Thursday, March 18, 2021

Control and yielding

The pandemic has afforded me more time (perhaps - lol, no, definitely - too much time) to revisit bits of my adolescence and early adulthood, books and albums and poems and things, I guess as a way of seeing what still resonates. I'm currently rereading Paul Woodruff's translation of Euripides' Bacchae - which I have not read since my early 20s - as a way of preparing for reading Anne Carson's translation from 2017 and thinking anew about this passage, from Woodruff's introduction (bolding my own to indicate the author's non-title italics):

Initiation occurs in many cults, but is especially appropriate in the case of Dionysus, the god who has a gift for combining opposites. It is not merely that he is gracious to his votaries and cruel to his enemies; that is said of many gods. Dionysus is a god who takes human form, a powerful male who looks soft and feminine, a native of Thebes who dresses as a foreigner. His parentage is mixed between divine and human; he is and is not a citizen of Thebes; his power has both feminine and masculine aspects. He does not merely cross boundaries, he blurs and confounds them, makes nonsense of the lines between Greek and foreign, between female and male, between powerful and weak, between savage and civilized. He is the god of both tragedy and comedy, and in his presence the distinction between them falls away, as both comedy and tragedy are woven into this extraordinary play. Most disturbing of all, Dionysus blurs the lines between the magnificence of a god, the petty angers of a human being, and the savage power of a lion or wild bull.

We might say, then, that Dionysus appears mysterious because he is mysterious, because it is his special role to undermine the boundaries set by human culture. But Dionysus is not a god of mystery; he is the god of what is known as a mystery religion. Characters in the play are mystified by Dionysus because they are not initiated in his religion, and therefore do not have the clarity of vision that comes through the Bacchic experience. Generally, Greek gods present themselves obscurely to those who are not their favorites, and they blur the vision of those whom they wish to destroy. Dionysus carries this to an extreme in the myth dramatized by the Bacchae.

Initiation is a journey by way of symbolic death and rebirth, from darkness into light, indicating the passage from ignorance to joyful knowledge. The candidate is expected to resist, and is led by a guide through much of the journey. Initiation requires passive acceptance, then, and its clarity cannot be achieved by one's own active powers.

What the initiate comes to know about Dionysus is not his appearance. When Pentheus asks, "You say you saw the god clearly. What did he look like?" Dionysus in human form answers, "Whatever way he wanted. I had no control of that" (477-78). Initiates are beyond the level of appearances; they know Dionysus simply for the power that he is. The chorus is not aware that the young man they follow is actually their god in disguise; but that takes nothing away from their knowledge of the god. They know him well through their common experience of him in the practice of their religion.

If Dionysus is an enigma, he is one to which the chorus of Bacchae knows the answer - and so does the Athenian audience. We modern readers are left in ignorance, partly because of the secrecy surrounding the actual rituals of Dionysus-worship, and partly because even if we knew every detail, we would not have the clarity claimed by initiates because we cannot claim to have felt the god's presence.

The point of the play is not that we should be content with mystery and give up on our ambition for a clear understanding. It is a peculiarly modern error to prize the mystery or ambiguity of Dionysus for its own sake. The point, rather, is that clear understanding comes only by way of initiation, and not by active intellectual efforts. If a deity strikes you as mysterious, that is because you have not been initiated into his or her mysteries. The mystery will only deepen if you try to lead yourself to a solution.

The play keeps before us a running contrast between wisdom and cleverness, a contrast by which modern scholarship (as Nietzsche saw) would be on the wrong side. The chorus would pity or fear us modern scholars, if they could know us through a reversing time machine. Our hard-won knowledge would be mere cleverness in their eyes.

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Maira Gall