Sophocles: Ajax & Divine Madness
Did the Hebrews have a concept of madness? This strange question comes to mind as I read the Bible and tragedies at the same time. I sympathize greatly with Kierkegaard’s feeling that modern man lacks the passion of the characters in Greek tragedy and the Old Testament, but perhaps he mixes them too easily. Considering Oedipus or Medea, it’s hard to think of a comparable example of madness in the Old Testament. The Israelites are frequently disordered in their disobedience to God, and thus separated from the divine, but this is a far cry from the total derangement of the senses that occurs so often in Greek tragedy.
Of course, the Greeks had divine madness, which I imagine the Jews lacked. Compare the central action in Ajax- maddened by anger and blinded by Athena, the warrior slaughters the livestock plundered from Troy imagining that he’s killing the kings who snubbed him- to the story of Abraham- ordered by God to kill his son, he is ready to do so when it’s revealed that it was a test of his loyalty. Maybe a better example is Agamemnon who does sacrifice his innocent daughter Iphigenia, but the point stands- we can’t understand Abraham’s actions through the framework of madness, nor does it really explain anyone in the Old Testament. But when the tragic heroes seem deranged, they really are deranged.
Ajax is deranged first by wounded pride: as the greatest Greek warrior after Achilles, he expects, rightly, to receive the fallen warrior’s spear. Instead, the kings Menelaus and Agamemnon arrange for the spear to go to Odysseus, a slight against Ajax- and remember that the Greek warriors had nothing save glory. Ajax vows to regain face by killing the kings and Odysseus. Sophocles expertly details their psychological environment with Ajax and brother Teucer’s descriptions of their punishing, demanding, seemingly glacial father Telamon, an aged warrior who expects strength above all in his sons. Given the era in which the play was written, as Athenians were already growing tired of war with Sparta, it’s not surprising that the older military generation come in for a beating- Agamemnon is a blowhard and Menelaus a strutting cuckold. More importantly Ajax’s derangement is an endpoint to which the laws of masculinity push him.
The second madness is divine- Athena blinds Ajax so he slaughters sheep instead of kings. The image of Ajax, half-crazed and sitting in a mound of animal parts, is grotesque and comical- the play takes place as his humiliation sinks in- Aristotle’s reversal of fortune is apt- here the heroic warrior becomes an insecure madman. Given Sophocles’s renowned piety, Athena is surprisingly bitchy, toying with Ajax beyond what seems appropriate as Odysseus’s divine patron. Her delight in his downfall seems petty. Another innovation: when Ajax falls on his sword, he dies before the audience’s eyes, succumbing to a third madness- grief.
In the end, Odysseus shines- defying the supercilious kings and calling for a dignified burial for Ajax, he embodies Greek reason and justice. I actually prefer him here to the Odyssey, in which he’s a trickster with so much divine protection that it’s often hard to sympathize with him, aside from his matchless devotion to his wife and son. He ends the play by eschewing the macho rivalry and resentment that ultimately got Ajax shish-kebobbed and instead opting for reason and reverence.
Given the time, it’s not surprising that many of these plays deal with how hard it is to end a war and call back the furies. I don’t see Ajax as an attack on the warrior ethos by any means, but it does suggest that war pushes men to the boundaries of sensible behavior and it’s to be expected that a few will tip over into madness.