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August 19, 2015

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia

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Written by: DW

Last year I published a Kindle e-book on the Greek sovereign debt crisis. I wanted to understand, and explain to non-Greek readers, why Greeks behaved as they had during the crisis, and why they might have acted other than an American readership might have anticipated. I framed the story I told as a contemporary version of the myth of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, based essentially Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis.

“The scene is Aulis, a small port on the Euripos Strait in Boetia in Central Greece. An army of Greeks, including the future heroes of the Trojan War, await a favorable wind to sail for Troy. Their commander, Agamemnon, brother of the aggreived Menelaos (whose wife Helen has been abducted by Paris), has committed unbeknownst to his fellows an indiscretion injurious to the goddess Artemis, who in turn has demanded, through the intermediary of the seer Calchas, that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter in order for the winds to change. So begins Euripides’ play Iphigenia at Aulis, a story of loyalty, betrayal, and sacrifice, of agency and constraint, of devotion and great folly.

Three thousand years later, and we are back at the beginning. Our leadership, weak-kneed and heartless, has again sacrificed an unsuspecting victim (the Greek middle class) in order to pursue some great folly (membership in the Eurozone) despite the ruinous cost to Greek society. Whether this is the stuff of Homeric myth is for the reader to decide.”

It has often struck me how readily one finds allegorical meaning in the tales of antiquity. It had not been my personal intention when I began composing Still at Aulis. I had a much more modern frame of reference in mind when I drafted the core chapter of the book (ch. 3), as I sought to situate contemporary Greek affairs on a continuum of political modernity. I do not recall what casual reading prompted me to think about the tale of Iphigenia as recounted by Euripides. My book was most certainly not meant to be an analysis of his play.

I got back to thinking about the recurrence of antique allegorizing, with a view toward preparing a second edition of Still at Aulis, when I read Daniel Mendelsohn’s recent piece in The New Yorker. My first reaction, when I read the byline (“What is obscured when journalists use ancient Athens to explain Tsippras’ Greece?”), was that I am not a journalist and that my instincts as an author must lie somewhere else. And so I quipped on social media.

These ruminations are not meant merely to be a post-scriptum to Still at Aulis, however. You see, on the one hand mine were very personal reflections, borne of a quasi-existential need to make sense of the Greek sovereign debt crisis. I did not set out to write a scholarly tome. On the other hand, I would not have known how to end the story as far I had taken it. Euripides had the same problem, or at least his progeny did.

In the most commonly known version of the story to have come down to us, Iphigenia consents in the end to be sacrificed, ostensibly to save her beloved father’s honor (and perhaps her own for having so easily been duped into believing Achilles wanted to wed her before sailing to Troy). There is a lot of duplicity in the story, and no one is really spared. Are we also a society of dupes? This is not the end of Iphigenia, however. At the moment of execution the goddess Artemis, who had demanded the sacrifice of Iphigenia, envelopes her victim in a cloud and carries her off to Tauris, where she became a priestess at the temple of Artemis. Filial piety is rewarded; the winds meanwhile pick up and the Achean horde sets sail for Troy.

I have read some of the scholarly explanations for this posthumous set of developments. I struggle, it is true, to find an analogy in the behavior of contemporary Greeks, except maybe for the notion that some deus ex machina will come and save Greece from the fate to be meted out by the Troika, or whatever we now call it, for Greek indiscretion. (At the moment one might think debt forgiveness.)

Which brings me to my current dilemma. Where in the remix do Alexis the Hopeful (or Fearful, as Leventis would have it), Yanis Mononitos, and the Syrizists of the Parenthesis fit into the story of the sacrifice of Iphigenia?

There are two ways to think about this. One of the most arresting books I read in my student days was Jean Seznec’s The Survival of the Pagan Gods, which described the persistence of classical mythology in the European Middle Ages. Without saying as much, the author, the recipient of a “classical education,” implied that the ancients had laid down markers and detected timeless prototypes which could be adapted to vastly different circumstances. I myself studied this phenomenon in my work on the cultural origins of the French Revolution.

But maybe Seznec was wrong. Despite the best efforts of the punditocracy, you could argue that there is little value in seeking to recast a band of scruffy KKE retreads as some modern-day Argonauts. (To be fair to Syriza, few of their recent predecessors have been especially worthy of emulation, either.) In fact, with the Left dedicated to the demise of capitalism and neo-liberalism, it may also toll the death knell, more portentous, of classicism, if by classicism we mean a propensity to think of the present day via analogies borrowed from antiquity. If this is so, the Left Parenthesis is considerably more revolutionary a moment than the most ardent of the party faithful realize.

But there is more.

It would not be the first time that a revolutionary movement had such a chilling effect. In a book I published in 1997 I sought to demonstrate the fundamental dissonance between classicism, which posits a constant universe, and revolution, which portends to create something substantively new. The French Revolution, the archetype of all self-consciously revolutionary movements, was, paradoxically, produced by individuals steeped in a classical worldview. They achieved what the early twentieth-century French classicist Louis Bertrand called the end of classicism and the return to a historical view of antiquity.

Regardless of whether Syriza are apt or not to be compared to prototypes from a distant past, they are clearly too consumed with their legitimacy as modern revolutionaries to be truly revolutionary, a conundrum they share generally with all leftist movements since the Terror of 1793-94. Such is their sacrifice.

 






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