Sunday, January 22, 2012
Hippolytus, by Euripides
Much like genetics and pathology, variety is not only life's very spice, but the glue that holds existence together and, I would even go so far as to suggest, one of the keys to a peaceful existence.
In college, I studied Cultural Anthropology with Professor Paul Apodaca and one of the points that has stuck with me all of these years later (along with my studies in Freud) is the concept of taboo in civilization. I distinctly remember Professor Apodaca saying that incest is one of the only nearly universal taboos in humankind, even within cultures where other widespread taboos (like cannibalism) exist. One could make a fairly succinct argument of the evolutionary functions for the emergence of that taboo. There are also the psychological effects of a secure family unit (and the psychological terrors of an insecure one) as well as the customary moral, social, and religious proscriptions on transgressing taboos to the extent that most healthy individuals never even consciously dream of breaking said taboos. This is a very good thing.
We have already established that the Greeks employed heightened emotional manipulation for the purpose of hooking the audience into the action of their dramatic works. I would add that this is at least the second play in this series in which the subject of incest comes up, likely because it is such an efficacious emotional manipulator.
I find that taboos can be helpful to a civilization, as can morals, ethics, and manners. Restraint in society shows a regard for others, that one sees the value of others and chooses to take that into account vis-à-vis their own behavior. Cultures establish taboos to preserve the culture. Taboos can be valuable and should be employed, I feel, when they promote the opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (in that order) in all of the citizenship.
One of the "different set of eyes" which I have found fascinating in this series is the role of the gods in the lives of humans in the Greek worldview. They have a built in answer for the apparent absurdity of existence. In this piece, bad things happen to people because a goddess gets moody and feels slighted. In other words, the tragedy unfolds because of things people didn't do. Aphrodite is upset because Hippolytus goes hunting with Athena and is apparently asexual or, at least, pursuing interests outside of the boudoir. This bothers Aphrodite to the point where she decides to burn his family to the ground and salt the Earth where once they grew. Every time I've been in an automobile accident I've marveled a bit over how leaving my home a minute or two earlier or later would have averted the whole situation. It occurs to me that this view of the gods offers some ready-made solutions in moments like that.
Aphrodite, in her rage, strikes Phaedra, Hippolytus' step-mother, with a mad crush on Hippolytus. I was surprised to find that no one in the piece, faced with this information, says, "Well, knock that off! That's totally inappropriate, Phaedra!" Her nurse almost commits self-slaughter faced with the knowledge. But, for the most part, her crush is treated like cancer. It is unfortunate, but she can't just walk it off. I was mystified by that part of the play. I suppose it was an attempt to make Phaedra a sympathetic character, but I'm not entirely sure why she needed to be sympathetic or why Euripides thought that would work as a character choice. I mean, it's like saying "Yes, I murdered my wife, but it's not my fault because I was really really angry at the time." I had the same sort of difficulty (albeit much more strongly) when I tried to read Ayn Rand many years ago. Yes, I see what they are trying to get me to sympathize with, but I don't! I reject the premise because what they are talking about is evil, no matter how much they zazz it up with rhetoric - a major difference being that I never physically threw the book of Euripides across the room.
So, Phaedra hangs herself and things continue to deteriorate from there. Hippolytus gets chased down and dragged, thanks to a water buffalo. Theseus shoots his mouth off and, as a result, has to watch all of his loved ones die. Artemus is, at the end, waiting to get revenge on Aphrodite and we walk out of the theater having had the embodiment of romantic love presented as the ultimate antagonist, having heard a long anti-woman tirade, having witnessed a grandfather kill his grandson because he granted his son three curses (which I'm not sure I can imagine a place in which that would be an appropriate gift.) In my mind, this is the very model of a problem play.
I do have to say that it was an entertaining work and certainly thought provoking. Here I am days later still mulling over exactly what I was supposed to think and why. But I do think that there is profit in the exercise even if I come to different conclusions. It gives me opportunity to evaluate what I believe and why, and what I don't believe and why. Time engaged in that activity is never wasted time.
The next two pieces in this series is deal with my favorite Greek god, which is to say Dionysus. In the next piece, heads will roll. In the piece that follows, The Frogs, based solely on what I've experienced here, I think Dionysus is correct in choosing Aeschylus as the superior playwright to Euripides.