Friday, February 25, 2022

The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus - How can we hope to do what has to be done?


ELECTRA:  Everything dies – the dust is forgotten.

How can we hope to do what has to be done?  (Hughes, 109)

Robert Fagles calls it The Libation Bearers; Ted Hughes prefers Choephori; in either case it’s the play where the bloodthirsty chorus of female slaves howls for avenging the murder of Agamemnon that we all enjoyed so much in the previous play.

CHORUS:  Let me scream

That holy scream of joy.

Why should I smother it?

If Justice shares my hope,

If God rides the savage storm

That shakes my heart for vengeance –

Vengeance, vengeance, vengeance.  (Hughes, 111)

Will we enjoy the murder of Clytemnestra as much?

I would have guessed that this chorus, captives taken by Agamemnon over the course of the Trojan War, would not be so firmly on his side, but he is dead and his murderers and their current enslavers, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, are alive.  The chorus, as we have often seen in Aeschylus, gets a lot of good lines.

The Libation Bearers is tragedy mixed with fairy tale, with its cute brother and sister recognition scene, where Electra recognizes the presence of her brother by the shape of his footprint in the dust – remember this when we get to Euripides – and a parallel pair of curious anti-recognition scenes in the second half of the play, when first the Orestes’s mother and then his nurse fail to recognize him.  The nurse’s failure is admittedly a little more conceptual and thematic, part of the nursing theme that is itself part of the larger washing theme, corrupting blood countered by cleansing water and milk.  Agamemnon was all blood.

Not that The Libation Bearers does not have plenty of blood.

CHORUS:  But Orestes fought, he reached the summit

of bloodshed here…  (Fagles, 219)

This is more or less at the moment when Orestes kills his mother, egged on by the chorus and his best friend.  My understanding of the ethics of the play is that the killing of Aegisthus, the uncle of Orestes and an usurping tyrant, is at worst neutral, just power politics, while the killing of his mother is an abomination, one more in a long line for this family.  The most curious moment to me was just before the lines above, when Orestes hesitates and doubts:

ORESTES: Pylades, can a man kill his mother?

Can he perform anything more dreadful

Than the murder of his own mother?

What shall I do?

PYLADES:  Remember the words of Apollo.

Obey the command of the god of the oracle.

Embrace the enmity of mankind

Rather than be false to the word of heaven.  (Hughes, 134-5)

The strange thing is that these are the only lines of Pylades, who has otherwise been silently shadowing Orestes through the play.  If I think like a fantasy writer, then this creature is clearly some kind of double, Apollo, or an agent of Apollo (or of someone else?} who has taken the form of, or possessed, the friend of Orestes.  Just a few pages later, we see that “Pylades” is essentially lying: it is the Furies, not men, who begin to torment Orestes.

They are climbing out of the earth,

Out of their burrows in old blood.

Eyes like weeping ulcers,

Mouths like fetid wounds.

Their whips whistle and crack. (Hughes, 144)

In an earlier speech (Hughes, 106), Orestes says this is what Apollo told him would happen if he did not avenge his father.  Apollo is a liar.

CHORUS:  Where will it end? –

where will it sink to sleep and rest,

  this murderous hate, this Fury?  (226, tr. Fagles)

And curtain, although the Greeks did not have curtains. An intermission, a week long for us, and then we will get the answers to those question in The Eumenides, or The Kindly Ones, where we will say farewell to Aeschylus.

One more curious thing is that we will return to this story three more times, in Sophocles and Euripides.  So few of the plays survive, but we have four versions of this story.

The painting is Louis Jean Desprez’s “The Tomb of Agamemnon,” a study for an 18th century Swedish opera, a surprising item owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  One more Aeschylus play with an altar in the center of the stage.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Agamemnon by Aeschylus - Find some other blood-glutted / Family tree of murder

by Aeschylus.  What a quotable play.  Here’s a two-line summary:

CHORUS:  Where is the right and wrong

In this nightmare?  (77, tr. Ted Hughes)

War is over.  Queen Clytemnestra is thrilled that her husband Agamemnon is coming home after a decade of war, because it will finally give her the opportunity to murder him in revenge for his murder of their daughter Iphigenia, killed in a ghastly human sacrifice that, if we stick to my schedule, we will see with our own eyes sometime next fall.  How horrible; who would want to see that?  The chorus on the sacrifice of Iphigenia:

Some called it a monstrous act

But it seemed to work.

Anyway, that’s all in the past. (40)

Agamemnon’s family history is so cursed and blood-soaked that this is just usual business.  Here Clytemnestra welcomes Agamemnon home, laying out carpets dyed with “all the colours of blood”:

You have come like a spring day, opening the heart

After locked-up winter.

When Zeus treads the unripe grape

And lets the wine flood out

Then the whole house is blessed.

As it is now

When you step through your own doorway. (45)

In one of those masterpieces of Greek irony, she openly tells Agamemnon that she is about to murder him.

I had forgotten the unrelieved violence of Agamamnon.  We get not just the murder of Agamemnon, described in detail before it happens by the traumatized prophetess Cassandra, plus her murder, but also graphic descriptions of the cannibalistic murder of the sons of Thyestes, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and the sack of Troy.  These descriptions take up most of the play.  Horror literature.

Or other kinds of literature.  The quality of the little parts is so impressive.  Agamemnon is arguably the worst part in the play, the most minor.  The watchman who begins the play has some superb lines – “And then – what follows, / Better not think about it” (6) – smart man; the arrogant tyrant Aegisthus is pure ham; and the Herald briefly turns Agamemnon into war literature:

Then on the beaches it was worse. Dug in

under the enemy ramparts – deadly going.

Out of the sky, out of the marshy flats

the dews soaked us, turned the ruts we fought from

into gullies, made our gear, our scalps,

crawl with lice…

But why weep now?

It’s over for us, over for them.

The dead can rest and never rise again;

no need to call their muster.  We’re alive,

do we have to go on raking up old wounds?

Good-bye to all that.  Glad I am to say it.  (124, Fagles)

I have mostly been using the 1999 Ted Hughes translation of Agamemon, which simplifies but also clarifies the language of Aeschylus, but I could not resist Robert Fagles in this passage, with his direct invocation of Robert Graves’s combat memoir, which I doubt is in the original Greek.

Hughes is good, too.  The Chorus of old men on how the war looked to them:

The men came back

As little clay jars

Full of sharp cinders.  (26)

But the big part is Clytemnestra’s, magnificent all the way through.  She is like Prometheus or Ajax, a rebel against the gods.  Much of this blood is supposedly demanded for unknown reasons by the cruel, perhaps insane gods.  Her own grievances irrevocably revenged, she addresses “You Powers, whoever you are”:

Find some other blood-glutted

Family tree of murder –

Go and perform your strange dance

Of justice in their branches.

Leave us.

I ask for nothing,

Now the killing is over –

Only to be left in peace.  (79-80)

Imagine if Agamemnon were the only play of the trilogy that had survived.  But no, so next week we’ll see if the next generation can lift the curse in The Libation Bearers.  Good luck, kids!

I’ve illustrated this post with a 1906 “galvanoplastic” reproduction of the famous, so-called Mask of Agamemnon, owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Friday, February 11, 2022

Ajax by Sophocles - Shall I not learn place and wisdom?

We have reached our first Sophocles play, Ajax, generally thought to be “early.”  Putting it before Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 BCE) gives me the first eighteen years of Sophocles’s long career, which should be enough.  Aside from Ajax, we are missing the first thirty-two years of Sophocles.

Things have changed.  Now there are clearly three actors, outside of the chorus, with speaking parts, while the early Aeschylus plays (probably) always used just two speaking actors.  I have been struck by the number of non-speaking parts, like the grieving Tecmessa at the end of Ajax, who only contributes to the tableau because the three actors are used for other parts.  Aristotle says that the third actor is an innovation of Sophocles.  Here it is.

The skene, the structure in the middle of the stage, is definitely there now, too.  It may have been present in the Aeschylus plays we have read, but now there is no ambiguity.  There is a structure, it has doors, actors can appear on top of it, it may well support wheeled platforms.  The sophistication or gimmickry of the stage business has moved up a notch.

I would love to have a better idea of what the Greek audience saw.  Ajax, the hero described by Homer as “gigantic,” the shield of the Greek army, a warrior second only to Achilles, has gone mad as a result of losing the armor of dead Achilles to Odysseus.  Thinking that he is taking revenge on his enemies – meaning, his Greek allies, which is crazy to begin with – he instead, in a frenzy, slaughters and tortures a herd of livestock.  The play is about the perfect soldier coming to terms with his madness and shame.  With minor changes, the play could be about a good soldier who snaps under stress.  Perhaps with no changes.

Ajax first appears, near the beginning of the play, surrounded by mutilated animals, covered with their blood.  With what detail, I wonder; how much blood?  The moment of his appearance is built up to be shocking.  The audience is warned, but here he is:

AJAX: Look at this swirling tide of grief

    And the storm of blood behind it,

    Coursing around and round me.

CHORUS:  Horrible!  (20)

But how horrible?  I have no idea.

Ajax’s madness is complicated by the fact that Athena directly intervenes in events, perhaps as punishment for Ajax’s impiety and arrogance, or what I would call his individualism and humanism.  He is fool enough to think humans govern their own affairs, or at least he governs his own.

AJAX:                Don’t you know by now

    That I owe the gods no service any more?  (29)

This way well count as a “tragic flaw.”  Madness is a central epistemological issue.  However hardheaded an empiricist I might be, I know that there are people who experience reality in different ways than I do.  However “real” reality seems, there is always, logically, doubt.  Attributing this doubt to the actions of gods is perhaps just a question of definition. I love the odd detail – Sophocles is full of such touches – that the rational, pious Odysseus, who frequently speaks with his protector Athena, can never see her, while the cursed, visionary Ajax can.

Ajax has a magnificent speech in the exact center of the play that is a monument of literary irony.  The hero is planning his suicide, but telling his family and followers the opposite.

Strangely the long and countless drift of time

Brings all things forth from darkness into light

That covers them once more. Nothing so marvelous

That man can say it surely will not be –

Strong oath and iron intent come crashing down. (31-2)

What a beginning.  Every line has two meanings.

I must give way, as all dread strengths give way…

Shall not I learn place and wisdom? (32)

In death, Ajax means, but his audience hears something else.  And when he leaves, the chorus of the sailors who follow him “shudder and thrill with joy” (32).  That won’t last.

The story of the death of Ajax was for a time a popular subject for vase painting.  I’ve borrowed a remarkable example from the Getty, a shallow wine cup, which shows Tecmessa covering Ajax’s body in the bowl.  The sides of the cup show two other scenes from the story, including the voting for the armor of Achilles that launches the tragedy.  Another irony is that armor ends up at the bottom of the Mediterranean.  Nobody gets it.  All a waste, like the entire Trojan War.

I’ve stuck to the John Moore translation (University of Chicago Press), but I also read the Helen Golder and Richard Pevear version (Oxford) which was punchier and had better annotation.

Next we return to Aeschylus for Agamemnon, the beginning of the Oresteia.  If you haven’t read it, don’t miss this one.  I have the ubiquitous Robert Fagles translation at hand, but I also plan to read the Ted Hughes version.

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

I. B. Singer's Satan in Goray and Mori Ōgai's The Wild Geese - as though space had shrunken

Another edition of a Wuthering Expectations staple: “Get these books back to the library.”


Satan in Goray, Isaac Bashevis Singer (1933), his first novel, about a wave of mid-17th century Jewish millenarianism in what is now southeastern Poland.  It is a book of extraordinary violence and cruelty.  Maybe not as openly violent as Red Cavalry or the stories of Lamed Shapiro, but up there.  The world view is at least as bleak.  The Jews of Goray are recovering from a nightmarish round of the usual warfare of the time, so are susceptible to the promise of a Messiah.  All tradition, all reason, is abandoned.  Why not chop up your own house and use it as firewood?  Soon we will be in Jerusalem!

Although Singer describes strange, magical events in a way that makes it hard to distinguish between the “facts” of the story and legend, it is all plausible, as a description of religious hysteria of the time and various other hysterias we know all too well.  The visionary central female character is exactly the person who accuses day care workers of witchcraft.

Singer’s older brother, as I saw in Yoshe Kalb (1932) and The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936), is as strong in novelistic sociology, but I. B. is superior in language and invention.  He is rich in metaphor, like a great fantasy writer.  It is Rosh Hashanah – surely the Messiah is coming today:

The sky, which all summer long had been as blue as the curtain of the Torah Ark, and somewhat broader and higher than usual, contracted.  Now the town seemed enclosed in a dark canvas tent.  The hills, which had been green and evocative of the holy land, disappeared, wiped off the face of the earth.  The smoke, reluctant to leave the chimneys, spread over the houses, as though space had shrunken.  (p. 180, tr. Jacob Sloan)

The landscape, the sky is full of meaning.  Of course the Messiah does not come, leaving sixty pages for things to get even worse.


The Wild Geese, Mori Ōgai (1911-3), a little novel by a writer often mentioned alongside Sōseki Natsume as a founder of modern Japanese fiction, a subject about which I know very little.  This particular book seemed awfully minor. 

Small-time loan shark Suezō, sick of his wife, buys a pretty young mistress, Otama.  Here’s Donald Keene in Dawn to the West (1984), the “Fiction” volume: “Otama in the course of the novel develops from a trustful, innocent girl into a woman who discovers how to use the man who is using her; Suezō, though a moneylender, is portrayed with surprising sympathy, especially in the scenes with this harridan of a wife” (369).  I would say yes about Otama, and her development is by far the most interesting thing in the book; no no no about the repellent Suezō, who is wrong about everything, ethically and otherwise, and is fortunately abandoned around the middle of the book, which I will again note is only 107 pages long in the Tuttle edition, so I did not suffer too much, or, really, at all.

Mori’s prose, at least as translated by Kingo Ochiai and Sanford Goldstein, is plain and distant.  I don’t see anything I’m dying to quote.  The last ten pages take a curious, digressive structural turn (the narrator is nominally the author, telling a story from his medical student days):

In a European book of children's stories, there is a tale about a peg.  I can’t remember it well, but it was about a farmer’s son who got into a series of difficulties on his journey because the peg in his cartwheel kept coming out.  In the story I’m telling now, a mackerel boiled in bean paste had the same effect as that peg.  (107)

The last pages of the story certainly surprised me, even if I was not surprised when the symbolic geese in the title finally appeared.

This one gets slotted into Dolce Bellezza’s ongoing Japanese literature event.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Prometheus Bound by let's-call-him Aeschylus - This is what you get / for loving humankind.

This week’s play is Prometheus Bound, by Aeschylus, or maybe not – A Common Reader here reviews a book arguing the “not” case – and first written and performed nobody knows when.  The translator of the Penguin version, Philip Vellacott, wants the play to be late, even posthumously performed, in order for Aeschylus’s ideas about Zeus, to “develop” in a particular way, as if the ideas of writers have to move in a straight line.  No one knows.

But the play is in fact about Zeus, the specific mythical figure but also the concept of godhood.  We are way, way back in the mythological timeline, at the moment Zeus and his siblings have overthrown their parents, the Titans.  Prometheus has been sentenced by Zeus to imprisonment and torture on a Scythian mountaintop, where the play opens with embodiments of Power and Violence dragging Prometheus onto the stage.  Says Power:

He must submit

      To the tyranny of Zeus

And like it, too.

He’ll learn.  (29, tr. Scully and Herrington)

Or, in Vellacott, “Till he be taught to accept the sovereignty of Zeus” (20).  I read the Oxford translation by poet James Scully and classicist C. J. Herington as well as Vellacott’s version; this bit sure shows the difference.

Power?  Violence?  Which gods are these?  Violence does not even have any lines.  How do I even know she is there?  Hephaistos the blacksmith – there’s a god I know – addresses them by name.  Greek plays did not have stage directions, but in Prometheus Bound detailed directions often appear in the dialogue, as during Hephaistos’s violent binding of Prometheus to the rock, under the orders of Power:

POWER: Now, hard as you can, hammer the shackles INto him!

                Watch it now.  The Boss checks everything out.

HEPHAISTOS:  I can’t tell which is worse: your looks or your loud mouth.

The possibilities for staging Prometheus Bound are so interesting.  A 2013 outdoor production at the Getty used a five-ton wheel as the mountaintop.  Characters are constantly flying onto the stage, in winged chariots, or in one case on “a winged four-footed creature” (Vellacott, 29).  Were characters lowered on decorated cranes, or was it all left to the imagination of the audience?  This play seems visually richer than the others we have read, even keeping in mind, however poorly, the masks and costumes and dancing.

There’s another thing we know nothing about, the dancing, the music.  At least the masks and costumes are depicted in art.  At one point, another victim of Zeus appears on stage, Io who was turned into a cow (her mask clearly has horns) and raped by Zeus, then hunted and tortured by jealous Hera.  Aeschylus told Io’s story in The Suppliants, while that story is retold in Prometheus Bound.  Her scene ends with the return of her torments:

spirally wheeld

by madness, madness

stormblasted I’m

blown off course

my tongue my tiller

it’s unhinged, flappy

words words thrash

dashed O at doom

mud churning up

breaking in waves

                               (IO charges off)  (73, Scully & Herington)

I assume that is pretty free.  But if I imagine it as song, along with Io’s maddened, terrified cow dance, it could be shocking to see.

Or ridiculous.  I was surprised by all of the humor in Prometheus Bound, as in Hephaistos’s response to Power up above.  The scene with the blustering Ocean, the character who rides the winged beast, is essentially comic.  The argument between Prometheus and Hermes near the end of the play is comic.  Prometheus gives Io a long prophecy because “I’ve more spare time than I could wish for” (69, Scully).  The play begins with a torture scene and ends with another, possibly mental, that leads perfectly into Percy Shelley’s Romantic sequel, but in between there is quite a lot of comedy, audible in both versions I read.

This is what you get

for loving humankind.  (30, Scully and Herington)

Is that comic or tragic?

Next, for a change, is a Sophocles play, Ajax, thought to be an early one which just by probability puts it before the Oresteia.  With a subject from the Trojan War and a cast of famous heroes and themes of human folly and divine fate, Ajax may look more like my stereotype of a Greek play.  It’s another good one.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Benjamin Labatut's physics fantasy A Terrible Verdure - The mind cannot come to grips with its paradoxes and contradictions


Benjamin Labatut’s Bolaño-Sebaldian 2020 novel-like object, Un verdor terrible (A Terrible Verdure, although Adrian Nathan West’s English translation is titled When We Cease to Understand the World) has been getting a lot of attention.  It is a fantasy novel where major twentieth-century scientists and mathematicians are mystics who make their discoveries through glimpses of the reality behind the veil.  Several, but not all, of the figures Labatut writes about were, in fact, mystics, although the relation, in what I call the real world, between their work and their mysticism is not so clear. 

In fantasy fiction, metaphors are made literal.  In A Terrible Verdure, high-cognition scientists are not just like mystics, but are mystics.  What do we get from this particular physics fantasy?

One thing is that the “genius poet” problem is solved.  Nabokov somewhere says that the hardest character to make convincing is the poet of genius, because the author has to actually be a poet of genius to provide the evidence that the character is such a thing.  Just asserting genius does not work.  The same is true for physicists and mathematicians.  By using real figures – primarily Fritz Haber, Karl Schwarzchild, Alexander Grothendieck, Erwin Schrödinger, and Werner Heisenberg – Labatut can use, or at least name, their actual contributions, while inventing much of the story around them.  Schrödinger, for example, comes up with the wave equation at the base of quantum mechanics (non-fiction) while reenacting sexy scenes from the contemporary novel The Magic Mountain (fiction).

Labatut turns everything mathematical into metaphor, and what else is he supposed to do?  “I understand about as much physics as you can without understanding mathematics” he says in an interview in Physics Today.  At least the physics problems suggest something in the material world; the chapter on Alexander Grothendieck is especially abstract, since his specialty was pure mathematics, so abstract that even the names of the fields barely mean anything.  In my own study of mathematics, I tapped out at real analysis, already getting too abstract for me, so poking around in Grothendieck’s actual work was amusingly pointless.

The speaker here is a Chilean mathematician who, inspired by Grothendieck’s retreat, afraid that math is destroying the world, retired long ago to cultivate his garden:

We know how to use it [quantum mechanics], it works as if by some strange miracle, and yet there is not a human soul, alive or dead, who actually gets it.  The mind cannot come to grips with its paradoxes and contradictions.  It’s as if the theory had fallen to earth from another planet, and we simply scamper around it like apes, toying and playing with it, but with no true understanding.  (187)

Which words are doing all the work?  “[A]ctually,” “true”?  In another sense, lots of people understand quantum mechanics, thousands of people.  “You [physicists, but also anyone] need to let the book do what it’s trying to do, which is going to be harder if you’re a physicist,” Labatut says in the Physics Today interview, which I think is right, but the other side is that non-physicists should be clear about that the book is not doing.


In the old days, a novel like this would have likely been about the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear war, but Labatut barely gestures in that direction.  His recurring catastrophe is environmental, not the familiar one of climate change, but rather a disaster of superabundance caused by artificial nitrogen fixing, the great discovery of chemist Fritz Haber, who was also the father of modern chemical warfare, an irony that has been explored many times.

Haber is the eventual subject of the first chapter, “Prussian Blue,” which is a direct imitation of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995).  The first paragraph covers German soldiers hopped up on Pervitin, which moves us to post-war suicides, and thus to cyanide, discovered as a by product of the invention of the chemical pigment Prussian Blue, which brings us to silkworm cultivation, and so on to Haber and his life and work.  Just like a Saturn chapter, except shorter and simpler.  The silkworms are taken directly from Sebald, and I mean directly:

The Reich Association of Silkworm Breeders in Berlin, a constituent group within the Reich Federation of German Breeders of Small Animals, which in turn was affiliated to the Reich Agricultural Commission, saw its task as increasing production in every existing workshop, advertising silk cultivation in the press, in the cinema and on radio, establishing model rearing units for educational purposes, organizing advisory bodies at local, district and regional level to support all silk-growers, providing mulberry trees, and planting them by the millions on unutilized land, in residential areas and cemeteries, by roadsides, on railway embankments and along the Reich’s autobahns. (293, Sebald, tr. Michael Hulse)

Labatut compresses the first seventy-three words into two:

The Nazis planted millions of such trees in abandoned fields and residential quarters, in schoolyards and cemeteries, in the grounds of hospitals and sanatoria, and on both sides of the highways that criss-crossed the new Germany. (16, Labatut)

This is the only time I noticed the literal rewriting of a Sebald sentence (“sanatoria” is added to foreshadow the Schrödinger chapter), but now I wonder if there are more, and plenty of other bits are dropped in, like the herring on the last page.  I don’t exactly want to say that Sebald’s sentences and maze of connections are better than Labatut’s, but they are clearly more complex.

Someone with a copy of Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996) could, I suspect, enjoy a similar, or perhaps quite different, exercise.  See that Physics Today interview.

I enjoyed When We Cease to Understand the World quite a lot. But part of that pleasure was recognition, part was flattery, and part was because it was all kind of easy.