Archive for the ‘Essay’ Category

Euripides’ Electra in the Shadow of The Libation Bearers

Friday, May 1st, 2009

Although they deal with the same myth, that of Orestes returning to his ancestral home to wreak vengeance on his murderous mother and her adulterous husband, The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus and Electra by Euripides approach their source material in very different ways. The four central characters of Orestes, Electra, Aegisthus and Clytemnestra all appear in both versions, but resemble each other only enough to render them familiar to those acquainted with the story. The revenge killings occur with some similarities, but in vastly disparate locations and styles. Overall, the most noteworthy differences between the two plays can be categorized by their explorations of gender identity and class, their contrasting tones, and their analysis of the dike inherent in the actions of Orestes and Electra.

Perhaps the most striking example of the difference between The Libation Bearers and Electra is in the treatment of gender roles. Where the former deals harshly with a female character who has subverted them by accruing power and acting as a man should, the latter’s title character is both strong-willed and possessing of agency that is unsurpassed except by comparable characters in the same playwright’s works. At the same time, the Electra of the play of the same title is a vocal defender of woman’s proper role and a critic of both her mother, who violates that role, and Aegisthus, who allows himself to be ruled by a woman. As she says to the decapitated head of Aegisthus, “On every Argive tongue this was said of you: ‘The man isn’t master in that marriage, the woman is'” (930). In Aeschylus’ play, when Orestes is almost convinced not to kill Clytemnestra, it is his friend Pylades who speaks his few but poignant lines and urges Orestes to finish the job; Electra, after the initial reunion and planning period, completely disappears from the action. In Euripides’ play, on the other hand, it is Electra who berates Orestes for his hesitation and eventually has to help him commit the deed herself. “Do not turn coward or lose your manhood!” she exclaims (983). However, while Electra’s fate is left unexplored by Aeschylus, Euripides explicitly describes how she is to be separated from her brother and married to Pylades, thus annulling her previous marriage while simultaneously ensuring that she retains her appropriate role as a wife rather than returning to the ranks of unwed virgins. This can be viewed as the subjugation of a previously strong woman, but was more likely intended to set her up as ruler of her own oikos, which was the more accepted female position. As Castor says, “She has a husband and a home. There is no cause for tears in her fate” (1311). While she was able to speak against her husband the farmer, owing to her noble birth and higher rank, she is a more suitable match for Pylades and will be able to more fully realize her potential.

Euripides, with his insertion of less grandiose characters like the farmer and the old man, exhibits a class consciousness in his play that is of no use or interest to Aeschylus in exploring his version of the mythos. The Libation Bearers begins at Agamemnon’s tomb but shifts back to the literal house of Atreus, which provides the backdrop for the bloody events that permeate the trilogy. This place is a palace, with servants and slaves; by contrast, the humble home of the farmer and Electra is an unexpected and relatively modest setting for the monumental events that will unfold over the course of the play. It is a setting that heightens the enormity of the actions by understating the location in which they occur; it is easy to expect extreme behaviors in a rich estate filled with nobles, but more shocking to encounter them in an idyllic country setting. Unlike Aeschylus’ play, in which the audience is left to its own devices in imagining the details buried in Electra’s elliptical statement, “I go like a slave” (14), Euripides takes pains to illustrate the sorry state in which the title character finds herself. She extensively bemoans her situation, contrasting it with what she believes to be fitting for a person of her breeding and rejecting the insufficient offerings of the chorus of Argive women. Indeed, Euripides goes so far as to marry her to a mere farmer, then highlights the man’s virtues in refusing to take advantage of the arguably inappropriate union. Orestes even gives a grand speech on nobility and judging people by their appearances or social standing alone. Euripides also draws attention to the underlying kinship of all humans in the exchange wherein Electra and the farmer discuss eating arrangements for their guests; Electra is ashamed by their humble offerings, while her husband says, “every man whose belly is filled gets his fair share, whether he’s rich or poor” (430). It is difficult to imagine a character in The Libation Bearers presenting such an assertion.

The Libation Bearers opens with Orestes reverently laying locks of his hair on his father’s tomb, quickly followed by the arrival of his estranged sister Electra and the chorus with libations to soothe the spirit of long-dead Agamemnon. By contrast, Electra begins with a simple farmer explaining how he came to be married to a princess, who herself then arrives carrying a less formal libation: a jug of water for use in the home. However, Electra of the latter nonetheless wails and weeps as if she were mourning like the Electra of the former: “I utter the lamentation that is my constant offering… tearing my cheeks with these nails and pummeling this shorn head” she says (147). This melodramatic voice highlights the gently mocking tone that Euripides maintains throughout the first half of his play. This continues into the recognition scene, which in Aeschylus’ play is a study in suspension of disbelief. The audience is expected to accept the stilted, theatrical discoveries by Electra, first of Orestes’ lock of hair, then his footprint–both of which match her counterparts–then the presentation of the item of clothing she had made for him so many years before. Apparently, not every audience member was sufficiently drawn in, as evidenced by Euripides’ concoction of a similar scene in his own treatment of the subject. He satirizes the moment by turning it into an interaction between a senile old tutor and the wryly skeptical Electra, with the former presenting the telltale clues and the latter berating him for thinking that they constitute reasonable evidence. She tells him, “Old man, you speak like a fool… It can’t happen” (523). While the tone of The Libation Bearers stays relatively static, with a generally approving chorus lauding the just efforts of the scheming siblings, the tone of Electra shifts approximately after the midpoint. The gentle lampooning gives way to a much more serious, stark and eventually reproachful perspective as characterized by Castor and Pollux. If Euripides found the treatment of the subject too heavy-handed in the beginning of The Libation Bearers, it seems he may have found it insufficiently grave at the end.

The end, of course, is meant to justify the means, and the end of The Libation Bearers suggests that justice has been served. Apollo’s will has been fulfilled and those who perpetrated the murder of a king and war hero and, perhaps most importantly, beloved father have themselves been murdered. “I killed my mother, / not with a little justice,” says Orestes (1024-5). However, as the play is part of a trilogy, the full resolution of the events does not come until the end of The Eumenides. Euripides has no such luxury, nor does he require one. Rather than leaving open the question of whether the children’s actions were justice or merely retribution, then settling the issue later, he calls upon gods to voice displeasure at the morality, or lack thereof, inherent in the approval of matricide whatever the motivation. Moving backwards in the play to the messenger’s tale of the murder of Aegisthus, it is clear that the majority of the characters are at that point still caught up in the moment; the messenger describes the witnesses c
rowning Orestes with a wreath like the winner of a sporting event, and the chorus calls for Electra to dance with them in celebration. The killing of Aegisthus is given much more prominence here than in The Libation Bearers, and while not necessarily indisputable, it is reasonable to believe that this killing was to be considered just. By contrast, after the murder of their mother, the two siblings are shell-shocked and remorseful, finally considering the possible wider ramifications of their rage-fueled actions. As the chorus, previously supportive and even actively engaged in the deception of Clytemnestra, observes, “Again, again your thoughts veer round at the wind’s prompting; they are righteous now but were misguided then, my friend, when you stirred a frightful act in your brother against his will” (1201). While the Orestes of The Libation Bearers rejects his mother’s baring of her breast in disdain after Pylades’ prompting, Euripides’ Orestes recounts the event in sorrow and regret, having to literally cover his eyes to summon up the strength to act and requiring the assistance of his sister. Indeed, the reactions of the siblings are in a way more mimetic than in the earlier play; one finds it easier to picture the quaking, appalled characters of Euripides than the Orestes who proclaims, “I ask you, Argos and all my generations, / remember how these brutal things were done” (1039-40).

The burden of memory, in a way, falls on the poets who retell the stories to audiences for whom the events are part of a distant past that is conveyed through incomplete accounts, perhaps more legend than history. Whether the version crafted by Aeschylus or that of Euripides is the more memorable is perhaps a matter of personal preference more than adherence to the predetermined narrative. Certainly they are radically different in their executions if not their content, and one senses the weight of the earlier play bearing down on the later. Even so, the fact that both survived to reach audiences millennia later speaks to their unique virtues and depictions of characters that even modern sensibilities can find sympathetic and relevant.

“Though the gods see well, they do so late”

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Oidipous at Colonus is the third of Sophocles’ Theban plays, which collectively relate the tragic events that befall Oidipous and his family. In the chronology of the myth, the actions of this play occur after King Oidipous and before Antigone; however, rather than being a bridge between the two, Oidipous at Colonus is more of a response to its predecessor, King Oidipous. It answers simple questions such as what occurs after King Oidipous ends, but it also tackles more complex issues such as the role of free will and the relative justice of Oidipous’ cruel fate. The play takes the stance that Oidipous committed all his crimes out of ignorance rather than malice, guided by his unavoidable destiny, and thus while he is “polluted” and must be punished for transgressing in life, he is permitted a measure of redemption after his death.

The most basic question that Oidipous at Colonus answers is what happens to the title character and his family after the events of King Oidipous reach their conclusion. The final image of the latter play is Oidipous’ shameful, powerless retreat into the palace from which he had emerged so proudly in the beginning. Oidipous at Colonus introduces him as a blind beggar who has been wandering as an exile for an indeterminate but presumably lengthy amount of time, led by his daughter Antigone. He describes his expulsion from the city as unwanted, despite his demands to be allowed to leave at the end of King Oidipous; he tells Kreon that “when I’d had my fill / of rage, and it was sweet to pass my life at home, that’s when you thrust me forth and cast me out” (Blondell 768-70). This indicates that his notorious rashness has been somewhat quelled, and that he is no longer as quick to act in anger as he once was, instead favoring the intellect that was supposed to be his claim to fame. Oidipous also discusses how his sons Polyneices and Eteokles did nothing to prevent the punishment and stayed at home like women while his daughters left home to join him, one as his caregiver and the other to give him news of the events occurring back in Thebes. From other characters, it is revealed that his sons, who were conspicuously absent from the previous play, are about to engage in their ill-fated war with each other that will lead to their deaths at one another’s hands. It is interesting to note that though he called for his daughters at the end of King Oidipous, he had no interest in facing his sons, perhaps foreshadowing the impassable rift that was to form between them. Kreon, meanwhile, appears to be in a similar position to the one he previously occupied, having all the power of kingship without the associated pitfalls, albeit having ruled Thebes as an interim leader until Oidipous’ sons took over.

Thematically speaking, the largest issue that Oidipous at Colonus seeks to tackle in response to King Oidipous is that of free will versus fate. The action of the latter is driven by the prophecies that surround and permeate it, from the first revelation by Kreon that the king’s murderer must be driven from the city, to Tiresias’ ignored pronouncements, to the long-dismissed prediction that Laios’ son would be his undoing, to Oidipous’ own concern that he would kill his own father and marry his mother. While initially eager to embrace Kreon’s information, Oidipous repeatedly ignores or attempts to avoid the terms of the other prophecies and, in doing so, eventually fulfills them. This can be perceived as an argument for free will and fate as not being mutually exclusive; for example, in freely choosing to flee from the people who he thought were his parents, he brought about his destiny to meet his real father and kill him, and subsequently to marry his mother. In Oidipous at Colonus, however, Oidipous strongly argues that he is not fully responsible for the ills that befell him. He tells the chorus, “I bore evil, strangers, bore it against my will–god be my witness! / None of those things was my own choice” (Blondell 521-2). He acknowledges that he committed inexcusable acts, but argues that he did not do so willingly, implying that he was guided by the more powerful force of fate. In answering Kreon’s accusations later, Oidipous once again refers to the “appalling circumstances that I bore–oh woe / is me!–against my will” (Blondell 963-4). The word “bore,” while referring specifically to his production of children from an incestuous relationship, also more generally references the prophecies that he brought to fruition.

While the question of fate and free will is addressed through Oidipous’ attempts to absolve himself of responsibility for his actions by claiming they were not his choice, it is also approached on a purely character-centric level through observation of Oidipous’ contrasting engagements with prophecy in the two plays. As previously noted, in King Oidipous, the title character ignores, rejects, or tries to escape the destiny foretold to him by the Delphic oracle and Tiresias. This implies an underlying pride; Oidipous believes that he is intelligent or powerful enough to avoid his fate, despite the fact that it is ordained by the gods, and so in a way he is positioning himself as an equal to those gods. However, in Oidipous at Colonus, his actions and those of the other characters are slavishly devoted to the prophecy surrounding Oidipous’ burial site, namely that the city-state in which he is buried will be victorious in some future war. When he realizes that he has arrived at the place where he will die, Oidipous is eager to “round the post of my long-suffering life” (Blondell 91) because he knows that he will be “dwelling with profit to the ones who took me in” (Blondell 92), namely the Athenians, to whom he intends to offer his body after death. Instead of fleeing from his destiny, as he had before, he embraces it as inevitable and even desirable. After Oidipous makes his pact with Theseus, Kreon, having thrown Oidipous out of Thebes previously, attempts to persuade him to return and be buried there instead. This is reasonable, as the prophecy does not specify where Oidipous’ corpse must be buried; Kreon is thus free to seek it for Thebes, although he is immediately rejected. After Kreon is taken away and the kidnapped Antigone and Ismene are retrieved, a final example of acceptance of destiny is enacted by Polyneices upon hearing his father’s pronouncements about his destined mutual fratricide. Antigone begs him, “Turn round your army, back… don’t destroy the city and yourself” (Blondell 1416-7). He refuses, claiming that he wouldn’t be able to face his men if he stopped the war and lived in exile; most importantly, he says that he “won’t report the detrimental news at all” (Blondell 1429) because he doesn’t want to disappoint his troops. He acknowledges the inevitability of the prophecy uttered by his own father, who apparently acquired his abilities once he lost his sight.

Having asserted that Oidipous was guided more by destiny than choice, the next natural question raised is whether Oidipous’ punishments were appropriate or disproportionate to his crimes. More specifically, if Oidipous committed evil acts out of ignorance, is it reasonable to punish him as if he had done the same things knowing that they were wrong? Sophocles appears to answer both in the affirmative and the negative. At one point, Oidipous emphatically proclaims, “I did nothing!… I accepted / a gift. How I wish… I had never taken
that reward for my help” (Blondell 539-41). This description of his marriage to his mother divorces it from the barbaric act of incest that it was and instead characterizes it as an innocent action that was not unreasonable under the circumstances. Later, in describing the murder of his father, he states that “I murdered and destroyed him, caught by doom, / but clean under the law: I came to this in ignorance” (Blondell 547-8). While he killed his father, the fact that he didn’t know it was his father, or a king, and that he arguably committed the act in self-defense absolves him of some, if not all, guilt. However, private guilt is less grave than public shame; he nonetheless transgressed, and his subsequent fall from power, self-mutilation and exile from Thebes are all the outcomes of his ill-fated actions. In the same way that he was destined to do wrong, he was destined to be punished for it. But because he was ignorant of his crimes until they had already been committed, and thus in one sense was morally innocent, in Oidipous at Colonus he is offered a chance to redeem himself by becoming a blessing in death rather than a curse in life.

In addressing the questions and thematic issues raised by King Oidipous in Oidipous at Colonus, Sophocles invites a re-examination of the earlier play, which yields a number of interesting parallels and reversals. For example, in the beginning of King Oidipous, Oidipous emerges from the palace to confront the suppliants that have amassed outside; in Oidipous at Colonus, he himself is a suppliant begging for an audience with Theseus. In the earlier play, Oidipous dooms himself by making pronouncements before having all the facts at his disposal; in the later play, the chorus agrees to aid Oidipous before learning who he is, and then regrets it and accuses him of trickery. Oidipous is initially rejected as a polluting influence by the people of Thebes; then, he is sought out as a blessing. Because of all these connections, the later play, in a way, is only narratively satisfying as a supplement to its predecessor, while the earlier play is best understood when viewed through the hindsight provided by its successor. As Oidipous finally gains a spiritual second sight at the end of Oidipous of Colonus, so too do readers of the play gain the insight that they previously lacked at the end of King Oidipous.

Mapping Morality: the Afterlife of Virgil and Dante

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

The elaborate and highly Christianized conception of hell as imagined by Dante Alighieri in the Inferno portion of the Divine Comedy borrows heavily from the earlier depiction crafted by Virgil in the Aeneid. It is presumably for this reason, among others, that Dante chooses Virgil to be the guide for his surrogate self through his creation. Some translators and critics have gone so far as to say that Dante’s version commits a kind of patricide upon Virgil’s version by virtue of its quantitative—and, arguably, qualitative—superiority (Mandelbaum ix). Value judgments aside, the two explorations of the afterlife, or one portion thereof in the case of Dante’s work, serve to illustrate the disparate views held by the Romans and Christians with regards to the physicality of death and the appurtenant moral or ethical concerns. For the most part, Virgil’s narrative is descriptive, while Dante’s is normative; Aeneas embarks on his journey to see his father, while Dante’s journey is one of both internal reflection and the representation of externally imposed moral guidelines.

Both Aeneas and Dante begin their journeys in a similar landscape: a dark, forested area that leads to a cave, which in turn takes the hero underground. Virgil describes the landscape as a “forest encircled by the black curves of Cocytus” (VI.183) and a “great wood” (VI.256). He also places the Sibyl, who will guide Aeneas through the underworld, in a system of caves with a hundred gates through which the winds blow. The underworld is also referred to as Aornos, the birdless place, because of its lifelessness and subterranean nature. All of this points to the Roman conception of death as a physically dark environment, in which one finds “things buried in the dark and deep of earth” (VI.355). There is no morality implicit in this fact; all who die go to the same place, generally speaking. Dante also finds himself in a “shadowed forest” (I.2) and “savage wilderness” (I.93), but his is more of an allegorical than a physical location. Dante’s forest represents the spiritual or moral confusion in which he finds himself, having “lost the path that does not stray” (I.3) in the middle of his life. He begins his journey on Good Friday, that day on which Jesus reportedly died, and thus Dante’s descent into the underworld follows in the footsteps of Jesus’ descent. Once again, there is the entrance into a cave, but this cave mirrors the one in which Jesus was interred. This is a much more figurative than literal representation, and reflects the Christian nature of his narrative as opposed to the more secular nature of Virgil’s.

Upon reaching the boundary that explicitly separates the living from the dead, both Aeneas and Dante encounter Charon and the souls of the dead waiting to cross the river Acheron. Charon is described in virtually identical terms by both Virgil and Dante: “white hairs lie thick, disheveled on his chin; his eyes are fires that stare” (VI.395) in the Aeneid and “an aged man his hair was white with years” (III.83) with “eyes like embers” (III.109) in the Inferno. However, the depictions differ in the manner in which Charon interacts with the dead souls, which in both instances are eager to cross over. In the Aeneid, Charon refuses to carry any dead souls that were not properly buried. The souls are consigned to wander aimlessly along the banks of the river for a hundred years before they will be allowed passage; this is presumably the amount of time it will take both for their bodies to decompose sufficiently, and for their memories on earth to be figuratively entombed by successive generations having no direct memory themselves of the deceased. This reflects the Roman emphasis on the importance of funereal rites and entombment, as well as the belief that death carried with it a kind of forgetfulness and fading for the dead, who are shades rather than tangible creatures.

Dante’s Charon, on the other hand, bluntly informs the dead:
Woe to you, corrupted souls!
Forget your hope of ever seeing Heaven:
I come to lead you to the other shore,
to the eternal dark, to fire and frost. (III.84-87)
Here, the emphasis is on the evil nature of the souls that are destined to spend eternity in hell. The souls themselves are, as Dante’s Virgil puts it, “eager for the river crossing because celestial justice spurs them on” (III.124-5); they know that they deserve the punishment that will be imposed upon them, and so they crave it. This highlights Dante’s argument, as writer, for the external and objective nature of the laws of morality as determined by God and explained by Virgil throughout the journey. Those who violate the laws will suffer consequences which are neither arbitrary nor subjective, and Dante intends them to serve as a warning for his readers. Additionally, both Virgil and Dante compare the souls of the dead to autumn leaves falling from trees, both to illustrate the enormous quantity of dead souls and their fragile, insubstantial nature, as well as to compare death with the onset of winter. Virgil goes further and compares the souls to birds fleeing winter, while Dante calls them “the evil seed of Adam” (III.115); this draws attention to the Roman vision of death as a natural, cyclical occurrence, and the Christian connection of all men to Adam, the progenitor.

From there, the two heroes pass into the vestibules of their respective underworlds, Aeneas on Charon’s boat and Dante through mysterious means while he is unconscious. There, they both find Cerberus, who prevents the living from entering and the dead from leaving. In the Aeneid, the Sibyl throws a honey cake laced with sleeping drugs to Cerberus, and he eventually succumbs and falls asleep so that she and Aeneas can pass. This illustrates that the “living” inhabitants of the underworld, its gods and monsters, were as real and tangible to the Romans as Aeneas himself, and thus susceptible to things like drugs and sleep. They are literal creatures rather than mere symbolic representations of abstract concepts or natural processes. In the Inferno, by contrast, Virgil flings a handful of muck to Cerberus rather than a honey cake, and Cerberus is depicted “as a dog that barks with greedy hunger” (VI.28) who is then quiet when fed, “intent and straining hard to cram it in” (VI.30). It is notable that while Cerberus is at the vestibule of hell in the Aeneid, just on the other side of the Acheron, in Dante’s hell he is located in the third circle, watching over the gluttons. These sinners are punished by having all possible comforts denied to them, and as their overseer, Cerberus is also denied any comforts, left as hungry as his charges. Dante’s hell is completely devoid of any possible pleasures; there are no honey cakes there, not even for the inhabitants who supervise the sinners.

Aeneas subsequently encounters the weeping souls of infants and the falsely accused, both of whom are innocents who have no assigned place in the afterlife. The infants are the more significant of the two in that they illustrate the Roman conception of good and evil as being accumulated through deeds. Because they never had a chance to commit misdeeds, the infants are blank slates and have done nothing to merit either reward or punishment. Dante also encounters unbaptized infants in Limbo, the first circle of hell. It is outside the boundaries of the circles where punishments are meted out because, once again, the infants have done nothing to merit punishment. However, there are not simply infants, but unbaptized men and women as well; in the Christian view, all humans are born with the original sin of Adam and Eve marring their souls, and this sin can only be cleansed through baptism. Even though they themselves had been virtuous, these people still carried the original sin and thus were unable to ascend to heaven. This illustrates the sharpest dichotomy between the Roman and Christian views of morality: for the Romans, everyone went to the same place when they died, but only the evil were punished when th
ey arrived. By contrast, to the Christians, it was not sufficient simply to live a virtuous life; one also had to be baptized in order to achieve salvation.

Virgil next locates the suicides just inside the underworld: “although innocent, [they] took death by their own hands” (VI.574-5). They are surrounded by marshland and the river Styx, just beyond Minos, the “magistrate” who judges men. The Roman conception of suicide appears to be that it was tragic, because death to them is permanent and irrevocable, but it was not evil. Dante, on the other hand, places the suicides in the seventh circle of hell, which is reserved for those who commit crimes of violence. This emphasizes the Christian view of suicide as violence against one of God’s creations; the proscription “thou shalt not kill” includes the self as well as others. Virgil gives no special consideration to the physical manifestation of the suicides; they are as insubstantial and shadowy as the other spirits. Dante, however, specifically describes them as twisted trees: “No green leaves in that forest, only black: no branches straight and smooth, but knotted, gnarled; no fruits were there, but briers bearing poison” (XIII.3-6). This description is reminiscent of the forest outside the underworld through which Aeneas sought the golden bough that would permit him passage and return; however, Dante’s forest of suicides is not simply meant to recall the dark barrenness of death, but to render a punishment befitting the crime of suicide. Because they rejected their own forms in life, these spirits are bereft of those forms in death as punishment. Both groups of suicides are depicted as trying to escape the pain they suffered in life, but now Virgil’s dead crave it as superior to nothing, and Dante’s must endure it forever from the Harpies, who tear at the trees that they have become. While Virgil emphasizes innocence and regret, presenting the Roman view that death was terminal and a mere shadow of former life, Dante considers it pitiable but nonetheless a serious digression.

One of the last landscapes that Aeneas explores before he reaches the goal of his quest, his father, is the Fields of Mourning. Here, “concealed by secret paths, are those whom bitter love consumed with brutal waste” (VI.583-4); here Virgil places Dido, despite the fact that she committed suicide. Dante also notably places Dido among those who committed crimes of passion rather than suicide. Virgil sets these spirits inside a myrtle grove; that tree is sacred to Venus, symbolizing love. Once again, there is a dark forest, this time representative of the love that was itself darkened by rejection and death and has led to continued pain in the afterlife. Dante, on the other hand, places those who commit crimes of passion into an unending tempest, buffeted about by winds as they were moved in life by their uncontrollable lust. To Dante’s Christian perspective, lust is a crime of incontinence, in which the person is unable to contain his or her baser impulses. It is distinguished from love, which is the purer expression and greatly desirable while lust is to be avoided. In particular, Dante notes that adulterous love is sinful by singling out Paolo and Francesca; Virgil instead reunites Dido with her dead husband Sychaeus, choosing to honor her original vow rather than subject her to any punishment for breaking it. This indicates a broader conception of what is permissible morally in that realm to the Romans, and a more narrow definition of what is sinful in the case of the Christian perspective.

Finally, Aeneas comes to the pathway that leads either to Tartarus, for the evil spirits, or to Elysium, for the good. This is the first clear indication that those who are evil or good in life will find some kind of appropriate justice in the afterlife, rather than merely being flung together. However, given the previous fates of other spirits in the poem, these ideas were apparently just becoming or had recently become popular in Virgil’s time. Tartarus is described as having a giant gateway, potentially analogous to the portal into hell in the very beginning of the Inferno, as well as a tower of iron in which the sinners were imprisoned, judged and whipped. Specific people here have specific punishments, such as Tityos, who has his liver and intestines continuously eaten by a vulture only to grow back and be eaten again. There is no clear indication of contrapasso, the punishments being tailored to fit the crime, as Dante does with his construction of hell. This again points to Virgil’s work as descriptive rather than normative; unlike Dante, he is not seeking to provide a template for proscribing particular behaviors. The only inkling of contrapasso in Virgil’s work is the table at which the gluttons sit, unable to eat lest the Harpies attack them. It is, however, very different from Dante’s depiction of gluttons, who fall under the province of incontinence, and as previously described are deprived of all the creature comforts of their lives and pelted eternally with cold rain. Although the manifestations are dissimilar, it is clear that both the Romans of Virgil’s time and the Christians of Dante’s time find overindulgence to be condemnable.

Further exploration of the underworld in the Aeneid is more personal, with Aeneas being reunited with his father in the everlasting summer of the Elysian Fields. Dante continues his enumeration of sins and their consequent punishments, going into much greater detail than Virgil. The farther into hell Dante the character explores, the more detached he becomes, and the less sympathetic towards the sinners as they suffer their punishments. This reflects the Christian notion that certain sins are easier to commit than others, namely the sins of incontinence, which merely require passivity or lack of restraint rather than active malfeasance. Virgil’s underworld has only the most nascent construction of a hierarchy of sin as evidenced by some spirits having their own unique landscape and others being specifically punished for objectively immoral behavior. As discussed, his afterlife is intended more as a portion of Aeneas’ complete heroic journey, whereas for Dante, the afterlife is the entire journey, a kind of pilgrimage to instruct the reader in proper moral behavior rather than simply to illuminate the land of the dead for the sake of entertainment or intellectual stimulation. Dante lost his way and must find it again, for his own sake and that of his sinful readers, while Aeneas knows exactly where he is going and why, and needs no such assistance.

While you wait, a paper!

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

Since one of my three readers has complained about my lack of updates, I present to you my most recent paper on a subject near and dear to my heart: crying men. I am not sure whether this is the exact version that I turned in but it is close enough. I will also post my paper on Virgil and Dante’s underworld landscapes once that is finished, but for now, I hope this will tide you all over until the novel-writing madness is over.

“Why do you weep and grieve”:
Kleos, Nostos and Threnos in The Odyssey

In almost all of the first twelve books of The Odyssey, there is at least one instance in which a character, usually a male, is overcome with emotion and expresses his pain by weeping. Telemachus cries, Menelaus cries, Pisistratus cries; even the great Odysseus himself, when first encountered in the epic, is depicted on the shore of Calypso’s island “wrenching his heart with sobs and groans and anguish” (V.174). At first glance, there appear to be various reasons for these outbursts: injustice, concern, despair, and so forth. However, upon closer examination, there are two primary concepts underlying each incident: kleos, renown or glory from accomplishing great deeds, sometimes through death; and nostos, homecoming, often specifically referring to the return of Greek heroes to their homes after war. When the characters of the epic are denied these two goals, the result is threnos–lamentation, an external expression of grief. The two characters who best embody the threnos associated with denial of kleos and nostos are Telemachus and Odysseus, both of whom frequently weep prior to the achievement of their ultimate objectives.

One important aspect of kleos is that it is, in a way, hereditary; it is the duty of the son to carry on and increase the reputation built by the father. As such, it is natural that Telemachus is concerned with the fate of his father. If Odysseus died in battle, then Telemachus would be able to benefit from his father’s kleos; however, if Odysseus perished in some less honorable and noteworthy way, then his kleos would be lost to his son. When Telemachus is first introduced, he sits among the suitors, wishing that Odysseus would return “and regain his pride of place and rule his own domains” (I.137). Subsequently, when he is inspired to call for an assembly to air his grievances, he bursts into tears after admitting that “we have no man like Odysseus in command / to drive this curse from the house” (II.63-4). Telemachus himself is still “a boy inept at battle” (II.66) and without knowledge of his father’s fate, he is unable to control the suitors by invoking Odysseus’ reputation and honor. Thus, his father’s inability to achieve nostos leads to his own lack of kleos, and subsequently to his public threnos. Notably, the crowd does not react with scorn or derision, but instead with pity and silence; it is unclear whether they are surprised or ashamed by what Telemachus states.

Primarily to find news of his father, but also to begin the establishment of his own kleos, Telemachus leaves home and travels first to Nestor’s court, then to that of Menelaus and the recovered Helen. It is in the latter place that he weeps at the king’s description of Odysseus and his accomplishments at Troy; “Tears streamed down his cheeks / and wet the ground when he heard his father’s name” (IV.128-9). He grieves for his lost father, who has been unable to return home. Soon enough, Pisistratus, Menelaus and Helen all join in the weeping for lost Odysseus and others like him who were unable to achieve nostos. Only by drugging their wine can they stop the threnos incited by their memories, allowing Telemachus to question Menelaus about his father’s whereabouts, and Menelaus to answer without being interrupted by grief. Thus does Telemachus complete his own minor epic and, having acquired some small renown of his own by journeying abroad and making contact with Odysseus’ comrades-in-arms, achieves his own nostos armed with information about his father.

As Telemachus’ tale draws to a close for the time being, Odysseus’ begins. When Odysseus first enters the story in book V, as previously stated, he is shown “weeping, his eyes never dry, his sweet life flowing away / with the tears he wept for his foiled journey home” (V.168-9). The last portion of the line is crucial: he cries because he has been prevented from returning to Ithaca and accomplishing his nostos, his homecoming, instead remaining stuck on Calypso’s island for seven years. When he is finally offered the chance to leave, he is also asked why he wants to go rather than stay and be granted immortality. Odysseus replies, “I long–I pine, all my days–/ to travel home and see the dawn of my return” (V.242-3). While Calypso offers him eternal life, it would be a life of obscurity, devoid of the kleos, the glory that he earned while fighting in the Trojan War. Only by achieving nostos can he simultaneously recover kleos; only by returning to his people can he regain his identity as father, king and decorated war hero. Until the opportunity to pursue those goals is given to him, all he can do is grieve.

In book VIII, at the Phaeacian court, Odysseus is brought to tears twice while listening to the bard Demodocus’ songs about his exploits and those of his comrades. First, he cries at the tale of his argument with Achilles, and later at the story of his own entrance into Troy and the victory that he orchestrated. After this second story, “great Odysseus melted into tears… as a woman weeps, her arms flung around her darling husband, / a man who fell in battle” (VIII.588-9). Ironically, he is compared to the wife of a defeated soldier, when on the contrary, Odysseus himself has earned kleos by surviving and being victorious over his enemies. However, as discussed, it is only when he finally returns home that his kleos will be truly restored, and so he is not yet free of the heartbreak that he expresses by weeping. This outward display of emotion does not go unnoticed, and King Alcinous finally encourages him to not only divulge who he is, but also why he continues to “weep and grieve so sorely” (VIII.647) at the bard’s songs. While he is not yet home, it is at the end of book VIII and the beginning of book IX, so close to achieving his nostos, that he finally begins to recover his identity as well by revealing his name to the Phaeacians.

Although the second half of The Odyssey contains numerous instances in which the characters weep, they are motivated not by the denial of kleos and nostos but by their accomplishment. For example, Eumaeus cries when Telemachus returns home, Odysseus and Telemachus weep when they are reunited, and Eurycleia cries when she recognizes Odysseus while washing his feet. The tears of the first twelve books of The Odyssey are tears of sorrow and loss, while those of the last twelve books are primarily those of recognition and joy. The characters who were gone have their homecoming, and the renown and glory that were earned are rightfully acknowledged. Threnos is no longer required, as kleos and nostos have been achieved, leaving Odysseus to await his return to the sea and Telemachus to prepare himself for the eventual assumption of his father’s legacy.