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The road where speech goes straight

August 15, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

The Eumenides (“The Kindly Ones”) is the final entry in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the only extant ancient Greek dramatic trilogy. (The final tragedy, anyway: the three tragedies would normally be associated with a more light-hearted “satyr play.” Only fragments of the Oresteia‘s satyr play Proteus have survived.) And it’s a play about endings, but also about beginnings. The end of the blood-feud, the beginning of the rule of law. The end of unconscious violence, the beginning of conscious self-control. It tells the story of how the name of Kindly Ones was bestowed upon the Furies, the chthonic goddesses of vengeance, in compensation for the pardoning of Orestes, whom they would otherwise have hounded to his death.

For, as seen in the preceding Libation Bearers, Orestes had murdered his mother Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus to avenge his father Agamemnon on the orders of the sun-god Apollo.

For, as seen in the preceding Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra had murdered her husband Agamemnon on his return from the Trojan War to avenge her daughter Iphigenia; and was aided by Aegisthus, who sought to avenge his brothers. Agamemnon’s concubine, the Apollo-beloved-and-cursed Cassandra, they murdered also.

For, as described at various points throughout the trilogy, Agamemnon had sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to calm the winds preventing the Greek armies from sailing to Troy; and his father Atreus had killed Aegisthus’ brothers and served them to their father Thyestes in a pie. Now Atreus and Thyestes were brothers, the children of Pelops; and Pelops was the son of Tantalus, who killed him and served him to the gods, who then resurrected him. So the matricidal Orestes comes from a long line of fillicides and fratricides.

It’s not difficult to see why the house of Atreus was considered cursed. It’s hard to make much sense of such a sequence of events, such a senseless repetition of violence, apart from some such concept. It’s quite tempting, in fact, to give the story a psychoanalytic reading, making it about the repeated expression of unconscious desires, and the need to confront and sublimate them, to bring them into Apollo’s light; or to give it a political reading, making it about the chaos of barbarism, and the need to channel it along the lines of civilization. And neither would be all wrong.

But what I find fascinating about the trilogy is how the sublimation, civilization, whatever, happens. The dawn of reason, in the Oresteia, is itself unreasonable. The undoing of the curse begins when Apollo, god of reason, demands Orestes avenge his father–a matricide to break the series of fillicides. But he does so not with reasons, but with threats; and he may well himself be moved less by Agamemnon’s death than by that of Cassandra, itself only a side-effect of the feud. Then, when the Furies hound Orestes and he seeks the gods’ protection, Apollo may cleanse Orestes of his ritual guilt, but it is Athena, not Apollo, who provides the final resolution and reconciliation, who makes enough enough.

She does so, moreover, in a way that does not rely on Apollo’s “arguments” at all. Nor does she provide many arguments herself–at least not ones we can take seriously. Rather, she delegates the decision to a jury of Athenians; she provides, not a reasoned decision, but a decision procedure. Never mind that the jury splits 6-6 and the decision devolves to Athena again. What matters is the form: the institution of the rule by law, of the impartial jury; and the endorsement of this rule by the chthonic chaos that it supercedes. The gods play-act at putting Orestes on trial so that we can imitate them in total seriousness. The Furies, persuaded less by anything promised them than by Athena’s invocation of the power of persuasion, accept a new order in which persuasion, not brute force, rules the land:

ATHENA: Are they taking thought to discover that road
where speech goes straight?
In the fearsome look of the faces of these
I see great good for our citizens.
While with goodwill you hold in high honor
these Kindly Spirits, their will shall be good, as you steer
your city, your land
on an upright course clear through to the end.

The entire trilogy feels like a dream. Its characters sleep-walk through their lives, tossed this way and that by the warring of the gods against themselves. Only pitifully inadequate reasons are given for any action, but despite this everything feels full of sense, feels, in fact, inevitable. Then, in the Eumenides, the gods step center stage, and bring the real conflict–not between persons, but between the forces that control persons–into the open. The conflict is not resolved–it cannot be resolved–but it dissolves itself, and we awaken.

I have felt this dream-like quality every time I read the Oresteia, and every time I read the Eumenides in particular. It is, to my mind, the best reason to do so. The play shows us what it would be like not to be reasonable, not to live in a world where speech goes straight, and reminds us that the route from such a world to a world like our own might not itself be one we would call reasonable. Waking up does not much resemble shouting “Eureka!” upon suddenly realizing that we were asleep.

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