Month: February 2016

Reading between the classics : the attempt to defeat tsundoku

Reading between the classics : the attempt to defeat tsundoku

The constant stream of Greek plays, or any quality literature, would eventually become unbearable without the occasional foray into something a little more fantastical, modern, mysterious or just plain trashy. So in between the tragedies and histories I often take a day or two off, and try to read something sitting on my bookshelves which I have bought but never read, to enjoy but then discard to make more space and also to avoid being accused of practising tsundoku.

To quote Wikipedia, tsundoku is the constant act of buying books, but never reading them. Specifically, it is letting books pile up in one’s room so much that the owner never gets a chance to read all of them. The origin of “Tsundoku” is a Japanese slang (積ん読) “tsun-doku”. 「積ん読」 came from 「積んでおく」 “tsunde-oku” (to pile things up ready for later and leave) and 「読書」 “dokusho” (reading books). It is also used to refer to books ready for reading later when they are on a bookshelf.

I actually know someone who bought their neighbouring house simply to store their overflow of books and newspapers.

Nice to know there is a word for this.





34. Medea, by Euripides (431 BC)

Plot :
Faced with exile after her husband Jason (of Argonaut fame) leaves her to marry the King’s daughter,  Medea plots to kill Jason, his new wife Glauce, King Creon and even her own two children.
My copy is the Penguin edition Medea and other plays  (ISBN 0140441298)

My thoughts:
Perhaps now the most famous of Euripides’ tragedies, Medea was initially so disliked by the Greek public that it came last at the festival where it was first presented.

Medea’s rage at being deserted by her husband, for whom she has sacrificed her home and family, drives her to carry out quite horrific murders, graphically described in a manner that would befit modern R-rated cinema offerings;  and then though she is torn over the imminent murder of her own children, her hatred of Jason drives her on to more carnage.

As to who is ‘right’, Medea or Jason? The audience might feel that Jason has certainly acted traitorously to Medea, but her crimes are too extreme to be excused.

Favourite lines/passages:
While there were many quotes of warning and wisdom, particularly at the start of the play, the sheer graphic horror of the description of Glauce’s and Creon’s deaths is overwhelming

“The she came to, poor girl, and gave a frightful scream,
As two torments made war on her together; first
The golden coronet round her head discharged a stream
Of unnatural devouring fire; while the fine dress
…… was eating her clear flesh. She leapt up from her chair
On fire, and ran, shaking her head and long hair
This way and that, trying to shake off the coronet.
….. The more she shook her head the fiercer the flame burned
At last, exhausted by agony, she fell to the ground;
Save to her father, she was unrecognizable,
Her eyes, her face, were one grotesque disfigurement;
Down from her head dripped blood mingled with flame; her flesh
Attacked by the invisible fangs of poison, melted
From the bare bone, like gum-drops from a pine-tree’s bark ….

Messenger, p. 54

But this is not enough, for now her father Creon enters the room and grasps her body to him, only to find, as he…

… tried to lift his aged body upright; and then,
As ivy sticks to laurel branches, so he stuck
Fast to the dress. A ghastly wrestling then begun;
He struggled to raise up his knee, she tugged him down,
If he used force, he tore the flesh off his bones.
At length the King gave up his pitiful attempts
Weakened with pain, he yielded, and gasped out his life.

Messenger, p. 54

Personal rating: Very forceful, 8/10.

Next : Back to the history of classical Greece and her warring neighbours. The Persian threat has been seen off as described by Herodotus but now siblings Athens and Sparta come to blows, in Thucylides’ History of the Peloponnesian war.

36. Prometheus Bound (430 BC?) possibly by Aeschylus.

36. Prometheus Bound (430 BC?) possibly by Aeschylus.

Plot : The Titan Prometheus is bound to a lonely crag for eternity, for defying Zeus and giving mankind fire. His ability to foretell the future is his only hope of future release, yet he refuses to tell Zeus of the circumstances of that God’s potential future downfall.
My copy is the Penguin edition covering Aeschylus’ four surviving plays outside his Oresteian Trilogy, edited by Philip Vellacott (ISBN 9780140441123)

My thoughts: Again, the first and only surviving play in a trilogy. Initially believed to have been written by Aeschylus, some think it more likely to have been by his son Euphorion. I think the nearly 30 year gap between The Oresteia and this play lends credence to this view.
I actually found this a much more visually imaginative play than the others credited to Aeschylus, and would love to see it on stage : the arrival of Oceanus on a winged beast and the Chorus in a winged carriage, the costumes for the part-woman, part-cow Io, and the gods Hephestus and Hermes, the personifications of Strength and Violence, the chaining/binding of Prometheus to the rock, and its descent underground at the end of the play would make for a remarkable spectacle.
This story had already been referenced by Hesiod, Homer and Pindar. What I learnt new from this telling included
• A more complete telling of the Io myth, linking back to the events in The Suppliants, and the following murder of all but one of their husbands, and the descendant (Heracles) of the surviving couple to eventually free Prometheus and bring the story full circle
• Prometheus not only gave man fire, but also claims to have taught man writing, mathematics, astronomy, horsemanship, animal husbandry and agricultural uses, seamanship, medicine, mining and prophecy – in short, “all human skill and science”
My question on an earlier post as to whether Gods could be portrayed on stage is fully answered by this play.

Favourite lines/passages:

It is a pleasant thing to spend the length of life
In confidence and hope,
And to nourish the soul in light and cheerfulness

The Daughters of Oceanus (Chorus)

So let the pronged locks of lightning be launched at me,
Let the air be roused with thunder and convulsion of wild winds,
Let hurricanes upheave by the roots the base of the earth,
Let the sea-waves’ roaring savagery
Confound the courses of the heavenly stars
Let him lift me high and hurl me to black Tartarus
On ruthless floods of irresistible doom ;
I am one whom he cannot kill


Personal rating: 7/10.

What’s happening?

It’s been a very difficult couple of weeks as my eldest child left home to study in another city, and my classics reading has been a casualty of the preparations and sadness. I am starting Medea as promised soon, but in the meantime I will post my comments on the last play by Aeschylus : Prometheus Bound. Although it is dated twenty eight years after The Eumenides, I read it when I read his other plays and had the book in hand, and wrote the review in advance to slot in when I reached 430 BC. As you will see from my comments, some scholars attribute the long gap in years to the belief that Aeschylus’ son rather than Aeschylus himself wrote Prometheus Bound. Either way, it was my favourite of the plays in the Aeschylus canon. It was performed only a year after Medea so the chronology is not too disrupted and I would rather send out another post or two before the end of the month. Enjoy!

33. Alcestis, by Euripides (438 BC)

33. Alcestis, by Euripides (438 BC)

Plot : The earliest intact play from Euripides, the third of the great classical Greek tragedians.

King Admetus is granted a boon from Apollo to escape an early Fated death if he can find someone to take his place. After his elderly parents both refuse to die in his stead, his queen Alcestis agrees to sacrifice her life. When the appointed day arrives, Death comes to claim Alcestis. Meanwhile, Heracles visits on his way to steal King Diomedes’ flesh-eating horses, and Admetus offers him hospitality without telling of his recent bereavement. Upon uncovering the truth, Heracles sets off to reclaim Alcestis from Death.
My copy is the Penguin edition covering three of Euripides’ plays, the others being Hippolytus, and Iphigenia in Tauris (ISBN 0140440313)

My thoughts: A new and refreshing story unconnected to the two or three sagas that have dominated previous plays.
Alcestis is universally praised for her self-sacrifice although she is heartbroken at leaving her husband and children. Admetus is also wracked with grief, and yet although he pleads with her to stay, and wishes himself dead alongside her, he can still berate his father for cowardice, instead of admitting he should never have expected anyone to take his place

Admetus does not seem in the least genuine to me, and certainly does not call on Apollo, the other Gods or Fates to reverse the choice and save Alcestis. His promise to never wed again and stay true to Alcestis’ memory seems a spur of the moment emotion which will likely be forgotten soon, and his obfuscation in not telling Heracles the identity of the dead woman the first betrayal of her memory and honour in what is likely to be many. Other readers may argue with me over this.

Heracles’ rescue of Alcestis is also a little convenient and robs the tragedy of much of its power and moral. While rescuing Alcestis provides a happy ending, it does nothing to punish Admetus for allowing her to die in his place in the first instance.

Euripides was a contemporary of Sophocles; in fact they competed for the prize at the annual festival of Dionysus, so now for the first time we have literature written by different authors in the same place and time.

Favourite lines/passages:
I often seem to find the lines I enjoy most in a tragedy outside the tragic events themselves. Instead of the glory of Alcestis’ sacrifice, her bereft husband and children, and even Heracles’ drunken performance, what gave me greatest pleasure was this description of Apollo.

Under your roof Apollo chose to live,
The prophet, the musician;
And as a member of your household
Was content to graze your sheep,
Piping a tune of shepherd’s love
Over the steep winding pastures

Spotted lynxes loved his music and came
To feed beside his flock
And a tawny herd of lions
Came from the glen of Othrys,
And around your lute, Apollo,
Dappled fawns, stepping out
Slender-footed from the high shady fir-trees,
Danced for joy to your enchanting notes

Chorus, page 61

A more famous and contentious quote from Admetus’ father, Pheres, who upon saying this does nothing to redeem his position

With a woman like that, a man can find that marriage pays ; otherwise it’s a bad bargain

Pheres, page 63

And some obvious wisdom from Heracles himself

All mortal men are bound to die – inevitably,
There’s no man living who can confidently say
Not one – that he will still be living the next day
The road of chance leads on by a mysterious way

Heracles, page 68

Personal rating: 6/10.

Next : Medea, also by Euripides. Perhaps the opposite of Alcestis, as wife plots revenge on unfaithful husband.

32. Ajax, by Sophocles (440 BC)

32. Ajax, by Sophocles (440 BC)

Plot : Back to the aftermath of the Iliad, and Achilles has died from an arrow in the heel. Ajax and Odysseus both claim his armour, and after days of tied competition, Odysseus’s smooth tongued rhetoric wins him the booty. Ajax in a fit of rage sets out to kill Odysseus, Agamemnon and Menelaus, but Athena intervenes and tricks Ajax into slaughtering sheep and cattle instead. Embarrassed by his actions, Ajax falls on the sword he took from Hector. Agamemnon and Menelaus give orders to leave the body on the sands for the seagulls to pick apart, but Teucer his brother, and surprisingly Odysseus, defend Ajax’s right to a proper burial.
My copy is the Penguin edition covering Sophocles’ plays Ajax, Electra, Women of Trachis and Philoctetes, translated by E. F. Watling (ISBN 0140440283)

My thoughts: Once again, Sophocles bases his story on the conflict between two parties arguing over the fate of the dead body of a once respected soldier now held in contempt for his ‘treasonous’ actions.
While the scale of Tragedy did not match that of Antigone, I was most impressed with Odysseus’ defense of his ‘enemy’ and his stand taken in front of Agamemnon.

Diversions/digressions: I thought back to the Iliad to see if the enmity between Ajax and Odysseus was evident. I didn’t remember any rancour, so perhaps the feud between them only arose over the possession of Achilles’ armour after those events. I remember being impressed by Homer’s depiction of Greater Ajax and had him marked down as a valiant and honest fighter, so was surprised by his treatment and fate in this play.  Apparently Ajax had been boastful of his spurning of any aid from the Gods, so he had brought this calamity down on himself.

Personal rating: 6/10

Next : Alcestis, by Euripides.

31. Antigone, by Sophocles (441 BC)

31. Antigone, by Sophocles (441 BC)

Plot : Following on directly from the deaths of Eteocles and Polyneices at the end of Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes. The new king Creon decrees that the ‘patriot’ Eteocles be buried with all due honours and rites, whereas the ‘traitor’ Polyneices’ body be left for the dogs and vultures to rend. Antigone, one of the two daughters remaining to the House of Oedipus, resolves to disobey.
My copy is the Penguin edition covering Sophocles “Theban plays”, translated by Robert Fagles (ISBN 9780140444254)

My thoughts: Wow, what an overwhelming tragedy! Easily worthy of comparison with Shakespeare in its depth and horror. I will not describe too much here as I feel the new reader coming to this play will be more affected (as I was) the less they know of the outcome of Antigone’s resolve and Creon’s unrelenting stance.
Antigone seems surely doomed, but what of Ismene her sister who refused to act, but was willing to die alongside her? Will the family curse wipe out every single member? And what will be the impact on Creon as sentiment in Thebes swings to Antigone?
The conflict between Creon and Antigone is based not only upon the loyalty to the city state versus the loyalty to friends and family, and also the conflict between divine versus civic justice.
Also we can see three actors on stage plus the Chorus as the ‘rules’ of Greek drama begin to evolve.

Favourite lines/passages: The play rockets along without giving the reader pause to admire the language. At best I can offer the following from the Chorus on the family curse

“..once the gods have rocked a house to its foundations,
the ruin will never cease, cresting on and on from one generation on throughout the race
like a great mounting tide
driven on by savage northern gales, surging over the dead black depths
roiling up from the bottom dark heaves of sand
and the headlands taking the storm’s onslaught full-force, roar
and the low moaning echoes on and on ……
one generation cannot free the next – some god will bring them crashing down”
(Chorus, lines 657-671)

By the end of the play, I wondered if perhaps the curse has been lifted from one family only to fall onto another. Can curses never be defeated but merely transferred, like some virus-borne disease, to run their course again elsewhere?

Personal rating: 8/10. It might have reached a 9 if I had been swayed more by the language.

Next : Ajax, by Sophocles.