My post today is dedicated to the students in my “Existentialism” class that meets at 8:00 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays this current spring quarter, in appreciation for what they have given me.
“The King is Dead! Long Live the King!”
On the morning of September 11, 2001, as I was driving the forty miles from my home to the campus of the university where I teach, then preparing for my first class of that day, which began early, at 8:00 a.m. that quarter, what we have grown accustomed to calling just “September 11” or “9/11,” was taking place two time-zones to the east, in Manhattan. Though “September 11” was already happening as I was going about my normal routine that morning, “September 11” did not happen for me until some time later, after it had already happened back in Manhattan, and anywhere else where someone was watching television or listening to the radio or in some other way keeping up with the happenings around the world that morning as they happened. For me, though, “9/11” did not happen when it happened to such others. For me it didn’t happen till after it had already happened elsewhere, to others. It only happened for me when I went off to teach my early morning class, which happened to be one of my own devising that I have often regularly taught over many years now, a course called “The Addictive Self.”
When I went into class that morning at 8:00 a.m. local time, I could tell immediately that something had happened to my students. There was a low buzz of voices as I entered the classroom, which slowly quieted as I walked down to the front of the class (the class that term was in an auditorium-style room, where the students sat in rows at various elevations in front of the teacher, who stood down there at the bottom of the pit to teach—to me, teaching in such rooms always makes me feel like a Christian thrown to the lions in the Roman Coliseum). Here and there, a few students were crying. Others looked to be on the verge of tears. Some may not have had tears, already or pending, but had blanched faces. So I knew immediately that something was wrong. However, since I had no idea what that might be, I asked the class. Then one young man who always sat in the last, highest, row of the student chairs, at the furthest possible remove from me down in front of the class as the teacher, told me. He said that two planes had flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, and that both towers were “down.” I did not comprehend what he meant at first, by saying the Towers were both “down,” so I asked him what he meant, they were “down.” He then explained it to me.
That is when “September 11” happened to me—well after it was already over, as it were.
As is common enough—there is nothing at all in the least special or unusual about it—I was momentarily non-plussed. For a few seconds at least I did not know what to say or do, in the face of such news. But then my sense of responsibility kicked in, and I felt that, as the teacher of the class those students were in that morning, it was my job to say and do something. At the moment, when I was still recovering from my own initial shock at “9/11” having just the moment before happened to me, the only thing I knew to do was just to go on with my lesson plan for that day’s class, and teach the rest of that day’s class session as planned.
So that, of course, is what I did. And then, almost immediately after class that day, I started to feel guilty about it, that is, about what I had done—or, better, failed to do—that morning of September 11, 2001, when “September 11” happened.
As I soon learned, other teachers, even many at the same university where I teach, had managed that very same day, September 11, 2001, not to be caught as flat-footed by the events of that day as I had proven myself to be. They had all had the simple common sense and simple common human decency to realize what a trauma the whole thing—that is, “September 11”–was for their own students in their own classes. Accordingly, they had made it a point to deviate from their lesson plans for that day, to allow the students the opportunity during class-time just to talk about it with one another and with the teacher, freely and openly just saying whatever they felt they wanted or needed to say. I, however, was such a selfish and self-centered person that all I could think to do was . . . well, nothing—and that in a class, one I’d designed myself, called “The Addictive Self,” of all things, where I should have been modeling how to escape compulsive behavior patterns, rather than modeling how to escape into them, which was what I told myself I had done!
“Bummer!” as those of my generation of Americans were once wont to say.
* * *
Last Monday morning, May 2, 2011, I woke up early, as I usually do, even on days when I am not teaching, as I was not that day. As not infrequently happens, I had my breakfast and my morning coffee ready and waiting for me, before the daily newspaper had been delivered. My wife and I, being of the generation to which we belong, still like to have the old-style paper version of the daily news, to digest with our breakfast, if it’s been delivered by the time that breakfast is ready. When the paper is not there by that time, as it was not that morning when I sat down for my breakfast (alone, since my wife was still asleep), creature of habit that I am, I invariably pick up something else to read as I drink my coffee and eat whatever I’ve prepared for myself.
What I picked up last Monday morning was something I had started to read—or, to be accurate, to reread for the umpteenth time since I first read it back when I was still in high school—the day before. No matter how many times I may have already read it myself, it is a matter of pride for me to reread all the readings I assign students in my classes, to reread those assigned readings yet again just before they come due in the class. That way, I have them fresh in mind—or as fresh, at least, as my aging mind still permits—for class.
Accordingly, that Monday morning I picked up Sartre’s play The Flies, which is his retelling of the old Greek myth of the House of Atreus, as that myth itself was already retold in the great days of ancient Greek tragic drama, in Aeschylus’s great Orestia trilogy. Sartre’s play was written and first performed in Paris under the German Nazi occupation during World War II. It is his retelling not of the whole story of the Orestia, but only of the third and final play of Aeschylus’ great trilogy, The Eumenides.
In Aeschylus’ retelling of the story in the form of a tragic drama, as in the earlier tellings and re-tellings of the same story as myth, Orestes’ slaying of his own mother and step-father is itself just another episode of the carrying out of an ancient curse of the entire House of Atreus that has already spelled doom for Orestes line through a number of generations. That original curse itself, whereby the divine turned away from and against the House of Atreus, came in the first place as divine retribution for the disobedience whereby a patriarch of the Atreides first turned away from and against the divine. The Furies are the figures from Greek mythology through and in whom the divine curse passes on through and to Orestes in his crime of slaying Clytemnestra, his own mother, and Aegisthus, her husband and Orestes’ step-father. Orestes carries out his violent act itself in retaliation for an earlier crime committed by his two victims. In their own, earlier crime, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus conspire together to kill Agamemnon, Orestes’s father and his mother Clytemnestra’s first husband, when he finally returns from long years of war at Troy. That earlier crime, in turn, was itself Clytemnestra’s exacting of vengeance against Agamemnon for his act of sacrificing his and Clytemnestra’s first-born daughter, Iphegenia, a sacrifice demanded of him by the god Poseidon before the latter will allow the Greek forces under Agamemnon’s leadership to pass over the sea to besiege Troy.
This seemingly endless cycle of vengeance and retribution initiated by the original patriarchal act whereby the House of Atreus turns away from the divine is finally broken, the proper balance between the House of Atreus and the divine is finally restored, and the peace of order is at last reestablished when, at the end of the story, Orestes redresses the balance by re-turning to the divine, as represented by his seeking asylum in the temple of the god Apollo. Thus, by the end of the whole story, the wrathful Furies who have theretofore vengefully pursued Orestes turn into the benevolent Eumenides or Kindly Ones who will keep him safe thereafter.*
Sartre retells that same old story to suit his own purposes as an “existentialist”–a term he would later eschew, well after virtually everyone else (including Heidegger and Camus) whom others wanted to call by that name had already done so. First, the Kindly Ones of Aeschylus’s renditions become the Flies in Sartre. They swarm everywhere around Argos, the seat of the House of Atreus, an embodiment of the sense of irremediable guilt and perpetual regret that Aegisthus and Clytemnestra have imposed upon the entire town over which they rule. Annually, in a ceremony led by Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, the people of Argos, gather around a large cave of a tomb on a hillside, to mourn the dead. The boulder which is on all other days firmly in place to close the mouth of the cave is rolled aside once a year, and the dead are let loose for the day to roam among the living, wrecking vengeance on any who may have harmed them when they were still alive.
Most of the action of Sartre’s play takes place on that day of the dead in the very year that Orestes, who as an infant had been carried away to safety by benign hands to be kept safe from his mother and her lover, the two regicides, returns to his home town. Orestes meets his sister Electra as soon as he returns to Argos, to find her filled with hostility and rage toward Clytemnestra and Aegisthus for having murdered her father, and waiting impatiently for her brother, whom she fervently insists is still alive and will someday return to wreck due vengeance on the murderers of their father. Orestes, however, does not reveal his true identity to her right away. He waits till later, at the official ceremony in front of the cave of the dead the next day.
At that ceremony, Aegisthus, Clytemnestra, and all the other townsfolk are attired in the drab and somber clothing so widely and customarily taken to be the proper mode of dress to don when one is in mourning for the dead. Electra, however, who has been ordered to attend, shows up in her best white dress of celebration. Aegisthus, of course, upbraids her for her dress and her demeanor, and admonishes her to show due respect and mourning. Electra replies that she believes her display of gaiety and happiness may well be more pleasing to her dead father Agamemnon—after all, what truly loving father does wish to see his beloved daughter gay and happy?—than all the sackcloth and ashes with which Aegisthus and the others ostentatiously call attention to themselves in their supposed mourning.
As I came to that part of Sartre’s play in my rereading of it on Sunday, May 1, a week or so ago, in preparation for discussing it with my class in two days’ time, I made a note to myself in the margin of my copy. In upshot, my note was a reminder that I wanted the class to look at that passage together, then discuss with me and with one another the question of just what is the right way to remember and mourn one’s dead. In that context, I went on in my note to myself, I wanted to help the discussion along by asking them another, related question, which was whether Electra’s own mocking account of her behavior to Aegisthus and the crowd was the truth of the matter or not. That is, I wanted the students to ask themselves whether Electra’s gay dress really reflected her own gaiety, or whether she was instead just using the conventional garb of gaiety to enact, not her own buoyancy, happiness, and ebullience, but, rather, her deep-seated, simmering—indeed, boiling—rage and wrathfulness.
By raising that question I wanted to get the students to see how Electra’s behavior may well have been no less disrespectful of the dead and mocking of whatever we really do owe the dead by way of genuine mourning of them, than was –as Electra herself sees clearly, and gives us to see clearly, too—the behavior of Aegisthus. I wanted them to see that neither Aegisthus and the approach to mourning he represents, nor Electra and what she represents, are really mourning properly or genuinely at all, at least if mourning is taken to be a matter of rendering the dead what we, the living, may owe them. Rather, both end up, despite and beneath all the obvious, surface differences between them, doing the same thing: using the show and pretense of mourning—the putting on of the uniform or costume of mourning, in effect—to serve their own interests, and not the interest of rendering justice to the dead.
Both Aegisthus and Electra, each in his or her own way, play upon and manipulate the good and expansive impulses at work in genuine mourning, the impulses toward rendering the dead their due, or, alternately worded, toward doing justice toward the dead. Aegisthus manipulates the impulse toward feeling and expressing sorrow in grieving for those one has lost to serve his own selfish purpose of preserving his position of political power and sovereignty. Electra manipulates the positive, appreciative impulse toward joyful gratitude for, and celebration of, the gifts that the dead have given us to serve her own selfish interest by enacting her rage against those she experiences as having wronged her, and inciting acts of retaliation against them.
It was just such matters that I was concerned to raise with my students. In my judgment, it is also Sartre’s own concern to raise the same such matters with audiences seeing performances of The Flies or readers reading it. They were therefore still fresh in my memory on the Monday morning of May 2 this year, the morning after I had reread and marked the passages at issue in Sartre’s play. On that morning of May 2, then, the question of just what it is, to show proper mourning to the dead was very much on my mind, at least as background.
In that sense, I was already predisposed and open toward what happened to me that Monday morning when my morning newspaper eventually arrived and I went outside to get it, then sat back down to finish my coffee while I read it.
As soon as I opened the paper and looked down, the death of Osama Bin Laden happened to me.
The name “September 11,” the name by which we soon came to know the event that happened in Manhattan on the day of September 11, 2001, has ever since that day been inseparably connected with that other name, “Osama Bin Laden,” who died on Sunday, May 1, 2011. Appropriately, just as “September 11” did not happen to me until after it had already happened in New York, and to the millions of people worldwide who had already heard the news of that event before I did, so did the death of Osama Bin Laden only happen to me some time after it already happened in Pakistan, and to millions of people worldwide who knew about it before I did. What is more, just as my first class after “September 11” first happened (in New York) was at 8:00 on a Tuesday morning, so also was my first class after the death of Osama Bin Laden (in Pakistan) on a Tuesday morning at 8:00.
Unlike when “September 11” finally happened to me, however, which was while I was actually in my 8:00 class that term, giving me no time to prepare before my first class after that traumatic event first happened in New York, when the traumatic event of the death of Bin Laden finally happened to me I was graciously granted a bit over one full day to prepare. I took advantage of that opportunity to prepare myself in the best way I knew how. Accordingly, when it went to my first class after Osama Bin Laden died for me, I did what I had not had the chance to prepare to do when “September 11” happened to me: I made the traumatic event of the death of Bin Laden the topic for class that day—in fact, I made it the topic for the day in both my classes, the first being my lower division undergraduate “existentialism” class at 8:00 a.m., the second my seminar in the later Heidegger at noon.
What I have already said about the reading assigned for that day in my 8:00 existentialism class is enough to show what a seamless fit there was in that class between what we were scheduled to talk about—namely, Sartre’s The Flies—and talking about the death of Bin Laden. In fact, I could not have asked for a more perfect fit, because what the death of Osama Bin Laden faced us with was exactly the same thing Sartre’s play faced my class with in the crucial passage I had marked two days before, about Aeschylus and Electra and the question of the proper way to mourn our dead. To talk about what Sartre puts before us to talk about in the scene outside the tomb between Aeschylus and Electra, and to talk about what the death of Osama Bin Laden put before me and my class and, in fact, everyone anywhere to whom the death of Osama Bin Laden has happened, is happening now, or will happen in the future, is to talk about the same thing twice. To talk about those “two” things is really to talk about one and the same thing, just in two different ways.
Whom are we to mourn, and how?
That is the question that the death of Osama Bin Laden puts to anyone to whom that event happens. In exactly the same way, that is the question Sartre’s The Flies puts to anyone who reads it, or who sees the play he wrote performed. Of course, whether we will be able on any given occasion to see or hear what either the death or the play, or both, give us to see or hear, is an altogether different matter. Whether we are given the ears to hear what Sartre’s play says, or the eyes to see what Bin Laden’s death gives us to see, depends on many, many things, only a relatively small number of which are to any significant degree subject to our own control.
Sartre’s play has continued to circulate and reverberate in my experience through all the readings I have given it to date, and will no doubt continue to circulate and reverberate in any subsequent readings I may give to it. All I can do is try to sum up what that play has had to say to me so far–or, alternately worded, try to sum up what I have been given the ears to hear so far in my encounter with it. And that, it turns out, is one and the same thing as that which the death of Osama Bin Laden has had to show me so far, or, to word it alternately too, what the death of Osama has given me eyes to see so far in my encounter with it. Thus, the ears with which Sartre’s play has to date equipped me function in perfect harmony with the eyes with which the death of Osama Bin Laden has to date equipped me.
What both the ears and the eyes that the conjunction of Sartre’s play and Osama Bin Laden’s death have given me to hear and see, and challenged me to try to come to understand, is the question I have already asked above:
Whom are we to mourn, and how?
Just which dead are our dead, given to us to mourn? And, given that it is just those dead who are truly given to us as our own to mourn, just how are we to mourn them rightly?
That is, indeed, the question, so far as I can see, with whatever eyes I’ve been given so far, that I have myself been given to ask—and then, even more importantly to listen as best I can to the answer I am given when I do ask it. In my next post, I will try to articulate what I hear when I so listen.
* It is interesting, and relevant, to note that The Kindly Ones is the title given the English translation of the original French title American expatriate author Jonathan Liddell gave to his own recent, controversial, prize-winning retelling, in French, of the same story. In Lidell’s retelling, he gives the part of Orestes to an utterly and shockingly unrepentant, once-and-still Nazi who is the novel’s fictional narrator. In an acutely accurate, joking reference made by one reviewer, that Nazi narrator is a sort of Forrest Gump character, since he manages to be an eyewitness to all the significant Nazi crimes of the whole Second World War, Holocaust and all. However, just as the Furies at the end of Aeschylus’ play transform themselves into the Eumenides who smile kindly upon Orestes, who emerges unscathed, just so, as the utterly unrepentant Nazi narrator Orestes of Lidell’s long, long novel emerges at the end of the novel, and thus, within the novel, at the end of World War II, in the midst of the horrible ruins and devastation he has himself done so much to help bring about in the first place, all the Nazi carnage in which he has been such a willing and eager participant, not only is he not punished at all, as his crimes so clearly seem to require, but he is even blessed by good fortune in his subsequent life. That is precisely the twist that made Lidell’s retelling of the old myth yet again so offensive to many, reviewers and/or readers (actual or potential) alike.