Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Atreides: They're just like Us!

In "The Serpent and the Eagle," their introductory essay to Fagles' translation of the Oresteia,* Fagles and Stanford write, "The suffering of Atreus and his sons is a very old and yet a very modern matter. They are less removed from us than we might like to think" (16-17).

Now, I can see why one might want to be "removed" from the house of Atreus. To review:
The founder of the line was Tantalus of Lydia... [who] offended the gods by feasting them on his son's flesh, and they condemned him to starve in Hades, 'tantalized' by the drink and luscious fruits just out of reach. But they restored his victim, Pelops, to a new, resplendent life. ... Pelops had two sons, Atreus and Thyestes. When Thyestes seduced his brother's wife and contested his right to the throne, Atreus banished him and then, luring him back for a reconciliation, feasted him on his children's flesh. ... Atreus had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus.... Agamemnon became the commander-in-chief of the Greek forces that attacked Troy to avenge the seduction of Helen by Paris.... At the outset of the expedition, however, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his and Clytaemnestra's daughter Iphigeneia -- a fact that Homer had omitted, perhaps to exonerate the king for an aristocratic audience -- and so he comes an agent of the curse upon his house. (15)
So, yeah. I wouldn't really want to have a ton in common with the house of Atreus, it's true. But the argument the authors make to support their claims -- one, implicitly, that the reader would prefer not to identify with the characters of the Oresteia; two, explicitly, that these characters' actions and stories relate to the modern reader (and therefore, presumably, offer him insights into his own life or world) -- is never fully fleshed out (sorry, bad pun). The only connection they offer is that
[Atreus and his sons]... are cursed, their lives are an inherited disease, a miasma that threatens the health of their community and forces them, relentlessly, to commit their fathers' crimes. It is as if crime were contagious -- and perhaps it is -- the dead pursued the living for revenge, and revenge could only breed more guilt. For such guilt is more than criminal; it is a psychological guilt that modern men have felt and tried to probe. Every crime in the house of Atreus, whether children kill their parents or parents kill their children and feed upon their flesh, is a crime against the filial bond itself. (17)
So... Atreus and his sons have in common with us... the experience of feeling guilty for crimes we may or may not have committed? (Or perhaps -- less flippantly -- the inevitable feelings of guilt that result from the parent/child relationship.) That's pretty much all I'm getting from that. The argument that they are "less removed from us than we might to think" is not fully explained, let alone proven; it is used, instead, as a segue into a discussion of "the pathology of a culture ridden by its guilt" (17) and from there into ancient Greek religion and ritual, and the possible cultural underpinnings of the Oresteia.

Which is all very well and good. The authors have a lot of ground to cover in this essay, the sole piece of criticism/commentary in this edition. But the line caught my eye because it seems to me that critics of literature are always trying to tell me that the works they study are pertinent to my life, my world. It's as though they're afraid I'll see their arguments as pointless, their life's work as unworthy unless it reaches some particular threshold of relevance.

And that got me to thinking ("I couldn't help but wonder"): Is it a necessary condition of "literature" that it offer some enduringly relevant insight? I can see that scholars of ancient (and modern) works would want to believe that those works offer some sort of timeless wisdom or message to the reader; I know it's a common criticism of academia that it has too little to do with the so-called real world. (The term "ivory tower" is pretty self-explanatory.)

And -- god help me -- is a piece of literature "good" because it offers insight, or does it offer insight because it is good?

The gist of Tolkien's argument in "The Monsters and the Critics" is that Beowulf had been studied more as a historical document than as a work of literature because critics felt that it wasn't good enough to be studied as literature (structural weaknesses, or something; too many monsters). It is, too, good enough, Tolkien argues. It is beautiful poetry, and what's more -- oh, yes -- its themes are timeless. Beowulf, according to Tolkien,
glimpses the cosmic and moves with the thought of all men concerning the fate of human life and efforts; it stands amid but above the petty wars of princes, and surpasses the dates and limits of historical periods, however important. At the beginning, and during its process, and most of all at the end, we look down as if from a visionary height upon the house of man in the valley of the world.
Well, then. Oh, and lest you thought you could be distant from Beowulf the character, if not the broader themes of his story, Tolkien would like you to know that "Beowulf is not... the hero of an heroic lay.... He has no enmeshed loyalties, nor hapless love. He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy."

I'm not trying to mock Tolkien. Far from it. I'm just thinking about this idea that literary merit is somehow connected to this standard of relevance, this idea that literature is that which teaches us something important, something lasting about people or life or the way of the world.

I won't fall into the trap of attempting to ascertain what exactly counts as literature, let alone how we determine that something is "good" (I was once in a conference class wherein the day's first topic was what constitutes literature; it became the day's only topic when the discussion was hijacked by an indignant ponytailed Classics junior who would not give up her argument that a grocery list could be considered literature. Finally, the professor -- a genial middle-aged Chaucerian who normally gave us very free rein -- cut in and said, "No. No." And that put a stop to that, except class was nearly over by that point anyway).

But it is curious to me to think that literature must have some particular bearing on life. I'm not sure how much I could say that literature has taught me anything about life; trust me, I did plenty of reading throughout childhood and adolescence and I was clueless.

It's a dangerous road, thinking that we should identify with literary characters and/or learn from them. There once came into my possession -- not through any doing of my own, let me assure you -- a book entitled Where There's A Will There's A Way, Or, All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Shakespeare, by one Laurie Maguire (who apparently did not learn it in kindergarten). Now, I did not actually read this unfortunately-named tome -- I sold it to Powell's the first chance I got -- but I gather that it's some sort of self-help book... based on Shakespeare. No. Really. I have to quote from Amazon's product description:
Covering such universal subjects as love and hate, the battle of the sexes, family relationships, and loss and death, Maguire shows how the dilemmas illustrated in Shakespeare's plays can help readers explore their own emotions and judgments. Together, Maguire and Shakespeare offer suggestions, comfort, empathy, and encouragement as they set out a timeless principle for living.
Apparently Shakespeare is "the ultimate self-help guru and life coach." I am not making this up.

This isn't to say that Fagles and Stanford (and Tolkien) share Maguire's absurd conclusion that literature can find you a boyfriend, or whatever. There's a big leap from "this work applies to your life and mine" to "this work will teach you to work through your grief over your father's death." Maguire has gone audaciously, hilariously literal with the idea that fictional characters are like us.

But hey, at least she's attempting to be pragmatic. Really. Will I get less out of the Oresteia if I can't identify with Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra or Orestes? Am I missing something crucial if I can't see how their lives relate to mine, how the trilogy's themes still apply to the world of today?

I find that I am confounded by the question. It seems presumptuous to think that what Aeschylus had to say has anything to do with me (Agamemnon died for my sins!); but it seems insulting to say that his work no longer has relevance.



*We are reading the 1977 Penguin Classics edition, translated by Robert Fagles; introduction, notes, and glossary written in collaboration with W.B. Stanford. Stanford was Irish, and his political career looks interesting, too. Have a look.


ADDENDUM: Fiona worries that I may have conflated "I can identify with the characters" with "the work offers enduring insights." I don't think that I did; I was aware of the difference while writing the post, and I was fairly careful to distinguish between them in what I said. What I did fail to do is to explain how I see the relationship there. So I want to explicate just a little.

The line with which I began was this: "The suffering of Atreus and his sons is a very old and yet a very modern matter. They are less removed from us than we might like to think."

Essentially, this claims that we have something in common with these characters; we are not removed from them, we should on some level be able to identify with them. But also, their suffering is a matter, an issue that is modern, that is, a theme that remains relevant. Their guilt is "a psychological guilt that modern men have felt and tried to probe."

That is to say that the reason, ostensibly, that we should be able to identify with these characters is that their sufferings have something to do with our sufferings. Their stories, therefore, may tell us something about ourselves or our world.

Similarly, Tolkien emphasizes that Beowulf is a man (i.e. a person) like us as opposed to a mythic hero. His tragedy, per Tolkien, is specifically that he is a human being; his story "moves with the thought of all men concerning the fate of human life and efforts...." So the tale of Beowulf, insofar as it is a tale about a human being, offers a message that applies to all human beings.

The fact that we can identify with its characters need not entail that a work tells us something about life; and a work can still offer insight even if we don't particularly identify with its characters (let me tell you, I do not identify with Henry Chinaski, but that doesn't mean that Charles Bukowski has nothing at all to teach me about life -- for one thing, I learned that I hate Charles Bukowski).

But I guess what I am saying is that when I speak here about identifying with characters, I mean it in a relatively broad sense. For example, when I read Troilus and Cressida, I identify with Cressida more than with the other characters because she is a woman in a difficult situation who is harshly judged by people who really don't know her or attempt to understand her. And that's quite specific. But when I read Beowulf, I can't relate to Beowulf as a character in the same way I relate to Cressida. What I can do, at least according to Tolkien, is relate to Beowulf as a human being whose life is finite, whose most spectacular achievements have a limited impact (see Fiona's post on the ends of Beowulf and Hamlet).

It's not like Fagles and Stanford are arguing, say, that we should identify with Agamemnon because hey, remember that time you had to sacrifice your young daughter and it was awful and then your wife was really pissed?

Wow, I actually have a lot more to say about this, and I could keep going for a long time. I hope I've at least clarified this issue rather than confusing it further.

me: i'm trying to make sense of this blog post
which is now a hydra
damn it
Fiona: the blog post is a hydra?
me: yeah
Fiona: I think you have to cauterize the stumps
me: i tried to cut off one of its heads
and it grew more heads
Fiona: I think that is how he did it
me: and i'm out of lighter fluid


Fiona said...

Well, I think that paragraph is talking about the inevitability of the curse of Atreus -- if someone kills your daughter you can't just forgive them and move on. You have to revenge yourself, but by DOING that you're committing an unforgivable crime. It passes from family member to family member, thus all the talk about inherited disease. And once you kill a family member, you're cursed, even if they deserved it. But they can't NOT do it.

David Jackson said...

That is quite a blog post you made there.

Also, I think some relevance to modern life may be a part of the boundary between history/anthropology and literature. When the text and its contents become too distant, too firmly entrenched in their original context, they lose literary value and begin functioning more as objects of historical/anthropological study.

David Jackson said...

Also, the Greeks are weird.

Megan Driscoll said...

My father is a writing teacher. Primarily fiction, occasionally creative nonfiction. And when you're thinking from the perspective of a writer (or, trying to convey the fundamentals of writing as a teacher), you are concerned about making your reader relate to your characters. Whether they empathize, sympathize, or are just sickly fascinated, that relationship is essential, and no strong bond is formed without some sense of "I can identify with this [person] [scenario]." Which is not to say that all writers through time have always written with that goal in mind. But it is to suggest that the urge of the novelist and the urge of the critic to make something relatable comes from the same place. Your reader must develop a relationship to what they're reading for it to become meaningful. It may come off sounding like a justification, but I don't think that it's as simple as saying there is a "relevance threshold" for good literature.

You come across this argument a LOT in the visual arts. Many people feel that contemporary art is elitist because it is not emotive, or easily understood/related to (people felt the same way about the many faces of Modernism, and Impressionism, and Romanticism, and... and... and...). And many artists forget that success may not be in the easy, obvious, readily understood, but success is rooted in a rich viewer experience.

Hrm, I could go on about this subject too. It's a good one for chewing.