Tuesday, June 30, 2015

"in order to render the enemy’s signals unintelligible" Thucydides' lessons on writing about warfare

I continue to read Crawley's eminently readable translation of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. It is a primer on geopolitics, or just plain old politics. Does an army travel, as Napoleon claimed, on its stomach? No, it travels on wheels made of money, money from mines worked by slaves and tribute gathered from "allies" whose allegiance is maintained at the point of a spear. Ah, politics. Thucydides gives all the important political speeches on both sides of the conflict (and there's a very funny disclaimer early in the book where our author admits that in some instances he paraphrases the speeches and in other instances he merely makes up the speeches based on "what must've been said by the speakers"). The speakers' characters come shining through, and we see that politicians have been politicians for thousands of years; our historian does not refrain from mocking even his own countrymen. Thucydides mocks everyone.

But this is not about the mockery, not directly. This is about what a great writer Thucydides was, one of the finest chroniclers of warfare in history. I quote at great length one of my favorite episodes, which had little influence on the outcome of the war but is brilliantly written:
The same winter the Plataeans, who were still being besieged by the Peloponnesians and Boeotians, distressed by the failure of their provisions, and seeing no hope of relief from Athens, nor any other means of safety, formed a scheme with the Athenians besieged with them for escaping, if possible, by forcing their way over the enemy’s walls; the attempt having been suggested by Theaenetus, son of Tolmides, a soothsayer, and Eupompides, son of Daimachus, one of their generals. At first all were to join: afterwards, half hung back, thinking the risk great; about two hundred and twenty, however, voluntarily persevered in the attempt, which was carried out in the following way. Ladders were made to match the height of the enemy’s wall, which they measured by the layers of bricks, the side turned towards them not being thoroughly whitewashed. These were counted by many persons at once; and though some might miss the right calculation, most would hit upon it, particularly as they counted over and over again, and were no great way from the wall, but could see it easily enough for their purpose. The length required for the ladders was thus obtained, being calculated from the breadth of the brick.

Now the wall of the Peloponnesians was constructed as follows. It consisted of two lines drawn round the place, one against the Plataeans, the other against any attack on the outside from Athens, about sixteen feet apart. The intermediate space of sixteen feet was occupied by huts portioned out among the soldiers on guard, and built in one block, so as to give the appearance of a single thick wall with battlements on either side. At intervals of every ten battlements were towers of considerable size, and the same breadth as the wall, reaching right across from its inner to its outer face, with no means of passing except through the middle. Accordingly on stormy and wet nights the battlements were deserted, and guard kept from the towers, which were not far apart and roofed in above.

Such being the structure of the wall by which the Plataeans were blockaded, when their preparations were completed, they waited for a stormy night of wind and rain and without any moon, and then set out, guided by the authors of the enterprise. Crossing first the ditch that ran round the town, they next gained the wall of the enemy unperceived by the sentinels, who did not see them in the darkness, or hear them, as the wind drowned with its roar the noise of their approach; besides which they kept a good way off from each other, that they might not be betrayed by the clash of their weapons. They were also lightly equipped, and had only the left foot shod to preserve them from slipping in the mire. They came up to the battlements at one of the intermediate spaces where they knew them to be unguarded: those who carried the ladders went first and planted them; next twelve light-armed soldiers with only a dagger and a breastplate mounted, led by Ammias, son of Coroebus, who was the first on the wall; his followers getting up after him and going six to each of the towers. After these came another party of light troops armed with spears, whose shields, that they might advance the easier, were carried by men behind, who were to hand them to them when they found themselves in presence of the enemy. After a good many had mounted they were discovered by the sentinels in the towers, by the noise made by a tile which was knocked down by one of the Plataeans as he was laying hold of the battlements. The alarm was instantly given, and the troops rushed to the wall, not knowing the nature of the danger, owing to the dark night and stormy weather; the Plataeans in the town having also chosen that moment to make a sortie against the wall of the Peloponnesians upon the side opposite to that on which their men were getting over, in order to divert the attention of the besiegers. Accordingly they remained distracted at their several posts, without any venturing to stir to give help from his own station, and at a loss to guess what was going on. Meanwhile the three hundred set aside for service on emergencies went outside the wall in the direction of the alarm. Fire-signals of an attack were also raised towards Thebes; but the Plataeans in the town at once displayed a number of others, prepared beforehand for this very purpose, in order to render the enemy’s signals unintelligible, and to prevent his friends getting a true idea of what was passing and coming to his aid before their comrades who had gone out should have made good their escape and be in safety.

Meanwhile the first of the scaling party that had got up, after carrying both the towers and putting the sentinels to the sword, posted themselves inside to prevent any one coming through against them; and rearing ladders from the wall, sent several men up on the towers, and from their summit and base kept in check all of the enemy that came up, with their missiles, while their main body planted a number of ladders against the wall, and knocking down the battlements, passed over between the towers; each as soon as he had got over taking up his station at the edge of the ditch, and plying from thence with arrows and darts any who came along the wall to stop the passage of his comrades. When all were over, the party on the towers came down, the last of them not without difficulty, and proceeded to the ditch, just as the three hundred came up carrying torches. The Plataeans, standing on the edge of the ditch in the dark, had a good view of their opponents, and discharged their arrows and darts upon the unarmed parts of their bodies, while they themselves could not be so well seen in the obscurity for the torches; and thus even the last of them got over the ditch, though not without effort and difficulty; as ice had formed in it, not strong enough to walk upon, but of that watery kind which generally comes with a wind more east than north, and the snow which this wind had caused to fall during the night had made the water in the ditch rise, so that they could scarcely breast it as they crossed. However, it was mainly the violence of the storm that enabled them to effect their escape at all.

Starting from the ditch, the Plataeans went all together along the road leading to Thebes, keeping the chapel of the hero Androcrates upon their right; considering that the last road which the Peloponnesians would suspect them of having taken would be that towards their enemies’ country. Indeed they could see them pursuing with torches upon the Athens road towards Cithaeron and Druoskephalai or Oakheads. After going for rather more than half a mile upon the road to Thebes, the Plataeans turned off and took that leading to the mountain, to Erythrae and Hysiae, and reaching the hills, made good their escape to Athens, two hundred and twelve men in all; some of their number having turned back into the town before getting over the wall, and one archer having been taken prisoner at the outer ditch. Meanwhile the Peloponnesians gave up the pursuit and returned to their posts; and the Plataeans in the town, knowing nothing of what had passed, and informed by those who had turned back that not a man had escaped, sent out a herald as soon as it was day to make a truce for the recovery of the dead bodies, and then, learning the truth, desisted. In this way the Plataean party got over and were saved.
I love this stuff. I love that Thucydides thought it important to write down the method the Plataeans used to estimate the height of the Spartans' walls. I love the detail about only wearing the left shoe, for traction in the storm. Fabulous writing, every word of it. The book is full of this stuff, exciting and vivid. Stirring, even. There are a lot of terrifying events as well, because even in a war where the principals do not engage face to face, there are still large armies marauding across the frontiers, killing and raping and burning things to the ground.

Friday, June 26, 2015

"it was naturally thought a grievous insult" to war, to war, with Thucydides

When they arrived at Athens, though a few had houses of their own to go to, or could find an asylum with friends or relatives, by far the greater number had to take up their dwelling in the parts of the city that were not built over and in the temples and chapels of the heroes, except the Acropolis and the temple of the Eleusinian Demeter and such other Places as were always kept closed. The occupation of the plot of ground lying below the citadel called the Pelasgian had been forbidden by a curse; and there was also an ominous fragment of a Pythian oracle which said:

Leave the Pelasgian parcel desolate, Woe worth the day that men inhabit it!

Yet this too was now built over in the necessity of the moment. And in my opinion, if the oracle proved true, it was in the opposite sense to what was expected. For the misfortunes of the state did not arise from the unlawful occupation, but the necessity of the occupation from the war; and though the god did not mention this, he foresaw that it would be an evil day for Athens in which the plot came to be inhabited.
Thucydides mentions the oracles quite a bit in his History, and makes it clear that there were certain Athenians who made it a habit of collecting oracles and with them attempting to influence public policy. Thucydides is careful about directly seeing the hand of the gods in any earthy events, for example the earthquake at Sparta ("it was said that the earthquake was a punishment from the gods"), but he talks about oracles with a straight face and refers to Apollo and Athena as if they are living beings who reside in Greece alongside him. Our historian seems to have been in the minority of Athenians, at least, who did not see the gods as being quite active in the world. Thucydides can sometimes not hide his wry amusement over the collectors of oracles (nor sometimes over the actions of the rest of his fellow citizens):
Knots were formed in the streets and engaged in hot discussion; for if the proposed sally was warmly recommended, it was also in some cases opposed. Oracles of the most various import were recited by the collectors, and found eager listeners in one or other of the disputants. Foremost in pressing for the sally were the Acharnians, as constituting no small part of the army of the state, and as it was their land that was being ravaged. In short, the whole city was in a most excited state; Pericles was the object of general indignation; his previous counsels were totally forgotten; he was abused for not leading out the army which he commanded, and was made responsible for the whole of the public suffering.
[translation by Richard Crawley, 1874]

Monday, June 22, 2015

the laughter of his enemies: "Ajax" by Sophocles

All the same, although he despises me,
I pity his misfortune under that yoke
of catastrophic madness. It makes me think
not just of his fate but my own as well.
I see that in our lives we are no more
than phantoms, insubstantial shadows.
In the first scene of Sophocles' "Ajax," the goddess Athena reveals to Odysseus that she has beclouded the mind of the warrior Ajax, who was set upon the murders of Menelaus, Agamemnon and Odysseus in the encampment on the beaches of Troy. Rather than allow Ajax to kill these three Greeks whom he believes have cheated him of the honor of receiving Achilles' armor after Achilles' death, Athena has sent Ajax into the fields to butcher and torture the army's cattle and sheep; she has deluded him into thinking that these harmless herd animals are his enemies. Athena takes Odysseus to Ajax' tent and calls Ajax forth. When the tent opens, a horrific spectacle is revealed, of blood and gore and slaughtered animals, of sheep tied to tent poles with their skins flayed, of Ajax covered in the blood of his innocent victims. Ajax, mad as a hatter, is quite pleased with himself. Odysseus, made invisible to Ajax' eyes by Athena, is horrified. Athena expects Odysseus to laugh with glee at the mad Ajax. Instead, Odysseus is shaken and speaks the lines quoted above. He sees in Ajax, perhaps, a reflection of his own tendency to pridefulness, and this gives him something to think about.

Ajax, when he comes out of the Athena-inspired fog, realizes that he has murdered scores of animals and committed acts of obscene violence upon the harmless beasts. He also realizes that the whole Greek camp has by now heard of this, and his humiliation is now such that he cannot face life. He announces his intention to kill himself rather than face life as a caricature of a mighty hero. "I was the greatest warrior that ever lived," he tells himself, and all who will listen, over and over and over again. The fantasy world of Ajax, wherein he is the only Greek that matters, the only real man, is a poor fit for the real world in which he finds himself, where treasures go to those more clever than he, where he is a soldier in an army commanded by another, where his own insane actions have made him the laughingstock of those who he sees as his inferiors. His tremendous pride will not allow him to live in such a world. He will take the sword of Hector, his enemy, and he will kill himself. His death, at least, will be honorable. This final act, he thinks, will stifle the laughter of his enemies.

Ajax is wrong, of course. The scorn continues to be heaped upon him after his body is discovered on the beach. Teucer, half brother of Ajax, sets about burying the corpse. Menelaus arrives on the beach and forbids the burial, calling Ajax unworthy of the rites of the dead. Menelaus is big and dumb, and Teucer spars with him verbally, outwitting him in petty argument. Menelaus, who has no authority over Teucer or the burial of Ajax, runs to fetch his brother Agamemnon, who is general of the Greek forces. This scene of squabbling on the beach over the corpse of Ajax, is quite good. Each of these men--Teucer, Menelaus and Agamemnon--is a version of Ajax: prideful, stubborn, and unwilling to see the world in terms of anything but the expression of his own vanity. Ad hominems fly, the argument digresses into more pettiness, the question of who is a true hero becomes more important than the obligations men have to the gods upon the death of a warrior. It is Odysseus, coming to the beach upon hearing of Ajax' death, who reminds Agamemnon that the question of Ajax' character is not the primary concern at this time. "I hated him while it was honorable to do so," Odysseus says of Ajax, but now is the time to bury our dead rather than to prop up our self esteem. Odysseus has seen the madness of Ajax when Athena pulled back the tent flaps and displayed her works. Odysseus remembers that men are "insubstantial shadow." Odysseus urges Agamemnon to allow the burial:
For I myself will also come to this.
By "this" Odysseus means dead, surely, and he reminds Agamemnon that one day he too will need to be buried. But he might also mean something larger, perhaps his own possible evil fate at the whim of the gods, perhaps ignoble death at the feet of his enemies, perhaps after first having been driven mad by Athena for some slight. It is best all around, Odysseus says, to remember that we have no idea what will happen and no possible good can come from victory over a corpse. Athena has shown Odysseus what can happen to prideful men; Odysseus is shaken and though he can't tell Agamemnon that Ajax was driven mad by the goddess, he can caution him to set aside hubris lest he repeat Ajax' mistake.

The actions of Ajax, Athena, Menelaus, Teucer and Agamemnon are actions against which Odysseus reacts; they are not the point of the play. Odysseus is not any sort of hero in "Ajax," but he is the character who receives the warning, who sees the forces behind the scenes, and he is--as always--cautious.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

From their high-towering hopes he hurls mankind to utter destruction

I find myself reading a lot of ancient Greek literature, and German-language literature, and English-language essays on art and literature and morality, and simultaneously I find myself not working away at revisions to the novel I thought I'd be revising this summer. I realize that I have no intention of beginning that revision until I've finished reading all of the Greek tragedies, which is a chunk of reading. I may finish Thucydides' history first, as well. What I am doing with all of the Greek drama and Greek history and German fiction and English essay is, frankly, pushing all of that Chekhov and Shakespeare out of the forefront of my imagination. I have a strong desire to approach writing with a new set of conceits, to shake myself into a new shape before picking up the pen again. Certainly Shakespeare and Chekhov have soaked into my writerly DNA, but surely there must be room for other things, fresh assaults against the same old bulwarks, etc etc und so weiter. Well, we'll see. This is clearly a placeholder post, a note to myself.

Monday, June 8, 2015

"O you gods, you pure, blessed gods" Oedipus the faithful

It is a commonplace that the dramas of the ancient Greeks display an historical progression, away from society living under the thrall of the gods and toward a society of free-thinking men. An early shadow of the European Enlightenment, if you will. Sophocles, for example, is the playwright who demonstrates a hero openly defying the will of the gods. I have been reading Sophocles all weekend, and I am here to tell you that this defiance of the gods is not to be found within the text of Sophocles' plays.
But if a man conducts himself
disdainfully in what he says and does,
and manifests no fear of righteousness,
no reverence for the statues of the gods,
may miserable fate seize such a man
for his disastrous arrogance,
if he does not behave with justice
when he strives to benefit himself,
appropriates all things impiously,
and, like a fool, profanes the sacred.
What man is there who does such things
who can still claim he will ward off
the arrow of the gods aimed at his heart?
If such actions are considered worthy,
why should we dance to honour god?
Sophocles consistently states the goodness of the gods, openly shows his respectful attitude toward his religion and gives us characters who sincerely appeal to the gods for help, all of this without the least drop of irony. The people of the Theban plays are not shown to be misguided in seeking the aid of the gods, nor does anyone blame the gods for the fate of man. Sophocles was a fatalist, like all ancient Greeks, to be sure. The Enlightenment attempts to teach us moderns to not be fatalists, and so we read Sophocles as if he were an Enlightenment thinker, but he was not. The drama of Sophocles' plays is varied and centered on humans rather than gods, but that, I think, can be explained as a development of the art of dramatic writing and not a reflection of a grand social movement going on in Athens in the fifth century B.C.

In "Oedipus Rex," the drama is twofold:

1. A man who believes in his own superiority learns that upon close examination he is something he despises, and this knowledge is so great that he literally cannot look upon the sullied world he himself has inadvertently created in Thebes, so he blinds himself.

2. A man's tragic fate is foretold and made known to him, and so he goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid that fate, failing of course, because his fate is set. As Aeschylus says in "Prometheus Bound," fate is inescapable even for Zeus. The heroism of Oedipus is his striving to overcome his fate; the tragedy is that he will fail, like each of us.

Oedipus relies on and puts full faith in the oracles. He seeks the help of the gods, he invokes Zeus when he places a curse upon the murderer of Laius, and is in all ways a faithful servant of the gods, even as he is being driven to exile at the end of the play.
Will you then be making a request
on my behalf when I am so depraved?

I will. For even you must now trust in the gods.

Yes, I do.
In "Oedipus at Colonus," Oedipus is (as is the entire world of the play) even more reverent, making all due fuss at the sacred grove of the Eumenides, praying with a pure heart to Zeus, giving credence to the oracles, etc.
O pay not a lip service to the gods
And wrong them of their dues. Bethink ye well,
The eye of Heaven beholds the just of men,
And the unjust, nor ever in this world
Has one sole godless sinner found escape.
Stand then on Heaven's side
At the end of the play, Zeus himself calls out to Oedipus to come home, and Oedipus is carried to the underworld by the hands of the god himself. Oedipus is a true and faithful servant of Zeus, and the dramatic conflict with the boys back in Thebes has to do with the sons of Oedipus showing too little reverence for the will of the gods. Sophocles was not a revolutionary.

My somewhat scattershot survey of the literature surrounding the Theban plays makes it clear that there is no real consensus about the meaning of these (or any of the ancient Greek) plays, which is pleasing, because they are sophisticated dramatic machines that move in more than one direction at once. But still, as I come to the plays merely to see what's in them, I am not finding what I was told I'd find. Which is excellent, because the plays, every one of them that I've read of late, are so much better than I thought they'd be, so much more alien, so much more alive and kicking.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

the only really innocent characters

Why, after more than 2500 years, do people still read the ancient Greek tragedies? Because they are amazing, living things, charged with the electric urgency of human existence. Even when the dramatists are not speaking of humans.

I just read Aeschylus' trilogy "The Oresteia," the story of the royal family of Argos in the thrall of capricious and childish gods, gods with no pity for mankind, gods who have upset the old order of the universe and co-opt simple justice, replacing it with something else. The rule of divine right, maybe. Aeschylus writes, it could be argued, a subtle tale of the evil of Zeus and his Olympians, a poisoning of the Earth. I'm not sure that's what I want to write about here, though. In part it is. We'll see how far I take that idea.

Mostly I'm still very excited by the Furies, the trio of pre-Olympian supernatural creatures, female figures with snakes growing out of their heads, monsters who are charged to punish those who murder their parents. The Furies are called from the bowels of the earth by the death of Clytemnestra at the hands of her son, Orestes. Everyone thinks of the Furies as horrific beasts, mindless and inexorable and bloodthirsty. Aeschylus presents them in "The Eumenides", however, as something more like trained animals, single- and simple-minded hunting dogs, maybe. In fact, when we first see the Furies, they are lying on the floor of Apollo's temple, at the feet of Orestes, who sits in the supplicant's chair. The Furies moan and cry out in their sleep, like dogs in tortured dreams. They are not forces of evil despite the claims of Orestes, Apollo and Athena (unless, like the Olympians, you define "evil" as "moving against the will of the gods"). What they are is pure vengeance, a force to put fear into the heart of men, protectors of the sanctity of blood relation.

During their debates with Apollo about Orestes' guilt, the Furies speak only the truth, list only facts about Orestes' actions. Apollo argues fine points of philosophy, as does Athena, and the two young Olympians get Orestes off on a technicality unrelated to the crime at hand (as well as threats and bribes to the jury) in a show trial with a dozen Athenian men as jurors (hand-picked by Athena, who declares that she is of course prejudiced in Orestes' favor). The facts of the case, as put forward by the Furies and stipulated to by Orestes himself, are never at issue. What matters here is the will of Apollo and the irrelevance of the old powers, the claim that the Furies have no place in the new world of the Olympian gods. The Furies are baffled, confused and aware of their having been cheated, and quake with anger. They are furious.
I am dishonoured of you, thrust to scorn!
But heavily my wrath
Shall on this land fling forth the drops that blast and burn,
Venom of vengeance, that shall work such scathe
As I have suffered; where that dew shall fall,
Shall leafless blight arise,
Wasting Earth's offspring,-justice, hear my call!-
And thorough all the land in deadly wise
Shall scatter venom, to exude again
In pestilence on men.
What cry avails me now, what deed of blood,
Unto this land what dark despite?
Alack, alack, forlorn
Are we, a bitter injury have borne!
Alack, O sisters, O dishonoured brood
Of mother Night!
[...] I, I dishonoured in this earth to dwell,-
Ancient of days and wisdom! I breathe forth
Poison and breath of frenzied ire. O Earth,
Woe, woe for thee, for me!
From side to side what pains be these that thrill?
Hearken, O mother Night, my wrath, mine agony!
They are also, strangely, the only really innocent characters in the trilogy. By "innocent," I might mean that they follow set rules, they do not act for personal reasons. The entire storyline of the Trojan war is one of prideful action followed by prideful counter-reaction, murder done to avenge murder, murders and wars and betrayals committed under the influence of prideful Olympians whose sole interest is in buttressing their fragile vanity. The Olympians are a prissy, preening lot who use the history of mankind as a brutal game of one-upmanship. The ancient fixed moral system is replaced by a situational ethics, a moral relativism where the biggest god trumps all, and good and evil are reduced to winning and losing in the name of the gods. The Olympians usher in an age where a guy like Odysseus, all vanity and lies, can be a hero. The Furies' teeth are extracted and the tamed Eumenides are led underground once again, to sit beneath the Parthenon and scare Athenians into obeying the new young gods.

Monday, June 1, 2015

I am trying to avoid goddesses

This weekend I read Euripides' "Hippolytus," and now I'm reading Aeschylus' "Agamemnon." I am looking at these plays as being primarily about the leading women: Phaedra in the Euripides, Clytemnestra in the Aeschylus. At some point this summer, I will write something comparing these Greek wife/mother figures with Gertrude in "Hamlet." I won't write it here on this blog; I'll write it into Chapter 14, I think, of my novel Mona in the Desert, which novel I will begin revising next week or so. I don't know why I mention any of this here except that this blog, for better or worse, has become where I save these sorts of progress notes about my novels. Anyway, I plan to read a number of Greek tragedies in the coming days, ignoring any that don't feature a central wife/mother character. So this will be an interesting week. Hecuba? Aethra? Jocosta? Atossa? Alcmena? Hera, even? I am trying to avoid goddesses. We'll just see, though. I let the reading guide the reading, if you know what I mean.