“…Look to Tantalus and Pelops—
My hands beg for their examples.”
Tantalum et Pelopem aspice;
ad haec manus exempla poscuntur meae.
Seneca, Thyestes 18-20
“Now a mob is is coming on from our family
Which will outpace us all and make me innocent,
Daring the undared.”
….iam nostra subit
e stirpe turba quae suum vincat genus
ac me innocentem faciat et inausa audeat.
Last year as the COVID19 pandemic closed theaters and sent all classrooms into digital space, Out of Chaos Theatre in collaboration with the Center for Hellenic Studies presented over 40 episodes of Reading Greek Tragedy Online: performances from every extant Greek tragedies, a few comedies, a satyr play, fragments and even some epic too.
2021 brings us an ongoing plague and a new season of Reading Greek Tragedy Online. This year we’re sticking with Greek myth, but getting Roman with it to start, turning to the early Empire and Seneca’s Thyestes.
Seneca, Thyestes 29-36
“Let no one have time to hate an ancient crime,
Have a new one always replace it and not
Merely one at a time but while a crime is punished
Let it grow! May the power slip from the arrogant brothers
And return when they’re exiled. May this house slip
On uncertain chance of violence among unsafe kings.
Ah, may the powerful fall low and the low get power.
May chance toss the kingdom on churning waves.”
nec vacet cuiquam vetus
odisse crimen: semper oriatur novum,
nec unum in uno, dumque punitur scelus,
crescat. superbis fratribus regna excidant
repetantque profugos; dubia violentae domus
fortuna reges inter incertos labet;
miser ex potente fiat, ex misero potens,
fluctuque regnum casus assiduo ferat.
GHOST OF TANTALUS (grandfather of Atreus and Thyestes) – Paul O’Mahony
FURY (a goddess from the Underworld) – Evelyn Miller
ATREUS (king of Argos) – Sara Valentine
ATTENDANT to Atreus – Paul O’Mahony
THYESTES (exiled brother of Atreus) – David Rubin
TANTALUS (son of Thyestes) – Evelyn Miller
MESSENGER –Tim Delap
Special Guest: Helen Slaney
Seneca, Thyestes 192-96
“Come, spirit, do what no future age will approve
But none will fail to mention. I must dare some crime
A fierce, bloody kind, one that my brother would want
To call his own. You do not avenge crimes unless
You commit greater ones.”
Age, anime, fac quod nulla posteritas probet,
sed nulla taceat. aliquod audendum est nefas
atrox, cruentum, tale quod frater meus
suum esse mallet. scelera non ulcisceris,
Artistic Director: Paul O’Mahony (Out of Chaos Theatre) Host and Faculty Consultant: Joel Christensen (Brandeis University) Executive Producer: Lanah Koelle (Center for Hellenic Studies) Producers: Keith DeStone (Center for Hellenic Studies), Hélène Emeriaud, Janet Ozsolak, and Sarah Scott (Kosmos Society) Production Assistant: Francesca Bellei (Harvard University) Director of Outreach: Amy Pistone (Gonzaga University) Dramaturgical Support: Emma Pauly and Emma Joy Hill Associate Directors: Beth Burns, Liz Fisher, Tabatha Gayle, Laura Keefe, and Toph Marshall Poster Designer: Allie Marbry (Center for Hellenic Studies) Poster Illustration Artist: John Koelle
Seneca, Thyestes 247-8
“A mild tyrant murders: in my kingdom, people pray for death.”
perimat tyrannus lenis; in regno meo
Scenes (translation, Paul Murgatroyd)
ACT ONE (1–121) – Ghost of Tantalus, Fury
ACT TWO (176–335) – Atreus, Attendant
ACT THREE (404–545) – Thyestes, Tantalus, Atreus
ACT FOUR (623–788) – Messenger, Chorus Leader
ACT FIVE (885–1112) – Atreus, Thyestes
Seneca, Thyestes 348-353
“A king is someone who can put fear aside
Along with the evils of a harsh heart—
Someone over whom ambition has no power
And the fickle love of the raging mob
Can never move…”
rex est qui posuit metus
et diri mala pectoris;
quem non ambitio impotens
et numquam stabilis favor
vulgi praecipitis movet
“As I was walking from the Peiraios beset
By troubles and despair, philosophy came over me.
And all the painters now seem to me to be ignorant
About love, and, to put it simply, so is everyone else
Who fashions images of him as a god.
For he is neither female nor male, and again,
He is not a god or mortal; nor is he foolish
Or wise, but he is drawn together from everywhere
And carries many shapes in one form.
For he has a man’s boldness with a woman’s restraint;
he has the senselessness of madness
But the reason of a thinker; he has a beast’s ferocity,
The toil of the unbreakable, and the avarice of a god.
Indeed, by Athena and the gods, I do not understand
What love is, but still it is the type of thing
I have said only without this name.”
“As a serpent awaits a man in front of its home on the mountain,
One who dined on ruinous plants [pharmaka], and a dread anger overtakes him
As it coils back and glares terribly before his home.
So Hektor in his unquenchable [asbestos] fury [menos] would not retreat,
After he leaned his shining shield on the wall’s edge.
He really glowered as he spoke to his own proud heart
As he stands before the walls of his city in book 22, Hektor is compared to a snake, coiled to strike an intruder. This moment of anticipation of violence is prolonged as Hektor turns away from the pleas of his family not to face Achilles. In a moment marked by the repeated speech introduction “ (ὀχθήσας δ᾽ ἄρα εἶπε πρὸς ὃν μεγαλήτορα θυμόν), Hektor ruminates, and worries despite what the opening simile anticipates. He resolves to face Achilles, but then immediately changes his mind: “When Hektor noticed Achilles, a tremor overtook him and he could not bear to wait for him / but he left the gates behind and left in flight” Ἕκτορα δ᾽, ὡς ἐνόησεν, ἕλε τρόμος: οὐδ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἔτ᾽ ἔτλη / αὖθι μένειν, ὀπίσω δὲ πύλας λίπε, βῆ δὲ φοβηθείς).
What happens between the end of Hektor’s speech and his choice to run from Achilles?
In the fall of 2019, I submitted my final manuscript for a book about the Homeric Odyssey and modern psychology. To say I had spent a lot of time with this book would be as much of an understatement as to make the overly banal claim that I learned a lot in the process. Both statements are true, but neither gets to the core of how much researching and writing this book changed the way I read ancient literature and think about just being a human being.
This project started with the observation in class one day in 2011 that Odysseus and Telemachus may be suffering from something we’d call learned helplessness and ended up with a reading of the whole epic as rumination on human agency, traumatized peoples, and the way stories have the power both to liberate and to chain us.
But, as with most long projects, my feeling at the submission was one of release and escape–every time I finish a paper or book, I wonder if I am done, if I have written all the words in me, and whether I have any other thoughts worth forming. I wanted to be done with the Odyssey and its trauma for a while, to think about something new, or, perhaps, to think about nothing at all.
And so much of what I read for the Odyssey book continued to course through my mind. Some people may bristle at the terminology, but it was clear to me that we were being collectively traumatized: by our fear about the safety of our lives and our loved ones’; by our inability to do anything about it; by the massive and arrogant failure of our government to protect or aid us; by fears about losing our homes and feeding our children; by the necessary and powerful reminder of racist rot at the core of our civilization provided by the #BlackLivesMatter protests; by the horrible uncertainty of the Trump administration’s attempt to steal the election; by rising threats of violence; and by a white supremacist coup. Each week and month of the pandemic was a frozen moment in an actual apocalypse, the unveiling of the terrible truths of who and what we are.
The question I started asking myself in April was whether or not knowing you’re being traumatized helps you process the trauma. The answers I found were contrary. So I started doing the very thing I swore I wasn’t going to do anymore, to think about Homer and human psychology. Somewhere along the way that took me back to Hektor, Troy’s prince and protector.
Very few people who read or write about the Iliad can make great sense of Hektor. His traditional character is part of James Redfield’s widely cited The Tragedy of Hektor (1975) and his strange engagement with his advisor Poulydamas–with whom he argues on three separate occasions–is seen as a function of the limits of Trojan politics but rarely as evidence of the emotional response of an actual human being.
Indeed, throughout the Iliad, Hektor’s behavior can be hard to parse, and so much harder to defend. He is harsh to his brother, but within limits; his kindness to Helen and joy in his son seems ill-fit to his rejection of Andromache’s advice. In war, he seems relentless, speaking repeatedly of glory and the alternating chance of war, while pursuing an offensive onslaught that seems either wholly irrational or an artificial hastening of the war’s ultimate plot. Sure, we see the man-killing Hektor in all his unquenchable fury, but there are questions: he barely fights Ajax to a draw in book 7; he needs the help of another man and a god to slay Patroklos in book 16; he must be tricked to face Achilles when the final conflict awaits him.
I have always had a soft spot for Hektor–in his acceptance of his doomed state, I used to find a welcome nobility in contrast to Achilles’ selfishness. And, yet, the way he dismisses Poulydamas or ignores Andromache has always troubled me. His final flight from Achilles has always been something I failed to explain to students. Over the years I have called it denial, escapism, a wavering panic when the doom on the horizon finally appears. Who among us can say we won’t quail in our final moments, or shudder and engage in a brief fantasy that there’s more life yet to live?
During the pandemic, I started to think of Hektor as someone marked by prolonged uncertainty and torturous anticipation. In a way, we have lived in our own kind of siege over the past year: often unable to leave our homes, afraid of what days and weeks would bring, and plagued beyond all else by uncertainties that undermined many things we held to be true, even sacred. I started to think of Hektor and the Trojans as living this way not for one year, but for nine, hearing of the deaths or abductions of family members in other cities, seeing no way to break out. Before the beginning of the epic we know, Hektor spent nine years pacing the walls of his city, unable to fight off his enemies yet unable to flee. Until, of course, the Iliad’s action lets him break free.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze
In the third edition of his The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation, and Disease (2014), Robert Scaer looks at the cycle of arousal and rest that characterizes the function of our nervous system in response to crisis or danger. In simple terms, we can think of the fight or flight response which triggers different neurotransmitters to prepare for rapid response: in a resting state, our bodies are prepared for and more efficient at digesting and storing nutrients and also at processing and storing knowledge of facts and events (13). The fight/flight response puts us in a high-energy nervous state, raising blood-pressure and moving blood into our muscular system.
Such a shifting of biological resources is an essential survival tool. But when we experience prolonged arousal without release or resolution we can become locked in or frozen, establishing an unstable state that may look immobile but may actually be “rapid and exaggerated sympathetic/parasympathetic oscillation (15). To put it in other words: when we face a crisis situation we can neither fight nor flee, our “freeze” reaction is a parafunctional cycling through the same fight/flight and resting process over and over again. In this state, our minds can become “numb and dissociated” and our vascular and digestive systems suffer. So, if over the past year you’ve found yourself inexplicably tired, facing unanticipated digestive issues, out of breath with a racing heart while sitting still, you may have been showing the symptoms of your body encoding our trauma
As Scaer outlines (15-16), Animals often show remarkable responses to this freeze (a “discharge”) that can include convulsions and more in an instinctive attempt to restore “autonomic homeostasis” (16), that is, stability. Human beings, however, rarely show such ‘rests’ to discharge the trauma and reset the body. Such an inability to resolve the freeze moment, it seems, compounds the long term dangers of physical responses to trauma and the likelihood that memories of the events will incite similar physical responses, a return to a traumatized state. Scaer argues that many chronic diseases may be rooted in the reshaping of our brains by trauma and the inability of our conscious minds to distinguish between now and traumatizing events.
Reading Hektor’s Trauma
I see so much of my sleepless nights, habitual doom scrolling, and somatic disarray in this description. And during these moments, I have wondered how this can change the way we approach Hektor both in a single moment and from the perspective of the whole narrative.
When we see Hektor before the walls of Troy, he is “coiled” like a snake (elissomenos) and he wouldn’t retreat because of his unquenchable heart. Note that I translate that participle clause ἄσβεστον ἔχων μένος causally. This is, of course, a significant choice, but I think a well-motivated one. This is the only time in Greek epic when menos—one’s energy, life force—is described as asbestos, “inextinguishable, unsatisfiable”. The adjective appears to mark extreme or powerful expressions of emotion as in describing the laughter of the gods at Hephaistos (1.599) or war cries of groups as they engage in battle (11.500, 11.530; 13.169; 13.450; 16.267). In the Odyssey, asbeston twice modifies kleos (4.584; 7.133). This word seems to describe extreme moments of pitch, or aggression with a sense of duration. But as Lorenzo Garcia argues in his Homeric Durability, asbestosmarks things that ultimately cannot endure: what the sound of a laugh or a war-cry share in common with Hektor’s menos is an unsustainable intensity. In addition, the adjective marks something that is public, shared, or heard by others. Here, the asbeston menos is something private, a massive, unsustainable thing somehow contained within a single person.
The simile compares Hektor to an animal coiled for attack; in describing his refusal to retreat, the narrative uniquely describes the energy driving him; the speech introduction that follows places him in a motif of deliberation over fighting or fleeing. Speeches introduced by the formula “He really glowered as he spoke to his own proud heart” (ὀχθήσας δ᾽ἄρα εἶπε πρὸς ὃν μεγαλήτορα θυμόν) are dramatic representations of deliberation—moments that happen in an instant but are unfolded in the time of performance to allow audiences to consider the inner workings of heroic minds. The simile of the serpent creates extra space and invites audiences to consider the space between the image of the coiled snake and Hektor’s actions: it is as much about how Hektor is the snake and how he is not.
For mortals, the moment of deliberation seems to be that very freeze before the selection of fight or flight: at 11.404-410, Odysseus, caught alone in battle worries about being overcome as the battle rages around him. At 17.90, Menelaos pauses in the defense of Patroklos’ body, afraid to face Hektor alone. At 18.5, Achilles is paralyzed by fear that something has happened to Patroklos and later at 20.143, Achilles finds himself perplexed at the sudden disappearance of Aeneas who has been rescued by the gods. At 21.552, Agenor the son of Antenor pauses mid-battle to decide to run or face Achilles.
The participle characterizing the speech, okhthêsas, moreover, expresses anger or resentment and may be an iterative of ekhthomai, that same root that gives us Greek words for hostility and enmity. Especially when combined with the asseverative particle ἄρα, this verb communicates an inward wrath at a choice with no good options. It is the coiling of anticipation, of loss, and of a loss of control. It is, I think, a formulaic marker for the process of navigating between fight and flight. In its pairing with the opening simile, it marks Hektor in that same moment, in an extended freeze. His resolution, however, contrasts with the other scenes: Hektor ends up acting contrary to his choice to stand.
Hektor’s menos, his anger, is a reflex of his loss of control and of his longing for something to be different. Andromache anticipates this when she speaks to him in book (6.407-409):
“Divine one, your menos will destroy you and you do not pity
Your infant child and my wretched fate, the one who will soon
Be your widow. For the Achaeans are on their way to kill you…”
Hektor’s drive to protect those he cares for most is the very thing that separates him from them, that unites them only in loss and longing. This calls to my mind the work of my friend, Emily Austin, who has written a book foregrounding the thematic importance of loss and longing (pothos) in the Iliad: it is the sudden absence that motivates Achilles’ menis. I think it is also the unconquerable fire that keeps Hektor from ever truly being still.
Thinking about the fight/flight/freeze complex as described by Scaer helps us confirm the poetic function of a Homeric formula: it also serves to invite audiences into a mind navigating a moment of crisis, of choice or judgment (hence Greek krisis) over running away or facing danger. In combination with a striking simile and a strange description of Hektor’s menos, this pattern also helps us see what can happen when the deliberation fails, when the freeze prolongs. Hektor’s menos is overloaded, it is too thoroughly interiorized, coiled inside him, breaking him from within.
Hektor, Fighting and Fleeing
Almost 15 years ago, Elton Barker and I wrote an article about debates over fight or flight in the New Archilochus Poem and Homer. In it, we argued that both Homer and Archilochus were engaged in a tradition of poetic debate about the merits of fight or flight, transcending our narrow concepts of genre and operating ahierarchically, that is, prioritizing neither Homer nor Archilochus, but providing evidence of debate and reflection over time. I don’t think we’re wrong, still; but I do think that this debate is about more than drama and poets: it is about representing human emotion and cognition.
Broadly speaking, Scaer’s framework and my own experience makes me think that we need to rethink Hektor’s behavior throughout the epic and the depiction of Trojan responses to the war in general, allowing more richness to the emotive and cognitive content. There are thematic ties that tell a story of their own.
When Hektor speaks to Andromache in book 6, he anticipates the shame he worries about in book 22 and considers his wife’s suffering after his death. He expresses a characteristic fatalism when he dismisses Andromache to her weaving, saying, “I claim that there is no one who has escaped his fate, / whether a good person or a bad one, after they are born” (μοῖραν δ’ οὔ τινά φημι πεφυγμένον ἔμμεναι ἀνδρῶν, /οὐ κακὸν οὐδὲ μὲν ἐσθλόν, ἐπὴν τὰ πρῶτα γένηται, 6.488-489).
Perhaps it is too much to read into this passage to say that Hektor thinks flight is impossible (he does…), but it certainly helps explain his subsequent actions: keeping the Trojan army out on the field at night in book 8, breaking through the Greek fortifications despite a bad omen in book 12, and refusing to return to the defense of the city in book 18. When Polydamas calls for them to retreat, Hektor continues to insist Zeus is on their side and declares, “I will not flee him from the ill-sounding battle, but I will stand / against Achilles either to win great strength or to be taken myself. War is common ground and the one who kills is killed” (…οὔ μιν ἔγωγε / φεύξομαι ἐκ πολέμοιο δυσηχέος, ἀλλὰ μάλ’ ἄντην /στήσομαι, ἤ κε φέρῃσι μέγα κράτος, ἦ κε φεροίμην / ξυνὸς ᾿Ενυάλιος, καί τε κτανέοντα κατέκτα, 18.306-309).
When Hektor freezes in the choice to fight or flee in book 22, he knows there is no other option. In his speech, he often surprises modern audiences with a wish that he and Achilles could exchange pledges like young lovers and wishes neither would have to die even as he admits that shame would prevent him from retreat. As another friend Justin Arft has recently argued, Hektor “transitions from imagined mediation, to being unarmed, to being a woman, to intimate discourse, to he and Achilles in the place of lovers” (SCS 2021) and is flipping through cognitive schemas (patterns of behavior) trying to figure out what to do. It is as if Hektor has a handful of cards and is repeatedly flipping through them, looking for one that will change a fate he knows cannot be changed. He goes back through his own stories, perhaps stopping at his conversation with Andromache and thinking about what he loses, what he needs, and the absence of choices remaining to him. At the end, he returns to that deceptive idea, that fate alternates and he just might win the day (εἴδομεν ὁπποτέρῳ κεν Ὀλύμπιος εὖχος ὀρέξῃ, 130).
After not even a year yet in a society in trauma, I now see Hektor as someone whose response to the false hope of choice is to overcompensate, to come on too strong, and to engage in willful denial. He fights to extremes and then he flees excessively too. He is burdened by the weight of his past failures and the ultimate futility of his actions.
The Trojans in Trauma
Of course, there’s not a single way to think about this moment. David Morris in his 2015 The Evil Hours notes that Freud theorized that war neuroses came from an internal conflict between self preservation and responsibility to honor and comrades (15). As Jonathan Shay adds in his Achilles in Vietnam, trauma undermines “the cohesion of consciousness” (1995,188). And this fragmentation has been born out by neurobiological studies since.
The additional thing to think about for Hektor and for us, is that the impact of trauma can be increased by duration. What if we think of the Trojan leader as coiled for nine years, as representing a people besieged, constantly poised between the need to fight and the desire for an impossible flight. The repeated suppression of the fight or flight choice, the prolonged freeze would be traumatizing neurobiologically. It would change the way Hektor’s mind and body worked.
I do want to be careful to say that I am not saying the Greeks would have seen it this way precisely, but rather that there is clearly a traditional marker through the collocation of simile, deliberative introduction, and the invitation to the audience to linger with Hektor for a moment (the freeze) that modern observers have seen as having both psychological and neurobiological components. Ancient audiences would have seen their own peers shaped and reshaped by similar traumas and their poems show evidence of understanding the long term impact experiences like isolation, betrayal, and helplessness can have on the working of human minds (think of Philoktetes, Ajax, Odysseus, and others like Klytemnestra and Medea in tragedy).
So, this is not a positivistic reading saying “this thing is definitely that” but more that our modern scientific discourse has outlined a space of behavior that traditional poetics found meaningful too and that the correlation between these observations may help us understand something about Hektor others have missed. But I think this is bigger than Hektor: it may be about the Trojans, a people besieged, as a whole.
In the traditional story of the Trojan War, the story of the horse seems all but ridiculous (ok, it is ridiculous). But what if we considered the Trojan willingness to accept a clear trap, to engage in such extreme denial, as a function of their collective trauma? We are no strangers to large parts of our population refusing to accept what others see as fact, in engaging in clearly self-destructive behavior because it adheres so much more closely to what they want to be true and reality causes them so much pain.
In Greek myth, trouble tends to run in families and cities, traveling from father to son and grandson until the whole line is used up. This too resounds with what we have learned over the past century. We know trauma can be passed down three generations. Large-scale studies of oppressed populations show greater evidence of trauma related behaviors (depression, suicide, drug use) in the grand-chhildren of those who suffered abuse and displacement than their peers. And these responses may be about more than the power of discourse and socialization. There’s growing evidence for the reshaping of DNA as a result of trauma. Our ancestors’ experiences may impact those parts of our DNA that inform our mental health and shape our responses to traumatic events in our lives.
(As a necessary aside, this makes it even harder to defend people who deny the justice of reparations on financial or ethical grounds. The legacy of past traumas are still shaping people today.)
Trauma impacts our physical health; it impedes learning and new memories; it alters how we respond to crisis; untreated, it deprives us of even instinctual advantages. The Iliad’s story of the Trojan War gives its audiences traumatized warriors and families on both sides. It shows people fraying then unraveling under the pressures of long term conflict. And it provides us with vignettes of men and women trying to make sense of the world as everything they know breaks down. When Hektor tries to face his death, but then runs, the traditional language and its images unfold a human mind at its most intense moment of crisis.
Over the past few years, I have often found myself arguing about what the humanities are, about what they are good for. A poem like the Iliad is not some timeless relic, a perfect object to be worshipped for the unmixed good it can bring. But it is a deeply complex inheritance, a poem that gives us the opportunity to move between what we know and see now and what others experienced thousands of years ago. By tracing out the story of Hektor’s mind and his body’s burden, we may find just a little help in learning how to carry our own.
“For me, this was frightening to see,
And for you to hear. Know well that my child
Would be wondrous to behold if he did well but,
He’s not beholden to the state:
he will rule the land if he merely survives.”
“When strong winds carry sailors forward
Divergent opinions steering the ship
Or a mob thick with wise men is feebler
Than a single mind with self-control.
In city and under a single
Authority should be one person’s
Whenever we want to find success.”
“My speech is lacking one thing still.
I wish I had the voice in my limbs
And hands and hair and the march of my feet
Or the skills of Daidalos or some god
So I could completely grasp you by your knees
Wailing, laying about you with every kind of argument.
Master, great hope of life for the Greeks,
Heed me—lend an avenging hand to an old woman
Even if she is nothing at all.
For it is right that a good man serve justice
And always do evil everywhere to evil men.”
The figure of the isolated hero in ancient Greek myth and poetry is one who is set apart, on an island, separated from other humans and, by extension, from human culture. The impact of isolation is often communicated through the heroic body, even if it is offered in some way as a cause: Philoktetes’ dehumanization is reflected in the wound whose antisocial attributes cause him to be abandoned (described like a disease in Sophocles’ play). Odysseus seems arguably less human insofar as he is stripped of agency and, until Hermes comes to move him, clearly more an object of interest than a subject of his own.
Indeed, the Odyssey has deep ethnographic concerns, focusing on how people make their livings and how they live their lives. When Odysseus describes the island of the Cyclopes, he remarks on how it might be a good place to live, but the Cyclopes themselves are “arrogant and lawless” (ὑπερφιάλων ἀθεμίστων, 9.106). They aren’t human because of the way they live (they do not cultivate the land, 108-111). And they are less than human because of how they organize their lives (Odyssey 9.112–115):
“They don’t have council-bearing assemblies or laws,
But instead they inhabit homes on high hills
In hollow caves, and each one makes laws
For his children and wives—they do not have concern for one another.”
In a way, Odysseus anticipates here the later Greek use of the term idiotês for the person who fails to understand that the commonwealth directly impacts individual possessions—indeed, it makes possible the existence of individual goods. The ancient idiot, in this political sense, is a kind of naïve libertarian who is incapable of conceiving of shared human society as the very thing that makes life possible and also worth living.
* * * *
Current events are forcing us to explore some of the same tensions: inasmuch as some are aghast that we are not willing to die to preserve the economy, the rest of us remain horror stricken at how much our public health and collective good have been sacrificed to prop up the wealth of a very few. Even though my training directs my thoughts consistently to the past for parallels to cope with the present, my own reading history and proclivity for speculative fiction keep taking me to narrative futures. In my impatience to be done with the now, I am busy manufacturing anxieties about what will become of us later.
In Isaac Asimov’s Robot novelThe Naked Sun(1957), the detective Elijah Bailey is dispatched to one of the “spacer” worlds to investigate a murder. In Asimov’s world, humankind lives in a mixed future where billions are crowded into cities on earth while a select elite escape to fifty “Spacer” worlds. Over time, the antagonism between Spacer and Earther expands as the former use their greater resources and technology to dominate the latter. And Earthers suffer from a fear of the outside, a reluctance to leave the comfort of their cities.
The Spacers, those libertarian techno-overlords, fear contagion and disease and contact with the human rabble left on earth. When Baily meets with the widow of the murdered scientist on her planet Solaria, Gladia, she will at first only see him through “viewing” (a video screen). Eventually she breaks Solarian taboo and comes to him in person and to help solve the crime. (No spoiler, but it wasn’t a robot.)
Many years later (in our world) Asimov returns to Solaria generations later in his Foundation and Earth(1986). In the intervening years, the Spacer planets were eclipsed by the rapid expansion of the population of Earth into the galaxy, fading quickly into obsolescence and obscurity. The Solaria found here is populated by a few human beings who intentionally developed hermaphroditic qualities so they would never have to encounter other human beings in person again. The Solarian world is expansive—each person lives on massive estates, engaging with others only through mediated viewing and using technology to ritualize isolation.
E. M. Forster in his short story “The Machine Stops” (1909, 1928) puts humankind in a sub-terrestrial, dystopic future. People must live in isolation, in basic rooms from which they engage in the world only through video conferencing. One of the main characters, Vashti, spends a great deal of her time broadcasting her ideas over this ersatz internet, recycling and repackaging ideas for consumption and replacing most human relationship with a distanced presentation of the ‘self’. The main plot of this tale, of course, is about the “machine” which supports all of this life collapsing, but the lingering sense it leaves is one of the panopticon in which the ability to broadcast, to send a message, is traded for being watched and people live separate from one another both out of fear and out of habit.
I have been thinking about both of these speculative narratives over the past few weeks as my work has converted online completely and my social life has blended into it. I “zoom” with colleagues, skype with friends, and merely text-message with my extended family. I watch as my children are habituated to the same kind of mediated existence. There is an hour each day when three of us are on zoom simultaneously, in the same house but in separate rooms, sometimes irked that the sound of another intrudes on our distanced engagement.
We have been living with some of the rapid consequences of these kinds of mediated communication networks for years. Is something as bizarre as pizza-gate possible without facebook or other online fora? Do these media ever produce anything but the strangest and saddest common denominator?
Modern science fiction is no stranger to this too. In his post-apocalpytic Seveneves, Neal Stephenson—an author a bit too libertarian and soft on techo-capitalists generally—puts a surviving remnant of humanity in space, isolated in a network of space capsules connected by a communication network dubbed “spacebook”. In order to survive, these clutches of life have to preserve resources and follow a very basic plan. But paranoia explodes in the social network: one week, a thought leader proposes that in space humans do not need legs, so they should cut them off and eat them to preserve the protein. Soon, a critical number of people depart with precious resources to try to make it to Mars because they convinced themselves in their echo chamber of madness that this was a good plan, despite every bit of evidence to the contrary.
(they all die. A mere handful of people survive their stupidity.)
Of the many ways in which COVID-19 will change our lives, one is how it will accelerate our embrace of life online. Children are having playdates online: ours have had dance classes, piano lessons, and speech therapy in just the last week to go along with 2-3 ‘Montessori’ zoom lessons a day. Although I am deeply grateful to these teachers and instructors for bringing some sense of normalcy to our children’s days, I worry that this will be their baseline: no playgrounds, no playmates, but video-streamed encounters and mediated experiences. They will be open to the supercharged pathways of disinformation that propagate quack cures for plagues and easy arguments for denying collective action against global warming.
Asimov’s Solarians are independent-minded elitists whose fear of disease and love of long lives pushes them further and further apart; Forster’s subterraneans are addicted to the comfort of their regulated lives and distracted by the ability to be ‘experts’ and temporary celebrities in the global machine. Stephenson’s human race barely survives an apocalypse followed by human caused ruin thanks to individual heroics and fantastic evolutionary science. The Coronavirus won’t suddenly turn us into any of these groups, but it may make us just that much less human.
* * * *
Modern studies in narrative emphasize how our identity develops from social relationships and studies in cognitive psychology show how isolation can have damaging effects on us emotionally and mentally. When separated from others we can experience an increase in fear and paranoia (See Andersen et al. 2000, 19.); studies in the impact of solitary confinement on prisoners demonstrate a marked increase in the development of psychopathology under the influence of isolation which can eventuate in neurobiological transformations. The brain of an isolated human being may demonstrate fewer neural connections and correlate with distortions in memory and a deterioration of language abilities. Isolation, to put it simply, can break down those very things that make people who they are. (see Ravindran 2014, Gilmore and Nanon 2014; Kaba et al. 2014)
Ancient Greek myth and poetry seems to communicate this through figures like Philoktetes—who languishes for a decade after being marooned on the island of Lemnos—and Odysseus, who suffers in quasi-isolation for seven years, weeping on the edge of the sea (but having sex with Calypso at night). Odysseus cannot return home directly from this. His journey home requires him to repeatedly tell stories about himself and to reaffirm his identity step-by-step through reunions with the important people in his life. It is Odysseus too who brings Philoktetes back into society in Sophocles’ play.
I think ancient audiences saw the sufferings of both figures as a result from their isolation, from their separation from communion with other human beings. Both Homer’s epic and Sophocles’ play emphasize political themes and social consequences: Odysseus and Philoktetes are at times calculating and full of rage, leaving characters in the poems (and audiences outside them) unsure of if or when they will lash out.
What each narrative emphasizes, however, is that the isolated figure needs fellowship and partnership to return to human society. Odysseus’ return home is not complete until he is recognized—and recognizes himself—in his son, spouse, and father. Philoktetes needs to be persuaded to return, to be cajoled and guided and distracted from the fact he is being used.
This is, perhaps, cold comfort for those of us isolated now. But it does remind us that having other people around us is important and that, when the time comes to reintegrate, it won’t be simple or easy. We will have to tell each other our stories and listen to who we confirm in each other we are.
And perhaps it will force us to think about the world we create for ourselves. The plot which drives Asimov’s Foundation and Earth is a choice about the future of life in the galaxy: whether it will continue on as it has, with everyone charting separate courses of self interest or it will change radically, adopting the life-form model of a planet called Gaia where all inhabitants shared consciousness and fate, yielding some sense of free will.
When I read this choice to its conclusion in the late 80s, I was horrified because it seemed (spoiler alert) that the protagonist was choosing communism! But it did not take many years for the wisdom of this choice to make a little more sense. At the end of the Odyssey, Odysseus returns home and murders 108 suitors. The epic almost ends with a civil war but for the intervention of Athena and Zeus who declare an amnesty, insisting that the Ithakans and Odysseus need to live together (24.486, πλοῦτος δὲ καὶ εἰρήνη ἅλις ἔστω). In this, the individual leader is forced to change his ways; but the people have to submit to forgetting and forgetting the violence and malice which brought a generation to ruin.
What choices will we face? Which ones will we be able to make?
Some things to read
Andersen, H. S., Sestoft, D. D., Lillebæk, T. T., Gabrielsen, G. G., Hemmingsen, R. R., & Kramp, P. P. 2000. “A Longitudinal Study of Prisoners on Remand: Psychiatric Prevalence, Incidence and Psychopathology in Solitary vs. Non-Solitary Confinement.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 102:19.
Barker, E.T.E. and Christensen J. P. Homer’s Thebes. Washington, D.C. 2019.
Gilmore, Betty and Williams, Nanon M. 2014. The Darkest Hour: Shedding Light on the Impact of Isolation and Death Row in Texas Prisons. Dallas.
Kaba, Fatos et al. 2014. “Solitary Confinement and Risk of Self-Harm Among Jail Inmates.” American Journal of Public Health: March 2014, Vol. 104, No. 3, pp. 442–447.
Ravindran, Shruti 2014. “Twilight in the Box.” Aeon 27.
Shay, Jonathan. 2002. Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. New York.
Thiher, Allen. 1999. Revels in Madness: Insanity in Medicine and Literature. Ann Arbor.
Underwood, Charles. 2018. Mythos and Voice: Displacement, Learning, and Agency in Odysseus’ World. Lanham: Lexington Books
What happened next basically stayed true to our original idea, but also showed how limited our understanding of it was. We recorded over 40 videos between March and December, including segments from every full Greek tragedy, selections of fragments, three comedies, parts of the Iliad , a 24 hour performance of the Odyssey across six continents, and a competition for high school and college students with cash prizes (guided with help from Amy Pistone). We learned a lot from each other about Greek theater, interpreting Greek myth, and performing in the confines of the small screen. But I think we also learned a lot about why performing and interpreting these ancient texts together matters, especially during times of uncertainty and crisis.
Beyond all else, I learned how much a larger community can enrich this process. Part of our working practice from the beginning was to bring in as many people as possible and listen to their directions, reactions, and ideas. This week at the annual meeting of the AIA/SCS, Paul and I are holding a workshop to try to see where we can go next. We will be talking about the experience of performing these plays online with actors and other guests, but we will also be seeking advice for what we do next.
The workshop will be split into two halves, one reflective and instructive followed by an opportunity to engage in performance and staging itself. We are also eager to hear feedback about our work and have conversations about what happens next.
Prior registration is not required (although AIA/SCS Registration is!); no experience is required. Come and share a few hours reading and performing Greek tragedy.
The format of this workshop will be practical, based on performing ancient texts and stories. It will focus in particular on staging ideas for tragedy and epic in theatre today and it will explore the positive impact of performance in academic settings. There will be practical exercises for those who would like to get involved and there will be discussion between the two panellists (the two organizers). This will be an opportunity to explore collaboration between academic and artistic practitioners, and to discover how such work can enrich their respective fields. There will be particular attention paid to the Aeneid, exploring the challenges posed by staging epic, and the opportunities created by ancient stories illuminating ongoing political and social upheaval within Europe (and beyond).
“Our fated nature is identified by Empedocles as the force behind this remaking, “wrapping [us] in a tunic of strange flesh” and transferring souls to a new place. Homer has called this circular revolution and the return of rebirth by the name Kirke, a child of Helios, the one who unites every destruction with birth and destruction again, binding it endlessly.
The Island Aiaia is that place which revives the person who dies, a place where the souls first step when they are wandering and feel like strangers to themselves as they mourn and cannot figure out which direction is west nor where the “sun which brings life to people over the land / descends again into the earth.”
These souls long for their habits of pleasure and their life in the flesh and the way they lived with their flesh and they fall again into that mixture where birth swirls together and truly stirs into one the immortal and moral, the material of thought and experience, elements of heaven and earth. The souls are enchanted but also weakened by the pleasures that pull them to birth again. At that time, souls require a great amount of good luck and much wisdom to find some way to resist and depart from their worst characters and become bound to their most base parts or passions and take up a terrible and beastly life.”
There will be time aplenty in the new year to reflect on what Reading Greek Tragedy Online meant to those of us who were engaged with it every week. It suffices to say for the moment that it gave us structure, a sense of community, and a reason to drag ourselves out of bed a few times a week. it also gave us the opportunity to think and talking about performing Greek theater in a sustained way that none of us could have imagined a year ago today.
Back in April, when Paul and I were outlining the rest of the year with Lanah, we thought this play would be a nice way to end the series on something of an absurdist but reflective turn. Aristophanes’ Frogs stands as one of the earliest pieces of literary criticism in the Athenian tradition. Even if it is bawdy and hyperbolic, it provides critical comments and cultural frameworks for the three tragedians we moderns know best. As a comedy, it ranges from sophisticated engagement with literary motifs and styles right back down to fart jokes and the regrettable but by no means atypical repeated play with abusing an enslaved person.
But the Frogs also has a sense of coming near the end of things: it starts with the assertion that all the good poets are dead (in a year following the passing of both Euripides and Sophocles). Not only does it come at the end of an artistic era, but it was also composed and performed near the end of the Peloponnesian War and the high point of Athenian influence. Rarely does any play stand at the intersection of so many charged themes; it is even rarer that such a play is a comedy.
So, to end this, our most recent annus horribilis and this series which has meant so much to us, we turn to a new version of the Frogs. Who’s ready for some koaks koaks?
Aristophanes, Frogs 237-239
“I am developing blisters,
My rectum has been oozing for a while,
And soon it will jump out and say…
Artistic Director: Paul O’Mahony (Out of Chaos Theatre) Associate Director: Liz Fisher Director of Outreach: Amy Pistone (Gonzaga University) Dramaturg: Emma Pauly Executive Producer: Lanah Koelle (Center for Hellenic Studies) Producers: Keith DeStone (Center for Hellenic Studies), Hélène Emeriaud, Janet Ozsolak, and Sarah Scott (Kosmos Society) Poster Artist: John Koelle Poster Designer: Allie Marbry (Center for Hellenic Studies)
“Shining Klytemnestra was resisting the shameful deed
Previously, for she had use of some good advice for her mind.
See, a man was there beside her, a singer whom Agamemnon
Ordered much to safeguard his wife when he went to Troy.
But when the fate of the gods was bound to overcome him,
Then [he*] packed off the singer to some lonely island
And left him there as food and booty for the birds
And he, willingly, took her willing to his own home”
*note how carefully the Homeric text leaves the subject of the action in doubt until the final line.
Schol. EM ad Od. 3.267
“In olden days, singers used to hold the position of philosopher, everyone used to consider them wise and they entrusted their kind to them to be educated. When gathering in festivals and to rest for many days, they used to listen to them if any famous or noble deed had happened. So, the singer who was left with Klytemnestra was trying to hinder wicked thoughts from happening by narrating the virtues of men and women. And she was acting prudently as long as that singer was present. Some people say that the singer did not have genitals, wrongly. Some named him Khariades, others call him Demodokos, others Glaukos.”
“Demetrius of Phalerum has as follows: “Menelaos, when he went with Odysseus to Delphi asked about the expedition which was about to happen against Troy. At that time, in fact, Kreon was running the nine-year contest of the Pythian games. The Spartan Demodokos won, a student of Automedon of Mycenae who was the first who composted the Battle of Amphritryon against the Teleboans and the Conflict of Kithairon and Helikon for whom the mountains in Boiotia are named. He was also a student of Perimedes the Argive who taught the Mycenean Automedes himself along with Likymnios the Bouprasian and Sinis along with Dôrieus, the Laconian Pharides and the Spartan Probolos.
At that time, Menelaos dedicated the expedition for Helen to Athena thanks to forethought. Agamemnon led Demodokos to Mycenae and ordered him to watch over Klytemnestra.
People used to honor singers excessively as teachers of the gods and other ancient acts of good men and they used to delight in the lyre beyond the other instruments. Klytemnestra clearly honored him—she didn’t have him murdered but instead ordered him to be exiled. Timolaus suggest that he was the brother of Phemios who accompanied Penelope to Ithaca to keep a watch over her. He sang for the suitors under compulsion.”
“The music of rhapsodes applied so much to political matters that people report that the city of Sparta used it especially to encourage like-mindedness and preservation of the customs. They also say that once the Pythia, when a disturbance developed, told people to listen a Lesbian song and stop their rivalry.”
“Since it is right that the structure of the best tragedy not be simple but be complex instead and evoking both fearful and pitiful emotions—for that is the particular power of this kind of artistic representation—as an initial principle, it is clear that decent men should not be be shown undergoing a change from good fortune to bad fortune, for that is repugnant rather than pitiful or fearful. And it is also not right for depraved people to enjoy a change from bad fortune to good fortune, because that is the least tragic notion of all and has none of the necessary qualities. Such a plot does not create empathy and fails to produce pity or fear.
[Tragedy] should also not show an especially bad person falling from good fortune to bad—for this might engender empathy but without pity or fear since the first is felt for someone who is unworthy of bad fortune and the second is for someone who is similar [to us] (pity is for someone unworthy of suffering; fear is for someone like us suffering). The response to [a wicked person] falling is not pitiful or fearful. What remains [for tragedy] is the person in between. A person like this is not impeccable in terms of justice nor for his wickedness and evil, but he falls into misfortune because of some kind of mistake. This kind of person is from those well-known families, like Oedipus or Thyestes.”
This passage (and a few others) have been misread since the rise of Christianity to mean that the tragic protagonist “suffers a fall because of a tragic flaw”. This is essentially bogus for lexicographical and contextual reasons. In early Greek, hamartia means to make a mistake: it comes from an archery metaphor and is related to the verb hamartanô, which means “to miss the mark”. This is a mistake that is not connected to an essential character goodness or badness.
from Beekes 2010
The Christian use of hamartia is “sin”, which, as we all know from our Sunday School, is innate and a sign of our essential badness. Wanting to have sex with people is a sin; driving badly and hitting someone from inattention is an accident. In my understanding of tragedy, hamartia means the latter. Yes, one might be distractable and an essentially bad driver and we may see this as in some way a flaw, but this is a cultural perspective that mixes determinism and responsibility in a strange way.
Contextually, Aristotle makes the specific point that the tragic hero should not be essentially wicked. If one is essentially wicked, the audience cannot make the key identification necessary to feel pity or fear. Now, one could argue that in a Christian context where everyone is flawed because of sin, the doctrine might still be said to apply. But this is not the Aristotelian context and this is not what Aristotle had in mind.