Euripides, “The Bacchae”
It’s a bit of a cliche to suggest that, if you want to understand the 60s, the play to see isn’t Hair; it’s the Bacchae.
A depiction of orgiastic release that tips over, as if naturally, into horrific violence, the Bacchae also shows the failings of secular powers that have grown out of touch and dismiss the people’s need to have gods and something to worship, instead of simply to obey. Other stories come to mind; like Pontius Pilate, Pentheus struggles to maintain the social order in the face of an ecstatic religious movement, centered on a god-turned-man. Things go worse for Pentheus. Euripides seems to believe that reason and man-made order are no match for the dominion of gods. Liberation from the social authority brings madness and destruction, to be sure; but in the end, Pentheus can only blame himself.
The Bacchae is cynical about the stability of the human social order and it’s not hard to understand why. In 406, Athens is in decline. For contrast, Camille Paglia pairs the Bacchae with the Oresteia, a play whose ending is almost absurdly propagandistic: imagine a film in which God hand-delivers the US Constitution to the framers (even Stephen Colbert would cringe at that!). Euripides is writing five decades later, having left Athens for Macedon, after the plague, the ruinous Sicilian expedition, the political turmoils, and toward the end of the Peloponnesian War that Athens will lose within a few years. He’s not so optimistic.
The story begins in disarray. Returning to Thebes after an absence, the young King Pentheus is shocked to find his people swept up in a religious frenzy centered on Dionysus, the lord of the vine and Bacchanalian rites. The women (traditionally the participants in the Bacchanal) are in the woods, screwing whomever they see, the doddering city founder Cadmus thinks joining them will make him young again, and the blind prophet Tiresias is joining him to foolishly take part in the orgiastic madness. Thebes is on the verge of coming undone.
Pentheus is appalled. Your typical law and order type, he tries to arrest the participants, eventually capturing Dionysus in human disguise, who really only intends to merrily prank him. The old Marxist line about religion being the opiate of the masses is only right on occasion; while religious institutions have often been the pillars of unjust social orders, just as often radical resistance to the social status quo has been religious in nature. Philodoxy just can’t beat beatitude. An ecstatic experience of the world as it could be tends to undermine the world as it is. Moses was a terrorist; Jesus an enemy of the state; Muhammad’s truths quickly turned all the tribes of the Arabian peninsula against him. Dionysus threatens to turn the Thebans off to Thebes for good.
Dionysus deceives Pentheus terribly, dressing him as a woman in order to spy on the Bacchants. Euripides understands that it is easier to bring down a figure of authority with a well-timed joke than a well-placed bomb. The scene is played for laughs, giving the lie to those who would argue we’re supposed to sympathize solely with Pentheus. He is entirely too sure of himself and the power of his reasoning mind: the larger the ego, the louder the pop when it’s deflated. Euripides is skeptical that rationality can protect us from chaos and irreason, or sustain us in itself. 2+2=4 is absolutely true, but it’s not enough to build a life.
Euripides doesn’t think it’s a godsend when social machinery springs its gears either; his world freed of reason comes to resemble an abattoir, the believers blind and blissed out in a way that recalls the Manson girls or participants in a 1939 Berlin night rally. Pentheus’s costume works too well- the maddened Maenads mistake his curly locks for a lion’s and tear his body to pieces. They’ve already sucked wild animals, pulled apart cattle with their nails, handled snakes, and schtupped satyrs. What’s another dismemberment?
The gods don’t play fair. Dionysus is angry because of a lie told by the Thebans that got his human mother, Semele, struck dead by the goddess Hera. They still refuse to admit his divinity, accusing his mother of lying about consorting with Zeus. Most offensively, they have failed to worship him, thinking him only a man. And so, in anger at Pentheus’s arrogant denial of the sacred, Dionysus has tricked him into being massacred, quite literally deconstructing the reasoning Western man. We can’t sympathize entirely with Dionysus either. His rage is disproportionate and pitiless. In the end, the message seems to be that denying the irrational, chaotic and ecstatic in the universe is a bit like playing chess in a tornado. Things fly apart.
This I can buy. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been haunted by a sense that all social orders are, to a large extent, contingent, paper-thin fictions covering up an innate psychopathology. In good times, they work better than anything else; but let the food run out, too much booze get consumed, or someone’s heart get broken, and things can get mean and ugly real quick. My wife often comments on my unease in public situations, my need to know where the exits are located, just in case. Perhaps it comes from growing up in a social grouping, the family, that blew apart in an ugly way. It’s not so much a matter of mistrusting particular individuals; it’s an overall sense that violence and unreason are never not a possibility with hominids.
At one point, it was common to associate this unease with ‘right-wingers’. I remember reading articles from the 70s about Stanley Kubrick, whose films often deal with social machines going haywire, in which it was simply understood that his was a “reactionary right wing” vision. After all, his liberated young droogs were psychopaths. True liberation is supposedly a path leading forever upward. Of course, Kubrick realized (unlike his critics, but just like Euripides) that structures of authority often make themselves obsolete long before any hooliganism threatens them. The droogs might be brutes, but their reeducation is still an evil act from an impotently rational state that turns to power because it has nothing left. In the Bacchae, Pentheus is a moral idiot, a void in place of a King; he’s easily disguised because he has no commanding persona. His power can’t control bodies because his state makes no space for souls. As for us, now that liberalism has discovered law and order, and come to see armed Tea Partying protesters as threatening that order, the sense that civilization is a thin veneer pasted over something much redder in claw and tooth is not so easy to politicize. The law and order types are on the left and the passionate mobs are on the right. Dionysus is laughing at it all.
Euripides, I think, is saying that no human society can survive by reason alone. Without a passionate and ecstatic experience of life as beings tied to the cosmos and the natural world, however fleeting it is, our social lives become hollow routines that even we don’t believe in. We need myth. And yet, without the tethering restrictions of rational thought to connect us to the ground, our society, and our bodies, we find ourselves capable of doing anything, with all that implies.
1. I needed a break from all that Platonic reason, but will probably resume with our man Socrates shortly.