Commentary: Thomas G. Palaima
In ancient myths, we find modern realities
SPECIAL TO THE AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Tuesday, April 13, 2004, p. A13
Professors, especially at research universities like the University of Texas at Austin, often hear that we are isolated inside ivory towers, that our scholarship is abstruse, and that our teaching is irrelevant to the daily concerns of ordinary people. I have begun wishing that it were so.
For about twelve years now, I have been teaching lecture courses and honors seminars that explore how ancient Greek culture and modern European and American civilizations use 'myths', in the broad original sense of 'stories', to explore issues that create problems for individual human beings and their societies. My focus is on war and violence. Ancient Greek myths lately have become too relevant.
A thoughtful student just e-mailed me "to say that it is cool to have someone talk about present real issues that can be related to old works of literature." Maybe it isn't so cool when the topics get too hot. Maybe ignorance is bliss.
The old 'ivory tower' approach is evident in the standard scholarly commentary on the Greek text of Euripides' Medea. Euripides' play presents the awful consequences of the middle-age crisis of the Greek hero Jason, famed for his adventures in pursuit of the golden fleece. To secure a comfortable future, he decides to marry the young princess of the royal house of Corinth. Trouble is, he has lived for a long time with the foreign sorceress Medea, mother of his two sons. He thinks he can finesse abandoning her.
Jason should know better.
Medea's fierce love for Jason has known no limits. She betrayed her father and country in helping Jason steal the golden fleece. She killed her brother-literally chopping him into bits which she scattered on the waves-to help Jason and herself escape. Later she orchestrated the murder of Jason's uncle. Medea is a woman with un-Greek erotic passions, experienced in violence and the voodoo arts of Hecate.
In author Tim O'Brien's terms, this is called heating up the story to get across its essential point. Euripides' plot burns hottest at the point of Medea's vengeance for Jason's betrayal of her love. She finally steels herself, with her maternal heart breaking, to kill her own two sons by Jason, knowing that this action alone will totally devastate him.
The old 'ivory tower' commentary speaks of the act of a mother killing her children as completely outside our cultural experience and understanding. Sadly it is not and never has been.
UT graduate Suzanne O'Malley's sobering book Are You There Alone? The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates reveals the terrible consequences of our refusal to try to understand horrifying things. And the recent trial in Tyler of Deanna Laney reminds us that mothers will kill their children. If we consider such actions literally 'unspeakable' and look away from this worst of all imaginable crimes, we shall remain ignorant.
Among other things, Laney, Yates and Medea all share social isolation, peculiar religious beliefs and clear histories of disturbed behavior that husbands and other observers, such as Jason, ignored-with truly tragic consequences.
But Euripides is not the only Greek tragedian to be relevant of late.
Sophocles' Antigone opens after a bloody civil war at Thebes in which Polyneices, one of the two sons of Oedipus, gathered foreign mercenaries and attacked his native city. Polyneices and his brother Eteocles, the legitimate king, died fighting each other. The new ruler Creon issues a severe edict forbidding anyone to bury Polyneices' corpse.
Creon justifiably considers Polyneices a traitor. But Creon's extreme measure has tragic consequences. Antigone, sister of Polyneices and Eteocles, citing the higher dictates of family and human beings, defies Creon's edict. Creon puts her to death.
Most readers sympathize with Antigone in her pious concern for the ethics of human burial. Most of us see Creon as an inexperienced and inflexible leader. But Creon's behavior reminds us how leaders and citizens will react when their country is threatened by violent attack.
Observe how our own country has responded to 9/11. Congress passed the Patriot Act curtailing rights of citizens that are fundamental to how we view ourselves as Americans. Congress also ceded to the president the decision and right to use armed force in ongoing military 'operations' in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
Extreme threats to the state will evoke extreme responses.
Myths don't offer solutions, but they call attention to things we might otherwise miss. They may reveal the world to be inexplicably brutal and uncontrollably terrifying. They prove again and again that ignorance is only illusory bliss.
Tom Palaima is professor of classics in the College of Liberal Arts at UT Austin.
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