I was discussing Aeschylus’ Agamemnon last night with a few other tragedy-lovers, and all of us were struck, regardless of the translation we’d each brought with us, by a couple of early line chunks courtesy of the chorus (I’ve got the Lattimore translation, which I prefer thanks to its lovely language):
Zeus: whatever he may be, if this name
pleases him in invocation,
thus I call upon him…
Zeus, who guided men to think,
who has laid it down that wisdom
comes alone through suffering.
Still there drips in sleep against the heart
grief of memory; against
our pleasure we are temperate
From the gods who sit in grandeur
grace comes somehow violent.*
I’ll move backwards in addressing everything these excerpts contained for me, at least. First: those final two lines, especially the last one: “From the gods who sit in grandeur/grace comes somehow violent.” We’re not programmed to think of grace as being anything but smooth and gentle. The closest familiar mythological parallel I could think of would be the climax of Elijah’s confrontation with YHWH in 1 Kings, when, after the prophet has fled the wrath of Jezebel, gone off to hide in the desert, and been kept alive by an angel, God comes and finds him in a cave on Mount Horeb and tells him to check out the magic show that’ll happen as he passes by. After rocks go flying in massive winds, followed by an earthquake and a fire, none of which contain God, there comes, depending on the translation you have, the divine presence in/as silence, a low or gentle whisper, or, my favorite, “a still small voice.”** I suppose that could count as “grace coming somehow violent,” but I get the sense that the Greeks demand more, and something crueler, than a few natural catastrophes.
After all, look at the suffering deemed necessary for the birth of wisdom. That’s what tragedy’s all about: redemption comes in the end, but only after irreparable loss, probably permanent psychological damage, and at least, I’m guessing, some diminution of trust in yourself and others. But it’s all so noble! All these fine speeches and principled stands! I’ll admit that, until very recently, I found the agon, the sort of Nietzsche-approved confrontation with obstacles, in the service of self-development and truth-finding, very romantic.
It’s not that I don’t still enjoy a good tragedy; some of those ancient works remain, I think, unparalleled. And it’s also not the case that I believe people make things too hard on themselves, and that we should just go with the flow. Take even the briefest of honest looks at the world, and you can’t in any imaginable way maintain a good conscience by just smiling and wishing people well, or by seeing principles as something quaint and justifiably easy to discard. But agreeing “that wisdom comes alone through suffering”? Some, maybe; perhaps even a lot. But I’m not wiling to sign onto that assertion 100%.
Finally, I’ll just say that I love the pragmatism inherent in the first three lines of this quotation. “Listen, man, I’ll call you whatever you want, as long as you’ll help me.” No literalist dogmatism here– just knowing what it takes to get by.
We’ll see what our next round of discussion holds– and since I’m sticking with Lattimore, you can bet all that tragic suffering will at least sound like the most delicious experience in the world.
* Aeschylus, “Agamemnon,” in Aeschylus I: Oresteia, translated by Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953), 39-40.
** Among others, this phrasing comes in the Revised Standard Version, the Hebrew Names Version, and of course, the antiquated translation so many people still cling to, ye olde King James.