What the Greek Tragedy Told Us About Modern Life

Kokular_Oedipus_and_Antigone

“What’s so interesting about tragedy is even as it confirms what we sort of think is true about life, which is most of us just want to have a medium life, without attracting the ire—or the jealousy—of the Gods, it nonetheless is crucial to look at stories about people who go to the extremes, because it simultaneously satisfies our desire to see the great while confirming the rightness of our choice not to be one of them.

“As someone who was trained as a classicist, it’s basically how I see [contemporary political spectacle], you know. So, these things occur to me. But then there are some things that happen which are so strongly reminiscent of actual Greek material—like the Tamerlan Tsarnaev burial controversy. It’s the first thing you think of as a classicist. The refusal to bury the body of the enemy is a culturally fraught situation that calls into question essential cultural values about what it means to be an enemy and whether there is a transcendent morality that applies even to one’s enemies; and this is of course is the central animating question of Sophocles’ Antigone, and so when that started to happen—the Tsarnaev thing—I just thought, I have to write about this. Because it just shows that the Greeks is not just old stuff that we curate because we think it’s good for you. Greek civilization continues to be vibrant because it’s just that they happen to write or make their art in a very elemental way about questions that are animating to all cultures, and so when these things happen today it seems worthwhile pointing out that this has been dealt with in a sort of incredibly distilled way by a great culture, which happens to be the culture to which we are heirs.”

-Writer and critic Daniel Mendelsohn, on The New Yorker’s Out Loud podcast, talking about Greek tragedy.

(h/t @contextual_life)

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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