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Greek Tragedy & A Culture of (Self) Deceit

Sacred rivers flow uphill:

Justice and all things are reversed.

It’s men who are the traitors now.

There’s no more faith in oaths sworn to the gods,

Our reputation will be turned to good,

We women shall have honour,

And ugly slander hold us down no more.

 

No more we’ll hear the age-old songs

Celebrating women’s faithlessness.

Till now Apollo, lord of song, has not bestowed

The gift of inspired lyric song

On women’s minds; or we’d have echoed back a hymn

Against the race of men. The length of time

Has many tales to tell of men as well as women.

Drama’s never really been my thing. The examples with which I was confronted as a youth typically demonstrated a writing style that didn’t really do very much for me either as a reader or a writer. I know there’s all that stuff about how plays were written to be performed, or the words written to be heard and, bla, bla, bla, and that’s all fine, but it still adds up to being something which I don’t really find all that engaging. I don’t think it’s missing the point to be put off a performance art by not liking the words – it’s just a personal tendency; with songs I tend to listen to the lyrics, with films I often find myself bored or perturbed if the film displays flaws that I imagine to stem from the writing, or tries to obscure them (or bypass the need of writing almost entirely) with a barrage of special effects and cheap tricks. For anyone who’s familiar with Games Workshop, I remember my old boss, Jervis Johnson, always saying how he was the only person he knew who would open a new game and go straight past the toy soldiers to look at the rules: I’m much the same with the written word in general.

I also resented the forced pre-eminence of Shakespeare at school. Shakespeare’s alright, but it’s just an inane intellectual fallacy to suppose for even a second that one writer could stand so head and shoulders above everybody else as to make their work virtually obligatory – that’s simply impossible; the judgement is subjective – or that it should somehow serve to represent better than anything else the vast and uncountable expanse of English literature as a whole. That’s just bollocks. Reading so much Shakespeare when there was time to read so little overall just seemed narrow-minded to me. I don’t know why we couldn’t have read the script to Chinatown or something.

Lately, though, as part of my rather varied studies with the Open University (Chinese, History, and Ancient Greek so far) I’ve been reading Euripides’s Medea. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s basically famous because it’s about a woman who murders her children. It also features Jason, as in Jason and the Argonauts. Medea is the wife he acquires at the end of his search for the Golden Fleece. I’ve really enjoyed it; so much so that I’m inclined to try reading more Greek drama.

The verses quoted above are sung by the chorus as the second ode, essentially recapping Medea’s frustrations with the male-dominated world she lives in and several of the play’s main themes. It’d be easy to make a very modern reading of the way this has been translated (and let’s not forget it has been translated) but apparently there’s evidence to support both the view of Euripides as some sort of proto-feminist, or of him as pretty much a misogynist. (I wonder myself if the ode above might not have been received, and perhaps even intended, contemptuously, so caution with any parallels to modern views of women’s plight in our more recent past.)

I’ve also recently been reading of a modern translation, or interpretation, of the One Thousand and One Nights by Hanan Al-Shaykh. The idea of women being particularly unfaithful or treacherous, as encapsulated in the excerpt from Medea above reminded me of a similar theme in One Thousand and One Nights. The Al-Shaykh (pronounced Ash-Shaykh) version is quite sexually graphic – some of this undoubtedly exists in the original, but I certainly think Al-Shaykh has emphasised it for the sake of the obvious discussion it provokes. For example:

Shahryar’s wife again called ‘Mas’ud, Mas’ud!’ and a solid, heavily built black slave jumped from the tree to the ground, saying, ‘What do you want, you slut? Allow me to present Sa’ad al-Din Mas’ud.’ He pointed to his prick and Shahryar’s wife giggled and fell on her back and opened her thighs, ready for him.

Or:

The porter kissed her on the mouth, bit her and pulled her towards him. Pointing between her thighs, she asked him, ‘What is this, my love?’

‘Your cunt,’ said the porter.

‘You have no shame, what is it?’ the shopper said, pulling his ears and slapping his neck.

‘Your womb, your clitoris, your hole, your well, your pussy, your slit, your egg factory.’

(It wasn’t. It was ‘the basil that grows on the bridges’, apparently.)

One Thousand and One Nights is basically built on an obsession with women’s apparent infidelity. Shahryar’s wife cheats on him, so he kills her, then takes a virgin every night, killing each one in the morning, until one, Shahrazad, prolongs her own life by the simple expedient of telling the king each night a new story with a cliffhanger ending so that he has to keep her alive until the next night. Women’s infidelity occurs a lot in the individual stories Shahrazad recounts, too. Apparently women are always at it, sometimes they’re caught, punished, invariably with death, often by being chopped into pieces (at least once mistakenly), and so on. It’s pretty grim. It’s obviously not something Al-Shaykh has inserted, so has to be assumed to echo attitudes common to the stories’ probably male authors – the same attitude, more or less, seemingly displayed by Greeks (and the audience for plays like Medea was almost certainly exclusively male; women were probably not permitted to attend the theatre) about 1,500 years earlier.

The thing is, cultures displaying those attitudes, seem to get rather a different treatment in the popular press, so to speak. You could take One Thousand and One Nights and its description of Shahryar hacking his unfaithful wife to pieces and you probably wouldn’t find too many who weren’t at least tempted to draw a parallel between this and the treatment of women in the Arab and Muslim worlds today. That’s fair enough, but then the Greeks, of course, are held up as a classical civilisation, a beacon of enlightenment whose example did much to inspire the free, democratic world of the modern day.

That’s obviously bollocks, isn’t it?

We’ve got a very incomplete knowledge of Greek literature. The loss of most of the corpus in ancient times means what we have left is a more or less random sample. It mightn’t necessarily be the best, though in quite a lot of cases we do have some idea of what the Greeks themselves thought of certain works in relation to contemporary pieces, and we might presume some kind of factor in favour of the most popular or most highly-valued being the most likely to survive (though careful with that), but either way it’s hugely incomplete. (That creates, incidentally, the same kind of lacuna in our knowledge we create unnecessarily in the study of English by focusing on Shakespeare to the exclusion of so much else.)

So we have only an incomplete knowledge of Greek culture and don’t necessarily have access to the best parts of it, and yet it comes labelled as classical, the presumed leading light of historical culture. Sounds a bit dodgy to me.

Obviously, we can still judge Greek literature and philosophy for ourselves: a lot of it holds up to analysis pretty well, and has done for people in many places and times. It’s just that the Greeks themselves were obviously very far from enlightened in lots of ways and we do ourselves a disservice if we overlook that. I really don’t think ‘classical’ is a very helpful label for anything at all; I’m going to stop using it as much possible. ‘Historical’ will do. It was a long time ago, there’s no merit or purpose in trying to judge the distant past or the people who lived in it but by the same token nothing good comes of uncritically attaching labels like classical to it. I rather suspect it lulls us into a bit of a false sense of security regarding our own sense of freedom, democracy, and enlightenment: we’re Europeans, so we must be good at it, it’s where it all comes from – only that where it came from, it went hand in hand with slavery, tyranny, and repression, of course.

That’s a different question from the one as to whether or not modern Islam happens to have more in common with its medieval counterpart than does, say, European society (and, thus, more in common than it should), but when European society, and European thought, and European democracy, offer their heritage as evidence of their righteousness, we do have to be a bit more critical. If democracy came from a place and a time when women weren’t even allowed to go to the theatre, should we assume our own version is everything it’s cracked up to be, or are they just unrelated phenomenon sharing the same name? There’s a lot of other similar questions that spring to mind when we start to wonder what is the reason for us thinking our culture is superior? (Or ‘superior in some ways’ if you baulk at that premise.) That’s not necessarily to say that it isn’t – I haven’t much time to the kind of cultural relativism that says no such thing is possible, and I don’t really have a problem with arguing that in several important ways we probably are ahead of the game – but we do need to be critical. That’s easily and frequently done in terms of politics, human rights (and particularly rights for specific groups), foreign policy, economics (and the question of wealth), but it needs to be done culturally, too, and that’s easily overlooked. It needs to be done for precisely that reason: the fact that so much of it seems to rest on a presumption of such a thing as classical culture, and that actually being worth something. I’m really not sure that it is.

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