Sunday, August 1, 2010

“Greek Tragedy: Problems of Interpretation”

Jean-Pierre Vernant

Greek tragedy is not directly readable because we’re alienated from the original context which gave rise to it. While in one sense, the tragedy is readable today for anyone, in another it’s only accessible to the classicist.

The classicist is the one who understands the syntax, the significance of specific words in specific contexts. In addition, the historian is the one who knows that Greek tragedy can only be understood by recognizing it as a human invention responding to the institution of popular justice. The tribunals which judged the tragedies were popularly elected, part of the broader trend of moving toward a system that regarded individuals as individuals under the law. Tragedy poses the question of what constitutes justice, setting up the opposition between an older order (religious power, Antigone’s fidelity to the laws of the underworld) v. the ethics, the law of the city. As part of the effort to dramatize this conflict, tragedy uses a number of archaisms.

Tragedy, then, puts two systems of value in dialogue with each other through its use of the heros of the past. Man becomes a problem for himself in tragedy. (Rings of Augustine’s Confessions, no?) This is in contrast to older conceptions of guilt and error which don’t allow for any understanding of the will.

The tragic moment is a very specific one; one of distance from the heroic past, but enough closeness for it to still be pertinent, human action must have emerged, but the human can’t be too autonomous. Philosophy follows the tragic moment.

The discussion meanders a bit. Macksey asks about the idea that Aeschylus is optimistic; Vernant says that such a judgment is only relative, and that the triumph of the civic ideal is more a plea than anything. But then we get into a discussion about the Oedipus complex. Vernant is adamant that the text does not support the idea that Oedipus has an Oedipus complex. Someone pursues this. Vernant gets mad and ends the discussion in a huff, convinced that they had incompatible understandings of tragedy.

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