Friday, September 30, 2022

Orestes by Euripides - And what had seemed so right, / as soon as done, became / evil, monstrous, wrong!

I want to invite anyone interested to join me in reading Aristotle’s Poetics, the foundation of Western literary criticism, influential to the present day and bizarrely dominant, almost sacred, for centuries.  I hope to write about it at the end of the month, having just reread all of the Greek tragedies.  Anyone who has been reading along this year will find Poetics easy going.  It will raise many curious questions.

This week, the play at hand is Euripides’s late masterpiece of despair and nihilism, Orestes (408 BCE).  I had forgotten how long it was, likely the longest of the surviving Greek plays.  Euripides makes room for the story we know from other plays, with the Furies tormenting Orestes soon after he murders his mother:

And what had seemed so right,

as soon as done, became

evil, monstrous, wrong!  (162)

New parts of the story include a major new plotline featuring cowardly Uncle Menelaus and shallow Aunt Helen.  I have included a photo from a 2018 Greek production of Orestes that must be the meeting of Electra and Helen.

I want to include some quotes from William Arrowsmith’s introduction to the play:

What we get in the Orestes is, in fact, very much like what we get in Troilus and Cressida: tragedy utterly without affirmation, an image of heroic action seen as botched disfigured, and sick, carried along by the machinery and slogans of heroic action in a steady crescendo of biting irony and the rage of exposure.  (106)

It is that crescendo that requires the greater length.  Like Ravel’s Bolero, for the effect to work the thing has to keep going.  It takes time, plus the big swerve in the plot when Pylades convinces Orestes and Electra that their lives will be saved if they murder Helen and perhaps her daughter, too, why not, after murdering your mother why not your aunt and cousin.  If we have learned anything from the myths of the house of Atreus it is that more murders, “murder displacing murder” (162), is always the answer. 

ELECTRA:            If then, seeing Helen

lying in a pool of blood, he decides he wants

his daughter’s life at least and agrees to spare you,

let the girl go.  On the other hand,

if he tries to kill you in a frantic burst of rage,

you slit the girl’s throat.   (180)

Electra is as nuts as any of them.  The characters all start out bad and become so much worse.

Arrowsmith calls Orestes “a kind of negative tragedy of total turbulence” where “nothing but the sense of bitterness and alienation survives the corrosive effect of the action” (106).  The deus ex machina that ends the play is similar to yet opposite of the one that ends Sophocles’s Philoctetes.  The set, the palace, is on fire, the characters doomed; Orestes has his sword to the throat of his cousin, on the verge of murdering her when Apollo drops from the sky and ends the apocalypse.  Orestes and Hermione will marry! 

I imagine Apollo as one of those articulated artist’s dummies, dangling from a rope, or some other kind of bizarre puppet, delivering his lines through a tinny loudspeaker.  “Go and honor Peace, / loveliest of goddesses,” Apollo says as he escorts Helen to the stars.

ORESTES:   And yet, when I hear you speak,

I thought I heard the whispers of some fiend

speaking through your mouth.

                                                         But all is well

and I obey.  (206)

After the performance of Orestes, Euripides went into voluntary exile in Macedonia, about as far as he could get form Athens while staying in Greece.  He only lived for a couple more years.  He wrote at least three more plays before his death in 406 BCE.  They were directed at the 405 Dionysian festival by his son, or perhaps nephew.  Two of them have survived.  Next week, the greatest of them all: The Bacchae.

The Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis are also, I should note, now that I am paying attention, long plays, although I think not as long as Orestes.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Plato's Symposium - philosophy as realist fiction - pick up something to tickle your nose with, and sneeze

Philosophy makes me nervous, so I will begin my squib about Plato’s Symposium (c. 385-370 BCE) with an anxiety-deflating observation:  Symposium is fiction, a long story.  It is fiction in that at least some of it is invented, but mostly in that it uses the techniques of fiction: frame stories, personalities revealed through action, realistic social detail, things like that, even more than the typical Platonic dialogue.  Fiction, that is not so intimidating.

A group of guests deliver impromptu speeches about Love, Eros, at a drinking party celebrating Agathon’s first victory at the Dionysian festival.  How sad that none of Agathon’s plays survived.  If impromptu orations sounds a little tame for a victory party, well, this is actually the second night of celebration.  The first night was essentially a drinking contest, and everyone is hungover except for Socrates (“no one in the world has ever seen Socrates drunk”).

In a sense what I am supposed to be doing is working through the increasingly complex premises of the speeches to the concluding discussion by Socrates, which moves from a simple opposition of good and bad Love to the idea of love as the pursuit of the Beautiful, whatever that might be, to Socrates’s shift to Love, sexual or otherwise, as the pursuit of the Good, whatever that might be.  But I really wanted to read Symposium now because Aristophanes is one of the guests, so this is our chance to see him from the outside.

Does he ever deliver.  First, he loses his place in the contest because of an attack of the hiccups.  We get authentic Greek medical advice form a doctor who is a guest (and who delivers a tedious speech about healthy and unhealthy Love):

“And while I am speaking, hold your breath a long time and see if the hiccup will stop; if it won’t, gargle water.  But if it still goes strong, pick up something to tickle your nose with, and sneeze; do this once or twice, and stop it will, even if it is very strong.”

Along with all of the detail about the operation of the drinking party – the seating arrangement, the flute girl – the hiccups are the clearest move towards what we call “realism” in fiction.  They would have been easy enough to omit.

For his performance, Aristophanes commits to an origin myth in which humans had three genders, male-male, male-female, and female-female, until they were all split in two by Zeus:

“Next, the shape of man was quite round, back and ribs passing about it in a circle; and he had four arms and an equal number of legs, and two faces on a round neck, exactly alike; there was one head with these two opposite faces, and four ears, and two privy members, and the rest as you might imagine from this.”

The sex drive, the impulse to love, is our desperate attempt to reform our original eight-legged, two-faced ball form.  I love how Aristophanes, a true comedian, totally commits to the bit.  How enjoyable to find this imaginative nonsense in a work of philosophy.

The other highlight, for me, is when a drunken Alcibiades crashes the party and delivers his extraordinary encomium to Socrates, from the thematic view a demonstration of Platonic love but in practice a great character portrait:

“But when [the words of Socrates] are opened out, and you get inside them, you will find his words first full of sense, as no others are; next, most divine and containing the finest images of virtue, and reaching farthest, in fact reaching to everything which it profits a man to study who is to become noble and good.”

I have been thinking about reading more Greek philosophy, including more Plato, next year, and Symposium is a good introduction to why the dialogues are of high literary interest.

I read the H. D. Rouse translation in Great Dialogues of Plato (1956) because it was handy.  I know nothing about the translation of Plato.

Next month I plan to read Aristotle’s Poetics and remind myself why the received idea of Greek tragedy is so, as we have seen with our own eyes, wrong.  Anyone who has been reading along with the tragedies will be perfectly comfortable with Aristotle’s essay or lecture or whatever it is (not a story, not fiction).

Friday, September 23, 2022

Philoctetes by Sophocles - Let me suffer what I must suffer

Philoctetes by Sophocles (409 BCE), performed when the author was 87, which is perhaps why he is in a mood of reconciliation and healing. 

Literal healing.  Philoctetes possesses the bow of Hercules.  Either the bow, or Philoctetes himself, or both – prophecies are ambiguous – are necessary parts of the conquest of Troy by the Greeks.  But Philoctetes has spent the war abandoned on an island nursing his poisoned foot, injured when he was bit by a snake in a sacred grove.  You can see his bandaged foot on the far right in the beautiful painting of Philoctetes, contemporary with the play, on an oil flask on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The injury is so severe – so disgusting, so bad-smelling – that Philoctetes’s fellow soldiers abandoned him on the island.  But now there is a new prophecy, and they need him back, even if by treachery or force.  I was not surprised to learn that in the 21st century the play has been performed for American soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The relevance is direct.  The wound and its effects are described in detail with the greatest seriousness.  Neoptolemus has just taken Philoctetes’s hand when an attack of pain comes:

PHILOCTETES: Now – take me away from here –

NEOPTOLEMUS:                                           What do you mean?

PHILOCTETES:                                                                                Up, up.

NEOPTOLEMUS: What madness is upon you? Why do you look

    on the sky above us?

PHILOCTETES:             Let me go, let me go.


PHILOCTETES:               Oh, let me go.

NEOPTOLEMUS:                                Not I.

PHILOCTETES:  You will kill me if you touch me.

NEOPTOLEMUS:  Now I shall let you go, now you are calmer.

PHILOCTETES:  Earth, take my body, dying as I am.

                           The pain no longer lets me stand.  (p. 227, tr. David Grene)

There had been other plays on the story of Philoctetes, by Aeschylus and Euripides, among others.  I’ll bet they did not include a scene so, to use a word that makes me nervous, realistic.  Sophocles himself was an adept in the cult of Asclepius, the great hero-doctor of Greek mythology.

Odysseus tricked Philoctetes onto the island, and now plans to trick him off of it.  His tool is Neoptolemus, the honest, patriotic son of the recently killed Achilles,  So this is a three-character play, Scheming, righteous Odysseus versus bitter, suffering Philoctetes with Neoptolemus in the middle, like the audience full of sympathy for Philoctetes and his suffering.  He makes his decision in the end, and in a way that greatly resembles Existentialism – Philoctetes often feels quite modern – Philoctetes makes his (“Let me suffer what I must suffer,” 251) before the deus drops from the machina, or flies over on the crane, or whatever the stage business is, and ruins the play, or shades it with significant irony, by declaring that villainous Odysseus was right all along, and none of you have any choice, really, which makes Philoctetes and his great refusal of the premise even more of an Existentialist, right?

A wonderful play, far from whatever idea I might have about what a Greek tragedy is supposed to be.  It will be useful to look at Aristotle’s Poetics and see where that “supposed to be” comes from.  Which reminds me, I plan to write about Plato’s Symposium next week, so I had better get reading.

Next we have three Euripides plays in a row, the end of Euripides: Orestes (408) and The Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis (both performed, posthumously, in 405).  Euripides, in his old age, was not in a mood of reconciliation and healing.  Great masterpieces, all of them.  Next week, let’s say farewell to Orestes.

Friday, September 16, 2022

The Cyclops by Euripides - the only satyr play - the greatest god of all, / this belly of mine!

It’s The Cyclops by Euripides, the only surviving satyr play and the greatest mistake in my chronology of the Greek plays.  No one really knows the date on this one, so I arbitrarily placed it late, and reading it again I am convinced it likely is a late Euripides play, but still I should have scheduled it much earlier just so we could all read a satyr play.

Every set of three tragedies was followed by a short comedy starring a chorus of hybrid man-horses with prominent phalluses.  The most Dionysian part of the Festival of Dionysius, some plot of the action would be about wine and drunkenness.

CYCLOPS: Whoosh! I can scarcely swim out of this flood.

Pure pleasure! Ohhh. Earth and sky whirling around,

all jumbled up together!  Look: I can see

the throne of Zeus and the holy glory

of the gods.   (The satyrs dance around him suggestively.) (p. 34, tr. Arrowsmith)

Aeschylus and Sophocles wrote such things.  The Oresteia and Oedipus the King were followed by such creatures.  Three playwrights per festival, so three satyr plays per year for how long?  No one knows, but there have to have been hundreds of satyr plays.

Or, given that Euripides’s tragicomedy Alcestis was performed in the position of the satyr play, perhaps not.  Maybe only half the plays that capped the tragedies were satyr plays, and half were something else.  Who knows.  There would still be at least a couple hundred satyr plays.  It sounds like such a narrow genre. 

Yet The Cyclops is clearly a Euripides play, hitting some of his usual themes from a different direction.  Adapting the Cyclops episode form The Odyssey, and arbitrarily adding Silenus and the satyrs and a bottomless wine flask, Euripides pits the barbaric savagery of the Cyclops against the civilized savagery of Odysseus, as much of a Machiavellian here as in his villainous roles in other Euripides plays (we have one more ahead of us in Iphigenia in Aulis).

Odysseus tries to save himself and his men with a terrific, disingenuous, speech extolling the virtues of Greece and their defense of peace – the recent war was of course entirely the fault of the Trojans  – virtue and the gods; Cyclops is all appetite and does not care:

And as for sacrifices, I make mine,

not to the gods, but the greatest god of all,

this belly of mine! (25)

But both turn to violence in the end.  The Cyclops has a lot of murder and gore for a comedy.  It is a different kind of comedy, anyway, than that of Aristophanes.

The British Museum has a beautiful bowl depicting the moment before the blinding of the Cyclops.  Please note the two Euripidean horse-satyrs on the right.  The bowl is a likely a close contemporary of the play.

Next week: Odysseus returns in Philoctetes by Sophocles (409 BCE), a calming relief from the hysterics and turbulence of Aristophanes and Euripides.  Philoctetes, too, was likely followed by a play about dancing, singing, drunken, horny horse-men.

Friday, September 9, 2022

The Phoenician Women by Euripides - Oedipus, Antigone, et. al. - It would be no grace I would do the gods

Now I see why I did not remember The Phoenician Women (c. 410 BCE) by Euripides too well, or at all.  It is not one of his messes, but is rather too relentlessly efficient, condensing several plays into one, marching through the entire Theban cycle of stories with special emphasis on a rewrite of Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes and Sophocles’s Antigone, with bits of other plays thrown in.  An anti-climatic Antigone in ten pages, for example.

I’m fascinated by the late revisionary project of Euripides, but this time I do not understand the point of his revisions.  The text of the play is, it seems, a disaster, with entire episodes added by later writers.  It seems likely that Euripides already overstuffed play was further stuffed by later pedagogues, perhaps in order to have the Theban story complete in one handy play.  There is even a theory that the whole thing is a later imitation of Euripides, which I do not believe, but it is not crazy.

The body of surviving Greek plays was for some reason greatly compressed during a short period circa 250 CE; The Phoenician Women is the kind of play that convinces me that at least part of the narrowing was pedagogical.  We lost the plays that were not taught, and this one was useful for teaching.

The Phoenician Women does have the late-Euripides features.  An utterly pointless human sacrifice is part of the plot – “and bloody was the god / who brought these things about” (p. 113 , vol. V of the Chicago edition, tr. Elizabeth Wyckoff).  Antigone, at the end, imagines returning to her role as a priestess of Bacchus: “It would be no grace I would do the gods” (p. 140).  She has become disillusioned.

Now this is new.  Jocasta (alive, in this version, after the events of Oedipus the King) interrogates her son Polyneices about a curious subject: what it is like to be an exile.

So now I ask what first I wish to know.

What is it to lose your country – a great suffering?  (85)

Yes, says Polyneices, it is, in a number of ways.  The curious thing about this is that in 408 BCE, finally disgusted with Athens, Euripides will go into voluntary exile, at the age of seventy, in Macedonia, as far from his home as he can get.  We will soon see an expression of this disgust in Orestes.  Here, several years earlier, he is thinking about it.

I went looking for a performance again, and found a good-looking 2008 staging in Athens.  Here’s the chorus of Phoenician women, just passing through.  “[O]nly rarely performed,” says the press material.  A current performance would likely turn the chorus into Syrian refugees, fleeing one war only to be trapped by another.

The Phoenician Women  is our last Euripides dud, if that is not too strong.  How lucky we are that enough Euripides plays survived that some of them are not so good.

Next week’s play is The Cyclops by Euripides, dated who knows when, the only surviving satyr play, worth reading for that fact alone.  It is quite short, less than half the length of The Phoenician Women, for example.

And a reminder: Plato's Symposium at the end of the month.

Friday, September 2, 2022

The Poet and the Women by Aristophanes - What it is to have an intellectual in the family. - Plus: Let's read Plato's Symposium

Our first Geek play readalong supplement: I would like to invite anyone interested to join me in reading Plato’s Symposium (c. 380 BCE) in September.  The piece depicts a banquet attended by a number of prominent Athenians, including Socrates and most importantly for our purposes Aristophanes, where the guests all deliver monologues about love.  It is in a sense a “dialogue,” but also has more resemblance to a play than any other work of Plato’s.  For someone, like me, intimidated by the label “philosophy,” Symposium is as friendly as it gets.  It is a literary work.  It is only 70 or 80 pages long.  I plan to write something about it at the end of the month.

Today we have Thesmophoriazusae (411 BCE), or Women at the Thesmophoria Festival, or as my Penguin Classics translation by David Barrett sensibly calls it, The Poet and the Women.  The poet is Euripides.  This is the second of the three Aristophanes plays featuring Euripides onstage.  We will see the triumphant conclusion of the theme, The Frogs, seven weeks from now.

It is also the second “battle of the sexes” play Aristophanes wrote in 411, along with Lysistrata.  Where the latter is deep and sincere, The Poet and the Women is harmless fun.  Euripides gets off pretty well, too.  Sometimes Aristophanes wants to outrage his audience, but here everyone is supposed to have a good time.

Euripides is concerned that the women at the Thesmophoria Womyn’s Festival are planning to attack him for making women look bad in his plays.  Have they not seen how he makes men look?  Anyway, Euripides sends a relative in drag to infiltrate the festival, and the play quickly turns into a farce, with Euripides trying to rescue his partner the only way he knows how – by reenacting scenes from Euripides plays.

Very kind of you to explain, I must say.  What it is to have an intellectual in the family.  (100, tr. Barrett)

The specific plays that get the most attention, although there are references to a number of others, are Helen and Andromeda, both performed at the Dionysian festival the previous year, so fresh in mind.  We just read Helen – sadly, Andromeda is lost – so it is fresh in our minds.  The Poet and the Women is a reward for persistence reading Aristophanes and Euripides.  If this were one’s first Greek play, it would be baffling.  But we are savvy readers now, able to enjoy even this minor play.  “I got that reference” is a genuine source of pleasure, however shallow.

I borrowed a still from a recent performance of The Poet and the Women at the International Festival of Ancient Greek Drama held in Cyprus every July and August.  That would be a heck of a way to spend a vacation.

Next week’s play is The Phoenician Women by Euripides, which whatever the title might suggest is a radical rewrite of Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus, Euripides again in his late “revisionary” mode.  I wish I remembered what he did with the story, but I don’t.

Monday, August 29, 2022

There were also the legendary but altogether real nocturnal attacks by large packs of wild dogs - some rewarding César Aira completism

Why have I been reading the 1995 Rizzoli coffee table book Argentina: The Great Estancias?  “Estancias” are estates, enormous cattle and sheep ranches, many of which have central houses – mansions – palaces – of great architectural and historic interest, given any interest in Argentinean ranches.

Edited by Juan Pablo Queiroz and Tomás de Elia, photos by the latter, text by César Aira.  There we go!  Aira was at this point a know writer in Argentina, unknown elsewhere, author of a mere twenty books.  This book is a professional gig, and I now think also a favor for friends.  This bit that I am writing is perhaps of narrow interest, to Airaists and fans of, I guess, Argentinean ranch architecture, but it is also a tribute to the pleasures of completism.

Aira is a conceptual artist and a surrealist.  His best quality, as far as I am concerned, is his inventiveness, his screwy surprises.  In The Great Estancias he is on his best behavior, which is unfortunate, but once in a while there is a reward:

There were also the legendary but altogether real nocturnal attacks by large packs of wild dogs.  (185)


In one of the old buildings, known as la casa de los huesos (the house of bones) Natalie Goodall maintains a collection of skeletons of dolphins, porpoises, and seals.  (200)

Those sound like Aira sentences.

Aira is also suspiciously attentive to visiting writers and to libraries:

That’s at the San Miguel estancia in the Córdoba province. 

Even with the ladder, those highest shelves, how?

This book was quite helpful in filling in the background of Aira’s subset of historical pampas novels, Ema the Captive (1981), The Hare (1991), and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000).  The protagonist of the latter, the German painter Johann Moritz Rugendas, is discussed on p. 50 – not that this is five years before the novel is written – and the book includes a Rugendas drawing that will be specifically parodied in Aira’s novel.

So I learned a lot about Argentinean ranch houses, which are frankly pretty interesting, and I learned some things about Aira and his art, which is why I sought out the book.

Aira recommends a book himself:

Lucas Bridges recounted the story of his father, Harberton [the estancia], and Viamonte in The Uttermost Part of the Earth, a beautiful book published in 1948 and reprinted many times.  (198)

This is Harberton, with the whale tooth arch, on Tierra del Fuego.  I of course immediately requested the book from the library.

The joys of completism.  I recommend the book to all amateur Airaists.  I was inspired to finally pin down Argentina: The Great Estancias because of the recent Mookse podcast on Aira.  I have not heard the show but I will eagerly read the transcript as soon as it is available.  For some reason Mookse omits this book, and one other, from a list of Aira books available in English.

Friday, August 26, 2022

Lysistrata by Aristophanes - we feel the members of the audience endure sufficient hell

Lysistrata (411 BCE) is easily the most famous Aristophanes play.  Spike Lee made a version of just seven years ago; Hollywood is a pretty clear measure of fame.  It’s the play where the women of Greece go on a sex strike until the men give up on war, an outstanding comic conceit that invites adaptation to whatever the horrible war of the moment might be.  The jokes of Aristophanes are often maddeningly specific, but the conceit is as universal as can be.

Compared to the variety show anarchy of his earliest plays, Lysistrata is focused, moving forward logically and relentlessly to peace and hedonism.  The play is utopian, and surprisingly sincere.  Where Euripides, as the war worsens, sours on the entire Athenian – or Greek – project, Aristophanes remains a believer, even if he cannot figure out, especially after the recent Sicilian disaster, why the war continues.  So he shows the Athenians some peace, which they presumably enjoy and then ignore until peace is forced upon them by catastrophe.

Aristophanes even gives up the usual personal attacks on audience members.

We’re not about to introduce

the standard personal abuse…

      because we feel

that members of the audience

endure, in the course of current events

sufficient hell.  (pp. 86-7, tr. Douglass Parker)

Amidst the jokes and farce, the women occasionally mention the deaths of their sons in Sicily.  Aristophanes is ironic about the human animal (“we want to get laid,” 69) but not about peace and war, not this time.

In Lysistrata, more than any previous play, the choruses carry the action.  The other characters are practically adjunct chorus members.  The brilliant decision was to split the chorus in two, men and women, allowing conflict between the choruses.  The choreography of Lysistrata must have been unusually complex.

Are the puns tiresome?  So many puns, and the ones I see are the invention of the translator, essentially meant as signposts saying “pun in the original.”  Hopeless.

Scrutinize those women! Scour their depositions – assess their rebuttals!

Masculine honor demands this affair be probed to the bottom!  (52)

Parker does his best.

Hey, look, there’s Timon of Athens, “the noted local grouch,” on p. 76, the earliest appearance of Timon I know.  Shakespeare got his Timon from Plutarch, more or less, not Aristophanes.

Pablo Picasso illustrated a 1934 edition of Lysistrata, and I borrowed his depiction of the climactic feast from the copy owned by MOMA.

The next play is another Aristophanes comedy, The Poet and the Women, performed at a later festival in the same year as Lysistrata.  Guess who the poet is!  That’s right, it’s Euripides, who appears as a character in three surviving Aristophanes plays.  I wish I remembered anything else about this one.  “Can’t beat Euripides for insight…  Talk about realist playwrights,” says the male choral leader in Lysistrata.  We’ll see.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

On learning Portuguese

Last October I began taking a Portuguese class.  Since January I have been reading literature, real literature, in Portuguese.  I thought I would write a note about the How and Why of that.

The Why:  My French is decent now.  My French reading.  I always have a book in French going, and I read whatever I want.  However slow my pace, that makes me an advanced reader in French.

So it was time for an experiment.  Could I use what I have learned about learning French to learn another language faster than I learned French?  Have I learned something about learning, was the question?

The How: It had to be a Romance language, so I could apply my French and for that matter my Spanish, which at points in my life was not so bad, although never quite at the level to read seriously.  The choice between Italian and Portuguese was arbitrary, but we were taking a little vacation to Portugal in December, so why not Portuguese.  We took a class – minha esposa is learning Portuguese, too – from a local Brazilian.  We visited Lisbon and the Azores and spoke a bit of limited but actual Portuguese, and bought books in Portuguese at Europe’s oldest continually operating bookstore.  Of course, what I really want is to be able to do is read Portuguese.  When will I ever need to speak it, really?

I also want greater understanding of the lyrics of great Brazilian songwriters like Gilberto Gil and Tom Zé.  Just this year, at the age of 85, Zé released a superb album that is actually about Brazilian Portuguese, Lingua Brasilieira, or Brazilian Tongue.  My resentment of Bob Dylan’s Nobel is that it was not shared with Gilberto Gil.  I have digressed.

My first book in Portuguese was the tiny As Fadas Verdes (The Green Fairies) by Matilde Rosa Araujo, a book of children’s poems, appropriate for third graders, which I know because it says so on the cover.  I advanced quickly, to Contos e Ledas de Portugal e do Mundo (Tales and Legends of Portugal and the World), “recommended for the 5th year,” and O Pássaro da Cabeça (The Bird of the Head) by Manuel António Pina, “required for the 5th year.”  The tales were a mix of the familiar (Grimm) and the new, which did not hurt; nor did the fact that Pina’s children’s poems were quite good.  I was just starting, and I was reading literature.

You can see the stamp on the covers: “Ler+, Plano Nacional de Leitura.”  These are assigned books, part of the “national reading plan” in a country that had one of the lowest literacy rates in Europe not so long ago (fifty years ago in not so long).  I want to emphasize – this is something I learned studying French – that if the goal of language study is to read literature, it is helpful to get a sense of the reading level of various books, and the easy way to do that is to see what is assigned in school.  Push yourself, but not to the point of frustration.

It will be a long time before I can read, in Portuguese, a novel by José Saramago or a book of stories by Miguel Rosa, but in the last eight months I have read stories by Eça de Queiroz, Alexandre Herculano, and Machado de Assis, and poems – entire books of poems – by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Sophiade Mello Breyner Andresen, Eugénio de Andrade, Antero de Quental, and Fernando Pessoa, in the guise of Alberto Caeiro, the shepherd poet.  The anthology Primeiro Livro de Poesia (First Book of Poetry) assembled by Andresen, a book of poems from throughout the Portuguese world and  not really for children but suitable for children, was expansively useful:

I have never read anything else by writers from Timor or São Tomé and Príncipe.  Note the “Ler+” mark on the book, and the separate stamp celebrating Andresen’s centenary.

Since I am reading literature, and poems, the vocabulary I am learning is not always so useful.  Dawn, dusk, sword, fairy, angel, dew.  Lots of horsey words; lots of parts of castles, lots of seashore vocabulary.  A great surprise, since the idea was to read Portuguese, is that because of the recent appearance of Angolan immigrants in Portland I have, in real life, been speaking Portuguese: “Thank you for waiting,” Please have a seat,” and so on.  How helpful to have even a little bit of Portuguese.  What luck.  Italian would have been useless.

My “Currently Reading” box does not have anything in Portuguese now because I am not reading but studying grammar, which will last exactly as long as I can stand it.  Then back to the pleasures of Machado de Assis, or perhaps a 19th century poet.  A great disadvantage of studying Portuguese, compared to French, is that the availability of texts, whether electronic or physical, is much spottier in the United States.  And Portuguese has nothing like Georges Simenon, who wrote a huge number of engaging books with an easy reading level.  How many American readers kept up their college French with the help of Simenon?

What I am trying to say is that the experiment has been a success, and I recommend it to anyone who has the time and concentration.  Take a class, then start reading.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Helen by Euripides - What is god, what is not god, what is between man and god, who shall say?

Helen (412 BCE) is Euripides’s romantic comedy about the survival of middle-aged love.  We know it was performed with the lost Andromeda, a romantic comedy about young love, our culture’s favorite subject but something the Greeks did not care about at all.  Why did Euripides write such things under the preposterous guise of “tragedy”?

In his last decade, Euripides was making a broad, complex critique of Athenian and Greek culture, alongside a more specific protest against the imperial war with Sparta.  Helen was performed soon after the destruction of the Sicilian expedition, the catastrophe that provides the astounding climax of The Peloponnesian War of Thucydides.  I think of it as the climax, since it is all downhill for Athens from there.  Euripides responds to this disastrous news by staging light, witty love stories.

He had, based on the surviving plays, two structures available.  One is cynical, violent, and perhaps nihilistic: Herakles, The Trojan Women, Elektra.  The other is full of fairy tale devices and happy endings: Iphigenia at Tauris, Ion, Helen.  We will see more examples of both types.  Both are openly revisionist: maybe the story went a little differently than we usually tell it.

For example, maybe Helen was innocent and never ran off with Paris, but was carried way to Egypt while a savage war was fought over “a Helen-image” that was “dispatched… to Ilium so men might die in hate and blood.”  I am quoting from Electra – from the end of my previous post – and I still find it curious that Euripides previewed Helen in Electra.  Euripides did not invent this revisionist story of Helen’s innocence, by the way.  It is almost as old as Homer.

So, happy endings, for Helen, for Iphigenia, but not for the thousands slaughtered on the battlefield, not for Clytemnestra.  Her reason for murdering her husband was a fake.  The entire reason for the Trojan War was a fake.  The background of the “happy endings” are violent, spiraling catastrophes cause by cabals of capricious, or insane, or evil gods.  The romances are nearly as nihilistic as the violent plays.

I have been puzzling over this bit sung by the chorus, which comes just after a direct statement about the human costs of the Trojan War, surely standing in for the Peloponnesian War.  Euripides is not afraid to be direct at this point, but he moves into a more abstract idea:

What is god, what is not god, what is between man

and god, who shall say?  Say he has found

the remote way to the absolute,

that he has seen god, and come

back to us, and returned there, and come

back again, reason’s feet leaping

The void?  Who can hope for such fortune?  (237, tr. Lattimore)

Having said all this, I think Helen, on its own, is a marvelous little thing.  Since it is almost identical to Iphigenia in Tauris – discovery and reunion, a Greek-hating barbarian king, a trick allowing escape – I wonder if the that is in fact the third play in the trilogy. Perhaps Andromeda also had the same structure.  My sense is that Euripides was perverse – postmodernist – enough to present three almost identical plays.

For an illustration, I chose a crater owned by the Louvre that depicts Menelaus encountering Helen, but in the traditional story, after the sack of Troy, so in our sense it is Menelaus encountering the false Helen, which perhaps explains the presence of the cute little Eros flying above them.  This piece is famous enough that the artist is now “the Menelaus painter.”

Our next play is Lysistrata by Aristophanes, a landmark, a must-read if there were such a thing  We have read anti-war Aristophanes before, but nothing like this.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Electra by Euripides - Thus it is always told

A screwball, the Electra of Euripides (c. 413 BCE), but at this point his plays are all screwballs.  Electra is perhaps more subtly screwy.  It is not just his "version" of the story we already know from Aeschylus and Sophocles, but an attack on the story.

Many critics have wondered if it is a pure parody.  Some of it is a parody, most famously the mockery of the recognition scene in Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers, which Euripides dismantles piece by piece.  “Besides, how could a lock of his hair match with mine?” (30, tr. Emily Townsend Vermeule) and so on, the rationalist side of Euripides making fun of the classics. 

The removal of the setting from the palace and tomb of Agamemnon to a rustic farm cottage is itself a deflation of the story.  But the subtle changes are in the characters, and the approach to the central problem of the play, by which I mean that Electra and Orestes reveal themselves as awful, and their desire for revenge more personal, more pathological, than divine.  Meanwhile neither Clytemnestra or even Aegisthus look so bad.

The murder of Aegisthus is a sick farce.  Why is he out in the country?

He happened to be walking in the water-meadow,

Scything young green shoots of myrtle for his hair.  (44)

I love that.  Hippie Aegisthus is a welcoming host, and his reward is to be stabbed in the back, with a knife that he himself gave to Orestes.  Clytemnestra is lured to the countryside to be killed by telling her that she is finally a grandma.  Even for Greek plays, these are cruel, odd killings.  Euripides is revising, perhaps undermining, the famous old stories.  Maybe he did not think he went far enough in this one, since he returns to the story in Orestes, a nihilistic masterpiece.

I will note one of the curious songs of the chorus (of peasants, also curious).  Just after Orestes and Electra are reunited, the chorus sings about, surprisingly, an episode in the terrible life of Thyestes, the great-uncle of Orestes and Electra, who wins the throne of Argos with a trick involving a magic golden lamb that results in Zeus reversing the sun’s course in protest.  As they finish the story:

Thus it is always told.

I am won only to light belief

that the sun would swerve or change his gold

chamber of fire, moved in pain

at sorrow and sin in the mortal world

       To judge or punish man.  (42)

Not disbelief, but “light belief.”  Euripides is working towards something.

I chose an image of an 18th century actress playing the role of Electra, not in a Greek play, I assume, but perhaps Crebillon’s 1708 Electre.  The print is from a 1772 book owned by the British Museum.  This is not the Electra of Euripides – all that hair, all that fabric, where his Electra has a shaved head and wears rags.

Unusually, we get a preview of next week’s play embedded in this week’s play.

CASTOR:     She never went to Troy.

Zeus fashioned and dispatched a Helen-image there

to Ilium so men might die in hate and blood.  (62-3)

What?  What?  Next week: the Helen of Euripides.

Friday, August 5, 2022

Ion by Euripides and H.D. - but why have you hidden this?

Ion by Euripides, one of the plays that survived by chance.  Among Euripides’s “romances” I think of it as the most Shakespearian, the purest fairy tale.  A foundling, a prophecy, a mistaken identity where first the mother tries to murder her son and then the son his mother, and finally a classic recognition scene:

KREOUSA:  there’s a blanket,

                    my own embroidery ---  (113)

That kind of fairy tale, the healing and reconciliation type.

KREOUSA:  I had thought you lost,

                     long ago,

                     with the ghosts

                      in death --- (115)

Euripides is reaching back to one of the old stories here – Ion, the foundling, is the reasons some Greeks are Ionian.  His grandfather was literally born from the earth, although since this is mythology the earth is Gaia, a goddess.  Euripides is working with one of the foundational stories of Athens.  What is he doing with it?

I note that Ion is the only surviving play set at the Delphic shrine of Apollo, curious given how important Delphic oracles are in so many other stories.  Euripides seems to be critiquing the oracles. Well, “critique,” he thinks they’re nonsense.  Even in the fairy tale context, they are simply arbitrary.  Pythia here is the Pythian priestess, at the time of performance the most important religious figure in Greece.  It is a bit like having the Pope as a character.

PYTHIA: I reveal things, long secret:

ION:       but why have you hidden this?

PYTHIA: it was the god’s wish:

Yes, yes, yes, but why was it the god’s wish?  We’re never going to get an answer to that.  Since Apollo is the father of Ion, the god who abandoned (and later rescued) his child from his brief affair with Queen Kreusa, I cannot help think about his more human motives.  Euripides is thinking about them.

The translator of the lines I have quoted is the poet H.D., a deep Classicist and an unusual Modernist.  Her translation is certainly an H.D. poem.

The broken, exclamatory or evocative vers-libre which I have chosen to translate the two-line dialogue, throughout the play, is the exact antithesis of the original.  Though concentrating and translating sometimes, ten words, with two, I have endeavoured, in no way, to depart from the meaning.  (32)

H.D.’s Ion is a book that leads, and not so gently, its readers to her interpretation of the poem.  I will include a photo of the above page.  It is not an introduction or foreword; the commentary is embedded in the paly:

I love this and think H.D.’s Ion is gorgeous, but I can imagine the reader who begs H.D. to get out of the way of Euripides.

The poetry rises clean cut to-day, as it did at the time of its writing.  And to-day, for the abstract welded with human implication, is in its way, ultra-modern.  (30)

Well, yes, it is now, but there are other ways to translate, I know.

The play’s chorus is superb, but I will mention another example of the play’s “[i]ndestructible beauty” (H.D. commenting again, p. 30).  One of Ion’s jobs as temple attendant is to keep the birds out of the gardens – but he loves birds!  A bird theme runs through the play, even, in a fairy tale, moment, turning the plot at one point.  Here is a bit of Ion’s Song of the Birds, warning them to stay away so he does not have to shoot them:

for this,

O, this, I would not kill,

your song

that tells to men,

God’s will.  (21)

The birds are the authentic oracles.  The human ones are trouble-makers.

I have included a photo of an actual Pythian tripod and cauldron, which can be seen at the Archeological Museum of Delphi.

Next week: Electra.  Didn’t we just read this?  No, that was Sophocles; this is the Electra of Euripides.  It will be different.

Friday, July 29, 2022

The Birds by Aristophanes - Birds, Birds, billions of birds!

Here it is, The Birds by Aristophanes (414 BCE), one of the greatest of the greats, in my opinion his peak.  The play still has the usual problems that make a translator work: jokes about individual Athenians, puns piled on puns, parodies of lost plays, all of which may well have been hilarious to the Athenian audience but becomes mostly an aggravation to us.  Yet The Birds is spectacular, coherent, and thought through, building layers of irony that put it among the greats of its kind of satire.  Rabelais, Swift, that level.

I borrowed an image of the bird chorus from the Cambridge Greek Plays, an 1883 production in this case.  The star is M. R. James, yes, the (eventual) ghost story writer.  That must be him in the middle with the mustache.  The entrance of the chorus of birds must have been one of the greatest moments in Athenian comedy.  I typically think of the chorus as an undistinguished mass, but this time somebody really put some money into the costumes, to the extent that the members of the chorus are introduced individually, to allow the audience to admire each gorgeous bird, until finally:

HOOPOE: And Jay and Pigeon.  Lark, Wren, Wheater, and Turtledove.  Ringdove, Stockdove, Cuckoo, and Hawk.  Firecrest and Wren, Rail and Kestrel and Gull, Waxwing, Woodpecker, and Vulture…

PISTHETAIROS:  Birds, Birds, billions of birds!  (p. 39, Mentor edition, tr. Arrowsmith)

Still, it is the development of the satirical conceit that elevates The Birds.  Two Athenians, sick of the corruption and war and restlessness of the city, “Athens, land of lovely -  warships” (26), seek a country idyll, a peaceful escape, among the birds.  But one of them especially, Pisthetairos, M. R. James, brings the energetic restlessness with him.  He turns the idyll into a Utopia, and then turns Cloudcuckooland, the Utopia, into an empire.  He conquers the gods, becoming a god himself.  I do not know what an Athenian might have thought blasphemous, but this sounds like blasphemy.

Aristophanes has consistently been in the Athenian peace party, and anti-imperialist.  Yet in The Birds he recognizes – perhaps in spite of himself celebrates – the energy, the creative force that turned democratic Athens into Imperial Athens.  I can see Alexander the Great, Suleiman the Magnificent, and Harry Truman understanding the conceit – where else was all of this energy supposed to go?  Satire, real satire, is unpleasant stuff.  The Birds is Aristophanes at his most outrageous.  Comedy at its most outrageous, unsurpassed for 2,500 years.

Next week is the beginning of another great run of Euripides plays, beginning with Ion.  I urge you, if possible, to take a look at the 1937 translation by H. D., a fine work of art in its own right.

Friday, July 22, 2022

"Iphigenia in Tauris" by Euripides - Have I not seen enough of blood?

I do not have much do say about Iphigenia in Tauris specifically, but it is an exemplar of many tendencies of Euripides in the extraordinary last decade of his life, so I will write a few notes about those.

As for the date – I used 414 BCE – it is a matter of guesswork and affinity, and as I have thought about it I now believe the play was performed in 412 BCE with Helen and the lost Andromeda, but I will defer that idea to when we get to Helen.  Regardless, it belongs somewhere in this period.

Euripides, in his last decade, became interested in plays that were only semi-tragic, or barely tragic at all, what we call in Shakespeare’s context “romances.”  A number of the late Euripides plays resemble the Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline.  They are certainly not classic Aristotelian tragedies, with tragic flaws and hubris and all of that.  I have no idea if the audience thought Euripides was breaking any rules.  Aristotle’s Poetics is still off in the future.

Orestes, still pursued by the Furies despite the events of The Eumenides, is driven to the far eastern side of the Black Sea, where he discovers his sister Iphigenia, now a barbarian priestess who makes human sacrifices to Artemis.  The murder of Iphigenia by her father Agamemnon is one of the key crimes of Greek tragedy, but here she was saved by Artemis at the last minute, whisked off to the ends of the earth.  The great crime of Agamemnon that leads to his murder by his wife, and her murder by her son, was a big fake, a divine hoax.  Now, a decade later, we see things put right.  Not everything, but the remaining things, the lost sister melodramatically reunited with her tormented brother.

My understanding is that Euripides did not invent this strange alternative version of the (non-)death of Iphigenia.  Many versions of the old stories were floating around.   I guess I want to wait until I have read a few more before I interpret them too much.  There will be more, soon.  “Have I not seen enough of blood?” asks Orestes (p. 126, tr. Bynner).  Good question.

Euripides is revising the stories of the House of Atreides, The Oresteia and its adjuncts, and the Trojan War more broadly.

It was a wicked war for a wicked woman,

And all the waste that has come from it is wicked.  (145)

That’s Orestes again, and the “wicked woman” is Helen, but let’s see, in four weeks, what Euripides has to say in Helen.

Iphigenia in Tauris, like Heracles and five of the eight last Euripides plays, is among the “alphabetical” plays, which survived by chance in a single manuscript, and which I take as a random survival, although who know what the 11th century Byzantine scribe was thinking.  My idea of what Euripides was doing is radically changed by the randomly surviving plays.  But who knows what I would think if I had a few more randomly chosen plays (or one more random Sophocles play).  I wish I did.  Maybe the scholars X-raying charred scrolls form the lava-buried library of Herculaneum will find one someday.

Speaking of which, I chose as an illustration a mural from Pompeii, with the priestess Iphigenia on the left and that must be Orestes with the harp, one of many interesting images on the play’s Wikipedia page.

Next week is The Birds by Aristophanes, one of the greatest comedies ever written, in my opinion Aristophanes’s best play.  In two weeks, the play is Ion by Euripides, and I mention it early because it is worth tracking down a copy of the 1937 translation by H. D., a masterpiece in its own way, and something different than what most us of have been reading most of the time.

Friday, July 15, 2022

The Trojan Women by Euripides - The epitaph of Greek shame.

The Trojan Women (c. 415 BCE) is a special case for Euripides.  What I think he is doing is inventing the protest play.  The Athenians had recently committed a true atrocity, when it besieged and destroyed the neutral island state of Melos in 416; the Athenians exterminated the men and enslaved the women.  Meanwhile, plans were underway for the eventually disastrous Athenian expedition to Sicily, “[t]he epitaph of Greek shame” (tr, Lattimore, l. 1191, p. 289) to borrow Hecuba’s line about another war crime. 

Euripides responds to all of this, presumably collaborating with his producer, with a long howl of pain, a play about the suffering of the victims of war, especially the women who are enslaved and raped amidst the murder of their families.  The climatic crime, the brutal, graphic murder of Hecuba’s last grandson, not onstage but as close as Euripides could get, is like Heracles almost too much to bear – “too horrible to say more” (1177, 288). That’s Hecuba – grandma – again.

The warning to the Athenians is clear enough, from Athena’s glee about the upcoming destruction of most of the Greeks on their return journey to Cassandra’s lament for the Greek soldiers:

                     Those the War God caught

never saw their sons again, nor were they laid to rest

decently in winding sheets by their wives’ hands, but lie

buried in alien ground…  (376-9, 261)

That sure sounds like a warning about the Sicilian expedition.  The idea of a protest play may all be in my imagination, but not only in mine.  Dating at least to the Vietnam War, The Trojan Women has now become a protest play.  Please see The Trojan Women Project for part of the now long history of the play as a statement about war and refugees.  I included an image from a 2013 performance in Jordan by Syrian refugees.  A London performance of The Trojan Women by a mix of Ukrainian, Afghan, and Syrian refugees is scheduled for August.  I wish I could see it.

I read Women of Owu (2006) by Femi Osofisan, who moved the play to early nineteenth century Nigeria while simultaneously commenting on the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the invaders who fight in the name of “freedom” and “human rights”:

Bless the kindness which has rescued us

From tyranny in order to plunge us into slavery! (13)

I wish I could see this one, too.

One more aesthetic note: I had not remembered how The Trojan Women is so full of story.  Large parts of the Trojan War are included – the judgment of Paris, the abduction of Helen, the Trojan Horse, and more  – and the play is also revisiting Euripides’s own Hecuba and Andromache, as well as Aeschylus’s Agamemnon.   Six of the surviving plays of the last decade of Euripides’s life, a significant fraction of the total he could have written, are about aspects of the Trojan War, deeply engaged with Homer and Aeschylus and likely other plays we have lost, retelling the familiar stories in unfamiliar ways.  What did Euripides think he was doing?

Typically when I have been quoting from the old University of Chicago translations I have been referring to the volumes devoted to individual writers, but this time I used volume 2 of Greek Tragedies, the series that randomly scrambles the writers.  Maybe there is some logic, I don’t know.  Anyway, that is why I included line numbers along with page numbers.  Richmond Lattimore’s Euripides sure sounds a lot like Lattimore’s Homer.

The next play is Iphigenia in Tauris by Euripides, c. 414 BCE, perhaps the year after The Trojan Women.  The retelling of the old stories continues.

Friday, July 8, 2022

Heracles by Euripides - These are poets' wretched lies.

With Heracles (c. 416 BCE) we move to a new period for Euripides, or at least, given the limits of the plays that survive, the illusion of a new period.  Like the mature Shakespeare, Euripides, in his sixties at this point, becomes attracted to screwy, revisionist “romances,” as un-tragic tragedies as we’ll read, and also stories as violent and horrific as any.  Heracles is one of the latter.

We begin with suppliants, threatened by violence, around an altar to Zeus.  How many plays have we read, now, that begin this way?  The action moves along the familiar lines.  The chorus of old men are sympathetic but useless.  The usurping king is a savage cartoon villain.  The half-divine hero Heracles arrives just in time, saving the suppliants, who happen to be his father, wife, and three children, with the expected offstage bloodbath.  The usual thing, except the play has only reached its exact center.  What is left?

With no warning, a pure sucker punch, Heracles goes mad and murders his wife and children.  The murders are offstage but described with great goriness.  Heracles recovers to find that his “last worst labor has been done.”  He will now live in order to grieve.  Curiously, and I believe this is where Euripides is aiming, Heracles effectively renounces his divinity.  His berserk madness is not, to him, the fault of Hera, but rather something within himself.

Ah, all this has no bearing on my grief;

but I do not believe the gods commit adultery, or bind each other in chains.

I never did believe it; I never shall;

nor that one god is tyrant of the rest.

If god is truly god, he is perfect,

lacking nothing.  These are poets’ wretched lies.  (111)

This is Heracles, the greatest Greek hero, the son of Zeus.  “I never did believe it.”

The first half of the play is effectively a parody of Greek drama, set up to be annihilated in the second half, where even the function of the chorus is destroyed:

CHORUS:  What dirge, what song

shall I sing for the dead?

What dance shall I dance for death?  (97)

And in fact they stop dancing, or singing, or doing anything except, like us, watching.  Earlier, while the first slaughter was going on, they celebrated: “Turn to the dances!” (88)  Maybe the gods can still dance:

HERACLES: Let the noble wife of Zeus begin the dance,

pounding with her feet Olympus’ gleaming floors!  (110)

The two halves of Heracles are full of parallels and linked imagery.  This radically disjointed play is tightly constructed.  I will look at a sample passage, full of interesting things.

HERACLES:  I have no wings to fly from those I love.


They will not let me go, but clutch my clothes

more tightly.  How close you came to death!

                                   (He sets down his bow and club and takes his children by the hands.)

Here, I’ll take your hands and lead you in my wake,

Like a ship that tows its little boats behind…

  All mankind loves it children.  (83)

First, this is one of several points where Euripides humanizes the otherwise silent and abstract children, in order to make their murder as painful as possible. 

Second, that alliteration, clutch / clothes / close, appears several times but only in Heracles’s speech.  I have been quoting entirely from William Arrowsmith’s superb version of Heracles, but I also read the weirder translation of Anne Carson in Grief Lessons, and she also alliterates in the same places.  In the Greek, I guess.

Third, those boats – at the end of the play it is Heracles who is towed way “like some little boat.” 

Fourth, the wings, part of the bird imagery that runs through the play.

Heracles is, textually, a rich play.  But some of that is hard to see under the smash job Euripides does on Greek tragedy.

The image of mad Heracles is from a New York Times review of a 2013 Brooklyn Academy of Music performance.  Heracles is not performed much.

The next play will not lift the mood.  It is The Trojan Women (c. 415 BCE), with which Euripides more or less invents protest literature.  Along with a straight translation, I hope to read one of its descendants, Femi Osofisan’s Women of Owu (2004), where the Trojan War is moved to 19th century Nigeria.