June 17, 2009

No arrow from a bow

The murder of Aegisthus by Orestes. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Greek tragedies are about as far removed as you can get from the standard modern fare of action movies, where good guys fight bad guys and usually win. In tragedies, the good guys are often flawed and the bad ones often have their reasons.

In tragedies, people are sometimes just overwhelmed and destroyed by circumstances or are caught up in a chain of events they don't understand or control. Sometimes, the harder protagonists try to avoid some awful outcome the more surely they bring it about.

And sometimes they are forced to do things they don't want to do or are caught up in situations where they are confronted with competing ethical and religious claims that can't possibly be reconciled.

That kind of dilemma characterizes the plays Goat Rope is looking at these days, the Orestes trilogy of Aeschylus. Agamemnon in the play of the same name has a sacred duty to lead an army to Troy to punish the sacrilege of Paris in violating xenia or hospitality by abducting Helen of Troy. All the leaders of Greece had sworn a holy oath to uphold the marriage and punish anyone who defiled it. If he doesn't fulfill this sacred duty, he and everyone else will suffer terribly.

But the goddess Artemis, protectress of defenseless things, foresees the slaughter of the innocent when Troy is destroyed. She withholds winds unless and until Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia. As Martha Nussbaum summarizes, "If Agamemnon does not fulfill Artemis's condition, everyone, including Iphigenia, will die." No easy way out. He does and seals his fate.

In the second part of the trilogy, The Libation Bearers, his son Orestes is under an oracle by the god Apollo that requires him to slay his mother and her lover Aegisthus in revenge for their murder of Agamemnon. If he refused, "no arrow from a bow could touch such peaks of agony" that he would undergo. No easy way out.

While most of us in a normal week are not required by deities to sacrifice or murder family members, that kind of tragic conflict between competing valid but irreconcilable claims--usually on a less gory scale--is all too common in public and private life.

Most of us don't like to think about that kind of thing or imagine that there's always some easy escape. The ancient Athenians had the courage to make it the cornerstone of their greatest public works of art.

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