There be dragons!

Friday, January 5, 2007

On The Bacchae and Man's Search for Meaning


All education is a search for reality, that which is, the “I Am that I Am”. We know reality through truth, that is, we don’t actually have in our heads the real thing but a perception corresponding to greater or lesser degree to the real thing. This perception is called truth. Our perceptions, then, are either closely correspondent to reality and therefore “true” or not related to reality and therefore “false”. A true perception, or correspondence, is itself an image, form, idea, statement which best embodies reality. Acquisition of such perception is a form of knowledge similar to enlightenment which the Greeks called “Episteme”. It is a knowledge of reality through the patina of truth. Such knowledge doesn’t simply sit in our heads, though, but prompts to, like gods, create new things; we employ knowledge in order to create.
Our creation takes two forms called by the Greeks Techne and Poiesis. Techne is technical proficiency with the tools and formulas of a trade; knowing one’s materials and being able to employ them dexterously. So for example one might be technically proficient in playing the piano, hitting all the right notes with the right emphasis at the right times. Any student of any discipline, from auto maintenance to sculpture, drama, music seeks first to become technically proficient at their craft. But techne alone is insufficient.
Poiesis, the other form of creation, is poetical, or artistic creation, what the Romans called “ars” and it is a transformation and continuation of the world. Poiesis doesn’t simply follow the rules of creation but rather exhibits a depth of thought, originality, profundity which changes the way one perceives the world and more closely resembles the essential reality of the thing examined. So just as playing the piano by the rules very well is techne, playing the piano and inventing new tunes, methods, interpretations is poiesis. The one is an excellent student of piano at Juilliard, the other is Art Tatum or Glenn Gould or Van Cliburne or Lyle Mays or Rick Wakeman.
All poetic creation is based on and includes technical knowledge of a subject, but not all technical proficiency is poetic creation. When we create, then, we might create something exactly as the instructions dictate, write an essay just as we are told, play every note on the trumpet, and still not achieve true poetical creation. We remain carbon copiers and not artists.
To understand a work of art and to become ourselves artists we have to ask questions of the works we perceive. What is the artist expressing? What is the reality he seeks to convey? What is the nature of art? Why do humans create art? What does it mean to be human? How is art an embodiment of the truth? Where do I fit into this great pattern of reality? Merely asking the question leads to greater understanding even if no immediate answer emerges. Any work of art attempts to embody some answer to these questions and thus to embody truth with accuracy and thoroughness. It states some truth about “how things are.” One’s understanding of the artwork, then, ought not be related to one’s preference or agreement with the artwork; not “I like this” or “I don’t like this” but rather an attempt to comprehend what is being said and then a verdict about how well it has been said and how accurate it is. Comprehension of art, and indeed of the world, is a reception based on analysis, not an imposition of will based on how we want things to be.
This, at last, brings us to the Bacchae. The Bacchae examines the nature of the created world and suggests that there are two powers that be; one masculine and one feminine. The masculine power consists of order, light, law, the conscious and self-assured imposition of the will over the world. This power is best represented by the king, Pentheus and has a parallel representative in the god Apollo who, although not appearing in the play, seems to lurk in the background. Yet for all its apparent strength, this power is essentially sterile and intolerant of life in its insistence on conformity and rules. Pentheus does not ask the questions which might sustain him and make him see the world as it is rather than as he wants it to be. He is an excellent technician, but a lousy artist.
The feminine force, however, is not necessarily embodied in Bacchus, though he is the most closely associated with it. Rather, Bacchus, or Dionysus, is a postulant of whatever that force is that through the green fuse drives our age. He speaks of Bacchus, the god, as another person, yet manifests the persona of the god during various stages of the play. He speaks of the Bacchants as a force or power to be reckoned with, but not as his force or power. He allows himself to be jailed, but than bursts from the jail seemingly under his own power. The feminine force is, itself, a force of chaos, darkness, anarchy, and that all-consuming subconscious power of intuition and dreams. Bacchus is not that power, but he represents it and the Bacchants, themselves seemingly more in tune with the power than Bacchus himself, keep their distance from him and operate independent of his will. Before one condemns this second force as lawless we have to consider the fact that this force is fertile where the other is barren; it allows for life where the other paves over life; it allows possibility where the other abides only within the restrictions of dogmatism.
In challenging this power, Pentheus is torn asunder. The power consumes and annihilates him, spreading his blood over the earth to make it fertile. What, then, was the king’s error? He refused to engage in asking the questions necessary for life; who am I? Where am I going? What is reality and my place in reality? This failure to move from techne to poiesis seems epidemic amongst the whole ruling house of Thebes. Pentheus refuses to entertain the existence of divinity in his midst; Cadmus, his father, only late in life begins asking questions, himself having abdicated his position as ruler; Ino and Agave give in entirely to the power of Bacchus and are driven mad as Bacchants. All of them suffer because of their familial penchant for obedience to the rules.
Ultimately, though, rules cannot be jettisoned for the sake of some Woodstockian abandonment to madness and wine. Such, after all, is the route of Ino and Agave who, at the end of the work are just as miserable as Pentheus and are changed into dragons for all their trouble. So what is the solution to the problem of masculine and feminine force? It seems that Euripides is hinting at a solution in the position of kingship. Pentheus is a bad king because he seeks not to govern but to dictate. He imposes law on the lawlessness of the world rather than seeking to discern the right and proper course of action. A king, ideally, doesn’t see the world as he wants, but tries to discern his place in the world and, by consequence, the place of his city in the world. Thus he is artist, or poet, attempting to find The Word by which to embody reality in truth for himself and his city. Pentheus’ refusal to ask the questions necessary for life leads him to prurient interest in the subject and ultimately to his demise. Similarly Cadmus’ abdication of his throne, and Agave’s abdication of the “throne” of her own household for the hippy pleasures of the fields leads them both to a lawlessness and lack of control, a madness, which terminates in their becoming one with the spirallic pattern of the created world (the serpent). They do not ask the questions a king must ask, but seek the joys of freedom without control and are thus unable to escape the dictatorship of the natural world.
Man, Euripides suggests, is neither masculine force nor feminine force, but rather the representative or conduit of both; he is a marriage between the two. He submits to reality and governs and recreates the natural world through the force of poetry under the control of technical ability. King must both govern and inspire; control and discern. And thus the role of man in the universe is not to be the dictatorial lout who will not listen to others, nor the foppish libertine who, like Homer’s Paris, has not the exercise of his own will, but somewhere in medias res of these two powers.
Aristotle suggested that virtue consists of the mean between two extremes, and indeed Euripides seems to suggest a similar theme. The proper course for man is between planting and harvesting, between life and death, between governance and obedience, between masculine and feminine, between heaven and earth; crucified in submission to the powers of reality, yet triumphing through such obedience to death, even death on a cross.