Friday, 22 March 2019

Black Orpheus

Here’s a clip from Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus (1959), which relocates the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to the madness of the Rio carnival and is an ecstatic, sensuous, feminine film celebrating Brazilian culture and black sexuality. Certainly, one of the most beautiful films ever made.

The Greek myth involves Orpheus – the progenitor of civilisation, the harbinger of music, poetry, writing, agriculture and medicine – descending into the underworld to retrieve his wife, Eurydice, having suffered a fatal snake bite, initially succeeding in his impossible task by winning over Persephone and Hades with his plaintive songs beautifully sung, but failing to heed the warning not to turn and look at Eurydice before they emerge into the light and consigning the poor woman to return to the land of the dead.

Orpheus continues to live his life, railing at the cruelty of the gods and vowing never to love another woman, and is eventually ripped to pieces by frenzied female devotees of the god Dionysus, furious at Orpheus’ repudiation of women and his disdain for their preferred deity, and in this way Orpheus is reunited with Eurydice, in death, for eternity in the Elysian Fields.

The Orpheus and Eurydice myth has become one of the most popular subjects in Western culture, inspiring novels, operas, films, songs, poems, paintings and so on.

Indeed, Andrew Motion, Britain’s poet laureate, has recently written that Orpheus is ‘the patron saint of artists’ and put the enduring fascination of the myth in the Western imagination down to its ‘astonishing creative powers, [its story of] perfect love, tragic loss, heroic bravery, recognisable human failure, noble grief, ignominious death, final union… a compelling tale of finding and losing, making and marring.’

Not that the Greeks would have shared Motion’s reading of the myth. Rather, they would have seen the myth as describing man’s encounter with death and destruction and as reinforcing the Greek view that life results from terror. Indeed, the Orpheus myth was the basis of the most enduring and death-obsessed mystery cult in the ancient world, Orphism.

In Orphism, life is preparation for death, one long process of purification and penitence for crimes committed against the gods – specifically the murder of Dionysus by the Titans, man’s ancestors – which saw the body as evil, a tomb for the soul, which is divine and immortal; and asserted that an initiate’s aim in life – using a variety of ascetic and ecstatic techniques, cleansings, baths and aspersions, following a strict set of rules in everyday life (such as, not poking the fire with a knife, not stepping over a broom, not looking into a mirror by light, not speaking without light) eschewing anything to do with birth or death, refusing to attend funerals and marriages, following a strict dress and dietary code (no meat, eggs, beans or wine), and practicing sexual restraint – was to liberate the soul from bodily taints, in this way facilitating the soul’s escape from constant reincarnation – from the ‘wheel of rebirth’ – and finding eternal blessedness.

Pythagoras was an Orphic initiate, and the Pythagoreans – with their insistence on the importance of mathematics in knowledge and ontology, their inclination towards the Apollonian over the Dionysian side of Orphism, their stress on ascetic over ecstatic practices – have been credited with turning Orphism into a form of logical mysticism; while Plato, though appalled by the wandering Orphic beggar priests who preyed on people’s fears and guilt and convinced them to engage in strange initiation ceremonies and services as a means to purify them of their misdeeds and save them from torment in the afterlife, was attracted to ideas of metempsychosis, the immortality of the soul, body-soul dualism, and even had Socrates in the Phaedo define the practice of philosophy in Pythagoro-Orphic terms, as a process of purging the soul in preparation for death, and had him reveal the core mission of the philosopher as the pursuit of death.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Cavafy: The Ides of March

The Ides of March
Guard, O my soul, against pomp and glory.
And if you cannot curb your ambitions,
at least pursue them hesitantly, cautiously.
And the higher you go,
the more searching and careful you need to be.

And when you reach your summit, Caesar at last—
when you assume the role of someone that famous—
then be especially careful as you go out into the street,
a conspicuous man of power with your retinue;
and should a certain Artemidoros
come up to you out of the crowd, bringing a letter,
and say hurriedly: ‘Read this at once.
There are things in it important for you to see,’
be sure to stop; be sure to postpone
all talk or business; be sure to brush off
all those who salute and bow to you
(they can be seen later); let even
the Senate itself wait — and find out immediately
what grave message Artemidoros has for you.

(CP Cavafy)

g A soothsayer had warned Julius Caesar to beware the Ides of March (15 March). On the day, the sophist Artemidoros tried to inform Caesar of the conspiracy to assassinate him, but was ignored.

The clip above shows the scene as depicted in Joseph Mankiewicz' 1953 film version of Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar.

Shakespeare records Caesar's last words as ‘Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!' ('And you, Brutus? Then fall, Caesar.') Plutarch says he said nothing, pulling his toga over his head when he saw Brutus among the conspirators. However, Suetonius gives Caesar's last words, spoken in Greek, as 'καί σύ τέκνον;' ('Kai su, teknon?'; 'You too, my child?').

Monday, 11 March 2019

Classics in Britain succumbs to cultural relativism

The obverse of Brexit Britain is cultural relativist Britain and the above lecture by Prof. Michael Scott is a horrible example of the latter. What's interesting and important about the ancient Greeks – and to a lesser extent the Romans – isn't their interconnectivity with Persia, China, Egypt, etc, but what was unique about their civilisation, what made them different to neighbouring civilisations, what drove them independently of others to develop the ideas and forms that shape to a significant degree our own way of looking at the world. 

I knew Scott was on the wrong path as soon as he brought up that old canard of Athenian democracy being fatally flawed by slavery and for excluding women. Of course, we – moderns – don't accept traditional Athenian attitudes in these areas; but that in no way should distract us from the complex and radical nature of Athenian democracy – which questioned itself, in various ways, regarding slavery and women's oppression – and is still worth scrutinising and extolling today if only to appreciate why the Athenians would not recognise our societies – our Greco-Western societies – as democracies at all. 

Finally, for Scott to understand what it was like to experience the Eleusian Mysteries, he doesn't need to go to the British Museum to read up on cognitive psychology. Rather, he could go to a Greek Orthodox midnight mass on Easter Friday when the resurrection of Jesus Christ is celebrated, i.e. the triumph of life over death, of light over darkness, which is, of course, what the Eleusian Mysteries were supposed to affirm. If only Scott had more interest in the links between Hellenism and Christianity – rather than Hellenism and Buddhism – he might realise this, even if it meant him having to prioritise and assert Greco-Western civilisation over other civilisations.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Werner Herzog and Dieter Dengler

Human folly, madness, barbaric dreams, the thin veneer of civilisation, the overwhelming evil of the universe, faith and superstition, human cruelty and violence, the hubristic desire to conquer nature. These are some of the themes present in Greek tragedy, and the films of German filmmaker Werner Herzog.

Currently, Herzog is promoting his feature film Rescue Dawn, a (controversial) version of his earlier documentary film, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which concerns the life of German-American aviator and Vietnam POW Dieter Dengler.

Dengler emigrated to America from post-war Germany aged 18 to pursue his dream of flying planes – Germany had no airforce or airlines at the time – and ended up becoming a US Navy pilot. Three weeks after gaining his wings, in January 1966, Dengler – whose aim in life was to fly, not go to war – was sent to Vietnam, where he was shot down over Laos forty minutes into his first mission, captured, imprisoned and routinely tortured by the enemy.

Fearing imminent execution, Dengler took part in a daring escape, after which he survived even more ordeals in the jungle, before, finally, emaciated, on the point of starvation, hallucinating, ‘with one day to live’, being rescued – making Dengler the only American POW to have successfully escaped captivity in Laos.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly is a tribute to America – its ‘qualities of self-reliance, courage [and] frontier spirit’, its inclusiveness, its preparedness to judge a person by personal character and not collective background – and an effort to give legitimacy to the stories of post-war Germany and post-war Germans.

But Dieter Dengler’s story, for Herzog, also possesses ‘the quality and structure of an ancient Greek tragedy, [which] is that of a man and his dreams, his punishment and redemption.’

Now, redemption is a strange word to use in relation to Greek tragedy. Redemption is not only normally associated with Christianity – with its just God, afterlife and soteriology – but is also often regarded, see George Steiner’s The Death of Tragedy, as being the Christian concept most inimical to the Greek tragic worldview and most responsible for its demise in Western culture.

So perhaps Herzog doesn’t mean redemption in Dieter Dengler’s case in a Christian sense, but in a way consistent with Greek tragedy and Greek radical pessimism.

Perhaps he means that Dengler, having endured severe mental and physical suffering, ‘having seen what death looks like and escaped it’, took his dark experience and turned it into an affirmation of life.

Indeed, this is what Little Dieter Needs to Fly – see clip above – and Herzog’s own personal testimony indicate.

‘The man,’ Herzog says of Dengler, ‘had such an intense enjoyment of life… There was a real innocence about [him]. He had such a healthy and impressive and jubilant attitude to life, [and] never made a fuss about his captivity.

‘He never had to struggle for his sanity and certainly was not possessed by those things that you see so often among Vietnam veterans who returned home destroyed inside.’

Friday, 1 March 2019

The End: Rock ’n’ roll Greek tragedy

The Doors do quite well in their epic song The End – inspired by the myth of Oedipus – to capture what for Nietzsche is the essence of Greek tragedy, namely madness and terror as part of an ‘ecstatic dream world’. 

The killer awoke before dawn
He put his boots on
He took a face from the ancient gallery
And he walked on down the hall
He went into the room where his sister lived, and...then he
Paid a visit to his brother, and then he
He walked on down the hall, and
And he came to a door...
And he looked inside
"Father?" "Yes, son." "I want to kill you."
"Mother, I want to..."

Saturday, 23 February 2019

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

I managed to catch Werner Herzog’s latest film, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? which is a masterpiece and possibly the best film I’ve ever seen at capturing and portraying the essence of Greek tragedy, the madness, terror and ‘ecstatic dream world’ that Nietzsche identifies.

The film is based on a true case of matricide committed in San Diego in the 1970s and concerns the descent into insanity of the killer son; an insanity prompted to an extent by the young man’s participation in a production of Aeschylus’ The Eumenides, in which he plays Orestes, on the run after slaying his mother Clytemnestra. Herbert Golder, a classicist at Boston University, co-wrote with Herzog the superb screenplay, full of demented poetry. Above is a clip from the film, in which the director of The Eumenides is explaining the play to his cast.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Troilus & Cressida: Achilles slays Hector

In Troilus & Cressida, Shakespeare follows closely the narrative of The Iliad to provide a shocking and savage indictment of human cruelty, deceit and vanity. It is a tragedy in which all the protagonists are deemed unworthy of tragic dignity or apotheosis. There are no gods to appeal to, or to guide, restrain or offer protection. Motives are relentlessly base, informed not by honour or glory but weakness and selfishness. The Greek and Trojan warriors are particularly arrogant, callous and stupid and Achilles’ slaying of Hector – which is the scene above, from the BBC production – is depicted by Shakespeare as nothing more than contemptible, cowardly thuggery, far removed from Homer.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Comparing Alcibiades and Plato

'Comparing Alcibiades and Plato, one could say that in a sense… Plato is a sort of inverted Alcibiades. Considerably younger than Alcibiades, undoubtedly thirty years his junior, Plato sublimates this passion for power that Alcibiades couldn’t master and that led him to do what he did in the history of Athens; Plato transposes it onto another level, the level of writing, of schooling, of counsel given to the powerful and to tyrants. This is what he did, it seems, in Sicily with Dionysius and then with Dion.’ (Cornelius Castoriadis: On Plato's Statesman).