Athena between Apollo and Dionysius: Aeschylus’ Oresteia, The Eumenides

The last part of Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy the Oresteia  is the Eumnides (The Kindly Ones), which is not really a tragedy. No one dies, or even falls form a position of good fortune. The hero does not have some failure of judgement which leads to disaster, of a kind often accompanied by discovery of some painful truth. The tragedy is in the back story. Clytemnestra kills her husband Agamemnon on his return from the Trojan War, because he sacrificed their daughter to raise a wind for the fleet. These events themselves have a backstory in the life of Atreus, the father of Agamemnon. The Eumnides is the story about how law can replace violent revenge as a basis of sanctions against those who cause harm, who violate the basic law of the cosmos, or nature or the gods. Orestes was  driven to take revenge against Clytemnestra by the message from Apollo that he himself would be polluted if he did not kill his polluted mother. Clytemnestra appears as ghost demanding revenge through the furies.

The furies are determined to punish Orestes, causing horror to the God Apollo, who is disgusted by their appearance and their pleasure in sadistic violence. He thinks they belong to the underworld, so exist in contrast with the beautiful Olympian gods associated with the world of sensation, not deprivation of the senses.  His Priestess at the Oracle of Delphi is shown to inhabit some strange dark world though, the underworld nature of the fate is not just connected to the fates. When Apollo seeks her protection, she sees a very strange sight, Orestes with the fates, who are described as very ugly looking bird things. The sanctuary provided by the oracle is one were Orestes is present with his sword covered in his mother’s blood, and with a vine leaf crown, connected with some white wool, and the dreadful fates, right next to him but unable to harm him.

Orestes goes to Athens for judgement, turning the play into a justification for Athenian leadership in Greece, and the dominance it exercised over ‘allies’, which included turning Athenian courts into the highest court for all allied states. In going to Athens, Orestes he puts himself under the divine judicial protection of Athena., the presiding deity at Athens, the Parthenon temple was built by Pericles in Golden Age Athens around the cult of Athena who had a giant statue at the Parthenon. The Furies pursue Orestes to Athens, and Athena organises a trial of Orestes where the vote is divided between the Furies and citizens of Athens, with Athena herself having the casting vote. The vote split between the Athenian citizens (presumably male) and the Furies. Athena casts her vote on the side o Orestes using arguments  referring to the supposed great link between child and father than child and mother. Athena herself was born from the head of Zeus, so we could see her position as the product of a strange start to life, though what she also says is very normal for Greek thought of the time. Orestes himself had very little to do with either parent, his father Agamemnon went away for war for 10 years when Orestes was a child. Orestes never sees him again, and had not seen his mother either for a long time (maybe 10 years) since she sent him into exile on the departure of Agamemnon, until he kills her in revenge for the death of the father he hardly knew. So the arguments about closeness to parents are strange in relation to Orestes’ own life. Athena’s casting vote frees Orestes to be King of Argos with Athenian permission, and places the male above the female. However, Athena does have something to offer the Furies. They are given new form and new residence, so that they are less repugnant and less associated with a dark and fearful underworld. They become the Eumenides, the kindly ones, who judge and enforce law with less of the cruel fanaticism they exhibited as Furies. This is all part of the mythical foundation of a historical court in Athens, the Areopagus, a very long lasting institution in Athens, which St Paul visited.

Eumenides  combines different forms of the sacred, exploring different levels of the divine. The Furies are an obscenely ugly and evil expression of the divine,. Their presence at the Pythian Oracle in Delphi with Orestes who they wish to tear apart suggests a world of fear that a beautiful princely personage call victim in an instant to terrible forces of suffering and destruction, which higher divine forces try to keep within bounds. In that part of the play, the Furies are compared with devotees of Dionysius tearing apart a king. There is a suggestion then of the conflict of Apollo and Dionysius which Nietzsche saw as the heart of tragedy. The tension between Orestes and the Furies is a displacement of that conflict as is the tension between Orestes and his mother Clytemnestra. That the resolution of the conflict is left to a goddess suggests some ambiguity within the official Athenian way of thinking apparently endorsed in the play. Athena is Apollo and Dionysius?

A Strange Lag Among Nietzsche Commentators

I’ve been busy (too much so for blogging, sadly) with work on a volume on Nietzsche and political thought, which I am co-editing. More details when the publication tome comes closer. One thing I’ve noticed is an extraordinary tendency to quote from The Will to Power, a book of Nietzsche’s notes. That is notes arranged as if constituting a draft for s book, The Will to Power, that Nietzsche was not able to write in a more final version before the collapse of 1889, followed by mental and physical paralysis until his death in 1900. However, though he considered writing a book with that title, it was not a constant project, and he never wrote any notes or drafts for it. After Nietzsche’s death, his friend Peter Gast and his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche collaborated on an edition of his notebooks with headings, section titles  and so on added, with sequential notes fused into single notes, so that the appearance of a draft book was obtained. It would be a very rough draft and I don’t think anyone has ever claimed that would be close to anything Nietzsche would have written is his career had continued for longer. Nevertheless, it did have considerable impact in commentary. Martin Heidegger’s longest work, his war time lectures on will to power in Nietzsche, drawn on the Gast and Förster-Nietzsche edition, as does Pierre Klossowski’s book Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle.

The translation of The Will to Power itself was quite slow coming, appearing first in 1967as a joint translation between Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale. Kaufmann has had the biggest impact of any Nietzsche translator into English, and through his rather opinionated editorial apparatus in the translations, and writings on Nietzsche had a major role in taking Nietzsche from the margins of respectable philosophy. Part of the problem was the way Nietzsche was taken up by German ultra-nationalists of World War One, and Nazis during World War One. Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche had a hand in this. The Förster part of her surname comes from her husband, Bernhard who had died by the time of The Will to Power edition, and was a prominent anti-semite and ultranationalist who inaugurated a failed attempt at a pure German community in Paraguay. I don’t think The Will to Power is itself greatly distorted by an attempt to present Nietzsche along the lines of his sister’s politics. Nietzsche was himself strongly opposed to both German nationalism and anti-Semitism after his earliest writing anyway. There is a bit of that kind of thing in The Birth of Tragedy. Still no one now should be using the sister’s ideas about how to arrange the brother’s notes. Between them Gast and Förster-Nietzsche fused notes together, invented headings for those fused notes, and created a structure of divisions and sections which give the impression of work in progress towards a book. This is all carried forward in the Kaufmann-Hollingdale edition, for which Kaufmann have overall responsibility. Hollingdale himself was a a major translator of Nietzsche. Neither are really regarded as great commentators now. Kaufmann had more of a reputation in the first place, and educated some notable Nietzsche scholars at Princeton, but he is really only quoted now for straw man purposes, as a source of a weak argument to knock down. I don’t see any point in just quoting, or citing, someone for that purpose, but commentators do sometimes continue to do so.

There is a very excellent replacement for the Kaufmann-Hollingdale Will to Power based on Nietzsche’s notebooks with speculative fusions, headings, and structures added. Cambridge University Press has published translations of most of Nietzsche, though without putting out a collected works of Nietzsche,which would be a great thing. What they have published includes Nietzsche: Writing from the Early Notebooks (translated by Ladisaluus Löb, edited  by Raymond Geuss and Alexander Nehemas, 2009) and Nietzsche: Writings from the Late Notebooks (translated by Kate Sturge, edited by Rüdiger Bittner, 2003). So one volume has been available for 10 years and both have been available for 4 years. By now really all those with a serious interest in Nietzsche should have noticed, and should have abandoned the The Will to Power. I suppose one reason maybe that Kaufmann, who was a poet, had a more literary translation style, and it is a style unifying a number of translations. This cannot be a reason for using a completely outmoded collection of Nietzsche’s notes, and no is probably the time for the scholarly community to accept the CUP translations as standard in English. Despite there being good Nietzsche scholars who cling onto The Will to Power, it really does look anachronistic and could lead to suspicions of a lack o competence in following Nietzsche scholarship. Time to make the transition.