Tag Archives: Greek tragedy

“We’ll drown ourselves in a sea of mourning”: Women and Greek tragedy in the plays of Federico Garcia Lorca

The phrase “moral luck” seems a contradiction in terms. Our intuitions tell us that our actions can be evaluated as moral or immoral only insofar as we choose to act thus-and-so, actions for which we are, in a sense, responsible. A person who always chooses correctly, therefore, cannot ever do the wrong thing, can never be immoral.

Much of Greek tragedy is spun out of this very question. In her book, The Fragility of Goodness, Martha Nussbaum locates the basis of Greek tragedy in a belief in the irreconcilable conflict of values: if Orestes kills his mother, he is guilty of the crime of matricide. If Orestes doesn’t kill his mother, he is guilty of failing in his son’s duty to avenge his father’s murder. So while Orestes ostensibly has a choice between killing or sparing his mother, in another sense, he has no choice at all – whichever way he chooses, he will commit a grave moral crime – and this, precisely, is the tragedy (reflected in the Athenian jurors voting to a tie when judging him for finally killing his mother). Often, in life, situations will arise, entirely beyond our control, in which we are obliged to choose between two options, both of which involve us in committing wrongful actions. These are the tragedies of our everyday, quotidian lives.

Federico Garcia Lorca’s Rural Trilogy – the three tragic plays, Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba, called so because they are all set in rural Spain, and written in the 1930s – subvert the ideas of tragedy and choice in interesting ways. Each of these plays have their principal characters act in ways that we would normally tend to view as quintessentially motivated by free choice – but each time, Lorca demonstrates how, for individuals existing within oppressive social structures, freedom loses its meaning, and every choice is as compelled and constrained as the song of a caged bird.

Blood Wedding, the first of these plays, is the most striking, because the language of choice runs explicitly through it. Blood Wedding deals with the explosive clash between conventional, clan-orchestrated marriage alliances on the one hand, and individual passion on the other. On the morning of her wedding, the bride’s old lover – himself now a married man – visits her, and she realizes that:

I can’t listen to you. I can’t listen to your voice. It’s as though I’d drunk a bottle of anise and fallen asleep wrapped in a quilt of roses. It pulls me along – and I know I’m drowning – but I do on down.

Apart from the stark imagery, this speech is notable because it sums up the ambiguity that is latent in the play – the question of whether the bride is truly responsible for her actions, or whether she is being driven by forces beyond her power to control or master. The speech has hints of both. The scene plays out further when the two decide to run away on the night of the wedding, setting the stage for the tragedy:

Bride: Oh what lamenting, what fire/ sweeps upward through my head!/ What glass splinters are stuck in my tongue?

Leonardo: What glass splinters are stuck in my tongue!/ Because I tried to forte you/ and put a wall of stone/ between your house and mine./ It’s true. You remember?/ And when I saw you in the distance/ I threw sand in my eyes./ But I was riding a horse/ and the horse went straight to your door./ And the silver pins of your wedding/ turned my red blood black./ And in me our dream was choking/ my flesh with its poisoned weeds./ Oh, it isn’t my fault – / the fault is the earth’s -/ and this fragrance that you exhale/ from your breasts and your braids. 

I too would want to leave you/ if I thought as men should./ But wherever you go, I go./ You’re the same. Take a step. Try./ Nails of moonlight have fused/ my waist and your chains.

It would be simple, at one level, to view this merely as a standard instance of blind-love-overriding-better judgment. But that is not the tone of the play, and that is evidently not how Lorca looks at it: the overwhelming sense one gets is that a culture or society that ceaselessly denies passion the chance to express itself, only makes it inevitable that it will burst out in violence. The bride and Leonardo’s flight, then, is not so much as an individual choice, than the inevitable culmination of human emotion and human need breaking through the dam of conformity.

How culture dictates consciousness forms a central part of the second play, Yerma, which is about a wife who remains childless just because her husband – an ambitious farmer – couldn’t be bothered with it. But Yerma has been trained to believe that a childless mother is, just by existing, a revolt against the very order of things. How she could be so brutally socialized is revealed at various points in the play, perhaps rather eloquently in this para:

Girls like me who grow up in the country have all doors closed to them. Everything becomes half-words, gestures, because all these things, they say, must not be talked about.


Men get other things out of life: their cattle, trees, conversations, but women have only their children and the care of their children.

And once again, we are left with the feeling that the choice to have a child, something that we would all consider to be essentially a matter of free choice, here has acquired the imperative of a command. At a later point in the play, one of the characters says: “the ditch in its place, the sheep in fold, the moon in the sky, the man with his plough”; and that, indeed, I think is the overarching theme of these plays – a society that loves to classify, categorize  and fix places for every individual. Lorca’s plays are precisely when people refuse to accept the place in the hierarchy that has been fixed for them; not because they rebel consciously, but because logically, their suppressed passions and emotions will seek an outlet; and through those actions is tragedy generated.

The last play in the trilogy, The House of Bernarda Alba, is somewhat different. In his portrait of the stifling atmosphere of a cloistered house, ruled over by an iron-willed matriarch, it is oddly reminiscent of Naguib Mahfouz’ Palace Walk (only, the matriarch replaces the patriarch – a point I shall come to later). The House of Bernarda Alba is probably that play of the trilogy in which not only is the suppression of natural passions the most intense (and thus, the eventual tragedy seemingly the most inevitable), but it is also the one in which social structures and cultural hegemony are given their most express treatment. Bernarda pulls no punches, therefore, when she says, “Needle and thread for women. Whiplash and mules for men. That’s the way it has to be for people who have certain obligations.” She is even more intransigent when it comes to denying the passions, claiming that among all her daughters, “none of them has ever had a beau, and they’ve never needed one! They get along very well.” Such extreme suppression must necessarily meet with extreme reaction – in Adela’s passionate protest, “My body will be for whomever I choose,“, and in the eventual unfolding of the tragedy. When Adela says of Pepe el Romano, “Looking into his eyes, I seem to drink his blood in slowly”, it is excess matching excess, in an almost Newtonian-esque connection of inevitability between action and reaction. 

The ambiguity over what, precisely, counts as choice, and whether it really is free, is played out in the form of oppressive social structures placing individual actions in a mirror-image of themselves. So, for instance, the fundamental lack of control that women have over their destinies because of the social system into which they are born is reflected in the exchange between Amelia and Magdalena: “To be born a woman’s the worst possible punishment.” “Even our eyes aren’t our own.” And it’s this precise rhetoric of the absence of control that is then reflected in the individual act of rebellion: “I didn’t want him to [embrace me],” says Adela. “It’s as if I were dragged by a rope.” Coercive social structures compel – nay, force – an equally agency-devoid act of revolt – the latter, in a sense, determined by the former as reaction by action. Where, then, do choice and responsibility and fault and blame come into this? Lorca wisely seeks to provide no answer, but only leaves us – as the best writers invariably do – with a haunting sense of doubt, incompleteness and mistrust of our firmly held convictions. The last, climactic scene of the tragedy, in particular, is of special dramatic brilliance.

A different point. Two out of three plays in the trilogy bear the names of their female protagonists – Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba. That, in itself, is not rare enough to command much surprise: Antigone, Clytemnsestra, Hecuba, Medea, Dido, Salome, Hedda Gabler – are all examples. But what is striking about Lorca’s rural trilogy is that in each of these plays, the climactic act of the drama – the one that sets up the tragedy, so to speak – has been performed by women, and not by women acting as proxies for men (Henry VI, Macbeth), or women acting out of some compulsion that reinforces the patriarchal paradigm overall (e.g., Antigone and Dido); Lorca’s women, however, categorically act as themselves and for themselves; that is not to say that men are barred, but their role in the decision-making process is negligible. In this, Lorca is by no means unique (think of Medea and A Doll’s House), but I think what he is unique in is portraying both the social structures that are designed to destroy women’s freedom, and the struggle of individual women to rebel against those structures by consciously breaking the deepest and most preciously held societal convictions of this sort. Whether they do it entirely freely or not is another question, but Lorca’s women exist in themselves, and not in relation to men. For that, for striking imagery and great atmosphere building, and for an unusually complex exploration of the ideas of choice, freedom and autonomy – may Lorca be continued to be read for many years to come. 


Filed under European Writing, Federico Garcia Lorca, Spain

Kundera, Borges and representation

I would suggest that in his otherwise brilliant books of essays, Testaments Betrayed and The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera makes one serious error of omission. Both these books deal with the history and evolution of the European novel. I will briefly summarise his argument, before explaining my one reservation, and then discussing a very interesting issue about the nature of art, that is thrown up by his analysis.

For Kundera, the history of the novel can be divided like two halves of a football game that is presently in extra-time. The analogy is meant to highlight three clear eras, separated by clean breaks. The history commences with Rabelais and Cervantes in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first “break” occurs towards the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th. And the second, rather more ambiguous dividing line is located somewhere in the early-mid twentieth century.

The first era, of which the stand-out examples are Don Quixote and Gargantua and Pantagruel, is characterised by a disconnect between the world of the novel and the world of reality. Kundera’s example is the amount of times Sancho Panza has his teeth knocked in. He would need four or five pairs of jaws to compensate for that, if he were a real person. Of course, you can replace this example by many similar ones. The episode of the thawing of the frozen words in Gargantua is one that I’ve never forgotten, for instance. In other words, it is not the novelist’s task, it is not the novel’s task, to conform to the laws of physics, the laws of mechanics, and various other laws – or at least, principles, to use a less rigid term – that govern human behaviour.

The second era, of which Kundera quotes Balzac as the paragon, is precisely the opposite, in that the novelist is expected and required to accurately represent the real world. His success is measured by how well he can do that. I haven’t read Balzac, but to my mind, the following two examples fit the bill: Dickens’ painstaking depiction of the workhouse in Oliver Twist, and Victor Hugo’s sixty pages describing the Parisian sewers to the last detail in Les Miserables (you can think of Hugo’s descriptions in The Hunchback of Notre Dame as well). This isn’t restricted to the physical world – characters must behave, act, talk in the way you would expect them to, if they were real people (hence, the idea of the “psychological novel”, of which the great Russians are undisputed masters).

So there, in essence, you have two radically opposed views about the novel. One that couldn’t care two hoots for the world, and the other that insists the novel is measured by how precisely it can represent the world.

“Extra time”, for Kundera, is that which has been initiated by the likes of James Joyce and Kafka in the 21st century, and carried on by the magical realists (he mentions Carlos Fuentes, and I’m quite sure he mentions Gabriel Garcia Marquez at one point). Their work rejects the idea of the novel-as-representation, and hearkens back to the freewheeling fiction of Rabelais and Cervantes. A quick recollection of Ulysses, or the bizarre, winding ways of The Trial and The Castle will illustrate the point that Kundera is making. You could never imagine any of that happening in real life.

Kundera pulls out all the stops. His is a dazzling way of arguing, his prose is (ironically enough) lyrical, and of course, he is controversial – especially in his suggestions about how to read Kafka.

But here is the serious problem: Kundera doesn’t even mention the person who, for me, is the single, most spectacular practitioner in the “extra-time era” of the “extra-time novel”: Jorge Luis Borges. It is surprising, for the magical realists, especially Marquez, have often acknowledged their debt to Borges. Borges’ short stories demonstrate exactly what Kundera is talking about. Think of The Garden of Forking Paths. Think of how it takes our conception of time, and twists it around like a rope, disorienting us entirely; think of The Library of Babel, and its utterly… illogical premise; or The Circular Ruins, and the manner in which it seamlessly blends reality and dream. You couldn’t have a more vehement rejection of the representation philosophy, a more fervent affirmation of the Quixote in us. And so, Kundera’s omission is very surprising.

It’s interesting also to note that Borges in fact makes a very similar point about the novel in his preface to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel. The Invention of Morel is a brilliant, an absolutely mind-blowing short-novel that has never received the credit it deserves; it is also a classically Borgesian novel, taking our most basic conceptions of reality, like time and space, and making us view them through a glass, darkly. Borges, writing the preface to it, makes a very Kundera-esque distinction between “the psychological novel” and “the adventure novel”, and then, very much like Kundera again, makes no secret of the fact that his sympathies lie with the latter.

That said, I think it’s fascinating to note that this debate is not in any sense restricted to the novel. You find it in ancient greek tragedy. For instance, Aristotle quotes Sophocles as saying that “he drew men as they ought to be, and Euripides they are.” There is no doubt that Sophoclean characters (think of Oedipus, of Antigone, even Creon) are essentially larger-than-life, depicting human strengths and weaknesses on a Homeric-heroic scale; while Euripides’ characters are human, all too human. And this dichotomy was recognised and emphasised; it is emphasised by Aristophanes in The Frogs: the contest in the underworld between Aeschylus and Euripides for the crown of the greatest tragedian is conducted around the central question of whether Aeschylus’ epic portrayal or Euripides’ practical one constitutes better tragedy; it is certainly emphasized by Schlegel, when he savagely criticises Euripides’ art in his Lectures on the history of European drama. And then after Aristophanes the comedian, another Aristophanes, the Byzantine historian, would praise the playwright Menander in the following words: “O life and Menander! Which of you imitated the other?” Perfect imitation, worthy of supreme praise – to the extent that it was impossible to distinguish what was art and what, life.

This idea of the relationship between life and art is dealt with, I think, with surpassing and astounding brilliance by Oscar Wilde, in his four magnificent essays on the nature of art. Wilde rejects entirely the idea that art must imitate life, and instead turns it around entirely: life ought to imitate art! At first blush, this sounds like an absurd thesis. But is it, really?

Consider the beautiful ending of Victor Hugo’s poem, Boaz Endormi:

What summer reaper out of times unknown,
In leaving her so carelessly had thrown
That golden sickle in the field of stars?

This is a description of the moon. And Wilde’s point is that if we read this poem, and are affected by it in the way that good poetry affects us, when next we look upon the moon, we will see it differently from the way in which we’ve been seeing it before: we too will see it as a golden sickle in a field of stars. In other words, our world takes its colour, its definition, its characteristics from our art. We look at our world through the lens of our art. Every time that, for instance, that you look at something beautiful, and a metaphor springs unbidden into your mind, it is the world imitating art. “The moon was a ghostly galleon…” – you read that, and how many times do you look up into a stormy, cloudy night, and catch yourself thinking about ships in storm-tossed seas?

I hope to do more justice to Wilde’s argument by examining it in a separate post. But I’d also like to add here that this isn’t even restricted to literature. It pervades the arts. There was a time when it was believed that the best kind of painting was one that most accurately depicted reality. Escher and Dali, to name just two great painters, would take serious issue with that. And then again, interestingly, I recently read that one of the things the impressionists were praised for was how they managed to capture light and movement better than those before them; but also about how a major feature of their art was letting the viewer complete the scene with his imagination. An interesting duality.

I suppose the basic idea is, again, that it’s important to always keep questioning the premises and presuppositions with which we approach a work of art, no matter what type it is – and that includes our presuppositions of what is a work of art – the central and vexed question of identity. I have no categorical views on the representation debate either way, although with the likes of Kundera and Wilde as its spokesmen, I am inclined to cast my lot in with the practitioners of extra-time. But the debate itself, I think, and what it reveals about us and our art, is far more fascinating than whatever conclusion or resolution we arrive at.

Hugo’s Booz Endormi: http://www.textetc.com/exhibits/et-hugo-1.html

The wiki page for The Invention of Morel, by far one of the best books I have ever read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Invention_of_Morel

Links to some classic Borges stories:

The Garden of Forking Paths: http://www.coldbacon.com/writing/borges-garden.html

The Library of Babel: http://jubal.westnet.com/hyperdiscordia/library_of_babel.html

The Circular Ruins: http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~jatill/175/CircularRuins.htm

Oscar Wilde’s essays:

The Critic as Artist: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/1305/

The Truth of Masks: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/1310/

The Decay of Lying: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/1307/

The Rise of Historical Criticism: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/2309/


Filed under 20th Century Anti-Realism, Adolfo Bioy Casares, J.L. Borges, Milan Kundera, Milan Kundera, Modernism, Oscar Wilde