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Freedom, Fate, and Being Human: From Aeschylus to Marzano-Lesnevich

In her book The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich employs the legal concept of proximate cause to consider the extent to which the things that have happened to us dictate who we are and what we will do.  Marzano-Lesnevich joins an investigation into a murder and the life of the murderer who was a child molester to her own memoir of growing up in a family in which she was molested by her grandfather.  At 18, she confronts her grandfather about what he had done to her as a child.  He responds that he too was abused as a child.  So, she wonders, is there no escape from this cycle?  Worse, is there no holding to account if the proximate cause continues to recede?

The troubles of the house of Atreus do not begin when Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia.  Agamemnon’s grandfather, Pelops, was served in a stew to the gods by his father and rescued by Demeter.  And his father, Atreus, serves up his brother Thyestes’s kids to Thyestes and only one son – Aegisthus — survives.  Aegisthus is the man that Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, is having an affair with when Agamemnon returns from battle and the man who helps Clytemnestra kill Agamemnon in the bathtub to exact revenge for killing Iphigenia.  Aeschylus writes a final part to this story to address the question of how there can be freedom from what has gone before.  On Aeschylus’ telling, justice is the break of the bloodletting cycle of revenge.  Each actor in the family up until the intervention of Athena into this story has been constrained to seek revenge by what has befallen them or what has gone before them.  Athena introduces freedom into the story by justifying Orestes and refusing the Furies drive to exact revenge on him.  But this freedom for Orestes comes at the real cost of Clytemnestra’s murder going unpunished.  On the calculus of Orestes’ familial responsibility, he must exact revenge for his father’s death, but this revenge will also require its own revenge.  Athena frees Orestes not by ending that familial responsibility, which he does fulfill, but by allowing Orestes not to be held responsible for fulfilling that responsibility.

I saw a production of The Eumenides, the last play in Aeschylus’ Oresteia cycle, at Wabash last spring and I’ve been thinking about it again in light of questions posed by Marzano-Lesnevich’s book.

I think it is Jean-Pierre Vernant who sees in the story of Oedipus the Greek tragic struggle between fate and freedom.  If Greek mythology makes of human action plays for the gods, where the humans are destined by gods to act in certain ways, then Greek tragedy allows that to be the case while winning for the human the responsibility.  Even though Oedipus can do nothing to escape his fate, through his self-inflicted wounds and banishment from Thebes, he treats his actions as if they were his, as if he freely chose them, in order to win freedom from the fate dictated by the gods.  This freedom is won, not by doing otherwise than what was fated, but by taking the punishment.

When Nietzsche describes the difference between the Christian and Greek treatment of the gods as the Greeks give the guilt to the gods and the punishment to the human actor, while the Christians give the guilt to the human actor and the punishment to the gods, I wonder how much Sophocles fits into that paradigm.  Oedipus claims the guilt by taking the punishment, even though it would seem that the guilt is in the stars, as we say.

I think Sophocles’ Oedipus cycle is a response to Aeschylus.  Whereas for Aeschylus, a goddess must intervene to establish justice and give law and responsibility a new force, for Sophocles, the human resistance to fate comes from accepting what was fated as if it were chosen.  Sophocles describes the tragic figure more in terms of Nietzsche’s eternal return–will this as if it were what you chose, this is the path out of ressentiment.

The law needs to find a cause that can be the end of the road.  Marzano-Lesnevich makes much of this drive and power of the law.  But I wonder from this consideration of Aeschylus and Sophocles if the law does this same work in our context that the Greek tragedians demanded of it.  It creates the fiction of ultimate responsibility in order that we might become responsible, in order to make us responsible, especially when it comes to the most awful crimes.  To be human is to claim that responsibility even when it was impossible to do otherwise.

Aeschylus’ account bothers me because of how it leaves Clytemnestra’s death unavenged.  Orestes does not have to take responsibility for what he has done.  It also bothers me because it continues to make of human justice an act of the gods.  This intervention allows Orestes to get away with murder.  But Aeschylus is right to note that the law lets some not be responsible in order to consider others responsible.

For Sophocles, the human intervenes in the fate of the gods not by overcoming and resisting what was fated, but by taking responsibility for it.  This is what makes the human powerful.  But it is worth noting that Oedipus inflicts this suffering on himself, he owns the suffering in order to claim freedom in the face of his destiny.  The law does not demand the suffering for the sake of that freedom.  In neither the case of Aeschylus nor of Sophocles is punishment imposed to demand that others be responsible in the face of the conditions that make them unfree.  And yet, that seems to be the way that the law becomes construed, not a matter of making oneself free, but a matter of demanding of others that they be held responsible so that we might all be seen as free.

Photo by Carole Raddato: Oedipus and the Sphinx of Thebes, Red Figure Kylix, c. 470 BC, from Vulci, attributed to the Oedipus Painter, Vatican Museums

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