BMCR 2007.08.63

Euripides and the Poetics of Nostalgia

, Euripides and the Poetics of Nostalgia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 278 (also available in ebook format). $80.00.

This provocative study develops and reconceptualizes some of Gary Meltzer’s earlier published material into a unitary reading of representative Euripidean plays from the period 428-412 BCE: Hippolytus (428), Hecuba (424), Ion (413) and Helen (412). The “nostalgia” flagged in the title derives from Jacques Derrida’s notion of “an ethic of nostalgia for origins [. . .] of a purity of presence and self-presence in speech” (53). The author argues that Euripides’ much-discussed scepticism and critique of traditional assumptions are symptoms of this metaphysical “nostalgia” and that the drama is informed by a “fundamentally conservative” longing for “transcendent truth”, for a “simpler more virtuous age” and, in a key formulation, for a “voice of truth that would speak clearly to all” (1, 12, 223). Putting his cards firmly on the table so far as Ion and Helen are concerned, Meltzer pronounces them “romantic melodramas” which propose “conservative, nostalgic solutions to the crises of his age” (69).

This is a book of large claims and global overview but, to my mind, its strength lies in its detailed literary analysis of individual plays. The author’s overriding interest is in the controversy surrounding the status of the spoken word in Athenian society which, in his view, constitutes the central agon of Euripidean drama (5). Meltzer does not engage closely with Platonic thought, but frequently employs concepts and vocabulary drawn from Jacques Derrida’s writings on the phonocentric tradition in Western philosophy; for instance he argues that what is at stake in the debate between Polyneices and Eteocles in Phoenician Women 1 is nothing less than a “metaphysics of presence” in which the “transcendental signified” is manifested above all in the voice” (5, 6). He sees Polyneices’ affirmation of the sanctity of oaths as attributing self-presence and authoritative truth to the spoken word while Eteocles’ sophistic assertion of the slippage between signifier and signified exemplifies the deferral, distortion and dispersion of presence and truth effected by writing and other “supplements,” among which he includes rhetoric. Meltzer also interprets Euripides use of Golden Age themes in terms of Derrida’s link between nostalgia for origins and “self-presence in speech” (35).

Meltzer finds numerous suggestive parallels between fifth century Athens and our own times. He equates the advent of literacy in Greece to the modern transition from what he calls “the age of the book” to the digital age. He feels that Americans are experiencing a similar polarization of opinion and deep ambivalence about the efficacy of debate. He notes the capacity of the modern media and legal processes to make the weaker cause prevail over the stronger and that the “two sides in our culture wars no more agree on the meaning of ‘good’ or ‘best’ than do Polyneices and Eteocles” (28, 30). He regards the metaphors of speech embedded in such terms as “chat rooms” and “voice mail” as evincing “nostalgia for oral culture” in a society that has “become adept at replacing the human voice”. He sees Helen as relating to issues of identity theft, cloning, and to the possible manufacture of cyborgs (225). In particular, Meltzer writes out of a conviction that Euripides has much to say to post-September 11 America with its rhetoric about national unity and a “war on terror” (31-32). In short, he thinks that modern America suffers from the same “nostalgia” for moral absolutes that he discerns in Euripidean drama.

The book divides into an introduction, five chapters, and an epilogue. The introduction and first chapter establish the overall conceptual framework. The former sketches competing conceptions of language—unmediated truth versus arbitrary convention—with reference to the contrary claims of Polyneices and Eteocles to the kingship of Thebes. The latter traces precedents for this debate in earlier literature citing in particular, Hesiod’s conception of Zeus as the omniscient source of justice in the human community. Thereafter, Meltzer devotes a chapter to each of the above four plays, in most cases following a pattern begun in the introduction, of developing his remarks around an emblematic passage followed by brief comparisons with aspects of Thucydides, whom he regards as similarly critical of sophistic thought and “nostalgic” for traditional values. The brief epilogue draws some concluding parallels between the social, political, and intellectual crises of our own times and those of fifth century Athens.

This book can be illuminating, but it seems to me that Meltzer’s overall framework of global assertions runs counter to, or is not helpful in, his discussion of individual plays. For instance, Meltzer’s examination of Theseus’ wish in Hippolytus that all men should have a just voice that would refute their ordinary “unjustly minded voice”2 belies his overall claim that Euripides locates “the simple word of truth” in an earlier age. Indeed, Meltzer’s point that Theseus’ wish simultaneously affirms and denies the possibility of transcendent meaning suggests that absolutes do not, and have never, existed, even among the gods. It also seems to me that Meltzer’s interpretations are often determined by the parallels he finds between the ancient and modern worlds. I disagree with his claim that Theseus’ refusal to heed Hippolytus’ oath, and subsequent error in condemning him, are implicitly critical of the new modes of rational inquiry and judicial processes of “cross-examination [and] evaluation of evidence by inference and probability” (71). Meltzer seems to suggest that the truth would have been better served if Theseus had acquiesced in Hippolytus’ request to consult “[p]ledges, oaths and oracles”.3 But, we know that oral testimony was crucial in the conduct of Athenian trials and that the oaths of accuser and defendant were given particular weight in homicide cases.4 In fact, Theseus judged Hippolytus before evaluating the evidence and in doing so is demonstrably acting out of his own entrenched passions and prejudices. It seems to me that the problem lies not with the processes of inquiry, either new or traditional, but with the volatility of the human beings who participate in them, and distort and manipulate them.

Meltzer writes powerfully about Hecuba as fifth century “theatre of cruelty” whose critique of sophistic modes of argument and persuasion is all the more disturbing because of the “politicized wartime context” (108, 104). He sees the passionate and suffering protagonist as a “means of exploring Athenian ambivalence about the power of rhetoric” (145). The key passage for this chapter is Hecuba’s culminating attempt to persuade Agamemnon to punish Polymestor for the murder of her son in which, after an eloquent appeal to moral law, she desperately wishes that every part of her body might become an organ of speech.5 Meltzer comments that Hecuba “seeks to invest her human voice with divine authority” but also that, despite her appeals to a principle of transcendent justice, her words are driven by a savage lust for vengeance (137). He well describes the realpolitik of Agamemnon’s behaviour in agreeing to turn a blind eye to what will be an extra-legal act of revenge because he can plausibly deny any knowledge of what Hecuba was planning (139). But while noting that the “trial” of Hecuba and Polymestor follows the sequence prescribed for Athenian law courts—and even alludes to the democratic ideal of impartial resolution of disputes—Meltzer does not point out that it is held after Hecuba has contrived her own savage revenge. It is surely significant that the “trial” takes place after the kind of private revenge vendetta which Athenian courts (in particular the court of the Areopagus) were intended to prevent (140). It could be argued that Agamemnon’s mockery of a trial indirectly endorses contemporary Athenian practice. So, far from locating transcendent justice in a “simpler and more virtuous age”, Meltzer’s discussion leads me to feel that the playwright denies its existence altogether—except in human aspiration and imagination.

It is in the chapters on Ion and Helen that the mismatch between the book’s overall framework and the reading of the individual plays becomes most apparent. Meltzer writes that the critique in Ion of Apollo’s oracle at Delphi is potentially the “the fullest and most direct examination of the lost voice of truth in Euripidean drama” (146) but that the play ultimately retreats from its own radical implications. He begins by describing the disjunction between the status of Apollo’s oracle as a voice of truth—in Derridean terms, as the centre which designates “invariable presence”—and the potential for distortion inherent in its enigmatic utterances (150). Observing that “absence and presence [. . .] will be an important motif throughout the drama” (153) Meltzer traces the substitutions, replacements, and wicked ironies which invalidate Apollo’s claim to speak truth. Indeed, he points out that the conclusion, involving as it does the duping of Xuthus and the suppression of the truth of Ion’s birth, implicates the audience in the divinely sanctioned agenda of evasion and deception. Yet despite his acknowledgement of the play’s disposition to deconstruct its own “nostalgic solution”, Meltzer feels that the protagonists’ acceptance of Athene’s rationalizing account of Apollo’s conduct—he call it “jingoistic” and an exercise in “damage control” (181, 182)—and the happy ending with its assertion of Athenian greatness, constitute a retreat from unpleasant reality and “restoration of faith in the spirit, if not the letter, of the divine word” (149).

With only a brief reservation, Meltzer compares Ion and Helen to the “socially conservative romantic melodramas” produced by the American entertainment industry (228). The comparison is notably belied by his analysis of Helen, which uncovers a sustained challenge to the reliability of kleos and to the “metaphysics of presence” implicit in the “epic equivalence between character and reputation” (192)—as well as a critique of beauty and the senses—that would be unthinkable in most modern “melodramas”. In Meltzer’s discussion, the eidolon replaces Helen in the same way that the process of dispersal and distortion of kleos (Derrida’s “dissemination”) replaces the traits of the individual hero: even the heroic name itself is liable to “dissemination” (192). Meltzer observes that the “doubleness of Helen’s speech not only blurs the distinction between herself and the eidolon but that it also associates her dangerous beauty with the deceptive embellishments of rhetoric (196). Yet, while acknowledging that “the notion of a ‘real’ Helen has become so problematic that the redemption of both her name and the glory of Troy can be only partial and paradoxical”, Meltzer interprets the happy ending as a retreat into nostalgia “for lost grandeur” and as “reinforcing ‘male structures of order and truth”’ (221).6 I take issue with the claim that naming of the Aegean island Helene after the heroine “seems to remove the signifier “Helen” from the threat of dissemination by endowing it with a divinely authorized, transcendent, and unitary meaning” (217). In fact, the derivation of the island’s name from ἑλεῖν continues the ambiguity and “dissemination” effected by earlier repeated punning on the aural similarity between Helen’s name and the first person participle form ( ἑλών ‐ ἑλένη).7 In deriving Helene from ἑλεῖν with its various meanings—to seize, overpower with eros or death, to destroy—Euripides ramifies, rather than resolves, the ambiguities surrounding Helen and her famous name.

Whether or not Euripides’ critique of traditional values betrays, or derives from, yearning for moral and social absolutes, the drama reveals this yearning to be a human construct which finds no answer in the past or in the present and little hope in the future. The point is clearly made in Helen where the (past) inability of the Greeks and Trojans to avoid war through negotiation is cited as a precedent for the prediction that “strife will never pass from the cities of men”.8 It seems curious that Meltzer should consider those who regard Euripidean drama as radical or unorthodox as guilty of egregious “biographical fallacy” (14) when he himself is so apt to relate his own interpretation to contemporary events, and to base it on so intangible (and possibly psychological) a phenomenon as “conservative nostalgia”.

Finally, I was troubled by the omission of a clearly stated distinction between what the author regards as Euripidean “nostalgia” and the brand of “nostalgia” and moral absolutism expressed by Polyneices and by President George Bush. I hasten to acknowledge that the distinction is implicit in Meltzer’s recognition of Euripides’ scepticism and insistence that it is the “unstable mix” of scepticism and nostalgia (for an “originary, autonomous and authoritative voice of truth”) that gives such “power and pathos” to the tragedy (223, 1). Nevertheless, he uses identical language to describe President Bush’s rhetoric in urging a “war on terror” which, he claims, “epitomizes the conservative belief in the existence of truths that transcend history and politics” and is “nostalgic” for “single, plain voice of truth” (31). In my view, the distinction needed to be made absolutely explicit and to be an essential element in the book’s overall intellectual scaffolding.


1. Phoenician Women 469-72; 499-502 (Meltzer’s tr. 2).

2. Hippolytus 935-31 (Meltzer’s tr. 72).

3. Hippolytus 1055.

4. For the use of oaths and oral testimony in Athenian courts, see Demosthenes 23. 67-69.

5. Hecuba 836-45 (Arrowsmith’s tr. cited 105-6).

6. Meltzer cites Ingrid E. Holmberg, “Euripides’ Helen : Most Noble and Most Chaste.” AJP 116 (1995) 37.

7. Helen 561-63. 689-90, 1506, 1521.

8. Helen 1156-59.