Sunday, January 25, 2009

"Agamemnon is the king!"

Fiona always pronounces Aeschylus "ess-keh-lus" and I had always heard "ees-keh-lus." I looked it up to see which was preferred and I found a hilarious nightmare. If you have JSTOR access, check out this article; if you don't, carry on pronouncing it whichever way you always have, because it doesn't seem to matter either way (rather like "edd-i-pus" versus "eed-i-pus). Academics always gotta be fighting about something!

Anyway. Reading The Libation Bearers (the second of the three plays that make up the Oresteia) made me wonder about the Electra complex, which I had heard was the female version of the Oedeipus complex. This seemed sort of unfair to me, because in Aeschylus' version, at least -- I haven't read the Electra plays by Sophocles or Euripedes, although now I feel like I should, but not in these dreadful old versions that you can get for free online -- Electra doesn't do anything nearly as drastic as Oedipus (I don't think that she does in anyone's version of the story).

Appropriately, it seems like the Electra complex isn't as big a thing, anyway. According to Wikipedia,
The idea is based largely on the work of Sigmund Freud, who uses the Oedipus complex as a point of reference for its elaboration. The term, however, was introduced by Carl Jung in 1913. Freud himself explicitly rejected Jung's term, because it "seeks to emphasize the analogy between the attitude of the two sexes," and continued to use the [term] feminine Oedipus attitude in his own writings.

That's very good of Freud, since it doesn't seem reasonable to saddle poor Electra with all the baggage of Oedipus -- she doesn't appear to be in love with her father at all, though she does want her mother dead (come to think of it, I always thought Freud's terminology was a bit hard on Oedipus, too, since in the story he actually goes to great lengths to avoid killing his father and marrying his mother, rather than having some messed-up complex wherein he wants to do those things, although honestly if I were Oedipus and aware of that prophecy, which he was, I think I would've married a much-younger woman and avoided killing anyone at all, just to be on the safe side, but then there would be no play, I guess).

I will grant that Electra speaks of her father and her siblings with a degree of intensity that is rather off-putting, at least to my judgmental modern taste. When she and Orestes are reunited, she says,
You light to my eyes, four loves in one!
I have to call you father, it is fate;
and I turn to you the love I gave my mother --
I despise her, she deserves it, yes,
and the love I gave my sister, sacrificed
on the cruel sword, I turn to you.
You were my faith, my brother --
you alone restore my self-respect. (ll.240-247)

Hmm... yeah. Both she and Orestes are reeeeally into Agamemnon:
Dear father, father of dread,
what can I do or say to reach you now?
What breath can reach from here
to the bank where you lie moored at anchor? ...

Then hear me now, my father,
it is my turn, my tears are welling now,
as child by child we come
to the tomb and raise the dirge, my father. (322-25; 336-39)

Can we talk about this? One line about Iphigeneia "sacrificed/ on the cruel sword," with nary a mention of who was doing the sacrificing, and then they're both worshiping their father like he's the second coming? (Anachronism, schmanachronism.)

It's not clear to me whether Clytaemnestra's hatred of Agamemnon is a product of his having killed Iphigeneia, her desire to replace him with Aegisthus, or both. Or maybe neither. But you'd think, at least, that Orestes and Electra would feel a shade more ambivalence about the dude who killed their sister so that his ships could sail. Is that so much better than what Clytaemnestra did?

Speaking of family ties, man, I had forgotten how disturbing the description of the sacrifice is. (I wonder if it's this bad in other translations?) It's hard to blame Agamemnon for how sexual these lines sound, since they're spoken by the chorus, but I want to blame someone:
"My father, father!" -- she might pray to the winds;
no innocence moves her judges mad for war.
Her father called his henchmen on,
on with a prayer,
"Hoist her over the altar
like a yearling, give it all your strength!
She's fainting -- lift her,
sweep her robes around her,
but slip this strap in her gentle curving lips...
here, gag her hard, a sound will curse the house" --

and the bridle chokes her voice... her saffron robes
pouring over the sand
her glance like arrows showering
wounding every murderer through with pity
clear as a picture, live,
she strains to call their names...
I remember often the days with father's guests
when over the feast her voice unbroken,
pure as the hymn her loving father
bearing third libations, sang to Saving Zeus --
transfixed with joy, Atreus' offspring
throbbing out their love. (Agamemnon 227-47)

Is there any way that this scene could not have been intended to sound profoundly sexual? It's hard to think Fagles would've added all that reeking innuendo just for kicks. I wonder what the intention is there; that is, what purpose is served by making Agamemnon sound like a child molester as well as a murderer. Leigh Walton? Anyone?

Although, speaking of scenes that sound closer to PG-13 than you'd think would be necessary, let's go back to Electra one more time. Here she is at Agamemnon's grave:
What kindness, what prayer can touch my father?
Shall I say I bring him love for love, a woman's
love for husband? My mother, love from her?
I've no taste for that, no words to say
as I run the honeyed oil on father's tomb. (The Libation Bearers 87-91)

Well, shit. Maybe Jung was onto something after all.

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