BMCR 1998.03.10

Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides’ Bacchae

, Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides' Bacchae. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. xviii, 420 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780691015972 $18.95.

1 Responses

This is a reprint of the 1982 edition, with an added Preface, Afterword, and Bibliography. I focus on the Afterword, which reviews much of the work published since 1982 relevant to Bacchae, notably by Bierl, Carpenter, Detienne, Foley, Friedrich, Frontisi-Ducroux, Goldhill, Henrichs, Kullman, Loraux, March, Oranje, Schlesier, Seaford, Segal himself, Serematakis, Sourvinou-Inwood, Taplin, Vernant, Versnel, and Zeitlin. The skill with which S. synthesises all this shows the openness and generosity of his intellect . With most of it he is able to enrich his earlier vision of the play. Most, but not all. Because by far the most substantial and detailed disagreement is with myself, I hope I will be forgiven if this review is in effect a continuation of our debate.

The 1982 book was a highly detailed and frequently illuminating exposition of the text as a tissue of analogies, inversions, polarities, and contradictions. Despite occasionally deploying models such as the rite of passage to adulthood, it failed on the whole to locate the play in its culture. For example, the index does not contain the words ‘polis’ or ‘mysteries’. To be sure, S. did announce that Dionysos ‘has a place at the center of the civic religion. The Greater Dionysia of Athens, where tragedies and comedies were performed, is the most familiar example’ (10). But he did so for no other purpose than to establish a polarity (one of many), continuing ‘Yet his worship also involves ecstatic flaming torches on the mountains. He is a male god, but he has the softness, ‘ (and so on, through a series of polarities).

It is to S.’s credit that he now recognizes the need to say more about the polis. But it is in my view impossible for him to do justice to the civic dimension of Dionysos without radically shifting his earlier perspective, which he is unsurprisingly unwilling to do. Contradiction (or polarity), specifically irresolvable contradiction, is the lens through which S. sees Bacchae. If Dionysos seems to embody civic or ritual order (and so the resolution of contradiction), then that order is for S. itself one side of an irresolvable contradiction. ‘The Bacchae—and indeed tragedy in general—is perhaps ‘tragic’ because it brings together both order-creating and order-dissolving forces of personal and social life in a balance that is always shifting and unstable’ (357). The manoeuvre here (anticipated, unknown to S., by Oudemans and Lardinois, Tragic Ambiguity, 216) is to give the impression of evenhandedness by imagining order and disorder as themselves forming an irresolvable contradiction, although this is in fact to absorb order into the dominant conception (disorder), a ‘dialectic between affirmation and subversion, order and anti-order’ which ‘should not be foreclosed’ (358). On the other hand, just as ritual may create disorder so as to enclose it within order, so one might equally view the end of Bacchae as the absorption of the disorder represented by the drama into the order inherent in the civic ritual henceforth to be celebrated in Thebes. Which view should we adopt? The question is, at one level, unanswerable. It all depends, as S. rightly notes, on one’s perspective.

How then does S. justify his choice of perspective, his privileging of disorder? Largely, it seems to me, by the claim, implicit in a certain kind of loaded language, to a higher sense of complexity. We all know that we should not ‘even out discrepancies’ (352), or ‘explain away’ (383, 385) or ‘gloss over’ (385) things that do not fit our view, or suppose there to be any kind of ‘monolithic relationship’ (382) of anything to anything. We are bound to suspect a ‘neat, positive answer’ (354), or ‘simple or positive messages’ (359). In fact I would go further than S. It would be not just ‘mistaken’ to ‘insist exclusively (emphasis by RS) on the supposed political dimension’ of the play, but almost insane. To believe simply that the play has a ‘happy resolution’ (354) or ‘happy ending’ (355) would be imbecilic insensitivity to the manifest suffering.

We can all agree with S. in rejecting this kind of simple-mindedness. But the complexity explored by S. is not the only kind of complexity. I would justify my choice over his by the greater explanatory power provided by a wider range of kinds of material (especially Dionysiac mysteries and the civic dimension of Dionysiac cult). Space prevents me from arguing this, except to give a few examples.

Lines 319-21 (‘Do you see? You rejoice, when a throng stands at the gates, and the polis magnifies the name of Pentheus. [Dionysos] too, I think, takes pleasure in being honoured’) are (as I explain in detail in my Commentary) of political significance: the festival of the god will replace celebration of the tyrant. S. objects: ‘But the lines have a very different feeling if read, for example, alongside Aphrodite’s anthropomorphic ruthlessness in defending her honour in the prologue of the Hippolytus’ (389). Correct. (Indeed, the polis requires reproduction no less absolutely than it requires the collective emotion of cult.) And they would have had a different feeling again when heard in the first production (more than twenty years after the Hippolytus) as part of a magnificent festival of the democratic polis in which Dionysos had been escorted by a throng through the gates of the city. But in stressing the importance of imagining the festival I have the disadvantage that it is easier to reach for our copy of the Hippolytus.

My second example is the characteristic pattern of the mythical aetiology of ritual: an offence produces an affliction (often involving inversion of norms) that is then removed by the foundation of the ritual, which frequently relates in some way to the affliction. For example, when the Athenians rejected Dionysos they were afflicted by a disease of the genitals, from which they were freed by making phalluses for the god. This is a widespread, socially determined pattern of envisaging suffering, a kind of theodicy, in which suffering is related to the necessity of performing collective ritual. S. never ventures far enough from the text to be able to find this pattern, let alone ask whether its inversions of norms or its way of making sense of horrible suffering may be relevant to a broad understanding of the play. As well as all the other things it is, Bacchae is a dramatised aetiology of cult. (This is not of course to say simply that it has a ‘happy ending’.) Now of course drama and ritual differ in various crucial respects. But to protect the text S. has to erect a Chinese wall between the ‘order-inducing results’ of ritual form and the ‘order-questioning process’ of literary form (358). He compares the ending of Hippolytus, in which ‘the suffering of the innocent victims on stage contrasts with the foundation of cult by a distant Olympian in the remote future’ (387). However, di’ aionos makrou (1425) does not mean ‘in the remote future’ but (in effect) ‘for all time’. The slip is revealing. The prenuptial ritual for Hippolytus is in fact in various respects highly appropriate for the unmarried hero who will be for ever lamented in it. Of course we feel the contrast between immortal and immortal. The mistranslation emerges out of, and seems to confirm, the extension of the contrast to the cult, so as to banish all sense of integration.

My third example is S.’s constant reference to line 861 as giving us a god who is ‘most terrible’ as well as ‘most gentle’. To paraphrase the line in this way produces an almost explicit expression of irresolvable contradiction, but is also a misleading abstraction from the Greek, which in fact must mean that he is most terrible en telei but most gentle to humankind (S. mistranslates the passage on p.21 and again on p.359—but, revealingly, in two quite different ways). In my Commentary I argue that the meaning ‘in initiation ritual’ for en telei explains perfectly the undoubted contrast there is with ‘to humankind’. But whether or not S. agrees on that, his omission of the terms that crucially qualify the polarity allows him to present it as a relatively abstract one, an expression of the unfathomable, irresolvable contradiction that is somehow at the heart of Dionysos, whereas to make sense of the contrast actually stated requires detailed understanding of the realities of Dionysiac cult.

Athens escaped ‘the fate of Bacchae’s Thebes’ (381). What fate? ‘It is also true that the destruction of Thebes is reflected primarily in the ruin of the royal family’ (383). This would be in a sense more accurate with ‘only’ instead of ‘primarily’, but would then be even more obviously odd. S. is not the only interpreter to hold the bizarre view that Thebes is destroyed—of this there is not the slightest indication in the play (and see my Commentary on 1329-30). I suppose it reflects the deep but by no means universal preconception that the well-being of a community depends on the well-being of its leader, as well as the privileging of irresolvable contradiction that must exclude any hint of positive resolution, that (we saw) associates ‘positive’ with ‘neat’ and ‘simple’. Accordingly, one of the few contradictions that S. does not want to see is the political one between household and polis. In a rare reference to social institutions he points out that the Greeks generally view polis and household as complementary rather than antithetical (382). Yes indeed, but not the tyrant’s household; and as we have already stressed, things that are complementary from one perspective may be antithetical from another (or in other respects). But S. attempts to eliminate (or ‘even out’?) the contradiction by exaggerating the isolation of Pentheus, as resisting Dionysos, from his family (despite the unequivocal evidence of 26-31). However, the important point is that it is only the royal family that suffers. This includes Kadmos, who is in an equivocal position: on the one hand he embodies the whole city as the eponymous ancestor of the ‘Kadmeians’, and accepts Dionysos; on the other hand he belongs to the royal household, and shares their suffering and exile.

The ‘tyrant’ Pentheus, by contrast, is a ‘terror (tarbos) to the polis’ (1309), the pejorative nature of which is (pace S., p. 384) confirmed (if confirmation be necessary) by lines 775-6. In another attempt to blur the antithesis between Pentheus and the city S. stresses the ‘responsibility of the the city or “all the city” (e.g., 39-40, 195-96, 1295)’ in rejecting Dionysos. Now if the whole city had rejected Dionysos, this would resemble the Athenian aetiological myth mentioned above. But in fact the aetiological myth takes in Bacchae a more political form. In stark contrast to Pentheus, at no point does the city reject the new cult (39-40 and 195-96 mean that, unsurprisingly, it has not yet embraced it). To be sure, some rustics are persuaded to pursue the maenads so as to please the king (721), but subsequently their spokesman tries to persuade him to accept the god. Eventually it is even said that ‘the whole polis was in a bacchic frenzy’ (1295, claimed by S., oddly, as the polis rejecting Dionysos).

Literature amputated from its social context turns out to be about itself. In the Afterword S. defends his 1982 acount of the ‘metatragic meaning’ of the play. The Bacchae is much concerned with disguise and illusion. But that is too obvious to need stating, and so ‘metatragic meaning’ must be something more. But what? One possible form, the rupture (for various effects) of dramatic illusion, is excluded. ‘Metatragic implications need not involve a sharp break with dramatic illusion’ (374-5). We have instead such expressions as ‘calling attention to the problem of representation’ (370), ‘an additional self-reflexive dimension’, the mask as ‘self-referential marker’, ‘self-consciousness of its own theatricality’, ‘a widespread metatheatrical awareness’. But what we need is an elaborately precise definition of metatheatricality. Take the transvestite scene. For me it is illuminated (non-obviously), in general and in various details, by knowledge of the kind of (quasi-theatrical) Dionysiac mystic ritual from which tragedy itself developed. That the dressing of Pentheus is in a sense theatrical is obvious. What exactly does the fashionable, abstract term ‘metatheatricality’ add to our understanding of the scene? What exactly is the ‘problem of representation’? For S. Bacchae ‘probes the relation of Dionysos to the nature of drama and especially dramatic illusion’ (388). Well, what has the probe come up with? If it really is the case, which I doubt, that Euripides ‘explores the question of how (emphasis by RS) the falsehood of (dramatic) fiction can bring us truth’ (217), what is the (no doubt ambiguous) answer to the ‘question’? But of course S. insists on the ‘order-questioning process’ of ‘literary form’ (358). Perhaps one should not expect any answers.

I could continue at great length. It is unusually challenging and absorbing to engage with an account that is so lucidly and intelligently committed to a view of literature diametrically opposed in certain fundamental respects to one’s own.