‘Time,’ a Poem by Jason Morton

Here’s another poem by Jason Morton, whose work I’ve analyzed before. I’ve put the text in italics to distinguish it from my own writing.

Time

Everything
Is nothing
It’s the truth of time
Where songs are sung by the dead
And then are transformed into lullabies
Nothing
Is everything
It’s sad to say this is true
Where hearts were giving in surrender
And I once cared for you
Now I let go
Never will i trust again
And i reach the end
Soul divine
In a matter of perspective
I perceive the threat of time.

And now, for my analysis.

“Everything/Is nothing” can be interpreted to mean that everything in life is inherently worthless; but I tend to see it dialectically, as Hegel did in his Science of Logic. He used ‘being,’ ‘nothing,’ and ‘becoming’ to represent an example of what is popularly labelled ‘thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.’

The point is that time, like everything, is in constant movement, and so things constantly arise and pass away. Everything becomes nothing, then nothing becomes new things, or a new set of everything, so “Nothing/Is everything.” So we move from everything to nothing, then back again, in cycles. What is so painful about time is seeing the people and things we love die off. Also, new pains emerge from nothingness.

Chronos, the personification of time, which consumes everything, changing it into nothing, has sometimes been equated with Cronus, or Saturn, who in Greek myth devoured his children. This eating of children can be associated with the ravages of destructive time.

Life is painful because those things we want to have last forever, cannot. “Songs are sung by the dead/And then are transformed into lullabies”: these are the dreams we have of what we’ve lost coming back to us in a wish-fulfillment. But when we wake up, we see our dreams were illusions, “Where hearts were giving in surrender.”

Note how when the writer “let[s] go,” the first-person I changes to lower-case i. This is deliberate: “Never will i trust again/And i reach the end.” Lower-case i here can be see to represent a standing human figure, but with the head separate from the body, indicating a fragmented soul. He’ll never again trust the love of one who has betrayed him, be that a former lover, or the God he’s lost faith in.

“Soul divine” thus could be an ironic reference to a Christian belief now abandoned, or to the divine beauty of a lost love, or it could be a reference to mythical Saturn, in whom one “perceive[s] the threat of time.” After all, nothing kills more slowly, more softly, more painfully, than time.

Another Poem by Clelia Albano

My Facebook friend, poet Clelia Albano, whose other work I have written about, has recently written a poem inspired by the work of poet Stefan Markovski, whose work, Promised Land, can be found here (and which has also been raved about by Albano in the comments).

Here is the text (again, I’m putting it in italics to distinguish it from my own writing):

Inspired by Stefan Markovski

And the poet descends down
into the chthonic realm
to meet his
Eurydice – inspiration –
and as he finds the words by extracting them
from the magmatic earth
surrounded by shadows,
like a miner he breathes dust.
Chewed and kneaded with
his divine saliva,
Orpheus brings them back to light
after he had madly turned his
head back for looking at the source
of what he creates, and he
embeds them in his chant and caresses them
with his fingers as he would caress
his beloved whose lament “heu”
feeds his blood.

And now, for my analysis.

In her tribute to Markovski, she compares his search for poetic inspiration to Orpheus in his search to rescue his beloved Eurydice from the Underworld. Albano is imagining Orpheus’ lover to be his Muse, just as Markovski is, in turn, Albano’s male Muse.

The search for poetic inspiration is a painful one: it doesn’t just come to the writer as a fluke. The writer must work hard at his or her craft, and in the process of doing this work, then the ideas come. The Muse helps those who help themselves.

Apart from the pain Orpheus feels in his desperate yearning to get his Eurydice back–understood here as symbolic of the poet’s painful search to retrieve inspiration–we see in Albano’s poem a comparison of the poet to a miner: “he finds the words by extracting them/from the magmatic earth/surrounded by shadows,/like a miner he breathes dust.”

One “descends down/into the chthonic realm.” On first glance, the word down seems superfluous, but when one considers the additional meaning for down, that is, ‘sad,’ we can see its use as justified. Also, “chthonic” adds to the dark sense of dread of being in the Underworld (“magmatic earth/surrounded by shadows”), since searching for inspiration can be a kind of Hell for a poet.

There is a vivid sense of the unpleasantness of the endeavour to find inspiration in how Albano says “like a miner he breathes dust./Chewed and kneaded with his divine saliva.” The use of the word dust, by the way, is also noted in her review of Markovski’s book of poems (link above). In it, she says, “his poems are populated by angels, wings, the Moon and the Sun, rain, wind, dust, ashes, powder, war and peace.” (My emphasis) So we see here how she was inspired by his writing to the point of using his imagery in her own poem, using it to express the discomfort of extracting that very inspiration. (I love, by the way, the melodious assonance in “divine saliva.”)

The poet “brings…back to light” his (or her) sources of inspiration, though in his madness he looks back at his Muse, Eurydice, dooming her to return to Hell. The pain in never getting that coveted inspiration back is the cross the poet must always bear.

He caresses those pieces of inspiration as an expression of the love he feels for them. That caressing is meant to soothe the pain of his doomed love, whose heu “feeds his blood.” This Latin expression of lament is an allusion to Book IV of Virgil‘s Georgics (line 498), in which Eurydice tells Orpheus of how his mad looking back at her has doomed her, and their love.

I’m sure all writers out there (me included, of course) can relate to Albano’s painful search for the right words to express one’s inner feelings. The excess of pain that Markovski has felt in producing his fine poetry is something she has noted and appreciated…and fortunately for us, her readers, been inspired by.

Bombs

The war machine

d
r
o
p
s

b
o
m
b
s

d
o
w
n

on the cities of the innocent.
***************************************************

Moms’ eyes

r
a
i
n

t
e
a
r
s

d
o
w
n

their despairing, reddened cheeks.
*****************************************************

Sons’ and daughters’ bodies

f
a
l
l

d
o
w
n

d
e
a
d

to the stony ground.
*****************************************************

Civilizations’ pillars

b
r
e
a
k

a
n
d

c
r
u
m
b
l
e
,

leaving pebbles on the earth.
**************************************************

Proud, towering trees

t
o
p
p
l
e

o
v
e
r
,

l
y
i
n
g

in beds of smokey black.
****************************************************

When will the fighter jets

b
e

b
r
o
u
g
h
t

d
o
w
n
,

leaving the earth to grow in peace?
*******************************************************

Bellies

The bellies
of the fat cats
are as swollen as
their pride. They
need to die…t.

The stomachs
of us First World
citizens, yes, ours,
are similarly
bloated. We
suck our guts
in, but still it
shows. Obesity

is
not
a
pro-
blem
in
the
glo-
bal
sou-
th
.

The
pou-
ched
bell-
ies

of
the
poor
are
emp-
ty
sacks
of
air.

They
must
be
fed.
Deaf
are
we
to
the
cries
of
the
hun-
gry.

We waste
food that
they could
eat. Our diet,
so tied to their
dying, must be
tightened.

Only
then
can
all
the
poor
be
freed
of the
tight
grip of
empire’s
might.

Their full
bellies means
the end of our
emptiness.

Blood

F
a
r

t
o
o

m
u
c
h

b
l
o
o
d

has been spilt
on the ground,

t
h
e

b
l
o
o
d

o
f

t
h
e

innocent,
blameless
civilians.

R
i
c
h

m
e
n

h
a
v
e

b
o
m
b
s

d
r
o
p
p
e
d

on cities
and houses.

O
n
e

d
a
y
,

t
h
e
y

l
l

f
a
l
l

to the ground
where we are,

f
r
o
m

t
h
e
i
r

h
i
g
h

s
e
a
t
s

o
f

p
o
w
e
r

to the dirt
where we’re buried.

T
h
e
i
r

b
l
o
o
d

w
i
l
l

r
e
p
a
y

all the blood
that they’ve spilt.

T
h
e
i
r

l
a
s
t

b
l
o
o
d
,

r
e
d
e
e
m
i
n
g

that first blood
of ours,

will mean no more wounds,
the beginnings of peace.

Knees

For
far
too
long
have cops pressed knees
on black men’s necks.

For
too
long
have
blacks had to kneel
before standing whites.

Yet,
at
one
time,
Colin took a knee
when they’d have him stand.

The
Man
up
top
would keep down low
those he despises.

To
end
the
pain,
we’ll have to rise,
get up, and fight.

Stand
when
we
must,
kneel when we wish,
rest when we win.

Let’s
kneel
and
pray
that, one day soon,
we all will stand

as
one,
and
no
more will whites kneel
on blacks’ sore necks.

‘O Heavenly Rain,’ a Poem by a Friend

Here’s a poem by another Facebook friend of mine, Amy Elizabeth Sisson Riberdy. (Here’s more of her poetry, if you like what you read below, Dear Reader.) Again, I’ll be putting the poem in italics to distinguish her writing from mine:

O dark grey heavens, give it your all
Open! – Release the iron floodgates
Of rushing rains and crashing thunders
Send those healing waters rushing down
To a parched and hungry world that thirsts
For the nourishing life only you
Can give down to him and me and them
And all who cry for the mercy of
Your rain

O shrouded heavens, cool the dry ground
With your pounding, seething cleansing rains
As we lift our pleading mouths to drink
Let the swords of angels tear and rend
The dark shrouds to free the cascading
Torrents of great black billowing clouds
That rise above our beseeching hands
We pray thee, O merciful heavens
Please let loose the soothing showers of
Your rain.


O merciful heavens, drench the dust
Of white hot desert sands and fill these
Mud – caked rivers to the very brim
With all that man desires to savour
Let me swim in your cooling blessings
Caressing your refreshing embrace
And be lost eternally down in
Swirling waters of endless oceans
Cleansed forever in the freedom of
Your rain

…and now, for my analysis.

The yearning for rain immediately made me think of King Lear in Act III, Scene ii, lines 1-9, then lines 14-24:

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world!
Crack nature’s molds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!…”

Then,

“Rumble thy bellyful. Spit, fire; spout, rain.
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children;
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak and despis’d old man;
But yet I call you servile ministers
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engender’d battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. O, ho! ‘Tis foul!”

The next piece of classic writing that her poem made me think of was the Great Flood narrative in Genesis, a drowning of the Earth to wipe away all of sinful mankind and replace it with Noah’s righteous (or so they’d seem) family.

Now, the contrasts between these three literary examples of great rainfalls are themselves great. Amy is begging for rains that will restore life to the dried and dying earth. Lear is saying that the rain may be as cruel to him as it pleases. God floods the earth to cause death to all sinners.

Yet, even in these contrasts we can see points of dialectical comparison. Amy wants to “Send those healing waters rushing down/To a parched and hungry world that thirsts.” (thesis) Lear would be accepting of the cruelty of the storm (negation); for the very destructiveness of the Great Flood will rid the world of evil, purify it, and allow for new life in the end (sublation).

To enjoy “the mercy of/Your rain,” we must first accept the pain of a purge of all that is evil, “With your pounding, seething cleansing rains.” When “the swords of angels tear and rend,” we again see the juxtaposition of harshness and violence (“swords…tear and rend”) with sweetness (“angels”). We cannot have happiness without sadness.

Nobody likes going out in the rain and getting soaked, but we need rain to water our plants and give us food. So, in order to live, we must experience unpleasantness. As Robert Plant once sang, “upon us all a little rain must fall.”

Though God destroyed the world with rain, Amy calls up to the “merciful heavens” to “let loose the soothing showers of/Your rain.” Lear would have pour the “horrible pleasure” of the rain. In all three cases, one is grieved to one’s heart. Amy is grieved by the drought she sees all around her, be that a literal or metaphorical one. God is grieved and regretful of the sinful humanity He sees on the Earth. Lear is grieved by the wickedness of his two daughters, Goneril and Regan, and by the good daughter, Cordelia, to whom he was so wicked in disowning. All three would be relieved of their pain…through the powerful downpour of rain.

Amy would “swim in your cooling blessings/Caressing your refreshing embrace”…that is a really beautifully written line, such music in the words. She’d “be lost eternally down in/Swirling waters of endless oceans,” reminding me of my oft-used metaphor for Brahman, the title of a song I wrote years ago, and the title of my blog. She’d be “Cleansed forever in the freedom of/Your rain.”

“Your rain” is a refrain appearing three times. This trio can be symbolic of the dialectic I noted above (thesis/negation/sublation), the Trinity, the Hindu Trimurti, the triple-goddess, or any other conceivable group of three, for three is a magical, richly-symbolic number, representing beginning, middle, and end. Indeed, the three verses can be seen to symbolize three massive rainfalls, or even three huge raindrops, if you wish.

Rain’s wetness irritates, but it also cleanses.

Let it fall.

‘Where Do the Words Go,’ a Poem by a Friend

Here’s another poem by Clelia Albano, author of “I Can’t Breathe.” (I’m putting her words in italics to distinguish them from mine.)

Where do the words go when they are detached from things, when a slip
of the tongue subverts the sprout of a thought.
Have they a separate existence
from ours?
Do they take a walk through the promenades of parallel worlds?

– I don’t want to get too deep –

My eyes sting, imagination is in standby.
Neither a good food nor relaxing music can help me.
Where are the words I repent I uttered, the words I eagerly whispered.
Where are the words of my dead,
the words of my mother, the words
I screamed, I spelled out loud as
a child, the ones I learned coupled with drawings of leaves, nuts,
strawberries, bottles, ships, cats
and dogs, frogs, trees, tables and chairs, mom and dad, roses and stars,
houses and cars…
Do I exist without words?

And now, for my analysis.

This is a poem about the regret we feel when we say things we shouldn’t have. In my analysis of a new poem by Jason Morton, I wrote of how words can help us break free and can heal us. But sometimes, of course, words hurt. No matter how hard we try, we cannot choose words too carefully.

Words fly out of our mouths like projectiles, hurting those whose ears hear them. Or, to use a more classically allusive simile, words are like all those evils that all-too-curious Pandora released from the jar (pithos). Once they’re gone, we can never retrieve our words. They’re lost to us.

“Where do the words go”? Clelia asks, “they are detached from things” that would keep them safe from hurting others, the pithos of our would-be closed mouths. It’s too late “when a slip of the tongue subverts the sprout of a thought,” the sprout being the unconscious, which Lacan said is structured like a language.

Do words have “a separate existence/from ours?” Are they in “parallel worlds?”…that is to say, are they so far removed from our world that they’ll be eternally inaccessible to us? She would so much like to retrieve all the words she wishes she never said.

Going “too deep” might involve discovering parts of her unconscious that frighten her. Her eyes “sting” from the regret she feels over seeing the pain in the eyes of others because of her words. Her “imagination is in standby” because she doesn’t want to imagine the pain she has caused those she cares about, with the words that flew out of her mouth too quickly.

No food or music can soothe the guilt she feels from the pain she unintentionally caused others, from those words “eagerly whispered.” There aren’t only her words, though, but also “the words of [her] dead” (long-lost family and friends) and from her mother, words that hurt her, too, and which may have provoked her own regretted words, “the words [she] screamed.”

Now, these lost words aren’t only harsh ones. Sometimes they’re of pleasant things, coupled with things like “leaves,/nuts, strawberries, bottles, ships, cats/and dogs, frogs, trees, tables and chairs, mom and dad, roses and stars,/houses and cars.” As a poet, she loves words, and when they fly out, she can feel that she’s lost them forever, too. Perhaps if she got them back, she imagines that she’d have the opportunity to revise them and make them even better.

As writers, do we “exist without words?”

As a blogger, I find it inconceivable that we can exist without them.

Another Poem by Jason Morton

Check out this new poem by my Facebook friend, Jason Morton:

Words they
Shatter
Like glass
Poets Of
the tan
World bring
Brass and
Pens and
Obscene
Dreams
I leave
You to
Inter
-pret just
what these
words mean
I write
I am
I’m there
I am
just a
pen that
Writes words
Of angst
In trans –
gressive
prose
And rhyme
Take what
you want
For when
I am
Old but
A child
At heart
Words heal
When the
World falls
Apart.

There’s the poem, and here’s my analysis of it.

“Words they/Shatter/Like glass” because they can be hurtful and abusive…but they can also shatter illusions and liberate us from the lies of the world. “Poets Of/the tan/World” sound like those in the Third World, with tanned skin, struggling to express themselves in a world of poverty, pain, and suffering, by using “Brass and/Pens and/Obscene Dreams.” The words blow out like the brass section of an orchestra, or like the obscene sound of flatulence, since the poor live in a fetid world of filth.

The jagged nature of this writing, short lines broken up into one or two words each, gives off that feeling of shattered words falling down the page, and a shattered meaning…shattered lives. The random capitalization reinforces this awkward sense of a lack of continuity–broken apart, estranged expression. We’re free to “Inter-pret” these words any way we like, these fragmented expressions.

“I write/I am” sounds a bit like “I think, therefore I am.” Poets, artists, and the poor exist, even if the world doesn’t wish to acknowledge them. “I,” the unknown poet, “am/just a/pen that/Writes words,” that is, one sees the writing, but doesn’t know the writer. Only the end product is what’s valued, like a fetishized commodity; but the producer of the poetry remains invisible.

“Words/Of angst/In trans-/gressive/prose/And rhyme” are the “Obscene Dreams” noted above. The dreams of the poor and suffering are ‘obscene’ and ‘transgressive’ to those in power, who would rather keep the writers of those words silent and unread.

“I am/Old but/A child/At heart,” that is, we’re all as vulnerable as children when we’re old, and we all have the sweetness of a child inside us, in spite of our suffering. The therapeutic power of “Words heal,” and this is why we must keep using them “When the/World falls/apart,” like that shattered glass of abusive words. There are those in power who would have us be silent, but we mustn’t. We must keep speaking; we must keep writing our poetry.

Note the pun on “Words” and “World.” Both shatter, both fall apart…but both can heal, if words are used to help us instead of breaking us apart. For when the lies are shattered, we the poor speakers of poetry can be put back together again.

Analysis of the Electra Myth

I: Introduction

The story of Electra has been one of the most popular and oft-repeated in Greek myth. All three of the great ancient Greek tragedians–Aeschylus (i.e., The Libation Bearers, part two of his Oresteia), Sophocles, and Euripides–wrote plays based on her story of avenging her father’s murder; Richard Strauss also wrote a one-act opera, Elektra, with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal that was loosely based on Sophocles’ version.

I’ll be basing this analysis more on the versions by Sophocles, Euripides, and Strauss than on Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, since Aeschylus’ is the second part of a trilogy of plays that ought to have its own, separate analysis, and since its plot is to a considerable extent repeated (and even parodied) in Euripides’ version. Besides, Aeschylus’ Electra is a supporting, rather than lead, character.

As I discuss the themes of this narrative, it should be noted that I validate Freud‘s rejection of Jung‘s term for the female version of the Oedipus complex, the “Electra complex.” Yes, Electra loves her long-dead father, Agamemnon, and of course, she hates her mother, Clytemnestra; but her love for her father is in no way incestuous–it’s purely out of filial piety and devotion. Her mother isn’t a rival to her father’s love: Electra hates her for having plotted his murder with her lover, Aegisthus.

Accordingly, as I did for the most part with my analysis of the Oedipus myth, I won’t be discussing the female Oedipus complex, or “Electra complex,” or whatever one wishes to call it. I will, however, incorporate a number of post-Freudian psychoanalytic concepts, in particular, Kleinian notions of psychological splitting.

II: Backstory

One must begin with a discussion of the backstory of the Electra myth. Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, was bound by oath to help retrieve the beautiful Helen of Sparta, wife of his brother, Menelaus, after she was abducted by Paris and taken to Troy, thus starting the Trojan War. To ensure safe sailing from his home to Troy, Agamemnon was told he had to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia.

It is safe to assume that he took no pleasure at all in offering the girl to Artemis. As the sacrifice was being carried out, he must have been shaking, and his eyes must have been dropping apologetic tears for a daughter he so dearly loved. Still, he was bound by oath to help his brother get Helen back, and keeping one’s honour was considered more important than life in those days.

In some accounts of the story, the girl was really killed, but in other versions, she was spirited away from Aulis, by Artemis herself, just in time; and she lived from then on among the Taurians. Either way, though, it was still believed by Clytemnestra that her husband had had their daughter killed.

Added to this outrage, Clytemnestra had been without a man to share her bed for years, as the Trojan War had kept Agamemnon away from home for ten years. So she found a paramour in Aegisthus, with whom she’d plan to kill her husband when he finally returned. His having brought home a concubine, the prophetess Cassandra, did nothing to redeem him in his wife’s eyes, of course.

So when he returned from Troy with Cassandra, and took a bath–no one ever listening to her prophecies that he’d be murdered soon (Agamemnon, lines 877-1121, pages 44-55), since she was cursed never to have her accurate prophecies heeded–Clytemnestra threw a net over him, and Aegisthus hacked him up with an axe (in some versions, his wife killed him herself). Cassandra was killed, too, by Clytemnestra.

Electra’s brother, Orestes, was sent away in exile, cared for by an elderly tutor, out of fear that the boy’s mother and her new husband, usurping King Aegisthus, would have him killed to prevent him from coming of age and killing the king and queen to avenge Agamemnon. Also, while timid, boot-licking Chrysothemis, Electra’s sister, has continued to live well in the palace, spiteful Electra has lost the privileges of being a princess, and now lives no better than a peasant (In Euripides’ play, she even marries a peasant, though the marriage is never consummated.).

III: The Story Begins

Sophocles’ drama opens with the tutor and Orestes discussing the plan to trick Clytemnestra and Aegisthus into believing her feared son has been killed in a chariot race. This ruse will allow Orestes to enter the palace safely, unsuspected and anonymous.

Euripides’ play begins with Electra’s peasant husband–a kind man not only sympathetic to her plight, but also respectful of a princess’s virtue, not wanting to soil her virginity–who describes her predicament (Electra, lines 1-53, pages 237-239).

Strauss’s opera opens with the thundering leitmotif representing fallen Agamemnon, a second-inversion D-minor triad whose notes are played in succession, but with the root beginning and ending it: D-A-F…then D again. A number of servants ask where Elektra is, then mention how harsh they find her; only one servant sympathizes with her, and this servant is flogged for disagreeing with the rest of them.

We soon hear the Elektra chord, a dissonant one that combines two triads in different keys–one in E major, and the other in C-sharp major–to make up a complex polychord, an eleventh chord. The bitonality of this chord suggests Elektra’s psychological splitting, her bifurcated, black-and-white thinking regarding her parents. Agamemnon is all-good to her, while Klytaemnestra is all-bad.

It is healthy for a child to regard his or her parents as being combinations of good and bad; such is the integration seen in what Melanie Klein called the depressive position, but Elektra’s splitting is what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position–paranoid out of a fear of persecution from the hated, frustrating parent. (This persecutory anxiety will be fully developed when Orestes is hounded by the Furies at the end of the story, as I explain below.)

This splitting happens in her internal world as well as her external world, for we all make internal representations of our parents in our minds, and these internalized objects have a profound influence on how we perceive and react to the world around us. So Elektra’s grief over the murder of her father, and her rage at her mother and Aegisth spill over into her relationships with everyone–hence her nastiness to all the servants.

Elektra is one of Strauss’s most modernist and dissonant works (along with Salomé), using a chromaticism that stretches tonality to its limits. This use of dissonance reflects the tormented world in not only Elektra’s mind, but also in Klytaemnestra’s, in the queen’s guilt, bad dreams, and fear of being murdered by Orest (“Ich habe keine guten Nächte”).

IV: The Turning Point

Strauss’s opera follows Sophocles’ tragedy in having Orestes send the palace a false report of his death, whereas in Euripides’ play, there is no such ruse (in The Libation Bearers, Orestes has only those in the palace know of the ruse–his mother, his old nurse Cilissa, Aegisthus, etc., but not his sister–lines 627-629, page 96); Electra learns early on that her brother is alive and has returned to kill their mother and Aegisthus.

Having Electra temporarily believe that Orestes is dead works better in my opinion, for it raises the dramatic tension. While Euripides’ having Electra marry a peasant emphasizes her degradation to the lower classes, she’s already plenty degraded in Sophocles’ play and Strauss’s opera without the poor husband, however still living in squalor; and her lonely misery is heightened to near despair when she learns of Orestes’ ‘death.’

She desperately tries to get Chrysothemis’ help in the plot to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, even claiming (in the opera, “Wie stark du bist”) that her sister has a strength and courage she so obviously lacks; then, when Chrysothemis still timidly refuses to help, lonely Electra, despising her sister, feels her despair intensify (Electra, lines 100-1040; line 1140, pages 99-100; page102).

Then Orestes arrives.

At first, he maintains that he’s just a messenger passing on the sad news of Orestes’ death, reinforcing her sorrow; but when he realizes she is his sister–dressed in rags instead of properly adorned as a princess, and wishing to hold the urn containing his supposed ashes–he reveals his true identity to her (lines 1202-1249, page 106).

This is the peripeteia (reversal of fortune) and anagnorisis (recognition) in Sophocles’ play and Strauss’s opera, the latter of which emphasizes the shock with screaming dissonances in the music that then calm down in a decrescendo, resolving in a sweet tune rocking back and forth between a suspension fourth and a major key, up and down in waves from fourth to major third, D-flat and C.

The diametric opposition between her despair and her relief, expressed in the music between the extreme dissonance and gentle harmonic resolution described above, can be seen dialectically in the manner I often compare with the ouroboros, a phasing from the serpent’s bitten tail of despair to its biting head of relief; since the head biting the tail represents, as I interpret it, extreme opposites on a circular continuum, the ouroboros’ coiled body.

While, in Part XII of my analysis of the Oedipus myth, I discussed how there is little to be seen as different before and after the peripeteia and anagnorisis, that is, of Oedipus losing all doubt that he’s fulfilled the prophecy of patricide and incest with his mother; in the Electra myth, the despair before, and joy after, the recognition scene are truly like black and white.

This split between sorrow and joy that is made in the recognition scene is a parallel with the psychological splitting that Electra feels between the family she loves (Agamemnon and Orestes) and the family she hates and despises (her mother and sister). This splitting must be examined further.

V: The Ultimate Toxic Family

“In marriage there ought to be some safety,
but nothing is ever secure, and love can go bad
in a moment, and husbands and wives will look at each other
in utter loathing. And parents will come to despise their children
as Althaea, Meleagar’s mother, grew to hate
her son–and she threw his life’s log
onto that burning grate.” –second chorister, The Libation Bearers, lines 569-575, page 94

One interesting thing about Electra and Orestes is that, for all their loyalty and filial devotion to their father, they seem to have little, if any, regard for what he did to their sister, Iphigenia. All that matters to them is Clytemnestra taking on a lover and killing their father. She is thus the ‘bad mother’ and he the ‘good father,’ without any thought as to how she could have some good in her, and he could have some bad in him.

Clytemnestra’s marriage to Agamemnon was forced, as Robert Graves noted in his Greek Myths (112, c and h, pages 413-414). Such an unhappy marriage can easily motivate finding another lover, especially with Agamemnon away in Troy for ten years. He brought home a concubine in Cassandra, which hardly made him any less of an adulterer than Clytemnestra. If Iphigenia was taken away to the Taurians, and thus not killed in a sacrifice, no one in Mycenae seems to have known. Clytemnestra’s killing Agamemnon was no less revenge for Iphigenia than Orestes’ killing of his mother is to avenge Agamemnon. So what is Orestes’ and Electra’s problem?

In two film narratives of the Trojan War–Troy in 2004, and the TV miniseries, Helen of Troy, in 2003–Agamemnon is portrayed (by Brian Cox and Rufus Sewell, respectively) in a particularly negative light, and in the second of these, Clytemnestra (played by Katie Blake) is portrayed sympathetically in her avenging of the killing of Iphigenia. One’s perspective on who is good and who is bad, as well as how good and how bad, can vary considerably.

Still, Orestes and Electra, in the classical dramas and in Strauss’s opera, are obstinate in seeing only good in their father, and only bad in their mother, to the point of actually killing her; and this hostility is especially evident in Electra, since Orestes in Euripides’ play is hesitant about killing Clytemnestra until Electra pushes him to keep his resolve (lines 960-981; pages 280-281). In The Libation Bearers, Orestes briefly wavers, but his cousin and friend, Pylades, quickly inspires a return of his resolve (lines 797-803; page 104)

On the other hand, Orestes’ hostility to the bad mother, and to the ‘bad breast‘ part-object (as Melanie Klein called it), is symbolized in Clytemnestra’s dream of giving suck to a dragon (or serpent, depending on the translation, the animal representative of matricidal Orestes) that bites her breast and drinks her milk mixed with her blood (Aeschylus, lines 500-508, 514-522, pages 91-92; also line 830, page 106). The serpent/dragon baby bites the nipple as a hostile baby would, in its oral-sadistic/cannibalistic reaction, to the ‘bad breast’ of its mother. As a phallic serpent or dragon coming out of her womb, newborn Orestes as such, still connected to her with the uncut umbilical cord, thus makes her the phallic mother, the frightening combined parent figure that Klein wrote about.

Now, whatever splitting into absolute good and bad that goes on with regards to the external world, also goes on in the internal world, that is, in the internal objects of the ones doing the psychological splitting. As I mentioned above, we all have internal mental representations of our parents, so if we see them as all bad out there in front of us, their inner representations will also feel all bad in our minds. Electra and Orestes, in their murderous hatred of their mother, are no exception to this rule.

In Sophocles’ play, Clytemnestra is killed first (about lines 1408-1416; page 113), and at the end of the play, Aegisthus is led offstage to be killed after the play is finished (about lines 1470-1510; page 117). In Strauss’s opera, it’s understood that both parents, in the same order as given in Sophocles, have been killed offstage before the end.

In Aeschylus’ and Euripides’ plays, Aegisthus is killed first (announced by a messenger in lines 756-759; page 272 of Euripides’ Electra, and in lines 773-786, pages 102-103, announced by a servant in The Libation Bearers). Clytemnestra is killed at the climax of both plays (Aeschylus, lines 793-857, pages 104-108; Euripides, lines 1155-1161, pages 288-289). Then Orestes and Electra have to deal with the guilt over what they’ve done. Aeschylus’ Orestes has foreseen his own despairing guilt before even committing the matricide: “Let me kill her, and then end my own life.” (line 398, page 87)

In The Eumenides, part three of Aeschylus’ trilogy, Orestes will be put on trial for matricide. At the end of Euripides’ play, Castor of the Dioscuri gives Orestes guidance (lines 1228-1344, pages 292-296) as to how to deal with his upcoming predicament, being hounded by the Erinyes until they drive him mad with guilt, which brings us to the next point.

VI: Guilt

The Erinyes, or Furies, are demonesses personifying one’s guilty conscience (Graves, page 431), or vengeance for committing heinous crimes like matricide. Though generally indeterminate in number, they are often represented as a trio of female spirits, suggesting an association with the chthonic earth mother Goddess in triad (Graves, page 38, note 3), in her wrathful aspect. Looked at in this light, they can be seen to symbolize that bad mother internalized object, the frightening archaic mother, whose identification with the ego in turn lays the foundations for the guilt-tripping superego.

One can kill one’s mother in body, but the spirit of the mother in one’s mind lives there like a ghost haunting a house, and it stays there for life. This haunting in Orestes’ mind (and in the mind of Electra, who in Euripides’ play helps him kill Clytemnestra–lines 1210-1214, page 291; see also the translator’s preface, page 233) is what drives him mad with guilt.

WRD Fairbairn, in his paper, “The Repression and the Return of Bad Objects,” wrote of how these bad internalized objects are like evil spirits possessing us (Part 5, ‘The Dynamics of the Influence of Bad Objects,’ page 67). This kind of ‘possession’ (i.e., the Furies) is what’s happening to Orestes. It’s also happening to Elektra, who at the end of Strauss’s opera, dances a wild, mad dance of triumph until she falls down dead of exhaustion…and, no doubt, of unconscious guilt.

VII: A Drama of Class War?

Since at least some of the servants celebrate the killing of the king and queen (Euripides, lines 841-848, page 275; Aeschylus, lines 688-689, pages 98-99, line 927, page 110; also, at the end of Strauss’s opera), and since Electra has been demoted from princess to pauper (Euripides, lines 998-1004, page 282, this demotion being especially degrading for her in her marriage to the peasant), it is tempting to treat the story as an allegory of class war. I’m not about to do that, though: the crowning of Orestes as king, as well as the reinstating of Electra as a princess dressed in finery, would mean only that the servants have new rulers. No change in the ancient class structure of masters and slaves would occur with the regicide at the story’s climax.

Nonetheless, there is something for the proletarian to learn, in his or her revolutionary fervour, from the outcome of this regicide. Orestes and Electra plotted only the killing of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra: no thought was given as to how to rebuild life in Mycenae, to establish Orestes as the new king.

Similarly, some proletarians today think only of revolution for revolution’s sake: tearing down the hated old order, but not thinking about how to improve the lives of the people by building socialism. As a result of their nihilism, these leftists leave everything in chaos, making it easier for fascism to creep in; or if other, constructive leftists take over the state and try to build a better world, the destructive, sour-minded leftists criticize the new government and exaggerate its imperfections, demanding yet another revolution, leading to more chaos and vulnerability to fascist reaction.

The regicide that Orestes and Electra have committed can be compared to such post-revolutionary chaos in how he, instead of simply being crowned the new king, is hounded by the Erinyes; even after his trial in Athens, in which he’s acquitted of the charge of matricide, he’s still chased by those demonesses until he arrives among the Taurians and gets help from his long-lost sister, Iphigenia.

Just as there’s splitting between the all-good parent and the all-bad one, so is there splitting between the corrupt political world in its state of being (thesis) and the nihilistic world of nothing left, once revolution has destroyed the corrupt world (negation). And just as a healthy parent/child relationship is created by integrating the good and bad felt in one’s parents (the depressive position), so is there a healthy political world when it is being built out of the ashes of the old one, growing socialism in a state of becoming (sublation).

As we face the global economic collapse that the coronavirus panic has been eclipsing, we cannot–as I pointed out in my Joker analysis–just engage in wanton violence and rioting in the streets, the splitting of thesis and negation, “with joy and horror, dancing together,” as Orestes says at the end of The Libation Bearers (line 905, page 109), and with no sublation. We must rebuild our world, replacing the failed system of producing commodities for profit with a new system, producing commodities to provide for everyone. If we fail to create this new way, only fury will be following us everywhere.

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (complete edition), Penguin Books, London, 1955

Aeschylus, 1, The Oresteia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1998

Sophocles (E.F. Watling, translator), Electra and Other Plays, Penguin Classics, London, 1953

Euripides, 2, Hippolytus/Suppliant Women/Helen/Electra/Cyclops, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1998