06 December 2011

Agamemnon Part II – Silencing the Voice of the Victim

In the first part of this series on Aeschylus' Agamemnon, I wrote that I would continue with the consequences of Agamemnon's choices, which are foretold and are included in the first chorus. Well, I am not going to write about that—this time.

Instead, I want to look at antistrophe 6, which begins, “And then—but I beheld not, nor can tell, / What further fate befell:”  According to Gil Bailie in his Violence Unveiled, this closing of the eyes, this being silent about the horror, “virtually defines myth.”[1] In other words, he says that if a person’s eyes are open they will not see myth, but truth.  Then, he goes on to equate truth with gospel.  He discusses the word aletheia, which is the Greek word for truth, and then sneaks the word gospel in beside it.

Gospel, however, comes from the Anglo-Saxon for good spell, which in turn comes from the Greek word euangelion. Euangelion means good message. A good message does not automatically provide evidence of veracity. There are many good messages that are complete fiction, but that does not make them bad, or even untrue. Bailie is confusing the denotation of the word myth, with its connotation. It has come to mean something that is not true, and is usually used to refer to the belief systems of other people. In attempting to make his argument, he tries to make "truth" equate to "gospel" and thus remove any hint of myth from the Christian religion. This makes sense in light of what Bailie is up to. But, Joseph Campbell points out that all myths are true in their context. There is only a problem when the myth and the symbols connected with it are transplanted. The myth then becomes strange and all sorts of glosses and commentaries become necessary in the attempt to explain away that strangeness.

Myth is not untruth, even if that is the connotation now attached to the word; rather, it is not-completely-revealed truth. We have to be careful that we do not immediately think this signifies half-truth. It does nothing of the sort. The Bible itself ends with a book named "The Revelation," or if you think it should be the Greek transliteration—Apokálypsis, which means the unveiling. If gospel and truth are the opposite of myth, in Bailie's terms; that is, if gospel equals truth and myth equals not-truth (or even hidden or secret truth), then what is revealed in "The Revelation of St. John?" So, I propose that the meaning of the Greek word mythos can still contain much of the Christian religion, because much of that religion is hidden or secret.

Bailie discusses interesting thoughts about violence and they ways in which humans deal with it. Unfortunately, he is too busy trying to prove that Christianity is not a mythology, and thus misses many opportunities to question truly and honestly the causes and consequences of violence. He comes down hard on the Greek tragedians, but they are able to show violence without showing it. This is part of their genius. The writers of the Hebrew and Christian texts have to settle for writing blatant descriptions of the details of the violence, because they are incapable of doing otherwise. This has nothing to do with myth or truth. It is merely the styles of writing of different cultures. Yet, Bailie insists that Aeschylus' use of "I beheld not, nor can tell" makes the entire thing the opposite of gospel truth.

In the Greek tragedies, violence is unveiled without being graphic. The emotions of those involved in the action are more important, because those emotions draw in the audience, and in this way, they arrive at the catharsis.[2] To borrow from the Hebrew Scriptures, the idea is that of the prophet Nathan who says to King David, "You are the man." Readers cannot connect with that as easily as they can when the story comes at a slant. In other words, to watch or read about an innocent person suffering, and being given cues and clues to the emotions and thoughts of those causing that suffering, lets the audience know that in every human there is both good and evil.[3] And, although I would like it to be untrue, sometimes the evil comes out on top, as in the case of Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia. Not only could that be considered evil, but consider all the evil that followed as consequence of it.

Agamemnon is a fine example of what happens when we trust superstitions (of any sort), rather than what we know to be right, true and good in our own hearts/minds. The human conscience can be a beautiful or a deadly thing, depending on perspective.

It is also a mistake to assume that Greek tragedy equals Greek mythology. Tragedies do include mythology, but they are not it entirely. The Greeks had no Bible, per se. They learned of their gods and goddesses by watching dramas and listening to travelling bards, but these only contain aspects of the mythology needed to tell the story. Most of the stories are human stories. Mythology proper, on the other hand, relates to deities and the people of those deities, and how those people do or do not keep the deities' laws, and the consequences—whether good or bad. That sounds mighty close to religion. Here, we arrive at another tangle of words, and the debates and discussions have been and will be going on for more years than I care to know.

I am looking at the Greek tragedies in terms of humanity and humanness, not in terms of their metaphysical truth or lack thereof. In other words, what can we—as humans—take home from this work of literature or drama? What overarching themes do these works contain that will help me be a better father, husband, leader, follower, or simply a better human being?
Image of Iphigenia from here.

[1] Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads, (New York: Crossroad PC, 2004). 33.
[2] For more on catharsis, see Aristotle's Poetics.
[3] I do not attempt, here, to define these two terms philosophically or theologically. Good and evil are concepts that have spawned many discussions and wars and every other kind of disharmony, disunity and contention. I use these terms in their most basic sense.

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