Sunday, June 07, 2020

Clytemnestra vs. Athena: Two peripeteias in the Oresteia

The peripeteia of Eumenides has at least two remarkable features. First, Athena's "act" involves none of the archaic acts of vengeance that are the stuff of tragedy -- no banishing, cursing, death or bloody stroke of violence resolves the tension. Second, the brief scene of Persuasion is notable for its stylistic plainness, unmarked by the rhythms and myth-borne intensities of other portions of the trilogy.

The formal plainness suits the work modeled by Athena -- no axes are wielded in reaching a new definition of Dike and of the polis itself, though these new signifieds will yield revolutionary changes.

Before examining these features of Athena's work, let's compare her peripeteia with that of Athena's "other" in the Oresteia, Clytemnestra.

In her moment of triumph, the Queen discloses the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra whom she has just killed secretly in the oikos. She then publicly proclaims that her warm reception of the king was all an act, a necessary and well played fiction:


πολλῶν πάροιθεν καιρίως εἰρημένων
τἀναντί᾽ εἰπεῖν οὐκ ἐπαισχυνθήσομαι.
πῶς γάρ τις ἐχθροῖς ἐχθρὰ πορσύνωνφίλοις
1375δοκοῦσιν εἶναιπημονῆς ἀρκύστατ᾽ ἂν
φράξειενὕψος κρεῖσσον ἐκπηδήματος;
ἐμοὶ δ᾽ ἀγὼν ὅδ᾽ οὐκ ἀφρόντιστος πάλαι
νείκης παλαιᾶς ἦλθεσὺν χρόνῳ γε μήν:
ἕστηκα δ᾽ ἔνθ᾽ ἔπαισ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἐξειργασμένοις.
1380οὕτω δ᾽ ἔπραξακαὶ τάδ᾽ οὐκ ἀρνήσομαι:

Much have I said before to serve my need and I shall feel no shame to contradict it now. For how else could one, devising hate against a hated foe [1375] who bears the semblance of a friend, fence the snares of ruin too high to be overleaped? This is the contest of an ancient feud, pondered by me of old, and it has come, however long delayed.I stand where I dealt the blow; my purpose is achieved. [1380] Thus have I done the deed; deny it I will not.

"To serve my need" is καιρίως - the kairotic moment, knowing and using it to make the most of the opportunity. It is not something one controls - one seizes it when it comes.

The "feud" was ancient; the Queen waited. As she describes how she bound the naked king and struck him with her ax three times, clearly she feels she now possesses his power. She glories in the deed:


ὡς μήτε φεύγειν μήτ᾽ ἀμύνεσθαι μόρον,
ἄπειρον ἀμφίβληστρονὥσπερ ἰχθύων,
περιστιχίζωπλοῦτον εἵματος κακόν.
παίω δέ νιν δίςκἀν δυοῖν οἰμωγμάτοιν
1385μεθῆκεν αὑτοῦ κῶλακαὶ πεπτωκότι
τρίτην ἐπενδίδωμιτοῦ κατὰ χθονὸς
Διὸς νεκρῶν σωτῆρος εὐκταίαν χάριν.
οὕτω τὸν αὑτοῦ θυμὸν ὁρμαίνει πεσών:
κἀκφυσιῶν ὀξεῖαν αἵματος σφαγὴν
Round him, as if to catch a haul of fish, I cast an impassable net—fatal wealth of robe—so that he should neither escape nor ward off doom. Twice I struck him, and with two groans [1385] his limbs relaxed. Once he had fallen, I dealt him yet a third stroke to grace my prayer to the infernal Zeus, the savior of the dead. Fallen thus, he gasped away his life, and as he breathed forth quick spurts of blood, [1390]

Her narrative of the murder vividly acts it out. It's as if now that she has usurped Agamemnon, Clytemnestra is able to say -- to signify -- anything she wishes, likely expecting the citizens to applaud her performance for its theatrical effects.

The coup de grace brings an extraordinary simile comparing Agamemnon's blood striking her to Zeus-sent raindrops that rejoice the birthpangs of flower buds (or husks of corn):


1390βάλλει μ᾽ ἐρεμνῇ ψακάδι φοινίας δρόσου,
χαίρουσαν οὐδὲν ἧσσον  διοσδότῳ
γάνει σπορητὸς κάλυκος ἐν λοχεύμασιν.
he struck me with dark drops of gory dew; while I rejoiced no less than the sown earth is gladdened in heaven's refreshing rain at the birthtime of the flower buds.

Peak triumph comes in an orgasmic explosion of new life. The murder of the King gives Clytemnestra not only usurpative political power, but the generative power, literally, of expression -- of the signifier.

Having replaced the King as ruler of the oikos, she assumes the right to declare what is just. She now instructs the Chorus to rejoice:

ὡς ὧδ᾽ ἐχόντωνπρέσβος Ἀργείων τόδε,
χαίροιτ᾽ ἄνεἰ χαίροιτ᾽ἐγὼ δ᾽ ἐπεύχομαι.
1395εἰ δ᾽ ἦν πρεπόντων ὥστ᾽ ἐπισπένδειν νεκρῷ,
τῷδ᾽ ἂν δικαίως ἦνὑπερδίκως μὲν οὖν.
τοσῶνδε κρατῆρ᾽ ἐν δόμοις κακῶν ὅδε
πλήσας ἀραίων αὐτὸς ἐκπίνει μολών.

Since then the case stands thus, old men of Argos, rejoice, if you would rejoice; as for me, I glory in the deed. [1395] And had it been a fitting act to pour libations on the corpse, over him this would have been done justly, more than justly. With so many accursed lies has he filled the mixing-bowl in his own house, and now he has come home and himself drained it to the dregs.

In telling the old men of Argos to rejoice (χαίροιτ᾽ ἄνεἰ χαίροιτ᾽), Clytemnestra is dictating how they should respond -- the exuberance is all hers.

Death mask of Agamemnon

If we juxtapose this highly theatrical peripeteia of Agamemnon with that of Athena in Eumenides, interesting contrasts emerge.

Like Clytemnestra, Athena seizes the kairotic moment, although it doesn't seem like one, given the degree of resistance she encounters.

Where Clytemnestra used deceit, binding force and murder to win control of the oikos of Argos, Athena uses restraint, dialog and practical negotiation. She replaces coercion and murder with choice, presenting the Furies with the option taking her offer or leaving Athens. Unused to autonomy they take time, but the more they learn and negotiate, the more beguiling it seems. They choose to become shareholders in a new political order.

Stylistically the differences are radical. Not only does Athena not act out any triumph, but as we have noted previously, what is at stake in Eumenides' peripeteia is not a generative birth of some natural young growth, but the composition of a new order that's transparently deliberated and agreed on by both Furies and citizens.

If we return to our tools of cognitive rhetoric, we can say that Clytemnestra's peripeteia enacts the power of metaphor to replace one signifier with another. Usurping Agamemnon, the Queen takes his place over Argos. Blood spurting from Agamemnon's dying body generates the nurturing "gory dew" that feeds burgeoning life. Metaphor is showy -- it heightens signification by the violence of one signifier supplanting another's drained corpse with daring novelty.

Catachresis is otherwise. For Athena's act of persuasion to succeed, a shared acceptance of new meanings for old words like Dike and polis is necessary. New wine is poured into these old wineskins, as the traditional example has it.

Metaphor may dazzle with gaudy show, but catachresis succeeds only through common assent. Anyone can say that this or that parole possesses a new meaning, but unless the langue shared by the community accepts it, that person could be labeled an idiot or worse. Metaphor is poetic; catachresis political.

Athena's scene offers other interesting differences: In contrast to the bloody glimpse of nature in labor given us by Clytemnestra, Athena offers a distinctly different view, in which the "blessings from the earth and from the waters of the sea and from the heavens" mingle with the breathing winds, sunshine, fruits and beasts:

Blessings that aim at a victory not evil; blessings from the earth and from the waters of the sea and from the heavens: that the breathing gales of wind may approach the land in radiant sunshine, and that the fruit of the earth and offspring of grazing beasts, flourishing in overflow, may not fail my citizens in the course of time, and that the seed of mortals will be kept safe. May you make more prosperous the offspring of godly men; for I, like a gardener (φιτυποίμενος), cherish the race of these just men, free of sorrow.  (Eum. 903-12)
As noted in the last post, the word translated here as "blessings" is more commonly understood to mean songs or chants. No blood-soaked births, but an intertwined earth, sea, and sky whose breathing gales seem inseparable from human song. At least one scholar has noted that thanks to a curious agrammaticality, the winds in the passage run off with the sentence.*

One further parallel:

When Clytemnestra discloses her private act to the men of Argos, she tells them to rejoice if they feel like it (they don't): χαίροιτ᾽ ἄνεἰ χαίροιτ᾽ (Ag. 1394).

To Athena's resonant words
Are they minded to find the path
of fair speech?
From these fearsome faces
I see great benefit coming to these citizens;  (Eum. 988-92)

comes the spontaneous response:


χαίρετε χαίρετ᾽ ἐν αἰσιμίαισι πλούτου.
χαίρετ᾽ ἀστικὸς λεώς,
ἴκταρ ἥμενοι Διός,
παρθένου φίλας φίλοι
1000σωφρονοῦντες ἐν χρόνῳ.
Rejoice rejoice, in the wealth you fitly deserve. Rejoice, people of the city, seated close to the virgin daughter of Zeus, loving and loved, wise in due season!
To which Athena crowns the kairotic moment:
χαίρετε χὐμεῖς -- you too, rejoice!

One last post will bring this to a close, si spera.

*Aeschylus Eumenides Introduction and Notes, A. Sidgewick says of this passage:

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