Friday, January 28, 2022

The Suppliants by Aeschylus - This is the prelude to suffering and slavery.

That is almost literally what The Suppliants or The Suppliant Women (463 BCE) is, the prelude to what is likely a more tragic, more interesting pair of plays that we have lost.

The fifty daughters of Danaus, rejecting a forced marriage with their fifty male cousins, have fled Egypt for refuge in Greece, in Argos, the home of their distant relative Io, who was turned into a cow and raped by Zeus in the form of a bull.  (I love how everyone in the play just takes all of that for granted).  The Argives have a dilemma – reject the Danaids and break taboos of hospitality and religious sanctuary, or protect them and risk war with the Egyptians.  “I have entered this dispute to my own ruin,” worries the Argive king (67).  The Greeks make the latter choice, pretty clearly the ethically correct one, and the suppliant women are saved.  Hooray!  Curtain.

I don’t know how long the intermission was between plays in the Athenian theater.  Presumably long enough for some fish cakes, some wine, some discussion of the play.

Last week, in Seven Against Thebes, we saw the women of Thebes deliver a long, powerful song about their terrible fate if an army sacks their city.  In The Egyptians, the play that follows The Suppliants, it is likely that the Argives lose their bet, the city is sacked, or almost sacked, and the Danaids are forced to marry their cousins.  The play would end just before, or just after, forty-nine of the fifty brides simultaneously murder their husbands in bed.  This is what I take as the more interesting part of the story.

Anybody’s guess what happens in the third play.  One tradition is that the Danaids spend eternity in Hell futilely carrying water in leaky vases, as depicted in René Jules Lalique’s 1926 glass vase, this particular one now in the Dallas Museum of Art.  But more likely there is a reconciliation of some kind, like we will later see in The Eumenides.

I wonder if – no, I am certain that – there has been a production of the play in Greece where the Danaids are portrayed as Syrian refugees.  It would not take much tinkering.  The Danaids constantly emphasize – or the Philip Vellacott translation emphasizes – that the women are rejecting male violence:

And grant that we, descendants of Io his holy bride,

May escape the embrace of man,

And keep our virginity unconquered.  (58, repeated in a kind of chorus)

They are being pursued not by lust or gain but, they sing, “the male pride of the violent sons of Aegyptus” (55), and when an Egyptian character threatens war he hopes that “the male cause gain the victory and rule” (82).  A director does not have to wander too far from this text.

What else is in here?  This is the third play in a row with an altar in the center of the stage.  We’ll break the streak with the next one. 

The massive irony of the great-great-etc. granddaughters of one of Zeus’s many rapes appealing to Zeus for protection from rape is never addressed in the text that I could see, unless the curious arguments of the women’s maids at the very end are obliquely bringing it up.

How many people are on stage, anyway?  How big is this chorus?  All fifty women, plus their fifty maids?  Or more likely only twelve (plus maids).  Who knows.

One song of the chorus is especially beautiful, although horrible, the one where the suppliants imagine the peace of a sublime death:

Could I but find a seat in the blue air

Where drifting rain-clouds turn to snow,

Some smooth summit where even goats cannot climb,

A place beyond sight, aloof,

A dizzy crag, vulture-haunted,

To witness my plunge into the abyss,

To escape a forced marriage my heart refuses! (78)

The Suppliants is my least favorite Aeschylus play, but there is still plenty in it for a good rummage.  I wonder why it was preserved?  But I wonder that with most of the plays.

Next week we read Prometheus Bound, another first in a trilogy, and another strange one.  The date is unknown, and even the authorship of Aeschylus is an open question.  Talk about interesting.

The title quotation is on p. 77 of the Vellacott Penguin.


Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Miriam found the word - Dorothy Richardson's Pointed Roofs

I first heard of the British novelist Dorothy Richardson, author of the thirteen volume Pilgrimage series, in Ford Madox Ford’s eccentric, exuberant literary history The March of Literature (1938), where he declares her the greatest living English writer, more or less, hoping that:

every one of my readers will at the earliest reasonable opportunity procure himself a copy of Miss Richardson’s Pointed Roofs, a beautiful book which, published in 1915, was drowned under the reverberations of the late war…  (848)

Richardson is “less willfully elaborate and much more verbally beautiful” than Proust.  We will just ignore the sentence on the same page where Ford “make[s] the same plea for the French novels of M. René Béhaine… the greatest of French living writers.”

I mean, greatest, whatever, but this sounded good, and the earliest reasonable opportunity turned out to be earlier this month, helped by a Twitter-driven readalong of all thirteen novels which can be found at the poundtag #PilgrimageTogether.

The subject is fictionalized autobiography, which in this first book means 17 year-old Miriam goes to a German girls’ boarding school, nominally to teach English.  It’s a genuine “study abroad” novel, a favorite genre of mine.  She stays for a year - rather less, really - and learns a lot.  Some things are awful compared to England, others the greatest thing in the world.  The mentality is authentically teenaged.

The setting provides some linguistic fun – I will link to examples provided by Languagehat – that I presume I lose when Miriam returns to England in the second volume.  Otherwise the language is the kind of precise, sensory prose that I associate with Flaubert and his descendants.  Lots of description, especially of hair and clothes, lots of unfussy but original and useful metaphor – “A great plaque of sunlight lay across the breakfast-table” (Ch. 4).  Or how about this one, for applause:

Gertrude Goldring, the Australian, was making noises with her hands like inflated paper bags being popped.  (Ch. 3)

I was surprised at how easy the prose was, for the most part, as in the first lines:

Miriam left the gaslit hall and went slowly upstairs. The March twilight lay upon the landings, but the staircase was almost dark. The top landing was quite dark and silent. There was no one about. It would be quiet in her room. She could sit by the fire and be quiet and think things over until Eve and Harriett came back with the parcels.

But there is a real innovation here; Richardson never bothers to tell me exactly who Eve and Harriett are.  They are Miriam’s sisters, and since I am able to figure this out there is no need to say so directly.  Trollope – you name it – would say “Eve, her oldest sister…” and so on.  Richardson is not as generous with information.  She trusts that I am paying attention.

The stream of consciousness passages are also innovations.  They are typographically distinct, with the ellipses signaling the shift:

Late at night, seated wide-awake opposite her sleeping companion, rushing towards the German city, she began to think.

It was a fool's errand.... To undertake to go to the German school and teach ... to be going there ... with nothing to give. The moment would come when there would be a class sitting round a table waiting for her to speak. She imagined one of the rooms at the old school, full of scornful girls.... How was English taught? How did you begin? English grammar ... (Ch, 2, and it goes on for a while)

Later, soon but later, Joyce and Woolf will realize that they can cut the “she began to think” business, and perhaps a lot more.

I have a strong taste for this kind of prose, “impressionist,” to use Ford’s term.  So good:

There was a large ostrich feather fastened by a gleaming buckle against the side of her silky beaver hat. It swept, Miriam found the word during the Psalms, back over her hair.  (Ch. 5)

I will read at least a couple more novels in the series (they are all pretty short), but I am puzzled about the metaphysics of the book.  What is the novel behind the novel?  I am not sure.  The collected edition begins with a four-page 1938 literary history that is so wrong I now think of it as a purposeful obfuscation, but I will save that idea until I have read a little more.

Maybe the novels are just fictional autobiography turned into fiction, written as well as possible, with an unusual feminine ethos.  Nothing wrong with that.  The sorts of elaborate patterning I associate with Flaubert are, if they exist here at all, still invisible to me.  So I will keep reading.

Thanks to #PilgrimageTogether for the push.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Akutagawa's Rashōmon and 17 Other Stories - I sensed the agency of the finger of destiny and felt compelled to read that passage

The book in front of me is Rashōmon and 17 Other Stories by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, the cute 2006 Penguin with the manga cover and Murakami Haruki introduction, translated by Jay Rubin.  I’m trying to stick to the Japanese convention where the family name comes first, but I make no promises about consistency. 

I’d never read Akutagawa before. 

I liked it a lot, enough that I immediately started another, earlier collection, Rashomon and Other Stories (Liveright, 1952, tr. Takashi Kojima), to fill in some gaps.  Murakami insisted on a story called “Yam Gruel,” not in the book he introduced.  He was right, “Yam Gruel” is good, from the title on.    Apparently yam gruel was a Heian delicacy, as unlikely as that sounds.

Akutagawa only wrote for twelve years before, physically and mentally ill, killing himself in 1927 when he was 35.  With such a short life, I was not expecting his writing to have phases, but they are pretty clear.  He had some big hits right away, famous stories like “In a Bamboo Grove” and “Hell Screen,” modernized versions of grotesque old tales, generally set, like those two, in the decadent end of the Heian period.  He also has a set of 17th and 18th century stories, often about Christian martyrs.  The attraction is clearly to the martyrdom, the tortures, another form of grotesquerie.  Many of these stories are horror stories, really, “Hell Screen” most obviously, where a lunatic painter commissioned to depict Hell tortures his assistants and worse in the name of realism:

And the kinds of torture were as numberless as the sinners themselves – flogging with an iron scourge, crushing under a gigantic rock, pecking by a monstrous bird, grinding in the jaws of a poisonous serpent…  (51, ellipses in original)

But the painter can only paint what he has seen, so the story fills in how he saw some of those horrors.  And worse.  I can see how this 1918 story, and others like it, made Akutagawa a star.

I could almost see the literal, experiential painter as some kind of parody of Naturalism, which leads to phase three (phase two is a crisis in the early 1920s).  Late in his life – what turns out to be late – Akutagawa turns to autobiographical writing, whether as fiction or memoir or unusual fragments.  The Penguin collection gives a third of its pages to “Akutagawa’s Own Story” in six varied texts, a chronicle of the author’s anguish and fear, aside from the interesting details about Tokyo and its literary scene, including the complex integration of European literature, especially French and Russian, by a generation of Japanese writers.

Bringing to mind the paper rose petals on the street, however, I decided to buy Conversations with Anatole France a d The Collected Letters of Prosper Mérimée.  (223)

But as the writer’s mental health fails he shifts from his early French influences to Dostoevsky and Strindberg.  In a curious scene, the author picks up Crime and Punishment but finds himself reading The Brothers Karamazov:

The bindery had accidentally included pages from the wrong book.  That I had, in turn, accidentally opened the book to those misbound pages: I sensed the agency of the finger of destiny and felt compelled to read that passage.  Before I had read a single page, however, my entire body began to tremble.  It was the scene in which the devil torments Ivan.  Ivan, Strindberg, and Maupassant – and, here in this room, me… (231, ellipses in original)

Another kind of horror literature, that of incipient schizophrenia.

Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge, running through March, is in its 15th year!  That is impressive.  I had better go register this piece.


Friday, January 21, 2022

Seven Against Thebes in three big scenes - I fear shipwreck, I fear unspeakable things

I fear shipwreck, I fear unspeakable things,

the city’s destruction, the foul death of two kings. (54)

That is the chorus of women in Seven Against Thebes, getting it right as usual.  Aeschylus wrote a Theban trilogy in 467 BCE, of which only this last play survived.  Perhaps the Sophocles play kicked the Aeschylus Oedipus out of the anthologies.  Now there’s a tragedy.

The two sons of Oedipus, enacting the long-running family curse, are at war, with Eteokles defending Thebes from the besieging army of his brother.  I will pick out three great scenes in the play, one of which is also simultaneously the most tedious surviving scene in Greek tragedy (that I remember, at least).

First, there is the chorus’s terrified pre-threnody, when they imagine the sack and looting of the city, especially, vividly, the rape, murder and enslavement of themselves.

Perhaps a dark deliverance may occur

                   in that foul bridal, the untamed

violence of the battle-grounded bed.

                   and there may come to her

                   a species of relief

an end to tidal groans, weeping, and grief. (36)

In other words, the women will be lucky if they die quickly.  This scene was first performed in front of an audience that, fifteen years earlier, had abandoned Athens to the Persian invaders.  The particular suffering of women during war is a major theme of Greek tragedy, so we’ll see this again.

A second great scene comes when Eteokles willfully chooses direct combat with his brother, violating religious taboos and ensuring his destruction.  The chorus tries to dissuade him, but in a long, nihilistic argument he justifies his fratricidal, suicidal decision by the meaninglessness of all things:

ETEOKLES:  Somehow, for a long time,

we have ceased to be a concern of the gods.

Our death is the only sacrifice they would value.

Why any longer lick

at the bone hand of man-harvesting Fate?  (51)

The result is that both brothers win Thebes, exactly “as much land / as the dead may need” (53). I can see how this caught the attention of twentieth century existentialists.  I often think of the essence of Greek tragedy as an exploration of fate and divine capriciousness, but here the anti-hero chooses his doom with open eyes.

Perhaps you have noticed the rhymes and strong metaphors in the above passages.  They are all from the Anthony Hecht and Helen H. Bacon translation (Oxford, 1973), part of a series which teamed a poet and a classicist to create new translations.  Hecht, a great poet, really lets it rip sometimes.  I read Philip Vellacott’s 1961 Penguin translation, too, which is readable and tamer.  An unusually wild bit of Vellacott:

And Tydeus, mad with lust for battle, like a snake

Shrieking at noon…  (99)

And Hecht and Bacon:

But Tydeus, raving and gluttonous for battle,

bellows like a chimera in noonday clangor. (37)

Translators do what they gotta do.  What relationship any of this has with the Greek text I do not know, although that is what the classicist side of the team is for.  Bacon, though, is a classicist with a theory.  The middle third of the play is a Homeric catalogue of champions, seven on each side (there is a spatial “seven” theme that interacts with a temporal “three” theme), with special emphasis on the meaning of the devices on the enemy champions’ shields.  Only one of the defending champions’ shield devices is specifically described, but Bacon’s idea is first, that of course Aeschylus does not need to describe the shields when the audience can simply see them, and second, that there are enough clues in the text that she can guess what the shield emblems are supposed to be.  The climax of the scene is not just when Eteokles embraces his doom by choosing himself as combatant against his own brother, but when he reveals his shield emblem.  The audience, which has been following along carefully, gasps in horror!  He has picked anger (Fury), rather than love (Aphrodite)!

What do I know about any of this, but the whole scene makes a lot more sense in the Hecht and Bacon version than in Vellacott.  Something is happening on stage that is part of the spectacle, not the text.

I hope anyone reading along has enjoyed Seven Against Thebes.  I guess I think it does require a little more forceful imaginative sympathy than most of the other Greek plays, a little more of an attempt to imagine the Greek perspective.

Next is The Suppliants or The Suppliant Women, four years later (463 BCE), just in time to confound all generalizations.  The protagonist is the chorus!  And the play is not a tragedy!

Friday, January 14, 2022

The Persians by Aeschylus - soon new disaster gushes forth

That little tag (l. 814, p. 145) about disaster could be from many Greek tragedies, but it is specifically from The Persians by Aeschylus (472 BCE), his first extant play, and therefore the first extant Greek play, and therefore the first extant play, which amazes me every time I think about it.

The Persians is likely not the first in many other ways, although as with any aspect of this subject, who knows, but it is pretty close.  The cult of Dionysus had only been in Athens for a hundred years or so, and the interactions between a chorus and a single actor performing some kind of dramatic story (meaning, a play) younger than that.  The Theater of Dionysus had only been in use for about twenty-five years, which is likely about how long Aeschylus had been writing and directing plays.  Greek tragedy was already a mature theatrical tradition when Aeschylus wrote The Persians, with a number of older playwrights, experiments, and so many lost plays.

Side note: my plan is to write about various aspects of Greek plays as I write about specific ones.  I won’t say anything you won’t read in the introductory material to whichever editions you are reading, but it is all part of how I organize my thoughts about the plays, and about literature generally.  Why did anyone write this kind of thing?  Who was the audience?  What did the performance of the play look like?  How did it sound?  Basic stuff.

How many Greek tragedies were directly* about recent events, for example?  The Persians is the only example we have.  It is the tragedy of Xerxes, king of Persia, specifically his decisive defeat by a much smaller force of Greeks, primarily Athenian, in the naval battle of Salamis just eight years before the performance of the play.  It’s the victory that kicked off the Athenian Golden Age and created the power vacuum in the Aegean that led to an empire run by a democratic government of a once-minor city-state.  Unlikely events.

My understanding of human nature suggests that a play or epic poem or song about a great victory would be celebratory, perhaps even boastful, but this play is about the suffering of the Persians in defeat, and not of ordinary people but of the Emperor:

XERXES: Weep and howl.

CHORUS:  We weep and howl. (ll. 1060-1, p. 151)

The great showpiece scene features a messenger giving a long description of the battle, the great defeat, and the subsequent disastrous retreat, while the mother of Xerxes and the Persian elders react in horror and grief.  “Yet I must now unfold the whole disastrous truth” (l. 53, 130), the messenger says:

Sirs, I was there; what I have told I saw myself;

I can recount each detail of the great defeat.  (ll. 63-4, 151)

And what gets me is that a large part of the audience, and the actors, and likely the playwright, the 15,000 free male citizens of Athens, were also there, at Salamis, or adjunct to it, and many others had fought in other battles against the Persians.  Even the youngest would remember the events, only eight years before, when a massive Persian force was on the edge of conquering Athens.  Obviously, the tragedy of the Persians is the negative image of the triumph of the Athenians, but The Persians appears more like a radical act of sympathy.  “Why is the groaning earth rutted and scarred” (l. 71, p. 141) asks the ghost of King Darius, a universal question, perhaps, or at least a good one for the rulers of a new empire to ask.

Or I am misreading the tone completely, and The Persians is about gloating and humiliating the justly punished enemies of God-favored Athens.

I read the Philip Vellacott translation in the old Penguin Classics edition, so line and page numbers come from there.

Next up is Seven Against Thebes (467 BCE), the third play in an otherwise lost trilogy about Oedipus and Thebes.  I’m going to switch to the Anthony Hecht and Helen H. Bacon translation because the edition has more notes, and boy does this play need them. While The Persians is a great place to kick off a trip through the Greek plays, Seven Against Thebes is a poor follow-up, in that it is likely the most arcane, alien play we will read.  Who was the audience; what did it look like – I will need these questions more than ever.

I hope everyone enjoyed The Persians.  It is awfully interesting.

The vase, roughly contemporary to The Persians, is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It shows Athena holding the stern of a warship, and likely commemorates an Athenian naval victory.

* A number of later plays are indirectly about recent events, but we’ll get to that.

Thursday, January 6, 2022


I had planned to chatter here more in advance of the Greek play event, but circumstances have intervened.  That is sufficiently vague and passive-voiced.  I am tapping this out on my phone.

Still, onward.  The schedule for reading the Greek plays, beginning with "The Persians," is two posts down and also off to the right.  The more I think about it, the more that play seems like a good place to start - typical in some useful ways but really quite odd, like all of the early Aeschylus plays.

The Greek plays risk swallowing my reading, since they are so interesting in many directions, and have led to a lot of great criticism and scholarship and artistic responses.  But with effort I will resist the temptation.

Last year my concentration was poor - life events - and I read fewer and easier books than usual, and read more randomly, although my Education continued, and now I think I will be able to get back to my push through the major works of the 1930s.

Plus I continue to work on reading in French, which has gone well enough that I am also working on reading in Portuguese, starting from a low, low level.  I think I have learned some skills for this sort of thing. Or I will give it up as too difficult. Who knows.

Aeschylus, in a little over a week - exciting!  My impression is that quite a number of people are reading along, in one way or another.  I should learn a lot, which is how I measure these things.