BMCR 1998.05.26

Response: Segal on Seaford on Segal, Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides’ Bacchae

Response to 1998.03.10

Response by

Few contemporary scholars have made as many interesting and valuable contributions as Richard Seaford to understanding Euripides’ most problematical play (see e. g., Dionysiac Poetics [henceforth DP ] 354), and I regret being on the opposite side of the interpretive fence. In the new Afterword to DP and elsewhere I have set out some of the reasons for my disagreements with S.’s approach, and it would be tedious to repeat all of that here; but S.’s comments offer an opportunity to clarify yet again some fundamental differences of outlook that may hopefully be of interest to more than just the two of us. 1

The difference between our views rests on fundamentally different notions of how literature works. For S. Greek tragedy, grosso modo, replicates cultural patterns; for me, it is engaged in more “complex” negotiations with these patterns, using them, to be sure, but not always in a direct one-to-one correspondence, and not necessarily simply affirming them or restamping them onto its narrative material. In my Afterword, apropos of the antithetical views of S. and Froma Zeitlin about Dionysus and the city ( DP 357), I tried briefly to address the question of why knowledgeable and sophisticated interpreters can and do differ so widely. One of the issues between S. and myself is the difference between an exclusionary reading (for S. the Bacchae can be understood only in terms of its ritual background) and one more open to the potential multiplicity of meaning.

Tragedy as a whole is obviously part of the Athenian polis and serves democratic ideology (as Simon Goldhill, for instance has recently demonstrated in a celebrated essay); but individual tragedies relate to this polis-ideology in different ways, e. g., by questioning or probing familiar values, or by examining various roles for men and women in the city, or by setting up situations of hypothetical conflicts between overlapping roles ( Antigone, Oedipus Tyrannus, or Ion can serve as obvious examples of such “complex” relations to civic ideology). Even if we fully accept S.’s interesting and plausible hypotheses about the origins of tragedy and the importance of hero cult in the formation of tragedy as a genre and as an institution of the Athenian democracy, we cannot necessarily assume that every tragedy uses aetiological myth about hero cult or about civic or ritual foundations in the same way or that this use will remain constant over several decades. S., therefore, seems to superimpose on Euripides’ text a monolithic structure that is extrapolated from elsewhere and is not always fully applicable to the specific literary work. S. reads the end of Ba. as another instance of a recurrent pattern of the salvation of the polis through the destruction of the royal family and the future establishment of the civic cult of Dionysus, whereas I see a darker mood of divine vengeance, which must, of course, be considered alongside the beauty and blessings of Dionysiac worship and the narrowness and violence of Pentheus in the first half of the play.

S.’s intense concentration on Dionysiac mysteries, initiation, and aetiological ritual in the polis and hence in tragedy leads him to dismiss too easily other possible meanings and functions of ritual in tragedy. To take just one example, S. is silent about the ambiguities of many aetiological endings in Euripides ( DP 387). Doubtless he takes these at face value, but this is hardly the majority opinion on the ending of (say) Hippolytus, Electra, or Ion (see F. M. Dunn’s recent Tragedy’s End). Because of this same one-sided view of ritual in tragedy he plays down my long chapter on initiation ritual in Ba. and faults my book for not being able “on the whole to locate the play in its culture,” paying no heed, for instance, to the considerable attention that the book devotes to sacrifice, the cultural significance of hunting, gender roles and reversals, the contemporary nomos-physis debate, theories of language, the changing functions of myth, the chorus, or the depiction of Dionysus in comedy, to which I would add also the attention given to female lament in the Afterword ( DP 362-67), to cite a few areas that might be included in a view of “culture” somewhat broader than S. implies. True, DP is interested more in language than in ritual, and I am more explicitly interested than S. in connections with our own contemporary conceptions of tragedy and literary meaning, but we are all entitled to choose the methods and approaches that we find most congenial: vive la différence !

S. reads Ba. as if the original audience came away with a feeling of satisfaction, or “integration,” because (as he argues) Dionysus and Dionysiac cult have been brought to Thebes and that under this sign of a democratic city the royal family is driven out and honor is now given to the god. The terrible suffering is there, as he (finally) acknowledges in his review, but it is absorbed and explained by the aetiological myth. S.’s model works less well for Ba. than for plays like Ajax or Hipp., where a closing lament for a dead protagonist may (as he suggests) reflect and fortify the solidarity of the polis in hero cult. But if S. is right about Ba., there is an enormous and unbridgeable gap between modern audiences’ response to the play and the response that S. reconstructs for the ancient audience, and it would be vital to explore this gap. In his review of DP S. seems to be approaching this question when he acknowledges the play’s “manifest suffering” or (quoting DP) its lack of “happy resolution” or “happy ending” ( DP 354-55). But he then goes off into a discussion of his views of aetiological ritual without clarifying how the mood of the ending squares with the supposed integrative value of the ritual meaning. If S. is to convince us of the interpretive value of his approach, it is imperative that he do this, and I would be the first to welcome this step in bringing ritual origins and function together with what most interpreters see as the Bacchae‘s dramatic effect. In the meantime, since we do not yet have time machines, such a reconstruction of an “original” response is essentially another literary interpretation and so must be tested by its adequacy to the text.

To put these issues a little differently, is there a joyful triumph of Dionysus and a relatively unproblematic exile of the Theban royal house, and do these constitute the message that Euripides, writing the Bacchae in the last years of his life in exile in Macedonia, wanted to leave with his audience? If so, why the chorus’s change toward increasing violence and vengefulness as the play progresses, and why the so powerfully dramatized sympathy for Agave (which of course we would feel with even greater power if we had the complete text of her lament), to say nothing of Pentheus and Cadmus? These are among the continuing questions of the “problem of the Bacchae“; and, like the ever-shifting balance between Pentheus and Dionysus in interpretations of the play, they will inevitably receive further formulations and solutions; but I find S.’s explanation in the suffering of the hero in civic cult an inadequate answer.

The rigidity of S.’s ritual/initiatory approach leads him to detect “mistranslations” even where I am not translating. Thus I am alleged to have construed di’ aionos makrou in Hipp. 1425 as meaning “in the remote future,” and “the slip is revealing” because of my apparent misunderstanding of aetiological myth. But in the passage in question I do not offer the phrase “in the remote future” as a translation, indirect paraphrase, or even vague approximation of the Greek. I am merely pointing out the difference between the present action on the stage and the “remote,” later time, indicated by Artemis’ future tenses, when these rites will be performed. The fact that these rites, once established, will (as S. says) last “(in effect) for all time” has little to do with my point at DP 387. That paragraph of mine, incidentally, begins, “Euripides frequently ends a play with an aetiological myth about the foundation of a cult,” and goes on to talk about a number of instances.

S.’s “slip” in alleging my mistranslation here is particularly “revealing” for his determination to see only positive, integrative movements in these closing etiologies. S. goes on: “The prenuptial ritual for Hippolytus is in fact in various respects highly appropriate for the unmarried hero who will be forever lamented in it” [my emphasis]. “Highly appropriate,” perhaps, in a ritual sense, but hardly so in terms of the character of Hippolytus that the play has constructed. The same holds true of the “non-silencing” of Phaedra’s erôs in the following lines.

Matters of translation aside, the ending of the Hippolytus is particularly instructive for the understanding the tone of Ba.‘s finale. Granting that Dionysus’ lost speech in the lacuna may have contained an account of the foundation of his cult in Thebes, Cadmus’ questions about the god’s excessive cruelty are left unanswered. In contrast to the allusions to civic ritual in Hipp.‘s closing reference to public lament in “this common grief for all the citizens,”Ba. offers only the private suffering of the mother and grandfather. In contrast to the healing and purifying forgiveness between father and son in the farewell scene of Hipp., the Ba. emphasizes the meagerness and futility of the comfort that the survivors can give one another: cf. Hipp. 1449-58 and Ba. 1363-67. Pace S., the “city of Thebes” does seem to be implicated in the disasters shown in the play (39-40, 50-52, 1036, 1295, on which more below), and nothing in our text promises a future salvation. The mood of the exodos does not suggest anything like the ending of the Phoenissae, where Menoeceus’ sacrifice offers hope of ending the cycle of Thebes’ sufferings, or even the end of the OT, where at least the source of the pollution is removed and a new order is in place.

S. claims that I also mistranslate the famous line, Ba. 861, with its contrast of Dionysus as deinotatos and êpiôtatos. In his valuable 1996 Translation and Commentary on the play S. has put forth an interesting but I think unlikely interpretation of the problematic phrase en telei. Adopting the emendation W(S for P’s O(S in 860, S. translates 859-61: “[Pentheus] will recognise Dionysos the son of Zeus, that he was born to be a god in initiation ritual most terrible, but to humankind most gentle.” I do not think that the theme of initiation is sufficiently in the foreground to make a reference to it here intelligible. Nor can I agree with S. (ad loc., p. 217) that there is “a strong antithesis between en telei and ‘humankind’ ( anthrôpoisi).” The antithesis is clearly between deinotatos and êpiôtatos. Whether or not S. is right here (and editors have been discussing and emending this phrase for at least two hundred years), it is characteristic of our differences that I see the relation between these two adjectives as stating a problem about Dionysus that Euripides wants us to think about, whereas for S. the lines refer to Dionysus’ role in initiation into his mysteries. But, as most commentators note, any attempt to separate the two superlatives and put them on different levels is extremely dubious. A glance at the passages collected in Roux’s commentary, by the way, shows how persistent is the ancient polarity of “gentleness” and “terror” in Dionysus.

Even granting that en telei (a) is textually sound and (b) refers to initiation, one has to ask what such a statement would mean coming as it does just at the moment when Dionysus announces his revenge upon the young king whom he has brought completely under his power. Why Euripides introduces this sharp acknowledgment of Dionysus’ polar qualities at this moment of the play, and what does that timing indicate about his depiction of the god? Dionysus remains potentially “most terrible” in the broadest sense, as indeed he is in the “resistance myths” of his arrival in places like Orchomenos (and, of course, the Bacchae‘s Thebes). Like all Olympians in tragedy, he is “most terrible” in his vengeance, but, as the early odes of the play make clear, also the source of blessings of joy and happiness. S. may dislike polarity, but I see no way to remove it from this passage.

Apropos of Ba. 319-21, on the god’s need for honor from the crowd, S. suggests that we imagine the god’s “magnificent festival of the democratic polis” and comments, “I have the disadvantage that it is easier to reach for our copy of the Hippolytus.” But one can reach for almost any play of Euripides, and many of Sophocles, to see that the gods’ demand for honor is not quite so simple in tragedy, or to use a word of mine that S. particularly dislikes, has a certain “complexity.”

S. finds me “oddly” claiming that line 1295 means that “the polis [is] rejecting Dionysus.” My point here ( DP 383) is not that the city rejects Dionysus but that 1295, along with 39-40 and 195-96, assigns some “responsibility” to the city for the god’s vengeance (to these passages may be added 50-52; and for the problems raised by 1295 see below). S. develops a contrast between the polis and the royal family for which there is little indication in the text, or little that can bear the interpretative weight that he assigns to it. Lines 50-52, in fact, imply a close identification between “the city of the Thebans” and the king who threatens to lead the city in battle against the maenads (cf. 780-85, especially epistrateuein, 784, and stratêlatôn, 52). The Messenger’s indignant, “Do you think Thebes so lacking manhood” at 1036 implies an identification of Pentheus’ death with the suffering and humiliation of “Thebes,” and the same is implied in the chorus’ reply, “Dionysus, not Thebes, holds power over me.”

I would go even farther and suggest that the vagueness of the play’s references to the polis are part of a radical pattern of inversions, in which the familiar city of male warriors—the city so passionately defended by Pentheus, with his troops, walls, and towers—is momentarily glimpsed as a kind of nightmarish city of maenads. Thus Dionysus’ threat to wage war “with arms” against the “polis of the Thebans” as a general leading maenads in the prologue (50-52) turns out to be a battle not with hopla but with thyrsuses, and not against the organized militias of the city but against herdsmen and farmers (714ff., 758ff.). It is the women who are “drawn up” with disciplined eukosmia (693) like hoplites ( see DP 191ff.), and they who bear their anomalous hopla (733) and swoop down like enemy troops ( polemioi) to ravage the fields around the city (752).

To return to 1295, therefore, when Cadmus explains to the now sane Agave, “You were mad, and the whole polis was driven to bacchic frenzy” (S.’s translation, slightly corrected), the polis described by the city’s founder seems to be identified with the raging women. S. is momentarily troubled by the contradiction (see his 1996 Commentary on 1295) but explains the problem away by a reference to his Introduction (pp. 35-36). “The two old men,” he notes, “are the only male members of the polis to dance for Dionysus (195-96), even though Teiresias insists that Dionysos demands honor from all men (206-9), and Kadmos eventually states that the ‘whole polis’ was in a bacchic revel.” Juxtaposing this remark with the contexts noted above is revealing for S.’s approach. By reading the play backward, as it were, from the future establishment of Dionysus’ cult at Thebes, he flattens out contradictions that, from my perspective, are central to the play, i.e. the clash between male and female power in the polis and the possibility that Dionysus’ empowering of women, if only temporarily and in an unstable way, calls into question exactly what the polis is (think of the Thesmophoriazusae and Ecclesiazusae).

A small point of language is instructive here. S. translates the aorist passive exebakkheuthê in 1295 as “was in a state of madness.” Taken this way, the verb might be taken to prefigure the unified city of the Dionysiac festivals. The aorist passive, however, should mean “was driven into a state of bacchic madness, ” and so it refers to the specific events of the play, the painful process by which Dionysus asserts his authority and establishes his cult in this polis. The verb bakkheuein or ekbakkheuein is regularly used as a transitive verb by Euripides (e.g., HF 966, Or. 411, Tro. 408; and the passive also occurs in this sense ( Or. 835). S.’s translation would better correspond to a pluperfect passive (cf. Or. 835) rather than an aorist passive. Line 1295, moreover, must also be seen in relation to the detailed account of that frenzy in 726-27, “The whole mountain and the wild beasts were joining in the bacchic frenzy,” where one should note the imperfect tense of sunebakkheue, in contrast to the aorist of 1295.

For S. any reference to “polis” or “whole polis” is to be seen retrospectively as a reflection of the eventual cultic triumph of Dionysus as a god whose cult is intimately linked to the political unity of Athens. I certainly do not deny the possible reference to external cultic patterns (e.g., DP chap. 6), but one aim of DP was to try to understand some of these ritual elements within their dramatic contexts and in terms of patterns (in this case of the massive male/female inversions) that the play develops around such central motifs as city, arms, walls, towers, etc. The centrality of Dionysus to Thebes was a commonplace of Athenian drama (S. Ant. 1122-25); and the play assumes the establishment of Dionysus’ cult at Thebes as a future event, like the future cult of Hippolytus at Troezen. But what its action dramatizes is not this future event but the painful process in the present and the cost of human suffering that it brings.

S. has little or no interest in what he calls “the fashionable abstract term ‘metatheatricality.'” “Fashionable” is always an easy put-down, and one that often says more about the user than the subject-matter in question, but I would point out that neither the word nor the thing was particularly fashionable when DP was first published in 1982, and the idea is not especially abstract, perhaps less abstract than S.’s “characteristic pattern of the mythical etiology of ritual.” Metatheatrical scenes call attention to the nature of the performance qua performance and bracket this moment as not just “theatrical,” the enactment of fictional or mythical events, like the rest of the play, but meta-theatrical. For S. scenes like the transvestitism of Pentheus are “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.” I gratefully receive such illumination, but to insist that this is the only or even the primary meaning of such scenes is a reductive way to look at literature.

S. is perfectly justified in being as little interested in literary self-reflexivity as I am said to be in the myths that etiologize ritual; but for many readers and viewers, such play-within-a-play situations are good to think with. Both ancient and modern audiences, like playwrights and poets, like to think about how literature constructs its world of make-believe, how it convinces us of the reality of that world, and what kind of “truth” that represented world can have alongside the other, more “factual” truths that guide our lives. As some indication of the implications of this subject for the understanding of Greek drama, I may mention the recent books of Bierl and Taplin or the other works cited in DP 370-75, or Dobrov’s new collection The City as Comedy: Society and Representation in Athenian Drama (Chapel Hill 1997).

The prism of S.’s interpretive optics creates some extraordinary distortions. First, most of his review is directed at the three or four pages in which I venture to disagree with his interpretation of the Bacchae. 2 Then, when I insist repeatedly on the “balance” and “dialectic” between order and disorder, he finds me engaged in a “privileging of disorder,” completely ignoring a main point of my book. He turns my book into a straw man for an oversimplified order/disorder dichotomy. Finally, I cannot pass over the following error. S. quotes from my new Afterword ( DP 357), where I view the tragic element in the play as “bring[ing] together both order-creating and order-dissolving forces of personal and social life in a balance that is always shifting and unstable.” S. then cites Oudemans and Lardinois’Tragic Ambiguity (published in 1987) 216, who, he says, “anticipate,” in a way “unknown to S[egal]” a “manoeuvre” of mine. Had he bothered to read to the end of that 1987 “anticipation” of my views, he would have seen that the authors are in fact citing me; and the reference is not even in a footnote, but in the text, in parentheses, “Segal, DP 286-87.”3

S. and I are perhaps closest in his suggestion (remarked above) that we might “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.” This view approximates that of the title chapter of DP (chapter 9, e.g., 340-41), except that I regard that order as operative in the civic ritual of Athens, and specifically in the Dionysiac ritual and its dramatic performances for which the play was intended, rather than in the mythical Thebes of the end of the play. S. has yet to convince me (or other interpreters, like Friedrich, cited in n. 2) that the end of the Bacchae shows this “order inherent in the civic ritual henceforth to be celebrated in Thebes.”

1. See my review of his Ritual and Reciprocity ( BMCR 6 [1995] 651-657) and my “Chorus and Community in Euripides’Bacchae,” in Poet, Public, and Performance in Ancient Greece, eds. Lowell Edmunds and Robert W. Wallace (Baltimore 1997) 65-86, esp. 69-70; also DP 382-84.

2. For similar disagreements with S.’s handling of Ba. see, e.g., Rainer Friedrich, “Everything to Do with Dionysus?” in Michael S. Silk, ed., Tragedy and the Tragic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) 274.

3. In a reply to R. Friedrich’s criticisms of some of his views in Silk (preceding note) 290, S. refers to this same passage from Oudemans and Lardinois. When he came to do the review of DP, he seems to have forgotten that the scholars in question are citing me (as they do on 32 other occasions, according to their index). In fact, had S. bothered to look a few lines down on DP 357, which he cites, he would have seen the citation “DP 330-47,” part of the 1982 reprint, which I am recapitulating here in the Afterword; and this “manoeuvre” is in fact a major theme in the last chapter of DP (chap. 9).