Monthly Archives: August 2009

Reading: The Bacchae, by Euripides

I finished reading Paul Roche’s translation of Euripides’s The Bacchae on 25 Aug 2009.

Pentheus attempts to suppress the cult of the new god Dionysus, who wreaks his revenge by causing Pentheus’s mother to tear him apart in a god-possessed frenzy. The moral is one typical of the Greek myths: don’t mess with the gods. Respect them, not because they deserve it, but because they’re bigger than you. Pentheus suspects that Dionysus’s cult is an immoral influence, and Dionysus proceeds to prove him right — but he also proves that might makes right irrelevant, and that a prudent mortal knows his place. Knowing Euripides’s general attitude toward the gods, though, I doubt that the play is really about respecting an actual Dionysus. More likely, Bacchus and the Bacchae stand for intractable aspects of human nature which must be respected whether you like them or not; people can’t all be strait-laced Penthei all the time, and trying to force them to is a recipe for disaster. Or it could be read as focusing on the Dionysus cult as a potent cultural/religious force which it would also be folly to mess with, since suppressing such movements often only makes them stronger and nastier. (Reading The Bacchae today, it’s hard not to think of Islamic extremism.) In any case it seems clear that Euripides is not defending the Bacchus cult itself as a good thing but warning against fanatical opposition to it.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about this play is its lack of a hero. One expects a tragedy to have a hero, albeit a flawed and doomed one, and the absence of anyone sympathetic or noble in The Bacchae makes it deeply unsatisfying. (That’s not necessarily a criticism. Who says the purpose of art is to satisfy?) Pentheus is portrayed as a small-minded prig, Cadmus and Tiresias as self-serving cowards, and Dionysus as a ruthless and self-absorbed maniac. There are no sympathetic characters, and when the audience feels little sympathy for the suffering, tragedy loses its force as tragedy. Somewhat ironically, given its ostensibly pro-Dionysus message, this is a play that makes you think rather than feel.

(A side note: I went to Ohio State University, where post-football game celebrations sometimes devolved into violent alcohol-fueled riots (setting fire to cars, that sort of thing) which were described as bacchanalian. Reading this play, it occurred to me that there might be some comedic potential in a travesty based on a Bacchae/Buckeye pun.)

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John C. Wright on sex in society

John C. Wright is apparently a science fiction writer. I’ve never read any of his books, but now that Scientists Considering Christianity is defunct and Jim Kalb seems to be posting less and less often, Wright’s LiveJournal has become one of my main sources for intelligent conservative Christian writing. (I try to read such material regularly as a counterbalance to my natural tendencies as a clueless liberal atheist.)

Recently, in response to a deluge of comments from gay activists who accused him of (among other things) being opposed to homosexuality solely for religious (read: irrational) reasons and questioned whether there could be any other reason for such opposition, Wright has posted a six-part secular defense of marriage and traditional sexual morality, explaining the train of thought that led him to become a sexual traditionalist before his conversion, when he was still a passionate atheist.

It’s given me a lot to think about, and I intent to return to it at my leisure and spend some time thinking about each of his points. So, for my own future reference (and for anyone else who is interested), here are links to the six parts, with summaries of what each covers:

  • Part I: On self-control. On the objectivity of morals. On virtue. Law and custom. Do as thou wilt. The bounds of the question.
  • Part II: Is marriage a contract? How pliant is human nature? Is sex entertainment? Men are jerks.
  • Part III: The sex act. Passions related to the sex act. Prudence related to the sex act. Humans are altricial. Bastards and cuckoos. Permanence. Exclusivity. Polygamy. Violence between sexual rivals.
  • Part IV: Third parties to marriage. The father of the bride. The grandparents of the child. The investment of the interest in virginity.
  • Part V: Matrimony and fornication. Prudence regarding matrimony.
  • Part VI: What does this have to do with science fiction? A personal note to Mr. Charles Stross. A general challenge. Christian modifications to this position.

Although triggered by an argument about homosexuality, Wright’s essay isn’t primarily about that topic. It mentions it only as a sort of postscript, and my initial reaction (as I said, I plan to reread it later and take some more time to think about it) is that his case against homosexual acts isn’t nearly as strong as his case against premarital and extramarital sex. (As I mentioned in the course of my discussion with A. C. Grayling, I just don’t think sex-like acts other than actual copulation are anywhere near as morally serious as the act itself; because they are disconnected from the possibility of childbirth, less is at stake.) I’ll come back to this topic later after I’ve had some time to digest and dissect his arguments.

Incidentally, the barrage of angry comments from homophobophobes to which Wright was responding was triggered by another post (since deleted) in which he made some sarcastic remarks about this news story: It seems the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) releases an annual report grading TV networks on their depiction of gay, lesbian, and otherwise sexually atypical characters, and that Syfy (formerly Sci Fi) got an “F.” Predictably, the network executives fell over themselves to apologize and earnestly insist on their commitment to diversity, and Wright, being in the science fiction business himself, was understandably worried about the precedent set by GLAAD’s ideological bullying and Syfy’s groveling submission.

What, you may ask, did Syfy do to deserve an “F”? Well, you see, their shows featured only two gay characters this past year — sympathetic characters both (as far as I can gather, not having actually watched the shows in question), but still only two. That’s it. That, according to the bozos at GLAAD, is defamation. You’d think they’d give at least a “C+” for a marginally positive portrayal, but apparently these guys take the idea of “damning with faint praise” very seriously: If you say gays are cool, but you don’t say it often enough or loud enough, you’re serving the Dark Side.

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Euripides’s greatest hits

A quick glance at Amazon or LibraryThing is usually all it takes to find out what a given author’s most popular works are, but it’s not that easy for an author like Euripides, whose plays are published in collections more often than as stand-alone works. For the following statistics, I went to LibraryThing’s Euripides page, looked at all the books owned by at least ten users, and broke them down into their contents, given a more realistic picture of the popularity of each individual work. For example, only 64 users own Electra as a book, which would make it Euripides’s 8th most popular play; if we tally up all the collections and anthologies which include Electra, though, it shoots up to third place, owned by 2,133 users.

Medea, the most popular of Euripides’s plays, is owned by 3,246 LibraryThing users, and the numbers in parentheses below represent percentages of that number. I also note which plays won prizes at the City Dionysia.

  1. Medea (100, third prize)
  2. Bacchae (79, first prize)
  3. Electra (66)
  4. Alcestis (65, second prize)
  5. Trojan Women (54, second prize)
  6. Ion (49)
  7. Hippolytus (45, first prize)
  8. Iphigenia in Tauris (42)
  9. Hecuba (39)
  10. Iphigenia at Aulis (39, first prize)
  11. Heracles (35)
  12. Children of Heracles (34)
  13. Cyclops (33)
  14. Helen (31)
  15. Phoenician Women (27)
  16. Andromache (20)
  17. Orestes (16)
  18. Suppliant Women (15)
  19. Rhesus (14)

I’m pleased to note that the volume I own — Signet Classic’s Euripides: Ten Plays, translated by Paul Roche — matches this list very well, coinciding almost exactly with its top ten (the one exception being that it includes Cyclops rather than Hecuba). The modern popularity of Euripides’s works also seems to be in broad agreement with the judgment of his contemporaries; of his six prize-winning plays, four of them also make the top six on the above list, and one of them misses it by a hair. (The other, Iphigenia at Aulis, won the prize as part of a trilogy that included Bacchae, so it may not have been first-prize material in its own right.)

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Reading: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling

I finished Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the Barnes & Noble edition with introduction and notes by Jeffrey Meyers, on 17 Aug 2009.

This is the first Kipling I’ve read since I was a kid (Jungle Book, Just So Stories, that kind of thing), and I was impressed. He’s a remarkably skillful writer with a knack for choosing precisely the right word. The settings and characters are completely convincing (particularly the Lama, the Babu, and Kim himself), and the spirit of the novel is generous, perceptive, and humane. The plot isn’t especially strong, but other aspects of the book are so gripping that one hardly cares.

The notes accompanying this edition are useful but suboptimal. Meyers often neglects to gloss unfamiliar words until the third or fourth time they occur, and the many geographical footnotes are less helpful than a map would have been. Meyers also sometimes seems to see literary allusions which are simply not there. For example, when the Lama bids his disciple farewell with “Dost thou love me? Then go, or my heart cracks,” a footnote informs us that this is a reference to King Lear‘s “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” — leaving the reader to guess what, other the word “crack,” the two passages have in common and why a Tibetan Lama would be alluding to Shakespeare.

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Reading: Hippolytus, by Euripides

I finished reading Paul Roche’s translation of Euripides’s Hippolytus on 16 Aug 2009.

The basic story is as follows: Hippolytus, the bastard son of Theseus, has no interest in sex or love. He devotes himself to Artemis and the hunt and slights Aphrodite. As revenge, Aphrodite causes Hippolytus’s stepmother Phaedra to fall in love with him. Unwilling to act on or even to reveal her passion, Phaedra wastes away and contemplates suicide. Finally a nurse gets the secret out of her and tells Hippolytus, after swearing him to secrecy. Hippolytus is disgusted by the whole idea and tells Phaedra so, and she kills herself, leaving behind a note saying that Hippolytus tried to rape her. Theseus believes the letter, and Hippolytus’s attempts to defend himself against the accusation are handicapped by his unwillingness to break his oath of secrecy. Theseus calls down the curse of Poseidon on his son, who dies a terrible death shortly thereafter.

The characters, particularly Hippolytus and Phaedra, come close to being as believable and multidimensional as those of Alcestis, and the storyline is more plausible.

I recently read an essay on C. S. Lewis by Edward M. Cook, which I mean to comment on in a later post, which mentions in passing that Hippolytus was instrumental in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, in that it caused in him such a powerful renewal of “Joy” (a word Lewis used idiosyncratically to refer to an intense and pleasurable desire which has no readily identifiable object and which nothing in this world can satisfy) that Lewis retreated from his “sensible” dismissal of Joy as mere wishful thinking and began taking it seriously as evidence for the existence of another world. Come to think of it, that mention in Cook’s essay is probably what made me finally pick up that volume of Euripides that had been sitting untouched on my shelf.

I didn’t experience anything as intense as what Lewis did, but I know how personal and unpredictable such experiences can be. Others have been moved by books that left me cold and vice versa, and sometimes even the same book reread by the same person will be found to have unexpectedly gained or lost its magic. The first time I read Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man it was quite literally a religious experience (so much so that it started me down the path to deconversion by making me question whether such religious experiences could really be taken, as I had been taught to take them in Mormonism, as revelations of the Truth from God). The second time around, Portrait was still a good book but my reading experience was nothing out of the ordinary. (This elusiveness of Joy is another of Lewis’s pet themes, and, as I say, I mean to comment on the whole “Argument from Joy,” as laid out by Lewis and defended by Cook, in another post.)

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Reading: Alcestis, by Euripides

I finished Paul Roche’s translation of Euripides’s Alcestis on 15 Aug 2009.

This is the story of Admetus, who has been promised immortality if he can convince someone to die in his place. He first asks his parents, thinking that they will be sacrificing less since they have few years left to live anyway, but in the end only his wife Alcestis will agree to die for him. After Alcestis’s death, Admetus is overcome with grief at his loss, and he has a serious quarrel with his father, each accusing the other of murdering Alcestis by selfishly refusing to die in her place. As he sinks deeper into depression and resentment, it becomes clear that his wife’s wonderful “gift” to him has in fact ruined his life.

The characterization, intensity, and emotional power of the play up to this point is phenomenal, making the sudden arrival of a happy-go-lucky Heracles, oblivious to what has just happened and hoping to enjoy a good time at his buddy Admetus’s place, almost physically jarring. The scrupulously hospitable Admetus hides the truth from Heracles and welcomes him into his home. Heracles proceeds to get drunk and have a great time until one of the household servants reveals the secret — that Alcestis is dead. Heracles then goes down to Hades, brings Alcestis back to the world of the living by force, presents her to Admetus, and all’s well that ends well.

Of the improbably happy endings of this and others of Euripides’s plays, the translator writes that they “must have seemed silly to Euripides too . . . it is as though Euripides were saying: ‘You want a happy ending, but can’t you see that the ending would not have been happy? Very well, I’ll give you an ending that you can’t believe in.'” I’m not sure I buy that as an explanation. After all, the ancient Greeks weren’t exactly known for their insistence on happy endings, and I’m sure there was nothing stopping Euripides from writing the play as a straight-ahead tragedy if he had felt so inclined. These tacked-on happy endings have a long history, going at least back to the Book of Job, and it’s possible that they just didn’t seem as silly to the ancients as they do to us. Perhaps they serve to underscore the tragedy by showing that even when a god shows up and magically makes everything all right, it’s still not all right. Admetus’s relationship with his father is probably irreparably damaged, and both Admetus and Alcestis will have to live out the rest of their lives knowing that Admetus was willing to let her die. And in the end Alcestis will die anyway and Admetus will live on (I think he still gets to live forever) without her. It’s hard to escape the feeling that Heracles hasn’t so much saved the day as ruined everything, trivialized it, deprived them of tragedy without relieving them of suffering.

This was my first exposure to Euripides, and it was extraordinary. I’ve got a book with nine other plays of his and am looking forward to reading them.

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Hate crimes

Chrs wrote a post about hate crimes some time ago, and, while the post itself doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, it got me thinking about the topic. After mulling it over for a couple of weeks, I’ve surprised myself by coming to the conclusion that, yes, hate crime laws are probably a good idea.

Motives are relevant because they affect the likelihood that the person will commit a similar crime in the future. A crime of passion is generally a response to a very unusual situation that is not likely to recur, and it can thus be punished more leniently. When the passion in question is the indiscriminate hatred of any and all members of a given group, though, that’s a different story. A man who flies into a homicidal rage when he finds his wife in bed with his best friend is obviously less of a menace to society than is someone who flies into a homicidal rage every time he sees a black/white/Jew/homosexual/Muhammad cartoon/whatever. People who can be moved to violence by such an everyday experience are dangerous, probably more dangerous than your average violent criminal.

When I say I support hate crime legislation, I should specify that I’m talking only about criminal behavior which happens to be motivated by open-ended hatred, not about the idea that such hatred or the expression thereof should itself be a crime. “Hate speech” laws are a very bad idea and are carried to outrageous extremes in some countries, going so far as to outlaw unpopular opinions about morality or history — punishing people who say that homosexuality is evil, for example, or that the Holocaust never happened. Holocaust denial laws are especially ridiculous — they’re like defamation laws in reverse, declaring the Nazis guilty and forbidding anyone to say that they’re innocent. (Hmmm… Does that mean Holocaust deniers are guilty of “anti-defamation”?) Aside from being tyrannical, such censorship is probably counterproductive; suppressing an opinion or movement by force just encourages people to think there must be something to it.

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