Archive for February, 2022

What I look for in fiction

I try these days not to start a post with a question that I then go on to answer: it seems to me a tired rhetorical device, and, having found myself cringing on observing it in several of my earlier posts, indicative, I think, of lazy writing. But let us not be rigid. I’ll start this post with a question:

  • What do I look for in fiction?

Or, as my friend Di Nguyen put it in her blog post

  • What turns me on?

[EDIT: For another answer to this same question, do please have a look here.]

I find that question difficult to answer, as there are so many different and disparate things that I enjoy. I tried thinking of the novels and plays and short stories that I most love, but couldn’t really find any distinct pattern emerging. I love the realism of something like Madame Bovary, say, but also the inspired illogicalities of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; or, say, Dead Souls, in which the real world is distorted into all sorts of strange and eccentric shapes, verging frequently on the lunatic. I am impressed by the life-and-death seriousness of The Rainbow, and amused by the light-as-a-soufflé frivolity of Right Ho, Jeeves! They both engage me, in entirely different ways, of course, and for entirely different reasons.

So I tried looking at it from another angle: What don’t I look for in fiction? Or, in other words, what turns me off? This path of enquiry proved, I think, more fruitful.

To cut to the chase, I find myself turned off by what are often described as “representative narratives”. I find myself frankly disturbed when novels advertise themselves as “representative” of some marginalised voice. Like, say, the “immigrant experience”. I myself am an immigrant, having come to Britain from India aged 5, some 57 or so years ago now, and yes, I like to think I have my own voice. But what does the “immigrant experience” actually mean? Immigrants from different parts of the world will have different experiences, and hence, different voices. Even immigrants from the same part of the world will have different experiences depending on their social background, the role they fulfil in the country they have come into, the part of the country they live in, and so on, and so forth. And even if the experiences of two immigrants are exactly the same, their voices still won’t be the same, simply because they are two different individuals. And this, I think, is an important point. Whatever the background of the character, whatever minority or majority they may belong to, however marginalised or centralised they may be, each character is, and should be depicted as, an individual. I find I have little time for “representative voices”. I certainly haven’t encountered any voice in fiction resembling my own, and neither would I want to: for one thing, I’d be too embarrassed.

One finds one’s common humanity not, I think, from characters resembling oneself, but, paradoxically, from characters very different from oneself – people from different times, from different cultures, from different walks of life, with different outlooks and different perspectives. If we restrict our interest primarily to characters similar to ourselves, of course we will find a unity of sorts: there’s nothing too surprising about that. It’s when we sense a unity even within the vast and dazzling diversity of humanity that we discover literary exaltation. I have, in short, little time for identity games when it comes to literature: to see literature as an arena for social and political activism is to demean it.

Of course, childhood influences are important: what is impressed upon the mind when that mind hasn’t yet hardened remains for the rest of one’s life. I loved adventure stories as a boy, and that has stayed with me: I love still the stories of Stevenson and Dumas, the Flashman novels of George Macdonald Fraser, and so on. I love also the elements of the boys’ own adventure story that one finds in even the most mature works of Conrad. But even more than the adventure story, I love the supernatural. As a youngster, I used to scare myself silly reading creepy ghost stories in bed, and that habit has remained with me. I love elements of the Gothic when they appear (in Wuthering Heights, say, or Great Expectations); I love hints, or more than mere hints, of the supernatural. I put all this down to the stuff I used to read when my parents thought I was in my room doing my homework.

And, of course, the Sherlock Holmes stories. How could I not mention them when talking about what I love? I was eleven when I came out of Bishopbriggs children’s library with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles in my clutch. I did not know it then, but it was the start of a beautiful friendship.

There are some readers, I know, who are very adept at focusing in on details, and teasing out their significance. I am not really such a reader, though I have tried to train myself to be one. I tend to notice more the shape of the novel – the form, the structure; I tend to notice where the pace is accelerating, and where it is decelerating; where the dramatic climaxes are set; and so on. It is only once I get a sense of the shape that the details start falling into place. Which usually means I need to read the thing at least twice – but that is, perhaps, no bad thing: no book worth reading is worth reading only once.

On matters of style, I am quite open-minded: perhaps my preference leans towards the ornate rather than the plain, but I cannot think of any English prose more beautiful than the very straightforward prose of The Pilgrim’s Progress. But no matter whether one’s prose style is plain or ornate, or on some point on the spectrum between the two poles, it can, as with anything else, be done well, or done badly. If an ornate style is done badly, it will appear merely meretricious; if a plain style is done badly, it will appear merely bland. But the point, I think, is that the style is no mere optional add-on: it must be consonant with the subject to such an extent that the two cannot be spoken about separately. The relatively plain style of George Eliot would be no more suitable for Bleak House than the more ornate style of Dickens would be for Middlemarch. Given a choice between the two, my preference would be for Bleak House, both in terms of style and of content (though it is worth stressing that in neither novel can either style or content be considered in isolation). But that preference is purely a subjective matter.

I have often wondered, incidentally, why it is that Middlemarch, for all its undoubted greatness, has never made too great an impact on me. Any serious consideration of the novel reveals an extraordinary mastery – of theme, of subject, of structure … of just about everything one can think of that contributes to the greatness of a novel. And yet, the spine somehow fails to tingle. When I wrote about the novel earlier in my blog, I concluded that this is because it is such a sane and level-headed novel: my temperament is such that I like a touch of madness, as it were – a touch, perhaps, of the wuthering heights. (Or, in the case of Dostoyevsky, perhaps, a touch of pure, unrestrained lunacy.) I think this is true. Needless to say, this is a comment on me rather than on the work, but a view of this solid world, no matter how profound, no matter how piercing, that focuses on its solidity, does not really set my pulse racing: it is only when I see the vast, transcendent expanse of sky, like Prince Andrei does on the battlefield of Austerlitz, that I start to feel that mysterious tingle in the spine.

I find myself, especially as I grow older, not too interested in examinations of the structure of society, of its economic and social basis, and so on. I know some novelists are very good at depicting these things, and I applaud their skills: but that’s not really what I look for. I am attracted more to works that involve me emotionally. Sometimes, these works can be emotionally draining – like, say, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a work that is, for whatever reason, very close to my heart. I can appreciate and admire works that ask you to observe from a decorous distance; but it’s the works that draw me headlong into the immediacy of human emotions that attract me more.

And overall, this, I think, leads me to what I most look for in fiction. Human emotions point to a human mystery, and each human being is a profound mystery: the works I tend to respond to most keenly are those that confront me with that sense of mystery. I find it in Tolstoy, in Dostoyevsky; I find it in Dickens too, and in Joyce; and, obviously, in Shakespeare. One cannot, after all, pluck out the heart of Hamlet’s mystery: he cannot pluck it out himself. And, of course, in Ibsen. Bernard Shaw, a man not given to fancy, said of the characters in late Ibsen plays that “there is not one … who is not, in the old phrase, the temple of the Holy Ghost, and who does not move you at moments by the sense of that mystery”. 

In any dispassionate view, we humans are really quite absurd beings: farting, puking, nose-picking creatures, with mean thoughts and often meaner acts. Even our transgressions tend not to be so great: small and petty – that’s all we are. And yet, by some mighty paradox, we are, nonetheless, in that old phrase that Shaw uses, temples of the Holy Ghost. And the religious imagery of that expression no longer embarrasses me as it might have done in my younger days. The literature that means most to me is that which attempts, at least, to confront and to depict this great mystery.

“Aias” by Sophocles

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

The tale of the downfall of Aias (or Ajax) lends itself easily to a satisfactory dramatic form. The tragic drama may start with a council scene, where the leading figures of the Greek forces meet, and decide to award the armour of the dead Achilles not to the great warrior Aias, but to he wily Odysseus. Aias could then be given a monologue where he expresses his sense of humiliation (there are other works that have a major council scene near the start, and from which the principal character emerges feeling humiliated and alienated: Hamlet, for instance; or The Iliad). Or perhaps the play could start immediately after the council scene, with the hurt and humiliated protagonist. Then, after the monologue, Aias, his immense pride wounded beyond repair, could have an exchange with a chorus consisting of his men: he wants to slaughter the Greek leaders who, in his opinion, have dishonoured him; and the chorus could try, but fail, to dissuade him from this course of action. Aias could then exit, sword in hand, and after the chorus has expressed its fears, a messenger could come in with a long narration: instead of slaughtering the Greek leaders, as Aias had intended, he has been driven mad by the goddess Athena, and has merely slaughtered animals instead. Aias now enters, filled with shame, and, after another monologue, and another exchange with the chorus, he goes offstage to kill himself. In an epilogue, Tekmessa, his concubine, and Teukros, his half-brother, could enter and, with the chorus, deliver a lament.

This would have been a perfectly acceptable dramatic arc. All the characteristics that we imagine define Greek tragedy are present and correct. We see the downfall of a great hero; and we can even identify the hubris that brings about his downfall. Audiences can go home happy, having learnt the moral that pride comes before a fall; and for centuries, this play would have been held up as the archetypal Greek tragedy – one where everything is so clearly and precisely laid out.

The only problem is that this is the play Sophocles chose not to write. And we must, I think, ask ourselves why.

Instead of starting with the council scene, or immediately after it, Sophocles starts at a point here the slaughter of the beasts has already taken place; and instead of starting with Aias, he starts with the goddess Athena, who gloats in the further humiliation of Aias, and with Odysseus, whom she invites to gloat with her. It may seem a strange place to start.

And neither is the suicide of Aias the culminating point of the drama: this suicide comes not at the end, but at a point where there is still nearly half the play remaining. The latter part of the play is taken up not with the themes of Aias’ pride and Aias’ shame, but, rather, with a squabble over how his body is to be disposed of: the Greek commanders, Agamemnon and Menalaos, who show themselves as somewhat petty and mean, refuse to accord Aias a proper burial; however, Teukros, Aias’ half-brother, is openly hostile, and even, at times, insulting to the commanders, reminding them of Aias’ heroic courage, and of his skill and prowess in the war which he had fought on their behalf. The unseemly squabble over the hero’s body only comes to an end when Odysseus, Aias’ greatest enemy, overrules Agamemnon and Menelaos, makes peace with Teukros, and orders Aias to be given a funeral befitting a hero.

This curious construction has not escaped censure. Sophocles, it has been claimed, has written here a curiously disjointed play – a play in two parts which don’t really fit together, and which, as a consequence, lacks unity. It is certainly true that the play falls into two distinct parts, almost equal in length; and it is true also that the narrative arc of the first part is very different from the narrative arc of the second. But, unless we want to accuse Sophocles of being an incompetent dramatist who gets wrong even basic things that any journeyman playwright would have got right, we have to ask ourselves why Sophocles has chosen to write it in this manner – why he was happy to introduce a narrative discontinuity that could so easily have been avoided. Clearly, Sophocles must have felt that this discontinuity was a price worth paying; but worth paying for what?

I think we may get the earliest intimations of this in the first scene, where Athena invites Odysseus to gloat at Aias’ madness, but Odysseus instead pities him. And the reason for his pity is interesting:

… I pity him

as he is now, although he is my enemy, because

he has been bound fast to a terrible downfall.

In this, I think no more of him than of myself.

I see that all of us who live are nothing else

but phantoms, empty shadow.

Odysseus’ pity and compassion, his humility in this situation, are not entirely altruistic. Humility as a virtue in itself is more a Christian than a Greek concept: Odysseus’ humility is, as he says himself, occasioned by his thinking of himself. For he recognises that all humans, himself included, are subject to the same forces, since they are all “but phantoms, empty shadows”. And the terrible downfall to which Aias has been bound fast could be his own downfall too, since he too, like Aias, is human.   

This sense of the mutability of the state of human affairs becomes a central point of the play. We are all phantoms and empty shadows: he who was yesterday a great hero and an invincible warrior is now a laughable figure, reduced to slaughtering mere animals. Tekmessa, in a moving speech, tells of her own past reversal of fortune as she pleads with Aias:

… Your spear destroyed my native land:

another cruel fate seized both my mother

and my father; they are now in Hades, dead.

I have no other home except your house,

no money; my whole life depends on you.

Odysseus is today a revered leader of men, famed for his guile and his intelligence; but what will he be tomorrow? What will any of us be tomorrow? For Athena, “the sweetest of all laughters is to laugh at enemies”. But she is an immortal, not subject to the mutability to which humans are subject: she is no mere phantom, no mere empty shadow. But we who are, like Odysseus, mortal, have to ask themselves how we should behave, given that phantoms and empty shadows are precisely what we are. As Athena herself says:

One day can weigh down everything a human being is or has

or lift it up again.

Aias too becomes aware of the mutability of the nature of things – how friends may become enemies, and enemies friends:

… I now know that an enemy

should only be so hated, as a man who will

become a friend again; and I wish

only to help a friend so far – because I know

he won’t always be true.

But this understanding has come to him too late: he is already in disgrace not only in other’s eyes, but in his own – to such an extent, indeed, that he cannot think of any way out other than suicide. And suicide is not noble in Greek culture: in all the extant Greek tragedies, there are only two suicides – that of Antigone, and that of Aias, and in neither is there any intimation, as there frequently is in Shakespeare’s tragedies, that it was a noble act. But even if this understanding had come to Aias earlier, it is doubtful whether he would have had the intelligence to act upon it. For what he had planned to do to the Greek leader – his erstwhile companions in battle – was hideous. When we see him still in the grips of madness, he actually boasts with joy that he has Odysseus his prisoner, and will torture him before killing him. And all this because he feels he had been slighted – although it is worth noting that, apart from his own followers, no-one else seems thinks so. It would be hard to imagine a tragic protagonist less worthy of the audience’s sympathy.   

It is perhaps not very surprising, therefore, that Agamemnon and Menelaos should be so spiteful towards Aias, even after his death, refusing him even a burial. What is more surprising is Odysseus’ generosity to his fallen enemy – the man who not only intended to kill him, but to torture him first. Agamemnon and Menelaos aren’t convinced by Odysseus’ generosity – and in this, we may well sympathise with them, despite their pettiness: but they do not oppose him.

At the conclusion of the play, Odysseus makes peace with Teukros, and agrees to help him bury the fallen hero: the understanding that had come to Aias too late – that friends may become enemies, and enemies friends – proves true.

And this, I think, is at the heart of the play. It is not so much a character study of Aias – who has, frankly, not enough depth to his character to carry the burden of an entire drama: it is, rather, an examination of the question of how we are to live, how we are to behave with each other, given the mutability of everything, given the constant flux that is our lives, and given that we are all but phantoms and empty shadows.

But I would, however, be interested in other interpretations.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on Aias.]

“Prometheus Bound”, traditionally attributed to Aeschylus

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

It is difficult now not to see this play through Romantic lenses: the image of the great hero rebelling against a tyrannical authority, and remaining defiant despite the most terrible punishment inflicted by the tyrant, is virtually an archetypal Romantic image. This image received perhaps its most striking realisation in Act 2 of Beethoven’s Fidelio, in which the enchained Florestan, in his dark, solitary dungeon, bewails his fate, but remains unrepentant, and hurls defiance at the tyrant who oppresses him. It is hard, indeed, to write about that scene without using the adjective “Promethean”.  It is no surprise that just about every major Romantic writer revered Prometheus Bound – Goethe, Byron, Shelley, Hugo, etc. The later parts of this trilogy haven’t survived, but Shelley famously wrote his own version of Prometheus Unbound, one of the cornerstones of the Romantic canon. The Romantics saw Zeus and Prometheus as symbols of, respectively, tyrannical temporal power, and of heroic resistance to it, but I wonder to what extent this was intended: would the first Athenian audiences have seen it in such terms? Perhaps not. But given that the Romantics have taught us to see it this way, I don’t think we can unsee it.

Neither is it possible, I think, for us not to see this play through a Christian lens: a crucified God suffering for his love of mankind is bound to have resonances of Christianity. But the play’s central thrust remains, nonetheless, far from the Christian ethos: while the suffering God in Christianity remains part of the Holy Trinity, alongside God the Father (let’s not get into theology here!), the suffering God in Prometheus Bound is, quite explicitly, an enemy of the Supreme Divine Power, and defies him: the overriding emotion projected is not grief, but, rather, defiance.

In short, Prometheus Bound has a great many resonances that are really accumulations of ideas and concepts from later times, but seeing this play free from these accrued concepts is now virtually impossible. One point that has changed from the era of Romanticism is on the question of authenticity: no-one doubted in the days of Goethe or Shelley that this play was authored by Aeschylus, but there are very great doubts upon it now, based not only on the fact that there is no record of the Athenian Festival to confirm its date or authorship, but also from the internal evidence of its style, which – so I am told – is markedly different from his other plays. Given that only a small fraction of Aeschylus’ plays now survives (only seven out of about eighty or ninety), I’d have thought it dangerous to draw any definite conclusion about Aeschylus’ style. But this is a dispute I am happy to leave to scholars, who, I believe, are fairly evenly split on the matter.

But judged in the context of the plays that have survived, it certainly reads differently. This is mainly, I think, due to the reduced role of the chorus. In all six of the other surviving plays, the chorus plays a much more important part, at times taking on themselves the role of the protagonist (in Suppliants, certainly, and possibly in The Persians and in The Eumenides also). Here, in contrast, they seem almost dispensable: not only do they not play any part at all in the action (such as it is), they fail to reflect on many of the major issues thrown up by the play, such as the morality of stealing fire from the gods (even for what is ostensibly a good cause), or Zeus’ motives in acting as he does. The focus is very much on Prometheus, who is given long speeches throughout, and whose interactions with the chorus is, surprisingly, kept to a minimum.

Another aspect of this play that marks it out as different is its lack of human characters. The only human character in the drama is Io, whose appearance, (from a different myth) seems almost arbitrary. The very first lines establish a world far distant from that of their audience:

We have come now to the very ends of Earth,

the plains of Skythia, a desert uninhabited by man.

A world that Aeschylus’ audience could not even imagine.

Then, the first figures appear: the Titan Prometheus is led in by two characters who are not human, nor even gods or other immortals: they are Power and Violence, personifications of abstract concepts. It is hard to escape the conclusion that what we are witnessing is not a drama set in the real world as such, but, rather, a drama of the Mind. This, I imagine, would have been very congenial to the Romantic era, which produced a great many Dramas of the Mind – plays intended to be read as High Art, but not really written for the stage: Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, Byron’s Manfred, the second part of Goethe’s Faust, and even Ibsen’s Brand and Peer Gynt (although cut-down versions of the last two work very well on stage, whatever the dramatist’s intentions). This play, dealing with abstract concepts and set in some Landscape of the Mind, with many of its characters literally flying in (Ewans in his glossary describes the use of a mechane, which is a “crane used in and after the late fifth century [BCE] to swing into view gods and other characters who are to be imagined as flying into the playing aera”), set this play at some remove from Aeschylus’ other surviving works.

The concept of Zeus is also different. In the other surviving plays there had been questions about Zeus, that omnipotent god whose ways mortals cannot understand. Here, he is not omnipotent: had he been so, he would not have allowed Prometheus to steal the fire. And neither is there any ambiguity or mystery about him: his ways aren’t hard to understand: he is merely a cruel and malevolent tyrant, who, some day, will be deposed. The opposition between Zeus’ tyranny and Prometheus’ heroic resistance can be thrilling, but one can’t help feeling that the dramatic tension generated by this ambiguity in the other plays is missing: it is all much simpler here, and, as a consequence, somewhat cruder.

Prometheus is at the centre of the play, immovable, since he is crucified to a rock at the very opening of the play. So whatever movement there is (and I believe dance was an important aspect of the original setting) had to be around the static protagonist. Prometheus has four scenes – first with the chorus of Okeanides; then with their father, Okean; then with Io, the only mortal character in the drama, who appears to have wandered in from a different play; and, finally, with Hermes. None of these scenes advances the drama, as such, which remains fairly static, but it could be argued that each succeeding scene intensifies the state of Prometheus’ mind. It’s not that his mind changes, but rather, it becomes ever more obdurate and defiant as the play progresses. The appearance of Io seems to me particularly puzzling. Yes, she too is a victim of Zeus’ cruelty; and yes, she contrasts with Prometheus in that he is condemned by the cruelty of Zeus to be static upon his rock, while she is condemned by the same cruelty to be continually on the move. And one also notes that Io is, according to mythology, an ancestor of Heracles, who would, some aeons or so later, free Prometheus. But even having noted all this, it’s hard to shake off a sense of the arbitrary: why do these two particular characters have to meet, and in what way does the scene between them advance the drama?

The ending is spectacular, although one wonders how it could have been staged without modern stagecraft. Or, indeed, whether it was staged at all: certainly the poetry is vivid enough to allow the audience to imagine it all for themselves:

Now the earth is shaken

not in words but deeds,

and from the depths the sound of thunder

bellows in response, and fiery coils

of lightning flash, and whirlwinds

twist the dust, the breaths of all

the winds leap up on each other

in civil war…


For what happens next, I think we need to turn to Shelley. Whether intentional or not, Prometheus Bound lends itself to a Romantic perspective.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on Prometheus Bound.]

“Suppliants” by Aeschylus

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

Tragedy, and especially Greek tragedy, depicts, it is often asserted, the downfall of a protagonist as a consequence of that protagonist’s fatal character flaws. This doesn’t really take into account those various tragedies where the protagonists character flaws play no part in the downfall (Herakles, say, where the tragedy comes about not because of flaws in Herakles’ character, but because the goddess Hera, for reasons best known to herself, makes him mad); or those tragedies where the downfall is the consequence of the protagonist’s virtue rather than of the protagonist’s flaw (Antigone is an obvious example); or where there is no downfall (The Oresteia ends in triumph, Oidipous in Kolonos in transcendence, and even Medea is rescued by the gods); or, best of all, where, as in The Persians, there is no protagonist. It is always dangerous formulating rules for what tragedies ought to be: these plays need ideally to be seen in the context of their own rules, which differ from play to play.

In Suppliants, for instance, there does not appear to be any single protagonist: if we are to use that term at all, we can only apply it to the chorus, since it is their fate that is in the balance. This chorus does far more than merely observe the action and comment: it is they who initiate the action, and it is they whose very presence drives the action forward. However, at no point during the play is this chorus faced with a tragic dilemma (as one may expect from a tragic protagonist): it is the people of Argos (not seen in this play), and their king Pelasgos – that is, characters who are most certainly not protagonists – who face a tragic dilemma. And at the end, there is no downfall. But it is not unmitigated triumph either: what could have been an unambiguously joyous ending is mixed, quite startlingly, with powerful notes of unease. Just about every single rule we may propound for the tragic form is here overturned.

It could be argued, of course, that what we perceive as the ending is not really the ending: this is the first part of a trilogy, and the second and third parts are lost. The unease of the final tableau is intended, most likely, to prepare the ground for what is yet to come. We know from existing myths what the narrative line of these later plays would have been, but what we cannot know, of course, is how Aeschylus’ would have treated them.

The plot, briefly, is this: the fifty daughters of Danaos come to Argos from Aigypt, pleading for protection, as, back home, they are threatened with forced marriage; the Argives and their king Pelasgos are faced with a tragic dilemma: either they grant the Daneids protection, and face almost certain warfare; or they deny that protection, and face the wrath of Zeus for flouting his law. The Daneids turn the screw further in a passage of swift stychomythia:  if they are not granted protection, they say, they will use their waistbands – “such as a woman usually wears” – to hang themselves upon the very images in Zeus’ shrine. Through no fault of their own, Pelasgos and the Argives face the tragic dilemma, to which there is no good solution: either to plunge the city into war, or to face divine wrath. The citizens of Argos vote to offer protection, but the tragic seeds are sown.

This is what is covered in this play. Afterwards, according to the myth, war does indeed break out between the Argives and the Aigyptians over this matter; the Aigyptians prevail; and the fifty sisters are forcibly married. They plan, however, to kill their husbands on their wedding night, and they all carry out this plan – all except one Hypermnestra. The myth does not tell us the motives of Hypermnestra – whether it was cowardice on her part, or whether she truly loved her husband Lynkeus: no doubt Aeschylus had his own ideas. From one tantalising fragment that survives from the final play of this trilogy, the goddess Aphrodite appears to be speaking at a trial, but whether it is the trial of the forty-nine sisters for killing their husbands, or of Hypermnestra for not killing her husband, is not clear:

… The sacred Heaven yearns to penetrate the Earth,

and Earth itself is yearning for the wedding too;

desire makes showers of love fall down from Heaven,

impregnate the Earth; then she gives birth

to food for flocks and to Demeter’s gifts for all

mankind. The moisture of this marriage makes the trees

grow perfect fruits. Of all these things I am the cause.

Much, inevitably, is now left to conjecture, and what Aeschylus made of this whole myth is tantalisingly unclear. What is clear, though is that the potential tragic fate of the Daneids is not a consequence of any character flaw on their part; and neither is the tragic choice faced by the Argives a consequence of any character flaw on their part. Maybe the flaw is in the nature of the world itself, but that won’t really do either: the evil has come very clearly from the Aigyptians who are attempting to force the Daneids into marriage; but though they may be the originators of the evil, the tragedy is not theirs. So much remains unresolved.

It’s possibly best to see this existing play as but the first part of a three part drama, and not take the ending of the first part to be Aeschylus’ final word. However, this standalone drama does seem to me to make sense even as it is: sometimes, “there is no possible resolution” can serve as a resolution in itself.

For the question that requires resolution is the nature of Zeus. It is that eternal question that has worried people of all cultures: what exactly is the nature of divinity? Zeus is praised throughout, and is supplicated. Fear of offending Zeus drives much of the action. And yet – what kind of being is he? Some half way through the play, the chorus prays to him:

King of kings, most blessed

of the blessed ones, most perfect

of all perfect powers, Zeus, god of riches;

hear us, and shield your daughters from

male violence, which you truly hate;

hurl their black-thwarted, evil ship

into the sea’s depth!

But soon afterwards, the pursuing ship loaded with Aigyptian soldiers lands, very much not from the seas’ depth: either Zeus has not heard the heartfelt supplication, or he doesn’t care. There follows what is possibly the most action-filled onstage business in any Greek drama, as the Aigyptians try forcibly to abduct the panic-stricken daughters of Danaos. However, the Danaides have the protection of the city of Argos, and so, they are saved. For the moment, at least.

But the questions remain unresolved. What sort of god is it who demands that the people of Argos, through no fault of their own, face either bloody warfare or divine wrath? What sort of god is it who refuses to hear the Daneids’ heartfelt supplication?

If these questions aren’t resolved at the end of this play, that need not be seen as a dramatic flaw: whatever we may conjecture about the remaining plays of the trilogy, we can be sure those plays do no resolve these questions either; these questions have no answer. Enough that they have been posed.

And, in the finale, they are emphasised. One problem with making the chorus the protagonist is that it becomes difficult to negotiate those scenes where the protagonist needs to converse with the chorus. Aeschylus’ solution to this is as daring as it is simple: introduce a second chorus. In the existing text, it is not clear who the members of this second chorus are: most translations I have looked at give their lines to the handmaidens of the Daneids, who have been silent throughout the play, and speak only in the finale. Michael Ewans, in his translation, introduces a group of Argive soldiers to act as the second chorus. Either way, the play ends, quite remarkably – and quite uniquely, I think, in the existing Greek plays – with a dialogue between two choruses.

This second chorus is fatalistic:

When something’s destined, it will happen;

Zeus’ mighty, endless will

cannot be crossed.

And, a few lines later:

Daneids: How could I see into the mind

                  of Zeus? It is unfathomable.

Argives: Utter moderate prayers.

Daneids: What should I choose?

Argives: Not to ask too much of the gods.

And, with Argive pessimism undercutting the triumph of the Daneids, the play draws to an end. Or, rather, the first part of the trilogy draws to an end, but what remains unresolved here remains unresolved still.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on Suppliants.]

“Seven Against Thebes” by Aeschylus

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,
A brother’s murder. 

There is something particularly horrific about the murder of a brother, something about brotherly strife that appears to poison the very concept of human nobility. In the Bible, it is the first evil committed after the Fall. We find this evil elsewhere too: just in the Book of Genesis, after Cain and Abel, we have the fraternal strife between Jacob and Esau, and between Joseph and his brothers. Shakespeare’s plays are full of brotherly hate, and even of brotherly murder. In Arthurian mythology, we have the tragic tale of brothers Balan and Balyn; and at a climactic point in the Mahabharata, Karna – a tragic hero, albeit from a literary culture in which the concept of tragedy did not really exist – is slain in battle by his brother Arjuna. It is a common tragic theme; even when it appears in a comedy – in As You Like It, say – it has tragic potential.

It is the central theme in Seven Against Thebes also. Yet, strangely, Aeschylus holds it back until we are some two thirds of the way into the play. To begin with, the tragic theme seems to be that of a city threatened with destruction, and of its inhabitants facing death or enslavement. Thebes is besieged, and its chorus, the young women of the city, naturally fear the worst. When we first see them, they are in a state of terror

I shriek, I’m terrified.

Their army is let loose; they’ve left the camp;

hundreds of horsemen stream in front.

Before this chorus enters, we have seen the ruler of Thebes, Eteokles. Unlike The Persians, this play has a principal character, a principal tragic protagonist, and he establishes his presence at the very beginning. He is in command, and is aware of the heavy responsibility he carries upon his shoulders. We see him carrying out his duties, giving orders to fight off the attackers. And yet, when left on his own, he makes a passing reference to something that is new, and, it may be, extraneous to the immediate crisis:

Oh Zeus and Earth and city gods

and mighty Curse and Fury of my father Oidipous,

do not root out and destroy my city now

and make it captive to the rest of Greece.

The Curse and Fury of Oidipous. Seven Against Thebes is the final play of a trilogy, the first two parts of which have been lost. What we are witnessing is but the last episode of a tragedy, a tragedy that spans three generations – that of Laios (subject of the first play); of his son Oidipous (subject of the second); and now, finally, of the third generation, of which Eteokles is the representative. Aeschylus’ audience, having seen the first two parts, would know of the terrible curse spoken by Oidipous, and they would, no doubt, have expected it to be fulfilled in this, the final act of the tragic drama. And yet, the curse is mentioned here almost, as it were, in passing: apart from this relatively early passage, it isn’t referred to again till the final scenes of this play. Till then, it is the danger to the city that is of primary concern.

Also not mentioned until some two thirds of the play is Eteokles’ brother, Polyneikes. It is not merely that he does not appear: he is not even referred to. This is rather strange, given that, by the end, fraternal strife, and the fulfilment of Oidipous’ curse that is a consequence of this strife, turn out to be at the heart of the work. Yet, for most of the play, we get virtually nothing of any of this: there is a just single passing reference to the curse, and no reference at all to the brother.

The focus, instead, appears to be upon the immediate crisis. Eteokles quells the terror of the chorus, promising to fight in person. And, at the centre of the play, there is a long scene, ceremonial in its formality, in which a scout, in seven speeches, tells of the seven warriors poised to attack each of the seven gates of Thebes, and Eteokles’ replies to each of the scout’s speeches, describing the Theban warriors he has assigned to meet these several assailants. In each instance, a Theban defender is selected best placed to counter the attacker; in each instance, Eteokles may have chosen himself; and in each instance, he does not. Six times, the opportunity to evade the curse of Oidipous is offered, but missed.

But then the final warrior, the seventh, is described: it is Eteokles’ own brother, Polyneikes. We are now approaching the end of the play, and only now, for the first time, is Polyneikes’ name mentioned. The effect is electric. A formal pattern had been set: first, a speech of the scout, describing the Argive attacker; then, Eteokles’ response, describing the Theban defender chosen specifically to counter the attacker; and finally, a short response from the chorus. Six times we see this pattern repeated – a sort of formal and ceremonial procession towards doom. And with the seventh, the nature of the doom becomes apparent: the curse of Oidipous now seems about to be fulfilled, and the pattern we have observed repeated six times is broken. Eteokles, instead of responding formally to the scout as he had done six times before, breaks into a lament:

Oh maddened, greatly hated by the gods,

Oh utterly hated race of Oidipous!

Oh me, for now my father’s curses are fulfilled.

And there is no choral response.

But Eteokles’ fate, whatever it is, must be faced. Six times he had had the opportunity to evade it, and six times that opportunity had not been taken. And now, there is no escape.

After the exit of Eteokles, the chorus is left on their own, and they deliver a magnificent ode of tragic intensity. In contrast to the panic and the terror of their first entrance, what they speak now is contained and reflective; and their theme is no longer the imminent danger to their city, but, rather, the fulfilment of the curse. And Aeschylus’ imagery is unexpected:

A foreigner sets out the lots,

a visitor from Skythia,

a bitter arbitrator for their goods.

His name is Iron; savage-hearted, he’s

dividing the earth for them

to have when dead, without a share

in these great plains.

This is knotty, as it is in all the other translations I have consulted. No doubt this reflects the knottiness of the original. The foreigner from Skythia is, no doubt, the iron swords that will kill the two brothers; but, in personifying the weapons in such a manner, an impression is give of this “foreigner” being more than that. This foreigner seems to represent some mysterious force, foreign to humanity itself, that puts an end to our earthly endeavours; that, far from giving the brothers shares in the great plains in which they had been born, gives them merely enough of these plains to be buried in.

Thebes is saved: in that sense, the prophecies and the curses – that had predicted the destruction of the city – have not proved true. But the brothers have killed each other. Some “foreigner” – Death, presumably, foreign to all that we may think of as human – has put an end to what they might have had on earth. Brotherly strife has put an end to all that might have been. It has the primal eldest curse upon it.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on Seven Against Thebes.]

“The Persians” by Aeschylus

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

The tragedies that have survived from Ancient Athens all have mythological themes – all except one, that is: The Persians, now believed the be the earliest of these tragedies (and, hence, the earliest surviving play from any culture, anywhere in the world) deals with a historic event. And very recent history, at that: the play depicts the aftermath of the Battle of Salamis, which had taken place only eight years earlier, and where the invading Persian forces, led by their king Xerxes, were defeated by the much smaller Greek forces. Whether this focus on recent history rather than on mythology makes The Persians unusual among Greek tragedies is difficult to say, given how few of them have survived; but it certainly makes it unique among existing tragic dramas.

Not surprisingly, we need to adjust our modern expectations of drama quite considerably. There is no confrontation: the action of the play – if it may be called “action” – seems, to modern expectations at any rate, static. It consists of the chorus grieving. And of the Persian queen Atossa, also grieving. The ghost of the previous Persian king, Dareios (I am using the spellings as used in Michael Ewans’ translation) then appears, and he too is grieving. And finally, King Xerxes himself appears. And he also grieves. This is not what a modern audience expects from drama.

And yet, in one sense at least, it is surprisingly modern. The main events of the drama – at least in the sense that all that we see and hear is a reaction to it – is the Battle of Salamis, and the subsequent destruction of the Persian army; and not only does this happened offstage, it has happened before the action of this play begins. So we don’t see any of this in the play; what we see instead are the characters’ reactions to all this, and their understanding, or their coming to an understanding, of what it all signifies. We are all used to this sort of thing nowadays: many of Ibsen’s plays – Ghosts, for instance, or Rosmersholm – are similarly structured, in that most of the events of the story have already taken place before the rise of the curtain. Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is some three hours and more of four people endlessly brooding on past events. This kind of structure draws the focus of the drama away from the events themselves, and to the characters’ growing understanding of these events, and of what they signify. Such a concept of drama may seem quite modern to us, but here it is, right here, in the earliest play we know of.

If the play appears to us somewhat unrelieved in tone, that clearly is Aeschylus’ intention. It would have been perfectly natural say, to have presented the chorus initially as optimistic and bullish, and then to have dashed this tone with the messenger’s narration, thus achieving a theatrically effective reversal. But Aeschylus eschews this: the chorus is apprehensive from the beginning:

But will the king come back

and will his teeming army?

I am disturbed

By premonitions of disaster.

The Queen, King Xerxes’ mother, then enters, and she offers no relief to this sense of foreboding; instead, she intensifies it by narrating an ominous dream of hers. Quite clearly, unity of tone, even perhaps uniformity of tone, was more important to Aeschylus than any sense of contrast or of reversal.

The messenger’s four long speeches narrate the disasters, but rather interestingly, while the names of the Persian lords are listed, those of the Greeks are not:  presumably, this is because it is not the Greeks who are the focus of this drama. The focus is on those who suffered. The Greeks, whom Aeschylus could easily have named had his primary intention been to celebrate their heroism and their triumph, remain an almost impersonal, and certainly nameless force. Indeed, in the last of the four speeches of the messenger, it’s not even the Greeks who defeat the Persians, but, rather, the forces of nature; or, what is perhaps much the same thing, the gods. Many, we are told, “died from thirst and hunger”.  And then the final disaster, where the ice on the frozen River Strymon cracks, and drowns the soldiers:

… That night, some god

aroused unseasonable winter weather, so the stream

of sacred Strymon froze right over; soldiers who before

that time believed the gods are nothing then began

to pray, prostrate before the earth and sky.

After the troops called out repeatedly the gods

they went across the icy frozen stream.

But the belated prayers to the gods do not save them: soon, “the sun-god sprayed his rays”, melting the ice, and drowning those who were upon it. Throughout this final narration, it’s the gods, not the Greeks, who bring disaster upon the Persians. Queen Atossa says this directly immediately after the messenger’s narration:

Terrible god, your foot has crushed

The whole race of the Persians.

But why do the gods visit so terrible a fate upon the Persians? In the next scene, the ghost of Dareios, Xerxes’ father, appears. Xerxes had been guilty of hubris, of reaching for more than the gods will allow. Dareios is horrified to hear that his son had bridged the Hellespont with ships. “Some daimon,” says the queen, was “partner to his will”; “a daimon great enough to warp his mind,” the ghost of Dareios responds.

Aeschylus is playing as fast and loose with history here as he does with mythology in his other plays, adapting what is given to his dramatic needs: for Dareios himself had, in his life, bridged the same Hellespont. But the dramatic need here is to present Xerxes as over-reaching, his mind warped by a daimon, while Dareios himself, for the sake of contrast, is presented as having been prudent. This, I think, is the heart of the drama: Xerxes had over-reached; he had flouted the will of Zeus; and for this, he is punished. Given the very structure of this drama, the point is not so much what happened, but why it happened.

Xerxes himself, who had through his hubris brought this disaster upon his people, enters in the final scene, a broken man. Once again, Aeschylus defies our expectations: one might have expected an exchange between Xerxes and his mother, the queen, but Aeschylus has the Queen Atossa leave before her son enters: the relationship between Atossa and Xerxes is not the point; the point is the punishment the gods inflict for hubris, and the immense suffering entailed.


The Persians is not an easy play for those us accustomed to modern expectations of drama. It appears as a series of tableaux depicting defeat and lamentation; what variety there exists comes from depictions of different aspects of that defeat, and what drama there is comes from the characters coming to an understanding of why this terrible fate has been visited upon them. We may find it lacking in just about everything we nowadays think of as dramatic; but it is clearly, I think, what Aeschylus had intended.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on The Persians.]

On Imposture

I often worry that I may not be qualified enough to have Impostor Syndrome.

Here I am, blithely writing often long and detailed posts on some of the most complex and most intensely analysed of literary works, and I haven’t even studied literature formally since leaving school. I tell myself that it doesn’t really matter: I don’t, after all, make any claims of being anything I am not, and those who think I am talking uneducated nonsense have the option of not reading. But a nagging worry does remain, and not merely at the back of my mind: what can I have to say about these works that could possibly be of interest to anyone? It is unlikely, after all, that I could say anything about, for instance, the plays of Shakespeare that has not been said before, and said more eloquently; or explore some aspect of those dramas that has not already been explored to far greater depths. I worry especially that someone really learned in these fields may chance upon these writings, and, at best, smile indulgently; and at worst – well, let’s not even go there. I worry about those who regularly mark students’ essays chancing upon these, and mentally awarding my posts a C minus. If I’m lucky.

But at least when I write about Shakespeare – or Dickens, or Ibsen, or Wordsworth, or any of those other writers who mean the world to me – I can at least claim that I have been immersed in these writers’ works for the greater part of my lifetime, and have spent more time than is perhaps entirely healthy thinking about these works, albeit in an informal and unstructured manner; and that, given this immersion, even my informal and unstructured thoughts may not be entirely without interest. But why should similar indulgence be extended to my posts on those writers with whose works I am not so well acquainted? I felt this very strongly when I read Dante’s Commedia recently: I was aware even when reading that what I was taking in was barely adequate, and that, given the vast range and depth of Dante scholarship so easily available to anyone interested, my stuttering record of my meagre understanding could really be of no interest to anyone. And, worse, to those who have actually made a proper study of Dante, even my attempting to write something on the Commedia may even appear embarrassingly presumptuous.

I could, of course, restrict myself to merely summarising what happens. Give a précis of the plot. But doing that would be even worse than boring the reader: that would also bore me.

So ultimately, I decided on silence. I think I wrote a post explaining why I couldn’t write about Dante – a pointless post if ever there was one. But I am not sure this was my best option. Why have a blog, after all – and a blog devoted mainly to literature – if I am to remain silent on what I read?

Late last year, Tom, that is, Amateur Reader of the Wuthering Expectations blog, proposed reading through all the existing Greek plays – 44 in all, apparently – in (as far as can be ascertained) chronological order. One a week, thus taking up the better part of the year. It seemed too good a proposal to turn down. I have read most of these plays before, but nonetheless, my acquaintance with these works may best be described as “nodding”. And the proposal to read these monuments of world literature in the company – even virtual company – of so fine a reader as Tom seemed far too good to turn down. So far, in the four weeks on January, I have read the four plays of Aeschylus that are not part of The Oresteia. (Or, rather, three plays by Aeschylus, and one, though traditionally attributed to him, is unlikely to be his work.) And I have felt too intimidated to put cursor to screen.

In short, I hit upon the problem I faced after I had read Dante. What the hell could I write about it? Should I remain quiet again? This isn’t really a reasonable option, since, among other things, I have promised Tom that I would accompany him with the reading, and since we cannot meet up in person to exchange our impressions, writing online – that is, writing in our respective blogs – is really the only feasible option. And if that means I write stuff that will make scholars smile and shake their heads, or even wince, well, so be it. Why start a blog anyway if I’m not prepared to make a fool of myself?

So soon as I put up this post, I will be starting on a longer post jotting down my impressions of The Persians, Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliants, and also the one that may not be by Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound. This may no doubt make me an impostor, but dammit, this stuff is too good to be left only to specialist scholars!