Newport sunrises are dangerous: they often urge me toward Coleridgeian indiscretions–I can hardly contain myself from scribbling imprudent poetics about their loveliness and grandeur. The color palette is staggering. Specifically this morning, sitting on the terrace overlooking the harbor in my friend Alyssa’s Coffee Grinder cafe, where I have every reason to want to embarrass myself with an overwritten couplet, a rhyming verse, or ten. Ludic, lovely, shimmering metaphors and brilliant boaty visions dance in front of me…
Luckily I have Aeschylus in my lap, who wrestles me back to the recoil and recriminations of murder, predestined, awake, and how to weather the “storms of ruin” that both enrage and embolden, as well as enlighten immortals and men, gods and furies. And us. For him the sunrise on the ocean, “rolling with a glistening bloom of corpses,” is a miasma of transcendent justice that hangs low and heavy in the sky, like a divines furor. But what I think he's really saying is that truth ultimately transfigures tragedy into a sort of liberating gaiety, a cathartic and regenerative wrenching, in which pain then reverberates with higher meaning and hope.
I’m talking about his Oresteia, of course, the brilliant trilogy: Agememenon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides, in an infernally-outstanding translation by Robert Fagles, with an introduction in collaboration with W. B. Stanford. Being sucked in is like an unexpected intellectual visit to Pepper Alley. The beating was beautiful, and shed The Iliad and The Odyssey of a lot of diligently-collaged historical and contemporary Englishings. Good and bad are not so indistinguishable now, the demarcations between dark and light ghostlier, the screechy cries of fair and foul less keenly believed and felt.
Yes, Penelope was always one of my greatest heroines, because of her steadfast virtue and loyalty, and still is. But Odysseus is now a let’s say more piebald hero, blemished, and undeniably fiendish in unexpected ways. He was a brave and cunning comrade and fearsome foe in the Trojan War, but chucking Astyanax, Hector’s son off the ramparts so that he wouldn’t rise up against the Greeks one day, despite the pleas of his mother Andromache, although understandable and justified, still lumps up in my throat. Whatever happened to magnanimity in victory?
Yes, Clytemnestra, maybe an idealist once, is nothing but a villain, because of the betrayal and murder of her husband Agamemenon, but, but. Homer downplayed the king’s malevolence, his duplicity and arrogance, and his political, genial ruthlessness. He killed his own daughter, Iphegenia, on Zeus’ command to allow fair winds for the Greek army to attack Troy and return his stolen sister-in-law, Helen, back to her husband Menelaus. This may be true, and somehow okayable, but it’s still a heinous crime, especially since he lured Iphigenia to the sacrificial altar with a promise of marriage, a betrayal that Clytemnestra never forgave him for. And, ultimately, she used it as the justification to murder him on his return from the war. Her lover, Aegisthus, avenging the death of his twin brothers at the hands of Agamemnon’s father, King Atreus, was complicit in the plot, but turned out to be too craven to do the deed himself. A coward with good intentions who promises and reneges, and then lets a woman do his dirty work is nothing but a lurching worm.
And now Orestes, tormented between feelings of filial love and hated fate, but championed by his sister, Electra, to reset the balance of his murderous family universe, turns rough desire into “stroke for bloody stroke” action and the thrilling climax.
We'll read all about the implications and powerfully civilizing fallout from this magnificent matricide trilogy yourself ourselves in the Penguin Classics Edition. Are you ready to come along on the bloody terrible ride?