Tuesday, March 27

Tacitus did not perceive the Crucifixion.

From the excellent Giornale Nuovo

Been thinking a lot about the origins of Greek tragedy. Readings in Steiner's Antigones and The Death of Tragedy.

There is an illuminating passage in Borges' Other Inquisitions regarding the introduction of the second actor as one of the most significant events in human history:

"I have suspected that history, real history, is more modest and that its essential dates may be, for a long time, secret. A Chinese prose writer has observed that the unicorn, because of its own anomaly, will pass unnoticed. Our eyes see what they are accustomed to seeing. Tacitus did not perceive the Crucifixion, although his book recorded it.

Those thoughts came to me after a phrase happened to catch my eye as I leafed through a history of Greek literature. The phrase aroused my interest because of its enigmatic quality: "He brought in a second actor." I stopped; I found that the subject of that mysterious action was Aeschylus and that, as we read in the fourth chapter of Aristotle's Poetics, he "raised the number of actors from one to two." It is well known that the drama was an offshoot of the religion of Dionysus. Originally, a single actor, the hypokrites, elevated by the cothurnus, dressed in black or purple and with his face enlarged by a mask, shared the scene with the twelve individuals of the chorus. The drama was one of the ceremonies of the worship and, like all ritual, was in danger of remaining invariable. Aeschylus' innovation could have occurred on but one day, five hundred years before the Christian era; the Athenians saw with amazement and perhaps with shock (Victor Hugo thought the latter) the unannounced appearance of a second actor. On that remote spring day, in that honey-colored theatre, what did they think, what did they feel exactly? Perhaps neither amazement nor shock; perhaps only a beginning of surprise. In the Tusculanae it is stated that Aeschylus joined the Pythagorean order, but we shall never know if he had a prefiguring, even an imperfect one, of the importance of that passage from one to two, from unity to plurality and thus to infinity. With the second actor came the dialogue and the indefinite possibilities of the reaction of some characters on others. A prophetic spectator would have seen that multitudes of future appearances accompanied him: Hamlet and Faust and Segismundo and Macbeth and Peer Gynt and others our eyes cannot yet discern."

From http://www.wayneturney.20m.com/AESCHYLUS.htm

Innovations: Introduction of the Second Actor. Judging from his earliest surviving plays, Aeschylus added a second actor at first not so much to increase conflict, as to advance the story (as opposed to the plot) by introducing new material while adding visual and aural variety to his plays. The messenger telling Atossa of the death of her son Xerxes in the Persians is thus the oldest extant "messenger speech." It clearly heightens the emotion, but creates involves no agon. The fellow who took the role of this "second" actor is, then, the first professional actor and we happen to know his name-Kleander (but, alas we know nothing else about him). This marks also the first stage of the decline of prominence of the khoros, a literary event that can be traced through Sophokles and Euripides and which was to have very far reaching consequences indeed.
From Aeschylus and His Tragedies

The closing years of the life of Aeschylus were passed in Sicily, which country he first visited soon after his defeat by Sophocles. At Syracuse his Persæ was several times performed at the request of the king, and here also he brought out his Women of Etna, celebrating the foundation of that city by Hiero and prophesying happiness for its inhabitants. Returning to Athens, he produced his Orestean trilogy, probably the finest of his works; but the Eumenides, the last of the three plays, revealed so openly his aristocratic tendencies that he became extremely unpopular, and returning to Sicily, died soon afterward at Gela. The story as to the manner of his death, that an eagle, mistaking his bald head for a stone, dropped a tortoise upon it to break the shell, is the sheerest fabrication, and, it would seem, entirely unnecessary to account for the natural death of an exile nearly seventy years of age.

Amazon Links:

The Oresteia: Agamemnon; The Libation Bearers; The Eumenides by Aeshylus
The Three Theban Plays by Sophocles

Sunday, March 11

Initial Thoughts on Re-entering Gravity's Rainbow

Back in the early 80s, a friend presented me with a copy of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow saying something to the effect that all the lamentation over the death of the novel since Joyce is now appeased by this book. Read it.

I must confess that I, like many others, waded in to about page 100 and set it down. That gold Bantam paperback sat there on my shelf for many years, occasionally catching my eye like a lost lover. But I never picked it back up. Over that time, I did read V, The Crying of Lot 49 and Slow Learner. Gravity's Rainbow hovered: still unread.

A few months ago, I found myself combing through the bookshelves for my copy. It seemed to have disappeared. No matter. I figured that I would easily find a copy at a used bookstore. After several stores in several states, I came to understand that used copies of GR were not so easy to find. So I bit the bullet and biked over to the nearest chain to buy a new one.

Entirely unrelated was my interest in the film 300. I wanted to read Miller's graphic novel before seeing the film. I found 300, a beautiful Penguin Deluxe Edition of GR, and A Gravity's Rainbow Companion: Sources And Contexts for Pynchon's Novel.

Later that evening, after finishing Miller's 300. I picked up GR and the Companion and started in again. As often happens with me these days, it was suddenly a new book. I wondered at the idiot who set it down so long ago. Who was that person? The prose style was stunning, immediately accessible and entertaining. I quickly forgot about my concurrent reading in the Companion and sailed past page 100 finding it difficult to put down. Closing the book, I studied the cover, a sort of splatter abstraction with an outline of falling rocket, turned to the back flap to see if, perhaps, it was a Jackson Pollock. Lo and behold, it was Frank Miller - of the 300. A happy synchronicity.

I then decided to catch up to where I was with the Companion and not but a few pages into that found the author quoting Chaplin's Look Up, Hannah! speech from The Great Dictator. The same speech I posted on the Laughing Bone a short time ago.

I don't think there is anything terribly meaningful about these coincidences. But you sense a part of your self being rung when they occur. When they happen within the pages of a book, it is a beautiful thing. There is laughter in the room. Time outside the book fades. It seems you are reading yourself, that your blood, your innermost self, burns through the letters of the words. And it may be damning, but some of the most important moments of my life have occurred in such a manner, between the covers, inside the pages and deep within the words.