick Cheney. Very little has changed.

I suppose it was when I was first introduced to Greek drama while in high school that I first heard the term “hubris,” and one other: “catharsis.” Catharsis is the purging of strong emotions that occurs both in the characters of the Greek tragedies and in the audience members watching the performances.

Aristotle first used the term “catharsis” in referring to the emotional impact of the dramas. In catharsis, “it is the human soul that is purged of its excessive passions.” In his Poetics, Aristotle proposed that the purpose of tragedy is to purge the audience of pity and terror. A fascinating discussion of this subject is found in the chapter “A Theory of Catharsis in Drama” in T.J. Scheff’s book, Catharsis in Healing, Ritual, and Drama.

It is reassuing to think that there might be a beneficial result from exposure to something as emotionally jarring and unpleasant as a Greek tragedy.

The introduction to the edition of Antigone that I read, includes references from George Steiner’s Antigones: How the Antigone Legend Has Endured in Western Literature, Art, and Thought. As much as any commentary I read, this passage suggests just how many levels of meaning can be explored through classical literature. Steiner states:

It has, I believe, been given to only one literary text (Antigone) to express all the principal constants of conflict in the condition of man. These constants are fivefold: the confrontation of men and of women; of age and of youth; of society and of the individual; of the living and the dead; of men and of god(s). The conflicts which come of these five orders of confrontation are not negotiable. Men and women, old and young, the individual and the community or state, the quick and the dead, mortals and immortals, define themselves in the conflictual process of defining each other. Self definition and the agonistic recognition of 'otherness' (of l'autre) across the threatened boundaries of self, are indissociable. The polarities of masculinity and of femininity, of ageing and of youth, of private autonomy and of social collectivity, of existence and morality, of the human and the divine, can be crystallized only in adversative terms (whatever the many shades of accommodation between them). To arrive at oneself-the primordial journey-is to come up, polemically, against 'the other'. The boundary-conditions of the human person are those set by gender, by age, by community, by the cut between life and death, and by the potentials of accepted or denied encounter between the existential and the transcendent….

Specifically, Steiner identifies the scene where Antigone confronts Creon as one in which "each of the five fundamental categories of man's definition and self-definition through conflict is realized, and...all five are at work in a single act of confrontation."

Steiner made another point that came as a surprise to me, and that is the long precedent for the high regard in which he held the play:

Between c.1790 and c.1905, it was widely held by European poets, philosophers, scholars that Sophocles' Antigone was not only the finest of Greek tragedies, but a work of art nearer to perfection than any other produced by the human spirit.

No wonder classics like Antigone are swept under the rug these days. To explore the issues brought up by Sophocles might be dangerous to the established order of our militaristic consumer culture.

Far be it for any prophet to interfere with profits.

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