Sunday, November 1, 2015

Tragedies with happy endings, what people don't understand about Athenian "pessimism", and the importance of reversal

If you're the type to go to Facebook, you can find a nascent version of this there.

Nietzsche liked early and mid tragedy and Athenian pessimism.  He thought it was the highest art form because of it's blending of Dionysian and Apollonian.

Trained in classics and specializing in philology, he definitely came from a place of authority and he understood the words quite well.

He was also wrong.

One of the great examples of this is why he didn't like Euripides.  There are plenty of good reasons to not like Euripides.  I don't like Euripides.  But Nietzsche didn't like it because the joke flew over his head.  Characters that existed to be farcically wrong in their thinking and were put on stage to be ridiculed were ones that Nietzsche thought were acting as mouthpieces of the author.  So Nietzsche thought Euripides was supporting the very thing he was attacking, and things like that are why Nietzsche didn't like Euripides.

For Nietzsche, tragedy was embodied in Aeschylus (the canonical early tragedian) and to a lesser extent Sophocles (the canonical middle tragedian) and utterly destroyed by Euripides (the canonical late tragedian.)

But Nietzsche likes them by way of taking part in a millennia long process of cherry picking.

Most tragedy doesn't survive.  If memory serves (I'm not going to look it up right now) Aeschylus is our best preserved author and we've got maybe ten percent of his work.  Tragedies came in threes.  Sometimes they were thematically linked, sometimes they were actually a trilogy narrative.  Every single tragedy was part of a set of three.  Only one of those sets survives.  Just one.

One result of this is that we've lost most of our happy ending tragedies and thus have a warped sense of the term.

Prometheus Bound survives, but it had two sequels in which Prometheus was first unbound and then he was reconciled with Zeus.  Prometheus got his happy ending, but we don't get to read it or preform it on stage because those happy ending tragedies weren't preserved.

But some happy endings do survive.  The famous king Oedipus finally, at the end of his life, is allowed to die in peace on his own terms having at last been forgiven for his unintentional crimes.

Nietzche's beloved Aeschylus produced the one surviving trilogy.  The last play, the Eumenides, has happy ending all around.  Everybody wins and nobody loses.

My favorite tragedy is the Philoctetes by Sophocles.  Happy ending there.  Euripides wrote one where Hercules goes down into the underworld and brings someone back to get a happy ending.

These things with happy endings are all tragedies.

Part of what makes them tragedies is that they hurt.  The endings are happy, but getting there is painful.  In the Philoctetes, for example, the character of Neoptolemus spends most of the play in an ethical dilemma that's tearing him apart.  Lying goes contrary to his very nature, but he's a soldier and his commander (Odysseus) has ordered him to take place in a morally repugnant deception.  It hurts to see the character go through that, and in the end you're relieved when he finally tells Odysseus to fuck off and isn't being torn inside anymore because it means the hurting will finally stop.

But a part that is perhaps more important is reversal.

Agamemnon starts his play returning triumphant from war.  Of course he gets his head chopped off.  Oedipus Rex has the title character start out as a beloved king, we all know what happened to him.  Antigone begins with the title character in a half-dead train-wreck family, but she's in a position of privilege and engaged to the prince so, while stuff around her is bad and she feels bad about it, she's sort of ok.  She ends up dying unnecessarily after being entombed alive.

Tragedy as we know it these days is all about that kind of reversal.  People rise, or (as in the Greek version) have already risen, and then they fall.

If someone starts in a shitty place, stays in a shitty place, and ends in a shitty place, that isn't tragedy.  That's abuse.

Tragedy with a bad ending requires people to have it good, even if it's only the half-good of Antigone's position in society while emotionally she's wrecked, and then have it all come crashing down.

The other sort of tragedy is the mirror image.  When Oedipus finally gets his happy ending he starts out already screwed over by fate: blind, outcast, with a dead mother/wife, and haunted by the knowledge of what he'd unintentionally done.  If that had ended on a downer there would be no reversal and without a reversal it's not a tragedy.

If we look at the happy endings that survived, and others that we know of, we see that where the more commonly preserved tragedies start with the character in a good place and end with them screwed over, the happy ending tragedies start with the character in a bad place and end with them in a good one.

In The Eumenides the human character starts off hounded and haunted by the furies, constantly on the run from them but unable to escape with his only respite being divine intervention.  Pretty bad place.  It ends with him free both of the furies and the curse that has for generations made his family a place of suffering, betrayal, revenge, murder, and so forth.

The title characters themselves start out as reviled old gods who are finding themselves without a place in the new order and are being robbed of their prize.  In the end they are loved, have a firm place in the new order, and have an even better prize than the one they were after.

Prometheus has to start out bound for Prometheus Unbound to be viable, he has to start out with Zeus really pissed off at him (which is never a good thing) for him to be able to reconcile.  That's how the two Prometheus sequels (which don't survive and so we know only the broad strokes of) are able to be tragedies with up endings.

Philoctetes starts off his play cursed, betrayed, abandoned, largely forgotten, and almost completely stripped of his humanity.  Also he's spent the last ten years in constant pain.  Most of the time it's almost unbearable pain, but that gets interrupted by periods of literally unbearable "drop to the ground screaming in agony because you're incapable of doing anything else" pain.

Plus the festering wound causing all this pain apparently smells really, really bad.

Philoctetes ends the play on his way to finally be healed and a prophecy-ensured glorious victory.

Neoptolemus starts out being coerced into doing things that go fundamentally against his morals and spends much of the play in anguish.  He leaves a hero.

Euripides Alcestis starts off with the title character dying.*  A lot of what happens in the play is her dying.  Which goes on, more or less, till she's dead.  Then there's a bit of mourning but even that doesn't go right, specifically it's cut short, and so those still alive feel even worse.  It ends with Hercules getting her away from Death and bringing the revived Alcestis back home.  Everyone gets to be happy again.

Tragedy isn't about good things going bad.  It's about things turning around.

I'd argue that there are three main points to tragedy:
  • It's painful.  Whether the ending is happy or sad the journey will hurt
  • It's about change.  Good crashes down to bad, bad is elevated to good.
  • The problem is intractable.  It's the Kobayashi Maru test and the only Kirk option is divine intervention.  (Hercules was big into that even before he was elevated to full god, but other gods did stuff too.)
Tragedies are painful stories about no win situations, but sometimes you can actually win anyway.  It's just that you can't win through your own efforts.  Powers beyond those of mortals are at play and whether you crash and burn or rise above depends entirely on them and not on you.  All you can do is face the situation that you personally have no hope of solving.

They are also very much about reversals.  Which brings us to Athenian pessimism.

* * *

People hear things like, "Count no man happy until he's dead," or the story of Kleobis and Biton (their mother asked the gods to grant them what was best; they were struck dead on the spot) and they think the people who produced these things were pessimistic.  That's not quite it.

Though, it should be noted that the non-mystery religions of ancient Greece had a very negative view of the afterlife so being mortal was generally assumed to suck by the time you got to the end and one god claimed that the best thing that could happen to a mortal was for them not to be born at all.

It's all about an idea that's deeply ingrained in the Athenian mindset and has everything to do with change.  It's best summed up by a phrase that probably originated a bit later and definitely came from east of Greece: "This, too, shall pass."

You can't say someone is lucky before they're dead because, since they're still alive, you don't know what's going to happen to them next.  They might still fall.  What was best for Kleobis and Biton was to die at their peak in a way that gained them eternal fame (we know their names and have their statues) rather than to live on and possibly come crashing down.

It is extremely pessimistic, if you're doing well.

But people forget that Athens was a very old city.  It's so old that the margin of error on the earliest settlement date is around 2,000 years (9000 BC give or take 2,000 years).  It's definitely been inhabited non-stop for at least seven thousand years.

In 1200 civilization collapsed.  No one knows why (it was mermaids) but every civilization that had managed to be created was brought down.  Egypt and Assyria were basically the only ones to limp through the catastrophe but they were both quite diminished, all of the other civilizations were gone and people were forced to rebuild from scratch.

The empire that Athens was a part of was gone.  Literacy was gone.  Building techniques were gone.  At that point the idea of things turning around probably seemed pretty damned optimistic.

But they did rebuild, and they did regain literacy, and they did improve, and then came Persia.

Athens was, at the time, a nothing town surrounded by other nothing towns.  It made a play for power by supporting a rebellious Greek-speaking city in Persia and it backfired.  Persia was a giant nation.

Cue the battle of Marathon.  Athens took on Persia and won because landing is the most vulnerable time for an army invading by sea.  (Sparta was taking the day off for religious reasons.)

Persia, which was definitely the biggest thing around and possibly the biggest empire in the world at the time, didn't take the defeat lightly.

Having learned the vulnerability of landings the army was set to walk the distance.  This meant building a bridge from Asia to Europe.  They also dug canals so pesky peninsulas would get in the way of their ships.

Nature thus subjugated to their will, and with the largest army the world had ever known beside the largest navy the world had ever known, they sent emissaries to Greece.  Each city state was asked to give water and earth.  It seriously was just water and dirt.  It was, however, symbolic of becoming subservient to the Persians.

All but two Greek cities said, "Sure, have some dirt and water."

Athens figured they were screwed no matter what, so they threw the emissary to them in a well.  They were probably right.  While Sparta couldn't make it to the battle of Marathon, another city did send aid.  The Persians wiped them out entirely.

Sparta was just Sparta.  They also threw the emissary in a well.  They did it with a sarcastic remark that it was a good place to go looking for water and earth.

So Persia came.  After the Spartan defeat at Thermopylae (which was a useful-to-the-Greeks defeat because it gave the rest of the army time to fall back and regroup) the Persians had full run of the upper part of the Greek peninsula.

Which is about when Athens kicked their asses at Salamis.  There is no way that should have happened.  Athens was a city.  Persia was a nation.  This was their second seemingly impossible victory they'd achieved and they felt they were on a role.  So they said to the rest of the Greeks, "Let's keep beating these guys," and went on offence.

Sparta didn't opt in and instead went for navel gazing and enforcing one of the most brutal forms of slavery known to history.

Athens kicked the Persians out of the Aegean and the Golden Age of Greece began.  Why the Golden Age of Greece when it was Athens doing the prospering?  They owned a lot of Greek world by this point.

They were doing ridiculously well after defeating an enemy they should have had no hope of defeating three times, with one of those times involving beating the biggest army the world had ever known along with the biggest navy the world have ever known.  The alliance they'd led against the Persians became their de facto empire (which eventually just became their empire) and all of the places they'd liberated from the Persians they'd turned around and immediately subjugated to themselves (though it didn't look like that at first glance, it took a while before you realized you'd been conquered rather than freed.)

The wealth flowed, things were great, their civilization was at its peak.

Suddenly all of that stuff about reversal takes on a more negative tone.  Herodotus wrote the first history, the one that gives us the word "History", and he started out by pointing out that great things become small, small things become great, good things decline, bad things improve.

Given how great things were going for Athens, viewing the world as a series of reversals tended to imply that they were heading for a massive crash (they were, though it was in the form of a twenty year war, so not as fast as a crash.)

So, sure, you could say that there was an Athenian pessimism.  But that was when things were good.  If things were bad it became an Athenian optimism.

It was the idea that this will not last.  If "this" is bad then that's positive.  If "this" is good then that's negative.  But, regardless of how the idea applied to a given situation, it was always part of a larger framework of viewing the world that was value neutral.

Things are gonna turn around.  This, too, shall pass.


* It wasn't a normal death though.  Wacky hijinks in the past that ended with Apollo getting the Fates drunk earned King Admetus a get out of death free card (not immortality, just living longer than he was supposed to), but death couldn't be denied completely so when it was his time to die came someone would have to go in his place.

He had years to try to find someone to take his place, no one would.  When the hour finally came round his wife Alcestis (title character) volunteered.

She had reasons beyond just loving him.  In the world they lived in their children would be better off if their surviving parent was the father, for example.  She has Admetus vow to always remember her, and never remarry (she doesn't want a possibly resentful step-mother in charge of her kids.)  He also vows to quit the merriment that his household was known for and live a life of solemnity in her honor when she is gone.

So she finally dies.

This leaves everything in a bad place.  She's dead, Admentus is really sad because he loved her and feeling really guilty for taking the deal, and so forth.  Everyone's kind of despondent.

Then it gets worse.  Hercules shows up and Admentus doesn't want to turn away a guest, so he brings Hercules in and tries not to burden Hercules with the knowledge of what happens.  This means no one can even mourn properly.

Finally someone gets pissed off enough about cheerful merry Hercules and tells Hercules exactly what happened and why what he's doing is pissing everyone off.

Hercules feels like an ass, apologizes, and leaves.  He comes back with Alcestis.

So she's returned to life, no one is sad anymore and everyone gets to be happy.  Yay.


  1. WTF is with throwing people into your own wells? Are they old wells or fucked up wells? Or do they just fish the corpses out right quick to avoid contamination?

  2. Also this Athenian view seems to have things in common with some ancient Germanic worldview stuff maybe. The world is harsh, your luck and your doom are things you can influence, but not really change, because they relate to things beyond your individual self. Even the Gods are querelous and doomed to die.

    And that's AWESOME. Because it means anyone can a hero. There are lots of Gods and Giants and Elves and whatnot to befriend or win favor from.

    No conquest will last. No dynasty will rule forever. Your family line can be utterly destroyed for generations, but something can still grow from the stump of that tree.

    Stagnation is ruin beyond death; it's ice that doesn't even flow. It's loss with no possibility of recovery. ('s always winter, and never, ever Yule?)

  3. Intriguing ideas, I need to think about them.