Tuesday, May 05, 2020

What are you doing? A failed scene of persuasion in Eumenides

Why does Aeschylus put the task of persuasion at the climax of the Oresteia?

That scene between Athena and the Furies brings about the truce, (σπονδήthat ends the trilogy, and offers what could be called Aeschylus's theatrical vision of wisdom in action. Certain aspects of Athena's dialog with the Furies might be put in relief if compared with the earlier, balancing scene of Clytemnestra exhorting the Furies (l. 94 ff).

An image of the dead Clytemnestra enters and finds the Furies dreaming of pursuing Orestes. An outcast from even the dead, the Queen calls on the hounds of Night to destroy her son, Orestes, who until this moment in fact stood right in front of them.

She begins with sarcastic contempt:

Phantom (εἴδωλονof Clytemnestra 
εὕδοιτ᾽ ἄνὠήκαὶ καθευδουσῶν τί δεῖ;95 
ἐγὼ δ᾽ ὑφ᾽ ὑμῶν ὧδ᾽ ἀπητιμασμένη 
ἄλλοισιν ἐν νεκροῖσιν,
Sleep on! Aha! Yet what need is there of sleepers? It is due to you that I am thus dishonored among the other dead;

As they mutter in their shadowy dogdream, Clytemnestra tries to wake them to consciousness of the fact they are dreaming, and that Orestes has escaped: 
Phantom of Clytemnestra 
ὄναρ διώκεις θῆρα, κλαγγαίνεις δ᾽ ἅπερκύων μέριμναν οὔποτ᾽ ἐκλείπων πόνου. 
τί δρᾷς

In a dream you are hunting your prey, and are barking like a dog that never leaves off its keenness for the work.  
What are you doing?
The irony here is almost dizzying. The image (εἴδωλον) of the dead mother is trying to get the Furies to see her living son standing before their eyes at Delphi's Omphalos. Trapped in the stasis of their dream, they just mutter more loudly, pursuing Orestes' image. Instead of disrupting their dream, the eidolon of Clytemnestra gets inscribed in it -- a new image to mutter at in their dream.

When Clytemnestra asks τί δρᾷςWhat are you doing?, the question is rhetorical. She is underscoring the failure of the Furies to act.

But suppose, observing Clytemnestra, one were to take τί δρᾷςliterally, and ask: What are YOU doing, O Queen? Her straining to persuade, to move the Furies to action in her pursuit of "honor," has utterly failed. She's not doing anything, vanishing the instant they awaken. If anything, she proves to be more delusional than the objects of her sarcasm.

As I hope to indicate in a further post, the irony of Clytemnestra's failure becomes even clearer when juxtaposed with the final scene. Athena will succeed in moving the Furies -- not to hunt Orestes, but to leave the only dream they've known, these children of Night, for a new stage, in a new theater of operations -- the polis.

Clytemnestra seeking to awaken the Furies

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