Cherry-Picking in the Ancient World

This is a shortened version of a long essay I’m not going to write on this post here by the great Mitchelmore: – but merely the bits about Greek tragedy.


The hero of Greek tragedy was not an autonomous individual. He was caught in and made by a whole web of different interpenetrating elements. These were what led to tragedy but also what absolved him from full responsibility. Terrible things might happen to him, but he could not blame himself, or, to put it in terms of Greek tragedy itself, he might be polluted but he was not guilty.

and Mitchelmore:

Romantic scholars who could only see solitary individuals in their isolation [in the figures of Greek tragedy], a tragic hero like Hamlet, at the centre of the story. Like our contemporary critics, they read what isn’t there because they can see only personalities and the weighing of personal responsibility. It’s a habit of mind we see in conventional fiction beginning and ending in a solitary consciousness .

If none of Sophocles’ heroes “blames himself” or feels remotely guilty then: why does Ajax commit suicide, Deianeira commit suicide, Jocasta commit suicide, Oedipus blind himself with a hair-pin, and pretty much everyone in Antigone commit suicide. – Because I’m not convinced pollution can account for this, or really has anything much to do with it. Suicide (and self-blinding) is not part of any purification ritual.  Indeed, the shedding of blood is itself an act of pollution. Oedipus does indeed go into exile at the end of Oedipus Rex – there’s one act of purification (and there are a few others specifically in the Theban sequence) – but it’s not a general thing in Sophocles or indeed the tragic point.

No, not merely do ancient heroes “blame themselves”; they have a tendency to blame themselves for things which from which we (and to be honest, people in the ancient world) would normally absolve them. We think perhaps their reaction is a bit extreme and they should think things through a moment. – Take the Ajax for instance: a man kills some sheep in a fit of madness; his immediate thought on discovering this is to kill himself; everyone else in the play (surely representatives of the ancient world) tries to persuade him not to kill himself; he deceives them: he tells them he will just carry out a small purification ritual for the sake of the sheep and forget about the whole matter; later that night, he sneaks away from camp and kills himself. – His essential reason? I could not bear to look upon my parents’ faces after such shame. (Oedipus has the deeper problem: if he kills himself, he will only meet up with his parents sooner, and also by now they’re just the very people he doesn’t want to meet; – so he resorts to self-blinding).

Here’s an essay by renowned classical scholar E.R. Dodds on the subject, for your amusement and comparison [warning: this essay may upset views you learned long ago and which you’ve long maintained through idle complacence]. A few selected quotes:

Oedipus is great because he accepts the responsibility for all his acts, including those which are most objectively horrible, though subjectively innocent.


If Oedipus is the innocent victim of a doom which he cannot avoid, does this not reduce him to a mere puppet? Is not the whole play a “tragedy of destiny” which denies human freedom? This is the second of the heresies which I set out to refute. Many readers have fallen into it … and you can find it confidently asserted in various popular handbooks, some of which even extend the assertion to Greek tragedy in general – thus providing themselves with a convenient label for distinguishing Greek from “Christian” tragedy.

Which last quote should give you a clue as to the literary cherry-picking going on here – I suspect by both Josipovici and Kierkegaard: – I’d like to see them argue the same notion of Greek/Sophoclean tragedy from the point of view of, say, Electra or Philoctetes.

Mitchelmore again:

As the comparison above makes clear, Euripides was the Dickens of his time, Sophocles the Beckett. Why this kind of misreading continues is an issue worth pursuing.

and when we pick ourselves up from the floor, perhaps we wonder for once if Mitchelmore is not here pontificating eruditely on a subject about what he knows nothing. – Why do foolish moderns fall into the trap of believing Euripides to be an example of a “modernist” tendency? – Well, I don’t know: perhaps it’s because he’s generally considered as foreshadowing the kind of existential uncertainty that is characteristic of the subsequent Hellenistic period, historically linked as it is to the collapse of the polis-society under the autocracy of Philip of Macedon, and whose greatest poetic flourishing was to be found in the Alexandrians – those most “modernist” of all the ancients.


4 thoughts on “Cherry-Picking in the Ancient World

  1. You’re ahead of me, as usual. I was going to say that one could argue that the “web / not really responsible” argument does apply to certain Euripides plays. But in “Orestes,” say, Euripides seems to be actively destroying the possibility of catharsis and replacing it with something more like existential horror. Being polluted but not guilty is possibly worse than being guilty! Then you slipped “existential” in at the end.

    I haven’t read Josipovici – is this atypical, a mistake, or, let’s say, idiosyncratic interpretation, of this size? I probably do not understand his project.

    As for Mitchelmore, that post was much too long to actually read, but I see in his comments that it is brilliant, lucid, incisive and so on.

  2. (Hi AR: sorry about the spam filter – shouldn’t happen again).

    Ah, but you beat me to Maldoror, which I was going to read but I don’t feel much point now. (As soon as I learn someone else has read a book, I find myself much less inclined to read it).

    Being polluted but not guilty is possibly worse than being guilty!

    see also, Oedipus at Colonus.

    Josipovici’s views are expressed in shortened form here, by the man himself – though if you can’t be bothered even with that, I think it probably boils down to this:

    To answer this question, it was necessary to show that modernism was not a “movement”, like mannerism, or the name of a period. Like Romanticism, it is multifaceted and ambiguous. And it didn’t begin in 1880 and end in 1930. Modernism, whenever it began, will always be with us, for it is not primarily a revolution in diction, or a response to industrialisation or the First World War, but is art coming to a consciousness of its limitations and responsibilities.

    Which is perhaps fine in its way: but my problem still remains: – if modernism is something (a seemingly quite nebulous and ill-defined something) which has always existed in art; would that not lead you to reflect that there isn’t perhaps anything special about the period of Modernism you’ve just dismissed? – but he goes straight on then to talk about Duchamp, and how no one can write anything decent now without taking into account what Duchamp said (even though, in my opinion at least, what Duchamp is quoted as saying is something strikingly banal). Mitchelmore notes this paradox – and, of course, being Mitchelmore he thinks this is a good thing – it’s a paradox, after all – and something that only goes (somehow) to prove his point.

    To be honest, I find Josipovici’s whole argument very mixed up in its ideas (sc. literary cherry-picking). Possibly his argument is nothing more than this: Modernism is what I like. (Hence his choosing Sophocles to Euripides – yes, I prefer him too!).

    Also, re the artist stepping out of his world and reflecting on his act of creation (it crops up in the articles mentioned somewhere): – I do not understand why anyone would think it a good thing – an inherent quality to be found in any decent work of art (particularly in this day and age) – that something which had previously been implicit in every work of art, should be made explicit. It smacks to me not of any particular profundity, but of academicism: – the particular love certain people in the c20th have of taking things apart and examining them and classifying them.

    I do think, in actual fact, it’s quite telling that pre-c20th, these meta-fictional moments seem to appear almost exclusively in comedy (Aristophanes, as opposed to Euripides and Sophocles, being a prime example): – to me, it’s because it’s inherently something that’s not really to be taken seriously, that is amusing to both writer and reader; it is in fact obvious – otherwise it would not be understood – and (even today) is best played for laughs.

    Also, the artist is god-like, but he is not God. If God is dismissed from existence, it does not in any way change the fact that the artist is god-like. The whole thing is merely an analogy. – And in much the same way, I wouldn’t necessarily expect the structure of the novel to change because of discoveries in quantum physics.

    (Hmm, seem to have gone off on a rant again).

    I see in his comments that it is brilliant, lucid, incisive and so on.

    I’ll have you know, my first comment on this post said:

    I would like to thank you for your efforts you have created in writing this post. I’m hoping the exact same finest work from you also in the future as well.

    It’s just, I delete my spam.

  3. I read that Josipovici piece when it came out, and was baffled by it. Seemed like a long ways to go to express your displeasure that Ian McEwan is too popular and/or not writing novels like Thomas Bernhard or Claude Simon. And what was with the complaining about the “English literary establishment”? Who cares about them?

    But it’s probably me. Sentences like “How did it [literary modernism] expire like this, without leaving a trace?” are so self-evidently wrong that I assumed that I was missing something important that his English reader’s knew and I didn’t.

    I agree completely that metafiction is inherently comic. Cervantes, Sterne, Thackeray, and even AT, when he is doing the things of which HJ disapproves. Thus Euripides, in “Helen,” for example, bascially destroys tragedy and replaces it with a sort of comedy.

    I should coordinate with your reading. Why get in the way – there are a million books I want to read. Well, a thousand. Plenty, anyway. So I’ll avoid, let’s see, Prus and Kivi and so on – but I’ll warn you, I’m reading Green Henry right now!

  4. Yes, I noticed that. Luckily I’ve got Keller’s novella A Village Romeo and Juliet, and I think there’s an entire novel also that I downloaded from Project Gutenburg – for when I feel like reading 400 pages on a computer screen. – Also, I have a feeling you’re reading The Government Inspector and Other Russian Plays, which I was looking forward to myself.

    As far as I recall, you weren’t going to read Der Nister’s The Family Mashbar, so I might promote that. (I’m stuck in my large Yiddish anthology at the story about The Golem, which I seem to remember you saying wasn’t any good).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s