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. Read more