Sunday, May 13, 2001

Euripides? Ya, Eumenides?

As we arrive at the last play of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, the House of Atreus is not doing especially well. Agamemnon and Clytemnestra are dead, and Orestes has seen better days. The Eumenides opens at the shrine of Apollo, where the prince is surrounded by hideous Furies who have blood dripping from their eyes, snakes for hair, bad breath, bushy armpits, and major attitude.

The Furies are earth divinities who keep order in the world by avenging wrong wherever they find it. Matricide, they figure, is pretty much at the top of their list. Orestes, who was goaded into killing Clytemnestra by Apollo, now stands condemned by a pack of pissed off earth goddesses.

The wonderful thing about the Oresteia, again, is that everyone feels completely justified in taking even the most horrific action. Even better, from their own perspective, everyone’s actions make perfect sense. When rights collide with rights, some sort of arbitration is in order, and Athena, with her winning smile, excellent conflict resolution skills, and can-do attitude, is just the person to deliver. The scene therefor shifts to Athens, where the matter will be settled in court.

At the center of the play, the Furies explain their position: justice depends upon fear of revenge. Should Orestes go free, the whole system will break down. Sons will then murder mothers with impunity. When right is trampled, they say, revenge should “hunt the godless day and night.”

“Be just,” they say “and you will never want for joy.” But the “reckless ones, the marauders, dragging plunder, chaotic, rich beyond all rights,” they will always get what’s coming. “He who lives his life for wealth, golden his life long,” will eventually “ram on the reef of law and drown, unwept.” We are pleased to find that the Furies have a clear position on greed.

As the Furies become increasingly likeable, Apollo sounds more and more like an obnoxious know-it-all. He and the leader of the Furies argue their cases like a couple of third-rate lawyers and unhelpfully resort to name-calling. Orestes looks worried. Apollo finally asserts that regicide is worse than matricide because “the man is the source of life” and the “mother is just nurse to the seed.” He offers Athena herself, who sprung from the head of Zeus, as proof.

This is just the sort of thing that gives dead white males a bad name.

Athena says she has heard enough and casts her vote for Orestes because she “honors the male.” The jury splits down the middle, and her vote carries the decision. Orestes is understandably thrilled, but the outraged Furies plot revenge. Athena, ever the politician, deftly coopts them. The Furies are given a sacred place of honor in exchange for not making her life miserable.

The Oresteia is said to describe the advance of civilization and the dawn of rationality as embodied in the Athenian court. The trilogy moves from blood feud and blind revenge to a formal system of justice, but in the end, what determines justice is simply the idiosyncratic opinion one male-identified Olympian. This, to most, will feel familiar. As numerous 5-4 Supreme Court decisions will attest, power and justice are easily confused.

Sunday, April 29, 2001

Suffering Into Truth

Classics Corner recently reached new heights of pretension when we decided to compose an epic trilogy based upon the Oresteia, the Aeschylean masterpiece that rhymes with wouldn’t wanna be ya. As you no doubt recall, we noted that one person’s senseless slaughter is another’s moral triumph, and that we all think we’re pretty damned smart until fate slaps us upside the head.

As Agamemnon draws to a close, the king is dead, Clytemnestra is secure in her power, Aegisthus thinks he’s the cat’s meow, and the people of Argos are less than loyal to their new leadership. They await the return of Orestes, the prince who will avenge Agamemnon and restore justice to their fair city.

In act two, known as The Libation Bearers, the people now murmur only in private. As Aeschylus puts it, “They are afraid. Success, they bow to success, more god than god himself.” It’s been several years since Agamemnon was murdered, and Clytemnestra and Aegisthus have defined right and wrong in the self-serving way that those in power often do.

But there’s trouble in paradise. The ruling couple has children who want to see them dead. Worse, their servants agree. The Queen has not been sleeping well. She sends offerings to the grave of Agamemnon, but the plan misfires. Her daughter Electra runs into Orestes at the tomb and prays for bloody revenge.

As Menelaus tells the story in The Odyssey, Orestes is simply the loyal son who avenges his father’s wrongful death, but in the hands of Aeschylus, Orestes becomes much more. He is the revolutionary hero who must “suffer into truth.” Justice is no easy matter of right and wrong. It is an existential ordeal of being and becoming. Right conflicts with right and nothing is simple. Orestes must kill his mother to avenge his father. This is less than an ideal situation, but “the rough work of the world” seldom is. Hard choices must be made, and these choices define who we are.

Orestes poses as a traveler with news of his own death, and prevails upon the royal family for hospitality. The servants join in the plot. Everyone but the king and queen seem to know what’s going on. Too much power, it seems, has made them a little slow. The unheroic Aegisthus is easily dispatched. Clytemnestra, however, is another matter.

Agamemnon, she reminds Orestes, killed her daughter. He left her alone for ten years while he plundered Troy, and then had the poor taste to come home with another woman. He was a no good bastard who deserved to die. Besides, she says, “I gave you life.”

These are all good points, and Orestes wavers, but his friend Pylades reminds him that Apollo has taken sides. He has just one line in the entire play, but it’s a good one: “Make all mankind your enemy, not the gods.” Clytemnestra is killed, but her avenging Furies waste no time. Orestes descends into madness.

As the chorus says, “No man can go through life and reach the end unharmed. Aye, trouble is now, and trouble is still

Sunday, April 15, 2001

The Oresteia: Gettin' All Epic n' Shit

Having decided to compose our very first epic, we at Classics Corner have struggled with the question of form. One method would be to distill the bulk of human experience into a few thousand lines of perfect poetic expression. We could do this, but we don’t feel like it right now. Another possibility is to grasp the universal within our particular selves. This seems immodest.

Thus we inevitably arrive at the trilogy, everyone’s favorite epic shortcut. Recent examples include StarWars, The Godfather, and Lord of the Rings, all of which, by the mere fact of their tripartite natures, are epic. Having no actual ideas, we will not compose a trilogy of our own. Instead, we will discuss Aschylus’ Orestes, his only tragedy that survives complete.

The three plays of The Orestes — Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides — tell the sordid tale of the House of Atreus, the family where everyone is screwed but no one knows it. As the first play opens, a messenger learns that Troy has fallen and King Agamemnon is on his way home. The city is filled with joy but a cloud looms. This is, after all, a tragedy.

As it turns out, Queen Clytemnestra has been miffed at Agamemnon ever since he made a blood sacrifice of their firstborn daughter. The queen has taken on a new lover, Aegesthus, who happens to be her husband’s first cousin. Apparently, Agamemnon’s father once slaughtered Aegesthus’ siblings and served them for dinner. The queen’s new lover still bears a grudge.

To make things worse, Agamemnon has some explaining to do. Ten years ago, he sailed off with all the young men to rescue Helen from Troy. Now, on the day of his return, his only company is Cassandra, the psychic concubine with a credibility problem.

A smarter man might wonder just how welcome he is. He might, like Odysseus, spend a week or so undercover, exploring the lay of the land. But not Agamemnon. He is the Labrador Retriever of epic heroes. He thinks everyone loves him. Sadly, they do not.

To make a long story short, Clytemnestra gives her husband a hero’s welcome and then offs him in the bathtub. In the final scene, she and Aegesthus stand over the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra and exult in their revenge. Justice, they believe, is on their side. This is what gives the Orestes trilogy its charm. Everybody, no matter how heinous, believes they are right.

We suppose most of us do. We imagine that mayoral candidate Mark Sidran felt right was on his side when he tried to rent a campaign office in his own Pike Market building. He probably said to himself, “Mark, you deserve this.” But instead of pocketing a symbol of Seattle, he suffered a humiliating defeat. Aschylus would say that we are blind to our own circumstances, but are steered by painful events toward true understanding. Some people, however, just can’t take a hint.

Join us again next time for part two of Classics Corner, the epic trilogy.

Monday, February 26, 2001

Speaking of the Common Man ...

Lately, we at Classics Corner have been obsessed with Archilochus, the poet of Paros who died as a young man in about 640 BC. There isn’t much to work with: seven epigrams, three short poems, and twenty-three fragments. Unlike Homer, Archilochus didn’t need no stinking epic theme. He wrote gratuitously.

The son of an aristocrat and a slave, Archilochus was privileged enough to be literate, yet common enough to be a regular guy. When Archilochus wasn’t annoying people with his poetry, he killed them for money. At the time, mercenary work was a good middle-class job.

Archilochus loved his work. “By spear is kneaded the bread I eat,” he says. “By spear my Ismaric wine is won, which I drink, leaning upon my spear.” This may explain the warrior-poet’s short life span.

Like many writers of his day, Archilochus favored the elegiac poem, or epigram, which generally consisted of just one or two well-crafted lines. Our own favorite example of the elegiac poem appeared in an episode of The Simpsons: “Most fok'el never eat a skunk, but then again some fok'el, like Cletus, the slack-jawed yokel...” But we digress.

Time and again, Archilochus shows stunning common sense. His most famous epigram concerns losing his shield one day as he ran for his life. “I got away,” he says, “so what does it matter? Let the shield go. I can buy another equally good.”

In another famous epigram, Archilochus says he dislikes the long-limbed, clean-shaven officer with the lovely hair. He’d rather have substance. “Give me,” he says, “a man short and squarely set upon his legs, a man full of heart, not to be shaken from the place he plants his feet.”

Like any god-fearing Greek, Archilochus knows not to brag and to take all things in moderation. “Take some measure in the joy you take in luck,” he says, “and the degree you give way to sorrow. All our life is up and down like this.”

Archilochus is unimpressed with mere cleverness. “The fox,” he says, “knows many tricks. The hedgehog knows one. One good one.” You get the sense that he, like the hedgehog, and has a few good tricks of his own.

Nor is Archilochus overly fond of wealth. “Nothing to me the life of Gyges and his glut of gold. I neither envy nor admire him as I watch his life and what he does.” Extreme riches, he says, belongs to the “pride of tyranny.” He wants nothing of it. Archilochus would favor a strong estate tax. He’d make a great Teamster.

Archilochus knows that life, no matter how hard, is for the living. “I will make nothing better by crying,” he says. “I will make nothing worse by giving myself whatever entertainment I can.”

Finally, Archilochus is nobody's judge. Sometimes, he says, “when men stand planted on firm feet,” the Gods will “knock them on their backs, and then the evils come, so that a man wanders, homeless, destitute, at his wits end.” Some truths never change.

Sunday, February 18, 2001

Genesis Raises More Questions Than It Answers

We at Classics Corner have always asked the wrong questions. This made us a terrible Catholic. When we favorably compared Christianity to Communism in Sister Mary Jane’s social studies class, grave concern was expressed for our immortal soul. Priests were notified. Conferences held. Saint Mary’s School was not ready for Perfess’r Harris.

Maybe we never got over it. Still, when recent revelations from the Human Genome Project sent us scurrying to Genesis, the first dozen chapters or so left us more confused than ever.

For example, we all know about Adam and Eve, but who were those others east of Eden in the Land of Nod? What were they like? More to the point, what did they know and when did they know it? Did they have their own Trees of Wisdom, or were they just born wise? Who made the snake so smart? Was God of two minds?

What about Adam and Eve’s other kids, the unnamed sons and daughters of Genesis 5:4? Were they jealous of firstborn Seth? Did they still love Cain? Did they resent the loss of Eden? Did they ever stop thinking of the Tree of Life? Does the Angel with the flaming sword ever sleep?

Civilization, in all its lovely complexity, first arises in the sixth generation after Cain, with Jabal the herdsman, Jubal the musician, and Tubal-cain the blacksmith. Hardship made them strong. Work made them whole. God, however, thinks only of sin. A little omnipotence proves a dangerous thing.

His great flood ushers in a new age of inbreeding, alcoholism, incest, and war. Enter Noah, descended from Seth, who, with his wife, his three sons Shem, Ham, and Japeth, and their wives, repopulates planet earth. Who were these women? How did it feel to sleep with the Last Men on Earth?

Compared to this, Adam and Eve’s indiscretion was very small potatoes. The Original Sin was God's killing flood, and why not? God gropes his way through life just like everyone else, and like us, he makes mistakes.

Soon after the flood, Noah cultivates the earth, ferments some fruit, and drinks like a man dying to forget. He passes out naked in his tent. Noah has seen better days. Ham finds him and tells Shem and Japeth. They avert their eyes and cover him with a blanket. When Noah awakes, he randomly curses Ham's son Canaan. All of his progeny will live as slaves to the line of Shem.

This strikes us as a lousy way to renew the promise of humanity. Not surprisingly, Shem's family line leads to David, the great warrior king who kicks ass in the land of milk and honey. The Promised Land, oddly enough, is populated by the accursed Canaanites. David smites them. Blood runs. He has Noah to thank and God as an accomplice.

Long before David, however, we have perhaps the most under-reported event in the entire Old Testament. Shem begets Shelah who begets Eber who begets Peleg, and in his day, says Genesis 10:25, "the earth was divided." We’d like to know more about this. On that day, our world began.

Sunday, February 4, 2001

Thete of Being

Every so often, we'll be trundling down the street, whistling a happy tune, and someone will stop us to ask, "Perfess'r Harris — you know so damn much — why is it that poor people are so screwed?" And we'll stop, scratch our rapidly balding head, and reply, "Well, to answer that we'll have to go all the way back to Homer."

Americas dirty little secret is that most poor people, including those who don't have a place to live, work for a living. They just don't make enough money to stop being poor. Full time work at the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour simply does not go very far. Here in the Great State of Washington, a workers paradise if ever there was, the minimum wage is set at a whopping $6.72. At that rate, the lucky worker takes home just over a thousand bucks a month to wisely invest in whatever manner he or she likes.

Should a full-time worker need food stamps, a public subsidy, to feed their family? Our Congress, which voted down the last minimum wage increase proposal, would evidently reply, "yes."

In Homer's time, poor people were just as screwed. The Greek word was thete, which meant to be a serf or a menial or to work for hire. In ancient Greece, to be a lowly wage earner was in some cases worse than being a slave. At least a slave belonged to a community and could not be killed outright. The wage earner had no such protection. There was no Department of Labor and Industries.

The word "thete" occurs just three times in all of Homer. Let's review, shall we?

In the Iliad, Apollo and Poseidon reminisce over the days of their youth, when they were exiled from Olympus by Zeus to go work for King Laomedon. Poseidon built the walls of Troy and Apollo herded his cattle. At the end of the year, when it came time to be paid, the King refused and threatened to cut off their ears or sell them into slavery if they pressed the issue. Years later, they remained bitter. Were Laomedon now living in Wyoming, where the state minimum wage for agricultural workers is just $1.60 an hour, he could easily afford to pay them both and avoid any lingering grudges. But he probably wouldn't. Kings are like that.

The promise of low-wage work is used in the Odyssey by Eurymachos, one of the ill-mannered suitors who plague poor Penelope, to taunt a jobless beggar. When a disguised Odysseus replies by challenging Eurymachos to an old-fashioned grain-reaping contest, the suitor hurls a stool at his head. Later, during the climactic killing spree of Book Twenty-two, we are thrilled when Eurymachos is one of the first to die.

Our own favorite occurrence of the word is when Odysseus meets Achilles in the underworld. Our wily hero remarks that Achilles, being the above average sort that he is, must be running the place by now. "Don't get me started," Achilles more or less replies.

Then, by the Fagles translation, poor Achilles says "By God, I'd rather slave on earth for another man, some dirt poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive, than rule down here over all the breathless dead." The absolute worst fate Achilles can think of, outside of being dead, is to be a wage slave in somewhere like Wyoming.

So there we have it. Poor people are screwed because they don't make the rules by which they are forced to live. This is why so many of us, like Achilles, would do almost anything to avoid this fate. Unfortunately, not all of us have the option.

Sunday, December 10, 2000

Sex, Revolution, and Lysistrata

Ever since we watched Lysistrata, one of the more erotic classics available on video, we at Classics Corner have been preoccupied with the idea of sex, revolution, and smashing capitalism, and we owe it all to the Seattle Public Library.

Should you want to see, oh, say, Tom Cruise in Magnolia, there are 85 holds on the library's 21 copies. The wait is two weeks to a month. But tonight, the SPL's single Greek language production of Lysistrata is ready whenever you are. Obscurity has its rewards.

Lysistrata is one of the three surviving plays by Aristophanes to plead for an end to the devastating war between Athens and Sparta. Unlike the other two, this play was produced at a time when Athens was militarily and economically on the ropes. By 411, no peace was possible without capitulation. Yet Aristophanes produced a drama in which the women of Athens and Sparta end the bloodshed and untangle the animosities driving the war, just as they would a knotted mess of yarn.

The basic plot is that the women swear a pact to withhold sex until the men agree to a lasting peace. The men, who have all become big and tense, eventually come around to their point of view.

There is much to love about this play, not the least of which is that the women embody common sense and resolution in the face of folly and arrogance, and that their revolution is both playful and serious. Their protest is an eruption of life and love in opposition to the everyday work of death and commerce.

"For myself," says the Chorus of Women, "I will never weary of the dance; my knees will never grow stiff with fatigue. I will brave everything with my dear allies, on whom Nature has lavished virtue, grace, boldness, cleverness, and whose wisely directed energy is going to save the State."

Speaking of life opposed to death and commerce, Seattle's Little Scab Newspaper recently compared our WTO anniversary demonstrations to Mardi Gras. The "reporter" went on to spend a good many paragraphs discussing the improbable fact of bare breasted Lesbian Avengers in late-November.

Sadly, we at Classics Corner were not personally in attendance. Opposing international capitalism that day took a back seat to our fundraising mailing, which also held a certain charm.

Yet we remember our youth, when we too had energy and ambition to smash the state full-time. In those days, certain professors made us read Marxist-Freudian philosophy at gunpoint as part of our indoctrination to the liberal democratic tradition.

Happily, this included Eros and Civilization, by Herbert Marcuse, the most radical philosopher we'll never really understand. According to Herb, meaningless work, deadened sexuality, commercialized entertainment, and other unfortunate aspects of civilization will always contend with an irrepressible life force that refuses to be contained.

We wonder whether the sweater-challenged Lesbian Avengers might offer the same advice as Aristophanes' Chorus of Women: "Be ever like a bundle of nettles; never let your anger slacken; the winds of fortune blow our way."