Monday, June 22, 2015

the laughter of his enemies: "Ajax" by Sophocles

All the same, although he despises me,
I pity his misfortune under that yoke
of catastrophic madness. It makes me think
not just of his fate but my own as well.
I see that in our lives we are no more
than phantoms, insubstantial shadows.
In the first scene of Sophocles' "Ajax," the goddess Athena reveals to Odysseus that she has beclouded the mind of the warrior Ajax, who was set upon the murders of Menelaus, Agamemnon and Odysseus in the encampment on the beaches of Troy. Rather than allow Ajax to kill these three Greeks whom he believes have cheated him of the honor of receiving Achilles' armor after Achilles' death, Athena has sent Ajax into the fields to butcher and torture the army's cattle and sheep; she has deluded him into thinking that these harmless herd animals are his enemies. Athena takes Odysseus to Ajax' tent and calls Ajax forth. When the tent opens, a horrific spectacle is revealed, of blood and gore and slaughtered animals, of sheep tied to tent poles with their skins flayed, of Ajax covered in the blood of his innocent victims. Ajax, mad as a hatter, is quite pleased with himself. Odysseus, made invisible to Ajax' eyes by Athena, is horrified. Athena expects Odysseus to laugh with glee at the mad Ajax. Instead, Odysseus is shaken and speaks the lines quoted above. He sees in Ajax, perhaps, a reflection of his own tendency to pridefulness, and this gives him something to think about.

Ajax, when he comes out of the Athena-inspired fog, realizes that he has murdered scores of animals and committed acts of obscene violence upon the harmless beasts. He also realizes that the whole Greek camp has by now heard of this, and his humiliation is now such that he cannot face life. He announces his intention to kill himself rather than face life as a caricature of a mighty hero. "I was the greatest warrior that ever lived," he tells himself, and all who will listen, over and over and over again. The fantasy world of Ajax, wherein he is the only Greek that matters, the only real man, is a poor fit for the real world in which he finds himself, where treasures go to those more clever than he, where he is a soldier in an army commanded by another, where his own insane actions have made him the laughingstock of those who he sees as his inferiors. His tremendous pride will not allow him to live in such a world. He will take the sword of Hector, his enemy, and he will kill himself. His death, at least, will be honorable. This final act, he thinks, will stifle the laughter of his enemies.

Ajax is wrong, of course. The scorn continues to be heaped upon him after his body is discovered on the beach. Teucer, half brother of Ajax, sets about burying the corpse. Menelaus arrives on the beach and forbids the burial, calling Ajax unworthy of the rites of the dead. Menelaus is big and dumb, and Teucer spars with him verbally, outwitting him in petty argument. Menelaus, who has no authority over Teucer or the burial of Ajax, runs to fetch his brother Agamemnon, who is general of the Greek forces. This scene of squabbling on the beach over the corpse of Ajax, is quite good. Each of these men--Teucer, Menelaus and Agamemnon--is a version of Ajax: prideful, stubborn, and unwilling to see the world in terms of anything but the expression of his own vanity. Ad hominems fly, the argument digresses into more pettiness, the question of who is a true hero becomes more important than the obligations men have to the gods upon the death of a warrior. It is Odysseus, coming to the beach upon hearing of Ajax' death, who reminds Agamemnon that the question of Ajax' character is not the primary concern at this time. "I hated him while it was honorable to do so," Odysseus says of Ajax, but now is the time to bury our dead rather than to prop up our self esteem. Odysseus has seen the madness of Ajax when Athena pulled back the tent flaps and displayed her works. Odysseus remembers that men are "insubstantial shadow." Odysseus urges Agamemnon to allow the burial:
For I myself will also come to this.
By "this" Odysseus means dead, surely, and he reminds Agamemnon that one day he too will need to be buried. But he might also mean something larger, perhaps his own possible evil fate at the whim of the gods, perhaps ignoble death at the feet of his enemies, perhaps after first having been driven mad by Athena for some slight. It is best all around, Odysseus says, to remember that we have no idea what will happen and no possible good can come from victory over a corpse. Athena has shown Odysseus what can happen to prideful men; Odysseus is shaken and though he can't tell Agamemnon that Ajax was driven mad by the goddess, he can caution him to set aside hubris lest he repeat Ajax' mistake.

The actions of Ajax, Athena, Menelaus, Teucer and Agamemnon are actions against which Odysseus reacts; they are not the point of the play. Odysseus is not any sort of hero in "Ajax," but he is the character who receives the warning, who sees the forces behind the scenes, and he is--as always--cautious.


  1. narcissism/pride/tunnel vision/hubris; sophocles has a handle on this. i just finished rewatching Catch 22 and can see some definite parallels here. what happens when these emotions take over. and the difficulty of maintaining a larger perspective. amazing how the perils that pervade the modern world are shown to have been present in all of history. human psychology hasn't changed much and achieving a real understanding remains the major problem facing man.

    1. I think the actual problem is more like determining how to live when a real understanding will never be possible. The idea of the perfectibility of the species is fiction. What's required is a better set of provisional measures.

      I think Sophocles was well aware that we are irrational creatures. He may even have been aware that that gods were metaphors for human irrationality, though there's no way to test that theory. "Catch 22" is one of my favorites. Sadly, I remember the film much better than I remember the novel. Yossarian survives, right? I guess that's a big divergence from how Sophocles did things.

  2. my computer ate my comment. anyway, yossarian escapes from the base, grabs up a portable life raft and is last seen paddling away into the mediterranean on his way to join orr in sweden.

  3. Your postings on the Greeks remind me of how we are so similar to and different from the ancients. That is both reassuring and unsettling. Too many paradoxes? Well, I am enjoying your master class. Please continue.

  4. Hah, I'm master of nuthin. I just wrote this post to try to explain to myself the structure of "Ajax." Odysseus appears only in the first three pages and the last three pages; the middle is all Ajax, his wife, his brother, and the chorus, with some angry Spartans coming in at the end. Why does Odysseus bracket the dramatic action, I wondered? Why does this play need Odysseus on stage at all, I wondered. Because it is about Odysseus' reaction to the downfall of Ajax, and Sophocles' display of how easy it is to be tempted to ape the vanity of Ajax, who once rebuffed Athena during the heat of battle, needing no help from the gods or anyone else, being as he was the original Army of One. The all of the Ajax action takes place for the benefit of Odysseus, hence the otherwise clumsy-looking structure.

    I have some thoughts about "The Women of Trachis," but I'm saving those ideas to work into a novel. That's a good play, though. They are all good plays, those pieces from Sophocles. He had a strong interest in the workings of hate, the power and the danger.

  5. As with The Women of Trachis, this play has a rather strange structure - strange, that is, to modern perceptions: it is very much a play of two halves, and I for one find it difficult to imagine the two halves forming a whole.

    Sophocles' choice of tragc protagonist is also curious: Aias is, as far as I can see, an insensitive, unintelligent brute, a mere fighting machines lacking not merely self-awareness, but incapable even of acquiring it. The chorus in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon had told us that knowledge comes from suffering, but for Aias, suffering leads not to any kind of knowledge at all: it leads merely to suicidal despair. He is one of the very few Greek tragic protagonists who commits suicide: even Oedipus stops short of that.

    (Shakespeare too, in one of his tragedies, chose a similarly brutish fightig machine as his protagonist - Coriolanus; I don't think I understand that play too well either.)

    It's an interesting point you make that Teucer, Agamemnon and Menelaus are all versions of Aias. Maybe this is where we should look for a unity between the two halves.

    Odysseus stands apart from the others, because he is brain rather than brawn. It is to him, and not to Aias, that Achilles' armour has been presented, indicating that it's his brains rather than Aias' physical prowess that is now more highly prized. And yet, it is Odysseus who chooses to honour Aias, for reasons that are not, as I remember, made entirely explicit.

    It's a very strange work - and although I can sense its immense power as I read it, I am not sure I understand it at all adequately.

    1. I think the structure of Ajax is like one of those stories where a divine being magically shows a moment of history to a young adventurer. Here Athena and Odysseus are a sort of framing story, and "Ajax" is a drama shown to Odysseus, who learns a lesson and steps in at the end as his story merges with that of Ajax. I don't see Ajax as the protagonist, as the most important man on stage; I think that goes to Odysseus, despite his few lines in the play. It's a weird structure, very inventive, very subtle. Another reason why it's a bad idea to take Aristotle's simplistic ideas about theater to heart.

      "Trachis" is strange, yeah. I think that the idea of the poison that is lust running through Heracles' veins and eventually killing him is the main character, and the play is built around that idea, that unstoppable idea, not around any of the humans.

      "Coriolanus" somehow turns out to be one of my favorite Shakespeares. I see it as the story of a man who views himself as a tool, a pure instrument of war (see his joyful cry of "Oh me; make you a sword of me?") who passes from one hand to another and when he's misused (as a tool of the political machine rather than as a pure instrument of war), he defects to the enemy who he believes will use him properly, hijinks enuse, etc. I love that play. But I am sure I misread it, the way I misread everything. Then again, any work of art that I'm smarter than is not much of a work of art!