Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition Launched

Breaking News!

On June 1, 2018, Langham Court Theatre launched the 2019 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition! It’s a major new playwriting competition and the world’s richest competition specifically for the writing of tragedy. At stake is $10,000 in prize money, a workshop, and a travel stipend. In addition, Langham Court Theatre may fully produce the winning play as a special event. What more could you want in a playwright competition?

Many thanks to Michelle Buck (Langham Court GM), Keith Digbie (Langham Court board), and Michael Armstrong (competition manager) for their efforts, insights, and belief. I had pitched the idea to Michelle seven months ago. She took it to the board of directors. The board liked the idea and that’s when she introduced me to Keith. We soon realized we needed an experienced competition manager. Keith had worked with Michael before at Theatre BC and brought him on board. And that’s how the team came together.

The official competition site can be found here. There’s a link on the Langham Court Theatre front page that also takes you there. The reaction in this first week and a half has been fantastic. The site’s averaging 150 hits a day. Email responses are coming back calling this competition ‘extraordinary’ and ‘something special’. The competition also has a Facebook presence. Funny thing, as people are cancelling their Facebook accounts over the privacy scandal, I–who’ve never really been active on FB–find myself doing the opposite. Last Monday, I sat down with renowned local critic Janis La Couvée to talk about the project. The interview went on for over an hour at Cafe Fantastico and we talked about how wonderful this project is for both the local and international theatre community. She asked me about how this project started and how it could develop in the coming years. Stay tuned for the full interview.

Here’s the text of the formal press release. At the bottom there’s a PDF copy. Please send it to your theatre contacts!

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: LANGHAM COURT THEATRE PRESENTS THE 2019 RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY COMPETITION\

Langham Court Theatre announces that it is inaugurating a major new playwriting competition, the world’s richest competition specifically for the writing of tragedy: the all-new 2019 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition. At stake is $10,000 in prize money. The winning play will be workshopped in Victoria, BC. A travel stipend will be offered to the winning playwright. In addition, the winning play may be fully produced by Langham Court Theatre as a special event.

Risk theatre is a model of tragedy developed by critic Edwin Wong. In risk theatre, gambling acts lead to unexpected low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. Chance and uncertainty reign supreme. Risk theatre aligns tragedy with modern conceptions of chance by dramatizing the impact of the highly improbable.

This annual competition challenges intrepid playwrights to write 90 – 120 minute plays and closes on March 29, 2019. Entries cost $45. Full competition details can be found at risktheatre.com. Please distribute this release to your members to help spread the word about this exciting opportunity.

For 89 years, Langham Court Theatre has presented nearly 3000 performances with 4000 actors in over 500 shows to 250,000 guests. Established in 1929, Langham Court Theatre is one of Canada’s most successful and longest running community theatres. The theatre seats 177 and is located a ten minute walk from downtown Victoria in the historic Rockland neighbourhood.

Wong believes that the time is right to reboot tragedy. After reading Taleb’s Fooled by Randomnessand The Black Swan, he developed risk theatre to align tragedy with modern concepts of chance and uncertainty. The result is a tragic stage where every dramatic act is a gambling act and risk runs riot. He is currently working on a book Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. His thoughts on theatre can be found at melpomeneswork.com. Wong received a MA in Classics from Brown University where he concentrated on ancient theatre.

Contacts:

Michael Armstrong, Competition Manager

Edwin Wong, Sponsor

Keith Digby, Langham Court Theatre

via: tragedycompetition [at] gmail [dot] com

Risk Theatre Press Release

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and now I’m in the midst of doing Melpomene’s work!

The Myth of Risk Theatre (A Myth of Tragedy)

Many thanks to PL for inviting me to take the Risk Theatre tour to the University of Massachusetts, Boston! And thank you to all the students who came out on a sweltering summer day at the end of term to see the presentation! The feedback was great and I could see at the end of the presentation that some gears were turning. And why is it that I can only go to Boston during weather extremes? Last time I was here was during the “bomb cyclone” in January. And it must have hit 30 C today, and it’s only the beginning of May! Well, assiduous readers, here’s the presentation for your reading pleasure:

Presentation Delivered to Peter Lech’s Greek and Roman Tragedy Class

Classics 375, McCormack Room 417

University of Massachusetts, Boston

May 2, 2018

 

The Myth of Risk Theatre

 

How do myths function? One of their functions is to translate nature and culture into human terms. By telling a story, they instill human significance onto natural and cultural phenomena. How did the custom of young women dedicating a lock of hair prior to marriage arise? Why is there a temple of Aphrodite at Troezen? The Hippolytus myth answers these questions by incorporating nature and culture into a story filled with human significance. According to the myth, Phaedra built the temple after Aphrodite caused her to fall in love with Hippolytus. As for the custom, it was initiated by Artemis as a consolation to the dying Hippolytus: he would die, but his dedication to her would be remembered forever. Here’s another one: why does that star seem to blink every six days? Science would tell you it’s a variable star called Algol. But what myth would tell you is that that star is part of Medusa’s head in the constellation Perseus—you have to imagine that he’s holding up her severed head—and, what is more, that star denotes her eye: it blinks because by blinking, it signifies her power to turn to stone. So, one function of myth is to inscribe meaning onto patterns found in nature and culture, patterns which otherwise lack meaning. Myth helps us to understand the world in human terms.

What I’m going to give you today is a myth of tragedy called ‘risk theatre’. Just as the myth of Medusa or the myth of Hippolytus humanize the world around us, my ‘myth’ of risk theatre provides a framework of tragedy. I call it a myth because it’s not right or wrong, but a story of how tragedy works. In particular, risk theatre addresses a peculiar question: how can tragedy create suspense if it dramatizes popular, well-known myths? The stories of the Labdacid House (that’s Oedipus’ family) or the House of Atreus (that’s Orestes’ family) are so well-known that everyone knows how the story ends. Since the outcomes are foreknown, it’s hard for the stories to generate suspense. Take a look at Homer’s handling of the Oedipus myth. In Book 11 of the Odyssey, commonly referred to as the nekuia(after the ancient rite used to summon ghosts),Odysseus tells the story of his journey to the underworld where he sees the shade of Jocaste, Oedipus’ wife. He speaks a matter-of-factly about Oedipus’ crimes and how Jocaste committed suicide. There’s no suspense in Homer’s rendition of the myth. It’s bare bones. And it can be bare bones because everyone knows the tale. For Sophocles to keep audiences sitting on the edge of their seats, he has to get around the spoiler alert. How does he do this?

Here’s the solution risk theatre prosposes: the dramatic kernel of tragedy is a gambling act in which the protagonist wagers all-in. Because each dramatic act is a gambling act, unexpected things can happen. Bets can go wrong. And the bigger the bet, the more it can go sideways. The dramatist’s role is to suppress the odds of the foreknown outcome to make it seem like what must happen is not going to happen. Then, when it happens, it’s exciting.

In other words, the hero makes a big bet. Things seem to go the hero’s way. Because of the hero’s intelligence, skill, or strength, the hero appears to avert the outcome everyone knows is coming. But then an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event happens which brings about the foreknown outcome. Tragedy dramatizes a bet which has gone horribly sideways. That’s why I call tragedy risk theatre.

That tragedy is a gambling act and that dramatists trigger the foreknown outcome by a low-probability, high-consequence event are the two postulates of risk theatre. Let’s look at both these postulates, beginning with how tragedians deliberately suppress the likelihood of what must happen to the point where, when it happens, it seemsto have happened against all odds.

By a low-probability event, I mean an event that is unlikely, an event that is 1000:1 against, an event such as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In Shakespeare’s play the witches tell Macbeth that nothing can harm him until Birnam Wood removes to Dunsinane Hill. It’s highly unlikely for the trees to take up their roots and hike up the hill. But when the troops camouflage themselves under Birnam Wood, the low-probability, high-consequence event unfolds. Macbeth is caught flat-footed. All is lost. The play generates suspense by making it seem like the foreknown event (Birnam Wood’s going to come) is unlikely. Let’s take a look at some of the tragedies you’ve studied to see how ancient tragedians entertain audiences by suppressing the likelihood of the outcome everyone knows is coming.

Euripides’ play, the Bacchae, pits man against god. Although you know from the myth that Pentheus dies, Euripides’ goal as a dramatist is to suppress the foreknown conclusion so that when it takes place, it’s exciting. How does he do this? Look at how he portrays the rivalry between Dionysus and Pentheus. Dionysus is portrayed as a ninety-eight pound weakling who waltzes into Thebes with a retinue of eastern women. He’s cast as a drunk foreign dandy with long hair and scented locks who spends his days and nights cavorting around town. Pentheus, on the other hand, is cast as a capable warrior-king. He’s at the prime of manhood, fights before the home crowd, and has at his beck and call slaves, guards, archers, and soldiers. Pentheus has every expectation of prevailing. With all his resources, he’s going to throw this hobo out of town. But when, against all odds, the effeminate stranger turns out to be god, the fated outcome takes place and Pentheus is torn limb by limb. The closing lines—the same ones Euripides uses in many other plays—make it absolutely clear that he too conceived of tragedy as a theatre where unexpected low-probability events happen. Closing line are critical and ought to be read with care. That Euripides writes these lines confirms the risk theatre model of tragedy. Here are the lines as spoken by the chorus leader:

What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. (1388-1392)

Now, let’s look at the next play: Aeschylus’ Oresteia. This trilogy culminates in a showdown between Orestes and the Furies. The foreknown outcome is that the spirits of vengeance, the Furies, are transformed into the ‘Kindly Ones’ or the Eumenides, benevolent spirits who watch over Athens. Aeschylus’ goal as a tragedian is to suppress the foreknown conclusion so that when it takes place, it’s unexpected. How does he do this? He does so by emphasizing the extraordinary length of time the Furies have been engaged as spirits of vengeance. The Furies are the daughters of Night (Eum. 321). And Night is the offspring of Chaos, the eldest of all deities. That means the Furies have been persecuting blood crimes from the beginning of time, in fact, from way back when Kronos first castrated his father Ouranos. When the Furies come to the court of the Areopagus, they have every intention of winning. Who would have guessed that Orestes’ act of violence, from all the acts of violence from the beginning of time would result in the Furies being transformed into the Eumenides? The way Aeschylus frames it, it’s unlikely, and because it’s unlikely, when it takes place, it’s shocking.

Think of these events as ‘black swan’ events. This is the term popularized by Taleb, a mathematician and Wall Street trader in his books Fooled by Randomnessand The Black Swan. The term ‘black swan’ goes back to the Roman poet Juvenal, who used it as a byword for something that doesn’t exist. But then in 1697, to the shock of the world, they sighted a black swan in Australia. Taleb uses the black swan as a visual analogy of low-probability, high-consequence events. What I’m arguing today is that tragedy is full of black swan events: the bum who happens to be god, the forest that up and attacks the ramparts, or the day the Furies became the Eumenides.

Now, let’s look at a third play, Sophocles’Oedipus rex. We touched earlier on Homer’s bare bones narration of the Oedipus myth. Not very exciting. How does Sophocles add fire to the dramatization?—easy, he transforms the outcome into a black swan event. Everyone watching knows that Oedipus’ patricide and the incestuous relationship is going to be revealed. Sophocles, however, structures the play so that it looks like that no one will ever figure it out. How does Sophocles achieve this? Let’s take a look. The one eyewitness’ account of Laius’ murder is so garbled that they don’t bother to fetch him. At least not right away. So, we’re not going to hear from him. Tiresias, who knows since he’s the prophet, obstructs the investigation. So, we’re not going to hear from him either. Jocaste, who has been warned by the oracle she would give birth to a patricide, tells Oedipus point blank that the oracle must be wrong, since she exposed the child. She doesn’t know that the child survived. So, we’re not going to hear from her. In fact, the evidence against the truth coming out is so overwhelming that the chorus stops dancing in the second stasimon and asks: “Why should I dance?” (896). The gravity of their jarring pronouncement should not be underestimated. Their question would have shocked audiences who knew that the chorus’ role in tragedy isto dance. Tragedy is part of the ancient liturgy and the chorus dances to honour the gods. But if the gods are a fraud—and it’s beginning to look that way because the oracle is just looking plain wrong—why should they honour the gods?

Look: the eyewitness isn’t going to tell them because they didn’t summon him. Not yet. Tiresias isn’t going to tell him. And Jocaste tells him that the oracle dead wrong. If the Delphic oracle is mistaken and the gods can’t be trusted, what’s the point of dancing? Even after the chorus stops dancing, things appear to get even worse: the Corinthian messenger comes out of nowhere to tell Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne because his dad Polybus died. This really throws Oedipus into shock: years ago, when the oracle prophesied that he would be a patricide, he had run away from home. And now, he finds out that dad died of natural causes. Things are looking worse and worse for the oracle. It looks like the truth will never come out. But when Oedipus tells the messenger why he left Corinth, the truth finally tumbles out. “Don’t worry about your dad” says the messenger, “he’s not really your dad.” “How do you know this?” “Well I saved you when you were a babe and your real parents had exposed you. You’re actually from Thebes.” “Who are my real parents?” “Well you have to ask the shepherd. He gave me to you.” “Oh, you mean the shepherd that I just summoned?—the one who is the sole surviving witness of Laius’ murder at the crossroads.” “Yes, that’s the one.” See where this is going? What are the odds of a messenger, and not any messenger, but this messenger coming to Thebes at this exact moment? And what are the odds that the shepherd who had saved Oedipus when he was a babe just happens to be the sole surviving witness of Laius’ murder? I’ll tell you: the odds are as likely as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill or the madman actually being a god or the Furies being transformed into the Eumenides: it’s a billion to one against. And when it’s a billion to one against, when it happens, it’s dramatic.

Okay, by definition, low-probability events don’t happen very often. But, as we’ve seen, in tragedy, they happen every time. How does the dramatist set up the low-probability event so that it always happens? Do any of you gamble? Then you know, the more you wager, the more things can go wrong, up to the point when you bet everything, anything can go wrong. Lay down the bankroll, leverage yourself up 100:1, go in with all your friends’ and family’s money: if the odds are anything less than perfect, the consequences are huge. Even if the odds are 99.99 percent in your favour, when you go all-in, that 0.01 percent can ruin you. Risk theatre is where that 0.01 percent happens.

The secret of how the dramatist tees up the low-probability, high-consequence risk event is that in tragedy, each dramatic act is also a gambling act. And not any gambling act, but an all-in leveraged up to the gills gambling act. For a chance to be king, Macbeth lays down the milk of human kindness. Like the game of gambling, in tragedy you have to ante up for a chance to play. But unlike the game of gambling, where you lay down cash instruments, in tragedy, you lay down human instruments. For world domination, Faust lays down his soul. For revenge, revengers lay down their humanity. For the American dream, Loman (in Death of a Salesman) lays down his dignity. Pentheus bets everything that the stranger is some bum and not god personified. He lays on the line his authority as king: no bum is going to start seditious rites while he sits on the throne. Oedipus bets that he can outwit the oracle: “You prophecy I’ll kill dad?—I’ll show you! I’m Oedipus, the master riddler. I can solve anything, and I’ll solve you!” And the Furies stake their prerogative as the punishers of blood guilt on the precedence of tradition.

When you lay so much on the line, you expose yourself to low-probability, high-consequence events because you’ve taken up too much risk. For Macbeth, Birnam Wood came. For Loman, he finds out that he’s worth more dead than alive. For Pentheus, the bum happens to be god. And for the Furies, this time was different. Who would have thought?

At the beginning I promised you a myth of tragedy. What I’ve given you is risk theatre, and its framework helps you find your way around tragedy in the same way as constellations light up a road map of the night sky. And just like constellations, risk theatre works brilliantly most of the time. The constellation Orion works great: there’s the shoulders, the belt. But then there’s a constellation like Gemini where you have to squint pretty hard to see Castor and Pollux. And just as you wouldn’t throw out the whole system of constellations because one or two don’t work, you wouldn’t throw out risk theatre for the one or two tragedies that defy it. Ultimately, risk theatre adds to our understanding because it answers the question of how tragedy can be exciting even though spoilers have marred the ending.

Think of tragedy as a theatre of risk where heroes go big or go home. Because heroes make risk run riot with their wagers, think of each dramatic act as a gambling act. When characters stake their souls, allegiances, and reputations, and leverage all their military, social, and political capital to achieve their aims, things get interesting real fast because we see by how they set up their wagers how much they value life. A gallon of milk is worth $4.99, but how much is the milk of human kindness worth?—to Macbeth, it’s worth a Scottish crown, because that’s what he antes up: the milk of human kindness for the crown. Tragedy is an arbiter of life’s value. Think of the tragic emotions not as pity and fear, but rather anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for what the hero wagers and apprehension for the black swan event that’s going to dash the hero, the hero’s friends and family, and the community at large.

Think of the downfall of the hero as something brought about by pure chance rather than a tragic flaw or error. The aged Oedipus, in Sophocles’ final play Oedipus at Colonus, says this exactly: “Okay, when it happened, I thought I had done something wrong, but now, looking back, how else shouldI have acted? Where exactly was my error?—I was dealt a certain hand and I played the game flawlessly.” To blame an Oedipus or a Macbeth or a Pentheus for a tragic flaw is as inane as to blame, say, the Cincinnati Kid for going all-in on the final poker hand against Lancey in Richard Jessup’s novel. He has to play that hand, and it’s only when Lancey makes the most unexpected move that he loses. He could not have known that Lancey would “make the wrong move at the right time.” In the same way, what was Pentheus supposed to do when the seditious foreign stranger waltzes into town: kneel down and worship him? Folks, it’s chance. Not error. Stop looking for error and look instead at the role chance plays. The point of risk theatre is that it enlightens us that chance plays a much larger role in our lives than what we’re comfortable admitting. In tragedy, even fate must work through the mechanisms of chance.

This idea of risk theatre I’ve been developing for over ten years, and I’m very happy to let you know it’s more than theory. Langham Court Theatre, one of the most storied and successful community theatres in Canada, has just now signed on to inaugurate a 2019 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition. We’re challenging dramatists worldwide to write bold and exciting risk theatre tragedies. We’re giving away over $10,000 in prize money. And we’re going to produce the winning play. Not only this year. Every year. We’re going to reinvent tragedy. The site is at risktheatre.com. Theatre spelled with a –re ending. The site’s not quite live. But I can give you the password: 1974. Take a look. See if you can figure out that poker hand on the illustration.

Here’s a parting thought I’d like to leave you with. I’ve known Peter for a long time. We went to Brown together in the 2000s. He was studying speech patterns in Roman comedy and I was grappling with how tragedy functions. Thank you, Peter for the opportunity to speak today. After Brown, I came back to Canada to take up my old job. You know, by trade, I’m not an academic and not a thespian. I’m a plumber. But I never lost sight of my goal. And despite the long odds, it looks like the goal’s getting closer. And you know the odds are long when the border guard looks at you real funny when you say that you’re speaking on theatre and your occupation is plumbing. So I encourage you all, no matter what your goals are, to chase them down. If I can do it, you can too. Because, you know, if you stay hungry and keep going, despite the long odds, sometimes the low-probability, high-consequence event will work out in your favour. Thank you.

18.05.umass

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

Thanks to Professor LB and the Department of Greek and Roman Studies for setting up this seminar. And thanks to all the students and faculty who came out on a cold and snowy Friday afternoon. Great turnout (we packed the conference room) and very receptive audience for this homecoming lecture. Judging from the discussion period that followed the presentation, there’s a sharp band of students at UVic! My old roommate TS from the happy days of UVic undergrad (who’s know Professor TS of English Literature) received a research grant to fly out to hear the talk, so that was extra fun! The core of this presentation was delivered at the APA earlier this year. This version has been revised to take into account the feedback from APA which was: hammer home the point that the gate assignations are random. The preconceived (and likely mistaken) notion that Eteocles decides the assignations remains very strong with readers of the play. If the assignations are random (as I argue), the play is actually quite fun, dramatic, and full of suspense. If the assignations are decided and preordained (as others argue), the play is quite static. Which would you rather have? BTW the image on the poster is from the Exekias Vase and it depicts Achilles and Ajax playing dice. Probably a high-stakes game as they have their spears handy just in case!

Exekias Vase

DEPARTMENT OF GREEK AND ROMAN STUDIES SEMINAR

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 23 2:30 PM CLEARIHUE B415

 

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

 

I present to you a question: does it seem that tragedy in general—not just Greek tragedy—goes out of its way to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence outcomes? Low-probability refers to events are that are unlikely, events that are 1000:1 against, events such as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In Shakespeare’s play, the witches tell Macbeth that nothing can harm him until Birnam Wood removes to Dunsinane Hill. It’s highly unlikely that the trees will take up their roots and hike up the hill. But when the troops camouflage themselves under Birnam Wood, the high-consequence event unfolds. Macbeth is caught flat-footed. All is lost.

 

We see something similar in Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. The messenger comes out of left field to tell Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne, and, oh, by the way, your parents aren’t who you think they are. How do I know that?—well, I saved you when you were a babe and your real parents had exposed you. Who are my real parents?—well, you have to ask the shepherd. What are the odds of a messenger, and not any messenger, but this messenger coming to Thebes at this exact moment? It’s as likely as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. But it happens, and the outcome has high consequences, as Oedipus goes from being a king to an outcast.

 

This presentation is on how tragedy dramatizes low-probability, high-consequence events. But there’s one problem: how do we know that an event in tragedy is unlikely? Something has to happen, and anything that happens is, in a way, unique. How do we quantify the odds of what takes place against what did not take place?

 

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes is the one unique play where it’s possible to quantify the odds of what didn’t happen. In Seven, seven attacking captains lay siege to seven-gated Thebes. One brother, Polyneices, marshals the attack. Inside Thebes, the other brother, Eteocles, coordinates the defence. The worst-case scenario occurs if the brothers meet at the seventh gate. They would shed kindred blood and miasma would result. If they go to different gates, the worst-case scenario is averted. Or, if they find themselves at a gate prior to the seventh gate, Eteocles could substitute another captain in his place. But the worst-case scenario occurs if they’re both at the final gate, as substitutions are no longer possible.

 

With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario? Let’s look at this this way. What are the odds of rolling a six on a six-sided die? There’re six equally probable outcomes, so the answer is 1:6. Now what are the odds of rolling two sixes? The outcome of two independent rolls is the product of their individual probabilities. 1:6*1:6=1:36. Now, if there are seven gates, and the assignations are random, there’s a 1:7 chance that Eteocles goes to the seventh gate. The odds of Polyneices going there are the same, 1:7. So we multiply the odds together and find that, the odds of the worst-case scenario is 1:49. Now, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario not happening? The answer is 48 out of 49 times. See how Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize the likely scenario, but rather the worst-case scenario which is 48:1 against. Thanks to Seven, we can quantify how tragedy goes out of its way to deliberately dramatize low-probability, high-consequence events.

 

But—how do we know that the process of assigning gates to the attackers is random? Easy. The scout tells us:

 

As I was leaving

they were casting lots (klhroumevnou~), each to divine by fortune

against which of our gates he would lead his battalions (77-9, trans. Hecht & Bacon)

 

Since the attackers draw lots, it stands that Polyneices’ chance of going to the seventh gate is 1:7. How do we know that the process of assigning gates to the defenders is random? That’s harder. It’s not explicit. Eteocles tells us at the conclusion of the first episode that:

 

I will go and assign six men, myself the seventh,

all fully armed oarsmen,

against the champions at the seven exit-points of the city. (357-60)

 

Now, when he says that he “will assign six men, myself the seventh” he doesn’t necessarily mean he’s stationing himself at the seventh gate. So why say this odd phrase?—“assign six men, myself the seventh.” I like Roisman’s explanation: “it is an image of bad luck, since the number 6 + 1 [in dice games] was considered an unlucky throw.”[1] I want to seize and expand this point. There’s something ludic about this play; it exudes a sort of gambling hall or lottery atmosphere. We’ve already talked about how the attackers draw lots and the unlucky 6 + 1 gambling reference. Let’s add to this. For instance, Eteocles remarks as he dispatches Melanippus to face Tydeus that: “The chances of battle are as dice (kuvboi~) in the hands of Ares (511).” What other gaming references are there? Well, when Eteocles interprets the matchup between Hippomedon and Hyperbius, he says: “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair (624).” Hermes, as Hecht and Bacon note, is invoked in his capacity as the god of luck and fortunate coincidence. Finally, the scout tells us after the brothers die that “they have shared out by lot (dievlacon) their full inheritance (1039).” The lottery image, along with the ship of state image, are the two dominant metaphors of this play. Because of the lottery imagery, I’m convinced that a random process must be involved in how Eteocles assigns the defenders. After all, why would he say that “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair” unless they were brought together under Hermes’ tutelage as the god of lots? And why would the scout say that the brothers “have shared out by lot their full inheritance” unless a lottery process was involved in the assignations?

 

I want to share with you that Seven was the first Greek tragedy I read. When I first read it, I thought for sure that Eteocles decides the assignations on the spot, during the shield scene itself. The scout would report and he would say: “Oh, I just have the right guy to neutralize him.” In hindsight, that’s a very modern reading as that’s how a general would decide today. But how would this fit in with the lottery images? It doesn’t. Later I read Zeitlin’s Under the Sign of the Shield where she points out that Eteocles clearly says he’s going to decide the assignations before he meets the scout.[2] But then I thought: “Eteocles decides?—then what’s the point of all the lottery and gambling images?” Then I heard Weckler and Wilamowitz’ argument that some assignations are done before, and some during. While this solves the problem of the tenses, as during the shield scene sometimes Eteocles says “I shall station,” and at other times “He has been chosen,” it seems unnecessarily complicated. Because of the lottery references, I was ready to say that Eteocles decides by lot before he meets the scout. But when I recently read Herrmann’s conjecture, I was immediately convinced: he conjectures that Eteocles decides by lot during the shield scene itself.[3] Herrmann’s conjecture is brilliant. When Eteocles says that he’s going to assign the men before the scout comes, he’s putting their names in the helmet. As for the tenses, as he picks up the lot he can be saying “I will appoint” or “He has been already appointed.” Furthermore, Herrmann’s conjecture gives Eteocles something dramatic to do during the shield scene and, what is more, it means that, the defender assignations, like the attacker assignations, are random. Because all the assignations are random, all the possible matchups at each of the gates exist only as a probability until the moment when the lots are drawn. Because all the outcomes exist as probabilities, we can quantify the exact odds of what takes place against what did take place to verify how tragedy engages audiences with low-probability, high-consequence scenarios.

 

Could Aeschylus and his audience have worked out that the worst-case scenario is averted 48 out of 49 times? No. Sambursky, a historian of science, finds that the lack of both algebraic notation and systematic experimentation held the Greeks back from discovering the laws of probability.[4] The laws of probability would not develop until Cardano starts counting up the number of throws possible with dice two millennia later. But we know that the Greeks were able to understand the concept, if not the math of combinatorial analyses. Xenocrates, for example, mistakenly calculates that, by mixing together the letters of the alphabet, 1,002,000 unique syllables are possible.[5] Despite not being able to compute the exact odds, Aeschylus and his audience would have recognized that the odds of the brothers meeting at the highest gate was an exceedingly low-probability affair.

 

Besides the objective remoteness of the worst-case scenario, what subjective cues give Eteocles hope things will go his way? First, there’s the enemy’s disarray. Their morale is so low that they’re already dedicating memorial tokens to send back home. One of their captains says outright that he’s going to die. They also attack before their seer gives the signal. And there’s infighting between their captains. Contrast this with the improving morale of the chorus of Theban women, who function as a barometer of morale within the city: they start off in panic, but by the first stasimon, Eteocles wins them over. Many indications give Eteocles subjective hope.

 

The surest indication that things will go his way comes in the shield scene. In the shield scene, the scout describes, gate by gate, the attacking captain’s appearance, demeanor, and shield device. Eteocles, in turn, draws the lot to determine the defender and interprets the tale of the tape. Since chance is a reflection of god’s will, you can tell from the random matchups which side heaven favours. In the game of knucklebones, for example, rolling the Aphrodite throw (1, 3, 4, and 6) was considered a propitious sign from the goddess. So, to make up an example, if the bad guy carries a brutal monster on his shield, and your guy happens to be carrying a shield depicting a peasant farmer, that’s heaven telling you: “Your guy’s going to die.” So, how do the matchups work out? Well, in aggregate, the matchups overwhelmingly favour Eteocles. For example, the attacker at the fourth gate sports a Typhon device and he happens to be matched up against the defender bearing the Zeus shield: in myth Zeus had tamed Typhon. Or, as it happens, the attacker at the first gate who shouts out impieties is matched up with a defender who just happens to be “a noble man who honours the throne of Reverence (503).” So, gate by gate, as Eteocles sees the matchups unfolding, he grows more confident.

 

Objectively, the worst-case case scenario is buried deep in the odds. Subjectively, everything’s going his way. He’s unified the city. The matchups look better and better. But what’s happening? The odds of the worst-case scenario go up gate by gate each time the brothers’ lots don’t come up. At the first gate, the worst-case odds are 1:49. At the second gate, they go up to 1:36. By the sixth gate, they’ve escalated to 1:4. See what’s happening? Paradoxically, as he becomes more confident, he’s actually in greater danger, till the point when he’s most confident, at that point he’s in the greatest danger. Even as the situation becomes subjectively better, objectively things are becoming much worse. At the sixth gate, with his cheeks flush with the glow of wine and his hair all but adorned in ivy, as he dispatches Lasthenes to confront Amphiaraus, he seals his own doom in a stunning twist of fate. When the scout announces Polyneices stands at the seventh gate, the low-probability, high-consequence event comes to pass. The event was objectively low-probability because the odds that it happens is 48:1 against. The event was subjectively low-probability because everything was going his way. Tragedy is an engine that makes even foredoomed outcomes exciting by discounting the odds of the inevitable taking place.

 

I think these low-probability, high-consequence events are commonplace throughout tragedy. Take Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. Like Eteocles, Oedipus has played his hand well. Everything’s going his way. “Don’t worry,” says the Corinthian messenger, “you’re really not from Corinth. You’re going to be king of two cities.” At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event happens and Oedipus loses all. Or take Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Like Eteocles, Macbeth has played his hand well. “Nothing can harm you,” say the witches. At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event unfolds: Birnam Wood. Can you see a general trend?—at the point of maximum confidence, an unexpected, low-probability event unfolds with high consequences.

 

This way of looking at tragedy I call risk theatre. To me, tragedy’s function is to warn us that at our point of maximum confidence, we are, paradoxically, in the gravest danger. In this way, tragedy speaks to our confident age, an age of both great risk and great reward. While I was writing this, an article appeared in Wired magazine on November 16 on gene editing.[6] In the US, the entomologist Akbari is working on a gene drive, a way to supercharge evolution by forcing a genetic modification to spread through an entire population. With the gene drive, he can take flight away from mosquitoes and vanquish malaria—promising, of course, minimal disruption to ecosystems. And on November 17, USA Today reported that in Italy, Doctor Canavero was getting ready to do the world’s first head transplant on a human being.[7] What could go wrong?—they had already done the procedure on a dog. Akbari and Canavero are confident, and have the best-laid plans. But so did Oedipus, Eteocles, and Macbeth. In today’s technological age of manufactured risk, tragedy ought to and should be seen as a theatre of risk, as we moderns have a moral obligation to come to terms with the low-probability, high-consequence ramifications of our actions. And what better place to explore these than through drama? We emerge from risk theatre with eyes wide open. And I think, if you look at tragedy as a theatre of risk, it will guide you well because you’ll be better apprised that the things that hurt you come where you least expect. I’ll finish by saying that I’ve written a book on risk theatre and that I’m in high-level talks with theatres to produce new tragedies based on this exciting concept. Thank you for listening, and I welcome your feedback on risk theatre, the theatre that guarantees low-probability outcomes, every time.

 

Edwin Wong

edwinclwong@gmail.com

[1] Roisman, Hanna M. “The Messenger and Eteocles in the Seven against Thebes,” in L’antiquité classique, vol. 59, 1990, 22.

[2] Zeitlin, Froma I., Under the Sign of the Shield, 45.

[3] Herrmann, Fritz-Gregor, “Eteocles’ Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, in Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought, ed. Douglas Cairns, Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2013, 58ff.

[4] Sambursky, “On the Possible and the Probable in Ancient Greece,” Osiris 12 (1956) 35-48.

[5] Plutarch, Quaestiones convivales 733a.

[6] Molteni, Megan, “This Gene-Editing Tech Might be too Dangerous to Unleash,” Wired, November 16, 2017.

[7] Hjelmgaard, Kim, “Italian Doctor Says World’s First Human Head Transplant ‘Imminent’,” USA Today, November 17, 2017.

2018 SCS Society for Classical Studies (SCC) Annual Meeting

Ever heard of the term ‘bomb cyclone’ or ‘explosive bombogenesis’? Lots of people haven’t. But on January 3rd, lots of people learned what a bomb cyclone and explosive bombogenesis are. The strength of a storm depends on the air pressure: the lower the pressure, the more intense the storm. Why is this? Air is being sucked up during the storm, so the lower the pressure at ground level, the more air is being moved up. ‘Bomb cyclone’ or ‘explosive bombogenesis’ is a measure of how quickly air pressure drops. If pressure drops more than 24 millibars in 24 hours, the result is a bomb cyclone or explosive bombogenesis. Between Jan 3-4, the pressure of the Nor’easter known as winter storm Grayson that was ripping up the east coast dropped 50 millibars. The result was over a foot of snow from Virginia to New Hampshire, flooding along the coasts, wind gusts of up to 120 km/h, and arctic blasts taking the temperature down to -30C (add wind chill to this and this is the chill that goes straight into the bones. Of course, during this time I was travelling to talk at the 2018 SCS in Boston. Not a good idea.

The flight was originally scheduled to depart Victoria Wednesday evening and arrive in Boston Thursday morning. The SCS Greek tragedy panel was scheduled to convene Friday morning at 8AM, so that gave me 24hrs. Lots of time. Or so I thought. The first indication of trouble was a call from WestJet Wednesday morning. They told me Pearson and Logan airports were shutting down. They wouldn’t be able to get me into Boston until 930AM Friday. That doesn’t work. After being on hold for an hour, they were able to reroute the flight: Victoria-Seattle-Detroit-Manchester, NH. The agent had travelled from Manchester to Boston before and remembered that this was a possibility. From Manchester, I would catch a bus. But the catch was I had to leave right away. Okay, it’s a few connections, but game on! I hadn’t packed yet, but I pack light: one backpack. I threw everything in and bolted out the door. Time: just after lunch on Wednesday.

Flash forward. Now it’s early morning Thursday, January 4. Made it into Detroit. Made it into the States. Made it past the customs officer who was having serious doubts about my motives. He asked me the reason why I was travelling. I told him I was presenting at a conference. He asked which university I was affiliated with. I told him I was a free agent, this was a hobby. He asked me if I was getting paid. I said no. It turns out if you travel on your own coin to present a really interesting idea, this raises flags! He eventually let me through after logging onto the SCS website to confirm I was really speaking. I also had to show him a copy of my speech, which, fortunately, I had on me. You know, now I reflect on it, maybe my case is odd. After all, who would spend their own money to tell people about interesting ideas? Silly me!

Now in Detroit waiting for the flight to Manchester. Buses between Manchester and Boston have stopped running. So I’d have to stay overnight in Manchester and catch the first bus out on the 5th. That’s cutting it close, but it’d still get me there in time. 2 o’clock rolls around. Manchester flight delayed, delayed some more, than cancelled. Ouch! But then there are two flights into Boston at 5:36 and 7:36 that are still a go. The storm in Boston ends 7PM so by the time the planes get there from Detroit, the storm would have subsided. Delta rebooks me for the 5:36. Flash forward to 5PM. Flight to Boston delayed once, delayed twice, and then cancelled! Everything into Boston is now cancelled until Friday, January 5. Now this is looking bad to get to SCS in time. Getting bummed out. But hey, one last hope. There’s a flight at 10PM going into Providence. I’d overnight in Providence and catch the MBTA train into Boston in the morning. 40 minute ride. Easy. Flash forward. 9:30 rolls around. No plane. No flight crew. No captain. Flight’s not cancelled yet. Delayed 15 minutes. Then delayed 1/2 hour. Nobody can give any straight answers. Then cancelled. This is the point of maximum despair. Helpless. Hopeless. I email Helene Foley (who’s presiding the SCS panel) to ask whether someone can act as a surrogate presenter. At least that way the paper can see the light of day. At this point I book an airport hotel. I’ve been on the road for 36 hours. One evening sleeping at the airport or plane is okay. More than that is hard. Getting old. I check into a Knight’s Inn. When I get there, it turns out they are overbooked too.

One nice thing about getting stranded in the airport is that you talk to people you’d normally never talk to. There’s one guy, Jignesh, he’s studying computer science in Boston, going for the mighty MA. He’s from India. His goal is to make a six figure income. We get talking, he’s asking how I passed the day. I tell him I’ve been trading stocks (some dividends rolled in and I ended up buying some Brookfield preferred shares BAM.PF.D, Clearwater Seafoods CLR, and American Hotel Income Properties REIT HOT.UN). So we start talking about stocks and he tells me to go onto Youtube. It turns out before he came to the US to study computer science, Jignesh was a stock analyst for CNBC in India–there he was, in a suit and tie, analyzing stocks on Indian TV! Then there’s a lady, Yvonne. She owns a farm in Zimbabwe with her son. She’s visiting her sister in Washington. She grows corn on her farm, it’s got an automatic drip irrigation system. Also grows ginger which she’s starting to export to Europe. She had some photos. The system is more sophisticated than I thought it would be. We talk some politics. It turns out Zimbabwe was ruled by a president-dictator who had just been ousted by the military. If the new guy enacts some democratic reforms, things could go really well there. Fingers crossed for her! This is the first time I’ve heard of a ‘good’ military coup.

Now it’s 4AM presentation morning. I’m back at the Detroit airport waiting for McDonald’s to open (sausage mcmuffin and coffee) and praying that the 5AM to Boston will depart as scheduled. Jignesh and Yvonne slept at the airport, they ask me if my nerves are getting frayed. I tell them I’ve been disappointed so many times now that the feeling is one of resignation. So now 430AM rolls around, the captain and flight crew are standing around but no plane at the gate. The gate moves, then moves back. Everyone’s still standing around. 5 rolls around. Then 530. A plane shows up at the gate. The crew get in. We’re told depart at 630. 630 rolls around they say the plane’s too cold. Too cold?–get us on the damn thing! Finally we start boarding a little before 7. Once on the plane, I have a little snooze. At this point, I’m passed the point of caring. The body is just tired. It’s been close to 48 hours of travel. That’s long enough to fly around the world! Too long.

I’m not even sure when the plane gets into Boston. Almost mechanically, I jump up and run for the taxi. Lucky for me, no checked baggage! Outside, there’s snowbanks everywhere and its damn cold (the sort of cold that hits your bones), but the road crews look like they’ve pulled an all-nighter. I jump into the cab, ask him to take me to the Boston Marriott post haste. When we get there, I notice the hotel is huge! Registration for the SCS is on the fourth floor. Out of breath, I ask for directions to where my panel is (SCS is huge: 84 panels, a ton of poster sessions, an publishers exhibition hall, a live play, awards ceremonies, and private receptions spread over four days and two hotels, it’s a zoo). Luckily, the seminar room is close by. I run in there like a bat out of hell.. and hear the words of my presentation!

As I burst in, everything stops. I must have looked like a madman. 48hrs on the road. Hardly any sleep. In my big winter jacket and all my travel gear. It turns out the SCS panel had thought the flight was still delayed. They had waited until the other speakers had presented, and then were nice enough to find a surrogate presenter. But there I was. I made a joke about low-probability events (since that was the topic of the presentation and the snow bomb cyclone was certainly low-probability) and there were some chuckles and nods. A fortuitous start.  I stepped up to the mike and delivered the presentation, relishing every moment of it. And though I felt beat, there was so much adrenalin, I felt the thrill of being up there. It felt like it was meant to be. This is what I live for! Though presenting isn’t theatre, there’s something very theatrical about it. Wow, what a rush! This is a campfire story for the ages!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work on the run.

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: A Look at Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

2018 Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting (Boston)

Session 9: Agency in Drama (Presided by Helene Foley)

 

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: A Look at Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

 

I present to you a question: does it seem that tragedy in general—not just Greek tragedy—goes out of its way to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence outcomes? Low-probability refers to events are that are unlikely, events that are 1000:1 against, events such as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In Shakespeare’s play, the witches tell Macbeth that nothing can harm him until Birnam Wood removes to Dunsinane Hill. It’s highly unlikely that the trees will take up their roots and hike up the hill. But when the troops camouflage themselves under Birnam Wood, the high-consequence event unfolds. Macbeth is caught flat-footed. All is lost.

 

We see something similar in Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. The messenger comes out of left field to tell Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne, and, oh, by the way, your parents aren’t who you think they are. How do I know that?—well, I saved you when you were a babe and your real parents had exposed you. Who are my real parents?—well, you have to ask the shepherd. What are the odds of a messenger, and not any messenger, but this messenger coming to Thebes at this exact moment? It’s as likely as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. But it happens, and the outcome has high consequences, as Oedipus goes from being a king to an outcast.

 

This presentation is on how tragedy dramatizes the risk of low-probability, high-consequence events. But there’s one problem: how do we know that an event in tragedy is unlikely? I mean, something has to happen, and anything that happens is, in a way, unique. How do we quantify the odds of what takes place against what did not take place? We need a play where we can see this.

 

In Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes it’s possible to quantify the odds of what didn’t happen. In Seven, seven attacking captains lay siege to seven-gated Thebes. One brother, Polyneices, marshals the attack. Inside Thebes, the other brother, Eteocles, coordinates the defence. The worst-case scenario occurs if the brothers meet at the seventh gate. They would shed kindred blood and miasma would result. If they go to different gates, the worst-case scenario is averted. Or, if they find themselves at a gate prior to the seventh gate, Eteocles could substitute another captain in his place. But the worst-case scenario occurs if they’re both at the final gate, as substitutions are no longer possible.

 

With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario? Let’s look at this this way. What are the odds of rolling a six on a six-sided die? There’re six equally probable outcomes, so the answer is 1:6. Now what are the odds of rolling two sixes? The outcome of two independent rolls is the product of their individual probabilities. 1:6*1:6=1:36. Now, if there are seven gates, and the assignations are random, there’s a 1:7 chance that Eteocles goes to the seventh gate. The odds of Polyneices going there are the same, 1:7. So we multiply the odds together and find that, the odds of the worst-case scenario is 1:49. Now, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario not happening? The answer is 48 out of 49 times. See how Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize the likely scenario, but rather the worst-case scenario which is 48:1 against. Thanks to Seven, we can quantify how tragedy goes out of its way to deliberately dramatize low-probability, high-consequence events.

 

But—how do we know that the process of assigning gates to the attackers is random? Easy. The scout tells us:

 

As I was leaving

they were casting lots (klhroumevnou~), each to divine by fortune

against which of our gates he would lead his battalions (77-9, trans. Hecht & Bacon)

 

Since the attackers draw lots, it stands that Polyneices’ chance of going to the seventh gate is 1:7. How do we know that the process of assigning gates to the defenders is random? That’s harder. It’s not explicit. Eteocles tells us at the conclusion of the first episode that:

 

I will go and assign six men, myself the seventh,

all fully armed oarsmen,

against the champions at the seven exit-points of the city. (357-60)

 

Now, when he says that he “will assign six men, myself the seventh” he doesn’t necessarily mean he’s stationing himself at the seventh gate. So why say this odd phrase?—“assign six men, myself the seventh.” I like Roisman’s explanation: “it is an image of bad luck, since the number 6 + 1 [in dice games] was considered an unlucky throw.”[1] I want to seize and expand this point. There’s something ludic about this play; it exudes a sort of gambling hall or lottery atmosphere. We’ve already talked about how the attackers draw lots and the unlucky 6 + 1 gambling reference. Let’s add to this. For instance, Eteocles remarks as he dispatches Melanippus to face Tydeus that: “The chances of battle are as dice (kuvboi~) in the hands of Ares (511).” What other gaming references are there? Well, when Eteocles interprets the matchup between Hippomedon and Hyperbius, he says: “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair (624).” Hermes, as Hecht and Bacon note, is invoked in his capacity as the god of luck and fortunate coincidence. Finally, the scout tells us after the brothers die that “they have shared out by lot (dievlacon) their full inheritance (1039).” The lottery image, along with the ship of state image, are the two dominant metaphors of this play. Because of all these lottery images, I’m convinced that a random process must be involved in how Eteocles assigns the defenders. After all, why would he say that “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair” unless they were brought together under Hermes’ tutelage as the god of lots? And why would the scout say that the brothers “have shared out by lot their full inheritance” unless a lottery process was involved in the assignations?

 

I want to share with you that Seven was the first Greek tragedy I read. When I first read it, I thought for sure that Eteocles decides the assignations on the spot, during the shield scene itself. The scout would report and he would say: “Oh, I just have the right guy to neutralize him.” In hindsight, that’s a very modern reading as that’s probably how a general would decide today. But how would this fit in with the lottery images? It doesn’t. Later I read Zeitlin’s Under the Sign of the Shield where she points out that Eteocles clearly says he’s going to decide the assignations before he meets the scout.[2] But then I thought: “Eteocles decides?—then what’s the point of all the lottery and gambling images?” Then I heard Weckler and Wilamowitz’ argument that some assignations are done before, and some during. While this solves the problem of the tenses, as during the shield scene sometimes Eteocles says “I shall station,” and at other times “He has been chosen,” it seems unnecessarily complicated. Because of the lottery references, I was ready to say that Eteocles decides by lot before he meets the scout. But when I recently read Herrmann’s conjecture, I was immediately convinced: he conjectures that Eteocles decides by lot during the shield scene itself.[3] Herrmann’s conjecture is brilliant. When Eteocles says that he’s going to assign the men before the scout comes, he’s putting their names in the helmet. As for the tenses, as he picks up the lot he can be saying “I will appoint” or “He has been already appointed.” Furthermore, Herrmann’s conjecture gives Eteocles something dramatic to do during the shield scene and, what is more, it means that, the defender assignations, like the attacker assignations, are random.

 

Could Aeschylus and his audience have worked out that the worst-case scenario is averted 48 out of 49 times? No. Sambursky, a historian of science, finds that the lack of both algebraic notation and systematic experimentation held the Greeks back from discovering the laws of probability.[4] The laws of probability would not develop until Cardano starts counting up the number of throws possible with dice two millennia later. But we know that the Greeks were able to understand the concept, if not the math of combinatorial analyses. Xenocrates, for example, mistakenly calculates that, by mixing together the letters of the alphabet, 1,002,000 unique syllables are possible.[5] Despite not being able to compute the exact odds, Aeschylus and his audience would have recognized that the odds of the brothers meeting at the highest gate was an exceedingly low-probability affair.

 

Besides the objective remoteness of the worst-case scenario, what subjective cues give Eteocles hope things will go his way? First, there’s the enemy’s disarray. Their morale is so low that they’re already dedicating memorial tokens to send back home. One of their captains says outright that he’s going to die. They also attack before their seer gives the signal. And there’s infighting between their captains. Contrast this with the improving morale of the chorus of Theban women, who function as a barometer of morale within the city: they start off in panic, but by the first stasimon, Eteocles wins them over. Many indications give Eteocles subjective hope.

 

The surest indication that things will go his way comes in the shield scene. In the shield scene, the scout describes, gate by gate, the attacking captain’s appearance, demeanor, and shield device. Eteocles, in turn, draws the lot to determine the defender and interprets the tale of the tape. Since chance is a reflection of god’s will, you can tell from the random matchups which side heaven favours. In the game of knucklebones, for example, rolling the Aphrodite throw (1, 3, 4, and 6) was considered a propitious sign from the goddess. So, to make up an example, if the bad guy carries a brutal monster on his shield, and your guy happens to be carrying a shield depicting a peasant farmer, that’s heaven telling you: “Your guy’s going to die.” So, how do the matchups work out? Well, in aggregate, the matchups overwhelmingly favour Eteocles. For example, the attacker at the fourth gate sports a Typhon device and he happens to be matched up against the defender bearing the Zeus shield: in myth Zeus had tamed Typhon. Or, as it happens, the attacker at the first gate who shouts out impieties is matched up with a defender who just happens to be “a noble man who honours the throne of Reverence (503).” So, gate by gate, as Eteocles sees the matchups unfolding, he grows more confident.

 

Objectively, the worst-case case scenario is buried deep in the odds. Subjectively, everything’s going his way. He’s unified the city. The matchups look better and better. But what’s happening? The odds of the worst-case scenario go up gate by gate each time the brothers’ lots don’t come up. At the first gate, the worst-case odds are 1:49. At the second gate, they go up to 1:36. By the sixth gate, they’ve escalated to 1:4. See what’s happening? Paradoxically, as he becomes more confident, he’s actually in greater danger, till the point when he’s most confident, at that point he’s in the greatest danger. That’s the genius of Seven: even as the situation becomes subjectively better, objectively things are becoming much worse. At the sixth gate, with his cheeks flush with the glow of wine and his hair all but adorned in ivy, as he dispatches Lasthenes to confront Amphiaraus, he seals his own doom in a stunning twist of fate. When the scout announces Polyneices stands at the seventh gate, the low-probability, high-consequence event comes to pass. The event was objectively low-probability because the odds that it happens is 48:1 against. The event was subjectively low-probability because everything was going his way. By combining subjective and objective probabilities, Aeschylus spring loads the low-probability event so that when it takes place, we feel its impact.

 

I think these low-probability, high-consequence events are commonplace all over tragedy. Take Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. Like Eteocles, Oedipus has played his hand well. Everything’s going his way. “Don’t worry,” says the Corinthian messenger, “you’re really not from Corinth. You’re going to be king of two cities.” At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event happens and Oedipus loses all. Or take Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Like Eteocles, Macbeth has played his hand well. “Nothing can harm you,” say the witches. At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event unfolds: Birnam Wood. Can you see a general trend?—at the point of maximum confidence, an unexpected, low-probability event unfolds with high consequences.

 

This way of looking at tragedy I call risk theatre. Tragedy warns us, that at our point of maximum confidence, we are, paradoxically, in the gravest danger. I think that tragedy speaks to our confident age, an age of both great risk and great reward. While I was writing this, an article appeared in Wired magazine on November 16 on gene editing.[6] Here in the US the entomologist Akbari is working on a gene drive, a way to supercharge evolution by forcing a genetic modification to spread through an entire population. With the gene drive, he can take flight away from mosquitoes and vanquish malaria—promising, of course, minimal disruption to ecosystems. And on November 17, USA Today reported that in Italy, Doctor Canavero was getting ready to do the world’s first head transplant on a human being.[7] What could go wrong?—they had already done one on a dog. Akbari and Canavero are confident, and have the best-laid plans. But so did Oedipus, Eteocles, and Macbeth. I look at tragedy as a theatre of risk because such an interpretation speaks to our technological age of manufactured risk. In such an age, I believe that we have a moral obligation to come to terms with low-probability, high-consequence events. And what better place to explore these than through drama? We emerge from risk theatre with eyes wide open. And I think, if you look at tragedy as a theatre of risk, it will guide you well because you’ll be better apprised that the things that hurt you come where you least expect. I’ll finish by saying that I’ve written a book on risk theatre and that I’m in high-level talks with theatres in Victoria, Canada to produce new tragedies based on this exciting concept. The goal to start a new art movement in tragedy. Thank you for listening, and I welcome your feedback on risk theatre, the theatre that guarantees low-probability outcomes, every time.

 

Edwin Wong

2018-01-05

[1] Roisman, Hanna M. “The Messenger and Eteocles in the Seven against Thebes,” in L’antiquité classique, vol. 59, 1990, 22.

[2] Zeitlin, Froma I., Under the Sign of the Shield, 45.

[3] Herrmann, Fritz-Gregor, “Eteocles’ Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, in Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought, ed. Douglas Cairns, Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2013, 58ff.

[4] Sambursky, “On the Possible and the Probable in Ancient Greece,” Osiris 12 (1956) 35-48.

[5] Plutarch, Quaestiones convivales 733a.

[6] Molteni, Megan, “This Gene-Editing Tech Might be too Dangerous to Unleash,” Wired, November 16, 2017.

[7] Hjelmgaard, Kim, “Italian Doctor Says World’s First Human Head Transplant ‘Imminent’,” USA Today, November 17, 2017.

Society for Classical Studies 2018 Presentation

Aeschylus and Athens – Thomson (Part 2 of 2)

1941, Fourth Edition 1973, Lawrence & Wishart, 374 pages (continued from part 1)

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 12: Democracy

Summary: Democratic revolution that expelled the tyrant Hippias marks the transition of Athens from simple agricultural to monetary economy: 1) hereditary privilege of landowners abolished, 2) claims of birth now inferior to claims of property, and 3) tribal system based on kinship swept away. Paradoxically, common people restored primitive communism of tribal society in democratic revolution: 1) use of lot, popular assembly, and common festivals. Merchants and artisans and started revolution with new wealth. Down to beginning of 6th century, clan owned property; individual enjoyed usufruct. Spartan economy marked by absence of money and repression of industry and trade. Cleisthenes’ democracy was a reversion to tribal democracy (which at end of sixth century had been subverted by aristocrats into a mechanism to oppress the bourgeois) on a higher evolutionary plane. According to Aristoxenos, Pythagoras introduced weights and measures to the Greeks (530 BC). Pythagoras’ political domination of Kroton may be described as commercial theocracy. In Pythagoras’ musical thought, opposing musical notes are resolved by their mean; this idea crossed over into his political thought where opposing social classes, the aristocrats and the low-born are resolved by the emerging middle class. Theognis quote on how money ruins everything: livestock is bred to maintain the noble breed, but nobles will marry lower classed folks who have money. The implication is that wealth has blended breed and so the ‘true’ citizens are dying out. Pythagoreans inherited from the Orphics view that life is a struggle and took the idea to the next level by incorporating a political element and reaching out to the new middle class. Aeschylus was a Pythagorean and a democrat.

Comments: Thomson’s comments on how the proliferation of coinage accelerated change by altering the balance of power between social classes rings true today. Today, however, it’s not coinage that precipitating change. It’s been around too long. Rather, today, the development of new financial instruments plays the same role, instruments such as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and credit default swaps (CDSs). After the Great Recession in 2008 when these instruments blew up, Warren Buffett famously referred to them as ‘financial weapons of mass destruction’. Like coinage in the 6th century, new financial instruments today play a role in redistributing wealth.

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 13: Athens and Persia

Summary: Cleisthenes’ democratic revolution at the end of the 6th century took place against the backdrop of growing Persian and Carthaginian power. In this way, Greece was hemmed around on both east and west. For Athenian politicians at the beginning of the fifth century, several power plays were available: 1) appeal to democrats at home, 2) appeal to conservatives at home, 3) appeal to aristocratic

Sparta, 4) appeal to monarchical Persia, or 5) appeal to the moderates. Unforeseen power plays could result, such as Miltiades, an aristocrat from the illustrious Philaidai clan appealing to the masses. After the allied victory against Persia, Athenian society capitalized on the anti-Persian sentiment, became an empire, and began exploiting slave labour on a new scale.

Comments: Still the same unpredictable friends and enemies game in modern-day politics. Case in point: Hong Kong. When Hong Kong was a British colony, the democrats wanted to be freed from the imperial yoke. When Britain ceded Hong Kong back to China, the same democrats, finding that they had more freedom under the British, wanted to go back to being a British colony.

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 14: Tetralogy

Summary: Ten dithyrambs performed, one from each tribe. Dramatic competition non-tribal: any citizen could submit a tetralogy. Themistocles may have been choregos for Phrynichus’ Sack of Mlletus (the play would have angered the pro-Persian Alcmaeonid contingent in the city).Thomson follows Pickard-Cambridge’s study on origins of tetralogy, i.e. the satyr play and the tragic trilogy. Also discusses the rise of comedy from death and resurrection rituals. Discussion of Peloponnese influences on Attic drama. Inauguration of comedy into the City Dionysia in 487/6 BC takes place when Themistocles, the radical democrat, at height of powers. Individual plays in the trilogy functioned as acts in Shakespeare plays. By having more than one play, the dramatist increases the scope of the plot.

Comments: The danger on writing on the ritual origins of tragedy is that so much is conjecture. One example that Thomson discredits is Murray’s conjecture that the tragic trilogy had three parts to represent the birth, death, and resurrection of the god. Even if this is true, how useful is it?—there is quite the leap between totemic ritual and the polished art form of tragedy.

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 15: Oresteia

Summary: Cicero, who studied at Athens, relates that Aeschylus was a Pythagorean as well as a poet. The story of Orestes as related by Aeschylus contains stratified bits of social history from the tribe, the monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Thomson relates in Agamemnon cool technique by which Aeschylus accelerates the action: “In the parades, and again in the first stasimon, the poet begins by taking our minds back ten years to the beginning of the war. Together they form the longest choral passage in his extant work, and of the stasima which follow each is shorter than the last—a device by which the tempo is quickened as we approach the crisis. Absorbed in the past, we forget the present, and when the action is resumed, the plot advances so rapidly that we accept without question the poet’s time-scheme, in which widely separated events are compressed within a single day. Thomson provides a reading of the Oresteia and notes ritual elements, such as when Clytemnestra ‘prepares’ Cassandra for an initiation (e.g. reversal of ritual like Berlioz’ witches’ mass in Symphonie Fantastique. Aeschylus takes elements of primitive ritual and elevates them into dramatic art: e.g. the thrones or lament between Electra and Orestes at their father’s tomb. Cult epithet of Moiragetes applied to Zeus at Olympia and Apollo at Delphi subordinated tribal rights to state. Thomson claims Erinyes stands for tribal order where kinship is traced through mother. Athena’s mediation of conflict between tribal custom (Furies) and aristocratic privilege (Apollo) results in birth of democracy where wealth of community is equitably distributed. In the Oresteia, the Erinyes stand for the blood feud (tribal society) and Apollo stands for the practice of purification and the rule of the landed aristocracy. The landed aristocracy is the intermediary between the tribe and the democratic state.

Comments: Thomson’s discussion of how Aeschylus makes the time-scheme believable reminds me of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds ‘Panic Broadcast’. Welles, by broadening the scope of the crisis by leaps and bounds, also creates a similar effect. It seems to me that, in the main, much is correct about the ritual interpretation except when it tries too hard. It strikes me as odd that, while the message of Marxism is that ‘wealth isn’t everything’ (because it’s evenly distributed), Marxists spend an inordinate about of time and energy talking and analyzing wealth and capital.

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 16: Earlier Plays

Summary: The Persians dramatizes the aristocratic idea that wealth breeds pride, which is punished by the gods. In Seven against Thebes, the magical functions of early kingship associate the well-being of the king with the well-being of the state. In the epic tradition, both Eteocles and Polyneices have sons, and the latter’s son led an expedition against Thebes which ultimately destroyed it. Aeschylus breaks from this tradition to lay to rest the Erinys, the king’s ancestral spirit or curse. Thomson believes that this shows how kinship gives way to higher organization of state: the clans are swallowed up by the idea of citizenship. In Suppliants, Thomson identifies an economic factor motivating the Danaides’ refusal to marry their cousins: their cousins marry them for the sake of the accompanying inheritance, and, after the marriage, they are free to keep the inheritance if they divorce. In effect, the Danaides would be put in the position of a slave who has bought her master.

Comments: Seven against Thebes is a scorned text. Of all Aeschylus’ plays, Thomson gives it five pages of attention. Contrast this with the Oresteia and the Prometheia, to which Thomson devotes whole chapters. To me, the countdown to the seventh gate is one of the true marvels of the tragic stage. The suspense! If, as Thomson argues, the Danaides reject the marriage because of the economic implications, I wonder what Danaos, their father, who has led them out of Egypt at considerable risk, gets out of the deal?

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 17: Prometheia

Summary: Prometheus is patron saint of proletariat because he stole fire, a symbol of civilization. Higher stages of civilization marked by division of society into economically unequal classes with those who enjoyed the fruits of production and the producers. Man gets fire as a gift, but also Pandora’s box: no free lunch for fire. Hesiod, on the losing end of the material struggle, mentions Prometheus. The next writer to mention Prometheus is Aeschylus, also a democrat. Orphic Wheel of Necessity behind Prometheus legend. Aristocratic scholars such as Mahaffy side with Zeus in Aeschylus’ play. Shelley, the revolutionary poet, sees Zeus as a tyrant. Thomson sides with Shelley: Aeschylus as a dramatist capitalizes on the Athenian democrats’ fear of tyrants in his portrayal of Zeus. Reconstruction of the two lost parts of the tragic trilogy. In Shelley’s lifetime, Industrial Revolution had enriched the rich and impoverished the poor. Shelley, however, was less moderate than Aeschylus, who wanted to reconcile the landowners and the merchants.

Comments: I wonder what the impact of automation and robots will have on the class struggle? In Thomson’s reading, the class struggle has been around since the beginnings of the division of labour in tribal society. One class prevails, then another becomes oppressed in turn. First it’s the landowners fighting the merchants (in 5th century Greece). Then after the merchants have been reconciled, the slave trade picks up. With the rise of automation, you can have a class of inhuman producers. First time in history. The part of me that likes Hegel says that class struggle is a manifestation of not only economic priorities, but a desire for recognition, which will continue even as the world automates and robots become the new producing class.

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 18: After Aeschylus

Summary: Population of Athens in 431 BC: 172,000 citizens (including women and children), 28,500 resident aliens, and 115,000 slaves (why not round to the nearest 5000?). In 413 BC 20,000 slaves in the mines went over to the Spartans. Nikias owned 1000 slaves in the mines. From 450-430 BC class of rentiers came into existence from Pericles’ policies: that was the price Pericles paid to retain support. The rentiers, of course, lived off he backs of the others, mainly the resident aliens. Contradiction in Athenian democracy was that the constitution which had been founded in the name of equality was overthrown by the class that had founded in the name of inequality. The only way to maintain the welfare state where the citizens no longer worked was to expand the empire. Development of money accelerated growth of private property. Aristotle discusses money saying its original function is to facilitate exchange. Selling in order to buy is good, but buying in order to sell (profit) is bad: moneymaking becomes an end in itself. Thomson has interesting Marx quote:

The simple circulation of commodities (selling in order to buy) is a means for the appropriation of use-values, for the satisfaction of wants. The circulation of money as capital, on the other hand, is an end in itself, for the expansion of value can only occur within this perpetually renewed movement. Consequently, the circulation of capital has no limits.

Solon said at the beginning of the Athenian monetary revolution that “Riches have no limit.” Aristotle writes on the dangers of inflation: savers who are too into moneymaking may find themselves like Midas starving amongst gold because their money has become worthless because of inflation. Thomson writes about how money makes complex the old relationship between peasant and landlord. Now speculators who overproduce crops can find no buyers. Thomson has a Sophocles quote on money:

Money wins friendship, honour, place and power,

And sets man next to the proud tyrant’s throne.

All trodden paths and paths untrod before

Are scaled by nimble riches, where the poor

Can never hope to win the heart’s desire.

A man ill-formed by nature and ill-spoken

Money shall make him fair to eye and ear.

Money earns man his health and happiness,

And only money cloaks iniquity.

and,

Of all the foul growths current in the world

The worst is money. Money rives men from home,

plunders great cities, perverts the honest mind

To shameful practice, godlessness and crime.

Thomson summarizes each of Sophocles and Euripides’ play in relation to the class struggle and changing social and political trends. For example, he writes that Plato’s Republic, with its basis in slavery, is an implicit confession of the intellectual bankruptcy of the city-state. Nice observation in how the Orphics asserted the independence of the soul as a coping mechanism for their brutal life; now Aristotle used the idea of the soul to justify the subjection of slaves and women: just as the body is secondary to the soul, women and slaves are secondary to men, argues Aristotle. Aristotle and Plato’s theories supporting inequality remind Thomson of Malthus in the nineteenth century, who based ‘laws’ justifying the existence of cheap, expendable labour on Darwin, the laws of the struggle of existence and the survival of the fittest. Pindar declares Tyche one of the Moirai and the strongest of them all. Thomson argues that tragedy after Euripides was exhausted because it could no longer solve the conflicts in society. It would not rise again until the bourgeois revolution of modern Europe brought back similar conditions out of merchant princes in early Athens.

Comments: I wonder if the development of money accelerated change by giving folks who otherwise could not have property the ability to accumulate capital through monetary instruments rather than land? Instead of enslaving the masses, monetary instruments gave savers a tangible goal. Property was out of reach, but money could be accumulated. This chapter is the best so far in the book. Sweeping look at the birth and death of tragedy from an economic perspective.

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 19: Pity and Fear

Summary: Plato and Aristotle both agree tragedy serves a social function. Difference is that Aristotle thought tragedy serves a positive social function by purging pity and fear. In primitive medicine, epilepsy and hysteria were treated by a rite of initiation, in the course of which the patient would die and be born again. Like a reboot. Dionysos Bacheios (induce) and Dionysos Lysios (cure) similar to Koryantes in that he had power to induce and cure madness. Phrygia and Thrace are mining districts for gold and silver, the development which induced a spiritual crisis because of the labour draw. Thus in Thrace Herodotus recounts how, when a child is born, its kinsfolk laments the birth. But when a man dies, they celebrate. When Aristotle talks about the purgation of pity and fear he is describing theatre in terms of religious experience. Theatre experience more involved in ancient times. In London theatres, members of audience keep emotional reaction inside. But in ancient times (and among the peasantry in the west of Ireland), members of the audience had a strong visceral reaction to theatre. Athenian playwright is descendent of priest-magician, medicine-man, and exorcist.

Comments: That’s a good point on how we’re expected to keep emotions in check during performances. That laughter is excluded is a profound point. Very true. I remember seeing a performance of Bach’s oratorio the Saint John Passion some years ago at the church across the street. There was a young lady sitting beside me, and when the chorus starts yelling ‘Kreuzige ihn! [Crucify Him!]’ , she started sobbing, and continued to do so. I remember thinking that, for some reason, this was odd. The action isn’t real. But I remember being touched by the depth of her faith: here was her Saviour being dragged to the cross. Why wouldn’t she cry? Why weren’t the other members of the audience crying. Lots has changed between the theatre of Aeschylus and today, perhaps more than we think. Maybe someday this will come back, and we’ll be allowed to express our emotions in public places.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Aeschylus and Athens – Thomson (Part 1 of 2)

1941, 4th Edition 1973, Lawrence & Wishart, 374 pages (continued in part 2)

Introduction

Summary: Greek tragedy was an organ of Athenian democracy. Aeschylus was a democrat as well as a member of the old Attic nobility. The fundamental question which engrossed him all his life was how tribal society evolved into the democratic city-state (polis). Thomson will investigate origins of tragedy in this work. His method will involve comparing material culture (food production, technology, leisure, etc.,) with tragedy, which he considers to be a social institution as well as an art.

Comments: It’s very interesting that in the preface to the third edition (1966) Thomson writes that Aeschylus and Athens has been translated into seven languages and is used in several countries as a textbook for the training of actors.

Part One – Tribal Society, Chapter 1: Totemism

Summary: In the beginning, each clan in a tribal society would be associated with a ‘totem’ or a sacred object which they could not eat. The clan’s job would be to multiply the totem (for the other clans). For example, some Australian clans have as their totem the wallaby, a marsupial one size smaller than a kangaroo. As tribal societies advanced and evolved, their totem would become more of a figurehead. At some point, for example, the taboo of eating the totem animal would be removed. Discussion of lack of division of labour in the very beginning of social organization. Men and women in those days would forage. Hunting introduced the division of labour.

Reaction: Just as philosophers and historians begin their investigations with the idea of the ‘first man’ (e.g. the ‘man in the state of nature’ of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Hegel) to trace out why humankind developed as it did, Thomson lays out in this chapter the story of the ‘totemic man’, who, I guess, will develop into the tragic hero. Just a guess. Further speculation: although Athenian civilization would grow out of its tribal roots, it nevertheless would remember its totems and tribal roots when it staged tragedy.

Part One – Tribal Society, Chapter 2: Exogamy

Summary: In primitive languages, a man applies to his wife’s sisters the same term he applies to his wife, and a woman applies to her husband’s brothers the same term she applies to her husband. The nomenclature does not correspond to reality. Morgan inferred that the language reflects an ‘original promiscuity’ or ‘primitive promiscuity’ where it did correspond to reality, e.g. at some point in early society, humans lived in a state of hetaerism where women were the common property of their tribe and children never knew their fathers. At the time of writing (1941), Morgan has been rejected in the West (because of incompatibility with bourgeois marriage) and accepted in the Soviet Union. Thomson writes on barter: ‘When Glaukos exchanged shields with Diomedes, gold for bronze, Homer can only explain it by saying that Glaukos lost his head; but it is more likely that Glaukos was expecting a return such as Mentes promised Telemachos after being presented with an heirloom. It is easy to see how these hospitable exchanges might develop into barter’.

Reaction: It’s too good to pass up the chance to see who won the ‘primitive promiscuity’ debate. Was Morgan (who influenced Marx and Engels) right? Were the anthropologists in the West or East right? Well now we know! According to the Wikipedia article on ‘Promiscuity’, Morgan’s idea of primitive promiscuity has been discredited. There must be a whole dynasty of scholarship looking at what happened during the gift exchange between Glaucus and Diomedes where Glaucus gives Diomedes gold armour worth 100 oxen and receives in return bronze amor worth 9 oxen. Following Horace, I argue in my book Tragedy is Risk Theatre that the difference in value between the armour (i.e. 9 oxen) is the inferred value of Glaucus’ life, since they meet as foes on the battlefield and it is clear that Diomedes would have brained Glaucus. I’m not sure how this chapter on matrilineal and patrilineal descent will tie into the discussion of Aeschylus’ tragedies. Maybe Thomson will argue the tension between them plays out in Aeschylus’ dramas?

Part One – Tribal Society, Chapter 3: Property

Summary: When the Homeric chieftain counts his possessions, he enumerates his household good, slaves, and livestock, but does not mention the pastures on which his cattle graze. No mention of private property. Discussion of the Fates. Moira originally denotes a ‘share’ or ‘portion’. One of the three Fates bore the name of Lachesis, the goddess of Allotment, synonymous with kleros, a lot of land or a piece of wood used for casting lots. Thomson cites the seventh Olympian by Pindar where Rhodes was divided into three moirai by the sons of Helios, who cast lots to determine ownership. Because use of lot was integral element in administration of the Athenian democracy, the ancient democracy was the reassertion by the common people of their lost equality (from the tribal days). The use of lot was a guarantee of equality.

Reaction: No mention of private property? When the Homeric chieftain Agamemnon bribes Achilles to return, he offers him seven citadels, complete with lands, people, meadows, and a seaview to boot. If Agamemnon can give away the land, is this not considered ‘private property’? Was the use of the lot a guarantee of equality? I’m skeptical. In Tragedy Is Risk Theatre, I argue that the lot is anything but equal. In the Iliad, for example, the Achaeans cast lots to see who fights Hector because the casting of lots would reveal heaven’s intent, which is anything but equal. Because we have probability theory, we know that casting lots can guarantee equality. But probability theory did not emerge until the 1600s at the earliest, and, if you ask Ian Hacking, not until later. The Athenian democracy predated probability theory by over two millennia. Would they have known that the lot guarantees equality, or was, rather a sign from heaven?

Part Two – From Tribe to State, Chapter 4: Monarchy

Summary: After Dorian conquest, new social structure emerged: those who produced wealth and those who enjoyed it. An analysis of Achaean social organization, which was social, and not tribal. Conflict between the Achaeans in the Iliad is conflict between tribal and personal allegiances. Greek epic matured as monarchy declined. When royal courts broke up, the royal minstrels went out among the people and started singing about work and farming to ordinary folks. So Homer transformed into Hesiod. Tribal culture before the monarchy is organized as a type of primitive communism: this is backed the use of the lot, according to Thomson.

Reaction: Not surprising that the monarchy declined with epic. During the Trojan War, the soldiers and the kings , or, as Homer says, ‘the best of the Achaeans’ left their homes undefended for 10, and in some cases, over 20 years. No wonder the Dorians invaded. If Homer transformed into Hesiod, who transmitted the Iliad and the Odyssey from when they took place (~1200 BC) to when they were written down in the sixth century? And weren’t Homer and Hesiod around at the same time (according to the tradition, that is), in the 8th century BC?

Part Two – From Tribe to State, Chapter 5: Aristocracy

Summary: Achaean society was structured like feudal system of western Europe with king – vassal relationships. Dorian settlement of Sparta created disruptive inequalities from the growth of private property. Aristocracy responds to challenge by maintaining tribal principle of common ownerships. Spartan aristocracy rejects trade, refuses to codify laws, and frowns on commerce. Tribal structure which was originally based on equality now instrument of class domination. New social system in Attica and Ionia even more oppressive than Peloponnese. Moira as metron or ‘measure’ begins appearing in Hesiod, who is like Chaucer’s Parson in that he echoes risk averse folk wisdom, ‘nothing in excess, everything in due measure and you will be happy’. Ionian science product of mercantile aristocracy: see Thales, for example, who was a merchant who cornered the oil [olive, that is] market. Class struggle broke old mold of tribe and clan, look to what happened on the Asiatic seaboard of Aeolis. Ionian philosophers described world in term of kosmos of tribal order. Anaximander’s theory of physical universe based on tribal interactions projected onto matter: the assimilation or encroachment of one substance on another which destroys the universe by returning matter to its original state is based on idea of feud or vendetta between clans where one clan assimilates or encroaches the other.

Reaction: Okay, I get it. In Part One Thomson’s providing the social background leading up to Aeschylus. Funny, Thomson mentions Agamemnon’s bribe to Achilles and says that, in fact, the sovereign does own the land. See the notes above to ‘Chapter 3: Property’. I thought in that chapter he said that Homeric chieftains do not own private property? In Thomson’s reconstruction of the ‘first man’ or the ‘original community’ where everything is in a golden age of equality without the division of labour did human beings have the will to power? Nietzsche contra Marx: that would be a good showdown. Has anyone done that? The part about Ionian science (one of the great leaps forward that Wilson writes about in Consilience) being couched in terms of tribes and clans is fascinating, part of the history if ideas, itself a fascinating subject. The history of ideas, or history of science, traces out how ideas emerge out of the cultural and historical soil. For example, the theory of thermodynamics began, surprise surprise, during the Industrial Revolution.

Part Two – From Tribe to State, Chapter 6: Tyranny

Summary: Midas, the Phrygian king who turned all to gold and Gyges of Lydia, who with his gold ring of invisibility, usurped the crown, were tyrants, tyrants being defined as money-made kings. Tyrants were possible because of the growth of trade, the rise of a merchant class, and the building of towns. Benefit of coins over iron spits and gold and silver utensils is that coins were light, standardized, and state-guaranteed. Sappho and Alkaios write of merchants turned into tyrants. Ambition tempts merchants to overreach themselves, write aristocratic poets. Gods also jealous of those who marry above station (Pindar on Ixion). Solon entrusted with dictatorial powers in 593 BC to avert peasant revolt. Peasant could only retain 1/6 of produce and victimized by 50% interest rates on loans. They had to sell land, children, and themselves. Peisistratos supported commercial policy (which weakened aristocrats and strengthened the middle class) and developed coinage. Peisistratos instituted City Dionysia to give the common people a festival and a god. Nice Theognis quote on how ‘The mass of the people knows one virtue, wealth; nothing else avails’.

Reaction: What does the graven token of coinage represent? Some say money is an IOU. Others say the value of money represents the labor of mining gold and silver out of the ground. What I argue in Tragedy is Risk Theatre is that money represent desire itself. Unlike barter, where there is upkeep, hassle, and spoilage in the objects of exchange (animals must be fed, tools wear out, freight is a factor with heavier items), money is hassle free, doesn’t go bad, and is easily transported. And what is more, because it can be converted into practically anything, it stands in men’s eyes as desire itself…except in tragedy, where it has no value at all. In tragedy, only blood, sweat, and tears are legal tender. I wonder where Thomson’s Marxist perspective will take him here. My book says that tragedy shows us that the real things worth having can’t be bought by cash: they can only be bought by blood, sweat, and tears. My guess is that Thomson will argue that tragedy, and specifically, the festivals such as the City Dionysia redistribute capital back to the people. Just a guess.

Part Three – Origin of Drama, Chapter 7: Initiation

Summary: In primitive tribes, when boys and girls reached puberty, they underwent an initiation ceremony in which they ritually die and are reborn as an ancestor who has returned in a sort of reincarnation process. Actor guilds were mystic societies who renewed life by dramatizing the dance of the totemic clan when the clan system falls into decay. In the Mysteries, a ritual which had been designed as a preparation for life has been transformed into a preparation for death.

Reaction: One striking feature that Thomson writes about from the Eleusinian Mysteries is the ‘sudden blaze of torchlight which illuminated the darkness and transformed the sorrow of the onlookers into joy’. Recent scholarship is beginning to question just how much Greek tragedy was about pain and suffering. Lots of ‘happy ending’ Greek tragedies exist. And the tragic trilogy itself was capped off with a light-hearted satyr play. Wise writes in an Arethusa article that tragedy had changed from the fifth to the fourth centuries. In the fifth century, tragedy was a happy, auspicious affair. In the fourth century, star actors corrupted tragedy into tear jerking events so that they could use their stage presence to elicit fear and pity from the audience. Aristotle, being from the fourth century, wrote about the tragedy he saw, not the original tragedy of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Maybe there is something of the ‘sudden blaze of torchlight’ in fifth century tragedy?

Part Three – Origin of Drama, Chapter 8: Dionysus

Summary: Greek gods in constant evolution, ritual remembers distant original functions of gods. Before the gods, there was ritual: Thomson quotes Goethe Faust, ‘In the beginning there was the deed’. In the beginning, nature and human society operated in unison. Thomson to focus on two festivals called ‘Carrying out Death’ and ‘Bringing in the Summer’. Death and Summer are identical, different aspects of vegetation spirit which annually dies and is reborn. Dionysus celebrated by secret societies and associated with agriculture. Tragedy of Bacchants by Euripides founded on actual ritual, the ritual of ‘Carrying out Death’ and ‘Bringing in Summer’. Pentheus torn to pieces by Bacchants is embodiment of Dionysus, who was torn to pieces by the Titans. In Attica, worship of Dionysus modified in consequence of changes in relations of the sexes.

Reaction: I don’t doubt that part of Thomson’s argument is correct linking Dionysus to agricultural rituals. But my difficulty with understanding the whole connection between ritual, Dionysus, and tragedy is a sign of how far we moderns are from Bronze and Classical Greek civilization. As classicists, we think we comprehend Greek civilization, but perhaps the ones who best understand the Greeks are the modern day goatherds and farmers, the ones who are still in tune with nature?

Part Three – Origin of Drama, Chapter 9: Orphism

Summary: Sixth century cult of Dionysus Orphic in character. Parallels in myths of Arion, Dionysus, and Orpheus. Dionysus welcomed by tyrants as peasant god to supplant aristocratic gods. Relationship between Peisistratidai and mining industry. Orphism entered Attica through mining connections from Thrace. Orphism associated with mining areas from mixed populations and originated in Thrace. Up until sixth century, demand for slave labour small because of agricultural economy. Mining, however, has more demands on slaves. That Orphic writings borrowed from the rustic Hesiod and not the aristocratic Homer tells you of its allegiances. One new development of Orphic thought is the conception of soul as different than body: one is pure, the other corrupt. Moira becomes Ananke in Orphism and later. While Moira originally represents the principle of an equal share for all members of society, when tribal society died off, moira became ananke, the opposite. Ananke represents the yoke of slavery and keeping slaves at a subsistence level. Diodorus quotes on conditions of mines in Egypt and Spain from first century. Very poor conditions.

Reaction: Sixth and fifth century BC Orphism resembles first and second century AD Christianity in that it inverted the reigning aristocratic values and gave the dejected, many of whom were slaves, hope.

Part Three – Origin of Drama, Chapter 10: Dithyramb

Summary: City Dionysia founded or refunded by Peisistratos. Chapter on the first day of the City Dionysia, which lasted six days in March. Tripartite structure of tribal initiation: ‘send off’, ‘contest’, and ‘return’. Theatre is also a ‘contest’ within the Dionysia. Dithyramb from Corinth. On the origins of the dithyramb Dionysian ritual.

Reaction: Thomson recollects an interesting folktale concerning Archilochus, who in his youth was sent by his father to fetch an ox from the countryside. He left in the moonlight, and on the way back et peasant women, who offered to buy the ox from him, and then vanished, leaving at his feet a lyre. The women were the Muses. Thomson understands the myth to show that the poet’s art was derived from an ox cult maintained by a female thiasos led by a male priest. Wow that’s a deep read. The tale reminded me of how Demodocus (the bard in Homer’s Odyssey) and even, according to legend, Homer himself was blind. For the gift of song the Muses took their sight. Archilochus got off easy, who traded an ox. Homer gave his sight, Robert Johnson and Adrian Leverkuhn sold their souls, and Archilochus sold an ox.

Part Three – Origin of Drama, Chapter 11: Tragedy

Summary: Thomson to investigate the actor, then the chorus, then Aristotle’s analysis of the tragic climax, and conclude with some remarks on the stage. This chapter looks at the half-century before Aeschylus, a period in which little is known. Traces development of third actor in Aeschylus: traces of development can be seen in how the actors respond to chorus, but not to one another: e.g. in final trial in Oresteia Athena talks to Apollo, Orestes talks to Apollo, but nothing between Orestes and Athena until the end. Set speeches of Seven show ritual origin of drama. Limited stock of characters: king, queen, prophet, herald, and messenger. With exception of Corinthian messenger in Oedipus, messenger never individualized. Pre-Aeschylean tragedy consisted of prologue, entry of chorus, stasimon, entrance of hero who relayed situation, hero disappears, another stasimon, messenger announces hero’s death, and lament. Examination of terminology: hypocrites (actor, answerer, interpreter), prohetes (interpreters), exarchon (poet-leader of dithyrambic chorus), thiasos (secret society). Tragedy derived from leaders of dithyramb: the hypocrites (actor) ‘interprets’ the significance of the action, e.g. if the chorus performs a choral dance, the leader must explain that the dance signifies the wanderings of the daughters of Eleuther after they have been driven mad by Dionysus. Connects Aristotle’s anagnorisis (recognition) with self-revelation of the god Dionysus after his rebirth. Unrealistic structure of stichomythia (rapid-fire exchanges between characters) inherited from cult. Sphinx riddle given to sphinx from Laius, who got it from his father, who got it from the oracle at Delphi. Those who wanted a claim on the succession line of Thebes were sent up to the Sphinx to see if they could answer her riddle. The riddle had something to do with initiation into the secrets of the royal clan. Dionysian drama, between when it had ceased to be thiasos secret society ritual and when it became established by Peisistratus, was the property of guilds of actors, who toured country villages (from Horace). 13th and 14th century liturgical plays transferred from clergy to bourgeois guilds, which rapidly secularized them against the opposition of the ecclesiastical authorities. Difference between Tudor and Greek drama is that Greek drama retained its religious roots. So, from the original ‘totemic rite’ of tribal society, one branch becomes ‘epic’, which flowers in Homer and Hesiod during the monarchy, Homeric hymn, didactic poetry, and elegiac during the aristocracy, and epigram during the democracy. Another branch becomes ‘clan cult’ and flourishes as choral ode, skolion, and monody during the aristocracy and democracy. The final branch ’secret society’, ‘primitive dithyramb’, ‘passion play’, and ‘peasant ritual’ becomes dithyramb, satyr play, tragedy, and comedy during the democracy.

Reaction: After the Greek and Roman heyday of tragedy on the stage, it seems tragedy reverts back into its ritual beginnings as spoken affairs between a variety of actors. Some of what Thomson says sounds dubious to our ears today, but undoubtedly, much of what he says on the cultic origins of drama must be correct. If that is the case, and I believe it is, we must consider how foreign tragedy really is to our modern sensibilities, much more foreign than we have thought. We know one or two of the tragedies, which form the basis of western thought and western civilization and we think the Greeks were an earlier form of ourselves. But, looking at the origin of Greek tragedy, is this necessarily true? Perhaps we thought we had grasped the Greeks, but in reality, grasp what we believe to be the Greeks. Troubling.

…review to be continued and concluded in part two, stay tuned! Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’ll be doing Melpomene’s work.

149th Annual Meeting Abstracts – Society for Classical Studies

Very exciting, last week the Society for Classical Studies (SCS) posted all the 149th Annual Meeting Abstracts! Here they are. It’s going to be a busy week in Boston in January 2018. There looks like there’s a really interesting panel on ‘Approaching Risk in Antiquity’. Talks of calculating risk at gaming tables, what ‘risk’ meant, and so on. Cool! Your truly will be speaking at the ‘Agency in Drama’ panel. The panel’s presided over by Helene Foley from Columbia University. She gave a talk at the University of Victoria as part of the Lansdowne Lecture series back in 2003. The Greek & Roman Studies Course Union got to take her out to dinner at Romeo’s Restaurant after the lecture. I remember everyone was excited to hear her speak, and it was nice to chat with her in an informal setting after the lecture. The undergraduate years were the good old days for sure. The other speakers at the ‘Agency in Drama’ panel are Mary Dolinar (Wisconsin-Madison) ‘The Agency and Power of the Dying Alcestis’, Jonathan Fenno (University of Mississippi) ‘Electra’s Living Death in Sophocles’ Electra‘, and Caleb Simone (Columbia) ‘Choreographing Frenzy: Auletics, Agency, and the Body in Euripides’ Heracles‘. We’ve been requested to circulate our papers amongst ourselves by mid-December to ensure a lively discussion. Time to start writing! Here’s a link to my SCS abstract, pasted below:

Edwin Wong

Independent Scholar

The worst-case scenario in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes happens if Eteocles and Polyneices confront one another at the seventh gate. Because of the multitude of permutations possible with seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, the worst-case scenario is a low-probability event. The resulting miasma, however, makes it a high-consequence event. I argue that Seven against Thebes provides an important lesson in risk management by bringing about, against all odds, the low-probability, high-consequence outcome. The lesson is that we are in the most danger when we are the most confident.

By repeated references to gambling, dice, and chance, Aeschylus encourages us to consider the likelihood of the worst-case scenario in terms of probability. Lottery images abound. First, the attackers draw lots to determine their stations (55-6, 375-6). Second, Eteocles invokes Hermes as the god of chance and lots when he comments on the matchup at the fourth gate: “Hermes has brought them together with good reason” (508). Commenting on another matchup, Eteocles says: “Ares will decide the outcome with dice” (414). Third, Eteocles alludes to an ominous throw in dice games (6+1) when he says that he will assign six defenders “with himself as seventh” (Roisman, 22n.15). Gambling references invite audiences to ask themselves what the odds of the worst-case scenario are.

What are the odds of the brothers meeting at the seventh gate? The odds are 1:49, or roughly two percent: the probability, therefore, is low. Although Aeschylus’ audience lacked modern probability theory and a way to compute the exact odds, Aristotle makes it clear that they could indeed differentiate between likely and unlikely outcomes (Cael. 292a29). Because of all the possible permutations with seven defenders, seven attackers, and seven gates, Aeschylus’ audience would recognize that, in a random setting (i.e. one where captains are posted to their gates by lot), the likelihood of the brothers meeting at the final gate is low.

Eteocles’ confidence is also bolstered, paradoxically, by another low-probability event. The matchups from gates one through six, being random, should favour neither brother. But what happens is that the matchups, when taken in aggregate, overwhelmingly favour Eteocles. The odds, for example, that an opposing captain at gate four bearing the device of Typhon on his shield will be matched up against a defender bearing the device of Zeus (who defeated Typhon) is 1:16. But even though this (and other) matchups are unlikely, they do take place. The fortuitous matchups bolster Eteocles’ confidence.

Eteocles interprets the fortuitous matchups as a sign that the gods are on his side because randomness in ancient Greece was anything but random: randomness was a manifestation of an underlying order in the cosmos. The lot, imbued with numinous significance, was expected to reveal the grand design. When the Achaeans, for example, were looking for a champion to duel Hector, they drew lots. Ajax’ lot, as though by design, “jumps out” of the helmet (Hom., Il. 7.181-3). So too the Olympians drew lots to see who would rule the sky, the seas, and underworld (Apollod., Bibl., 1.2.1). They decided by lot because fate or destiny revealed itself through randomness. Thus, when Eteocles sees the random matchups from gates one through six going his way, his confidence goes up.

Against all expectations, however, Aeschylus brings about the worst-case scenario: both brothers are called to the seventh gate. By bringing about the low-probability, high-consequence event against all odds, Aeschylus dramatizes risk: the most unlikely outcomes can have the most serious repercussions. As risk dramatized, Seven against Thebes may be read as a lesson in risk management. Its lesson is that, like Eteocles, we are in the most danger when we feel the most confident. In today’s age where confidence in technology and progress may lead to the downplay of manufactured risks (whether environmental, nuclear, biological, or financial), ancient tragedy can still offer moderns an important lesson.

Session/Panel Title:

Agency in Drama

Session/Paper Number

9.4

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work. See you at the Society for Classical Studies annual meeting!

War of the Worlds (Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre)

War of the Worlds – A Radio Play, directed by Brian Richmond

Here’s something different: a radio play. It turns out, in 1930s, in the days before television (it wasn’t until the 1950s that saw the proliferation of TVs), families huddled around their radio sets after dinner. On October 30, 1938, a 23-year-old Orson Welles performed a broadcast of Howard Koch’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds with the Mercury Theatre for CBS. That broadcast would become known as the ‘Panic Broadcast’, as many listeners who tuned in mid-show missed the disclaimer at the show’s start about the work being fiction. As a result, panic erupted as some listeners booked out of town while others went into hiding, fearing the martian invaders who would melt all resistance with their dastardly ‘heat gun’. The resulting infamy propelled the young Welles into a household name, both stateside and around the world. Welles, riding the wave of fame, would go on to produce, star, and direct Citizen Kane two and a half years later, a movie on whom some critics have conferred GOAT status.

Schedule

The radio play ran two days from October 30-31. FB and I went on Halloween night. The first act consisted of playing the 2013 PBS American Experience Documentary ‘War of the Worlds – The Panic Broadcast’. The second act consisted of a dramatic reading of the 1938 Mercury Theatre Broadcast by members of the Blue Bridge Acting Ensemble. After the conclusion of the second act the cast remained on stage for a Q&A talkback session to discuss what the dramatization means to us today.

Crowd

FB estimated the crowd at 100. My tally came in a little lower at 90. Tickets were $30. So, going from FB’s estimate (round numbers are always good), the box office collected $3000 on Tuesday. If the box office drew in another $3000 on Monday, that would bring the total to $6000. With 6 members of the creative team (e.g. director, stage manager, costumes), 11 actors, 1 usher, and two concession workers, this $6000 would be divided by 20, leaving $300 per person. Good thing there are corporate sponsors: Caffe Fantastico, Times Colonist, City of Victoria, and Earth’s Herbal. Side note, I had a hard time reading the ‘Earth’s herbal’ corporate logos on the brochure, letters were quite small. I wonder how much longer the Times Colonist can continue to sponsor theatre? In unrelated news, a 71-year old theatre festival was in jeopardy after Sears Canada, which declared bankruptcy, ended funding.

The Show

The PBS documentary was entertaining on the big screen. It contained snippets of a wide variety of all-too-human reactions to the panic broadcast. There was a stern judge that wanted to put Welles in jail for mischief making. One lady told her son to finish the chicken dinner leftovers because ‘tomorrow isn’t coming’. The best was this one lady that decided that, since the aliens were invading, she might as well go down to the bar to down a couple of stiff drinks. Good thinking, that’s what I would have done! The documentary also went through some of the more interesting letters that came in to CBS, some praising Welles, some damning Welles, and some which both praised and damned Welles. One smart comment told Welles he’d better go to Mars himself, because it was the safest place for him after all the mayhem he caused.

The dramatic reading of the broadcast recreated verbatim the words of the original broadcast. You can see in the dramatic compression of time that takes place that realism was not the point. It seems that five or ten minutes after the aliens land they’re decimating the resistance, and after another ten minutes whole areas have become wastelands. The surprising thing is that, despite this, panic erupted, as audiences thought the newsflashes were real (the broadcast consisted of a fake music program which would be interrupted by equally fake ‘newsflashes’ reporting the advance of the Martians).

My favourite part of the show was the Q&A talkback session after the show. I would say about twenty-five people stuck around to listen and take part. I can see why they don’t always do these Q&A sessions. It would take some patience for the cast and director to answer these questions politely. There was some talk on the ‘fake news’ phenomenon today. And obligatory comparisons between Welles’ ‘propaganda’ to Hitler, Trump, and Limbaugh. There was a good comment when one person asked why Welles was seated and not standing during the reading. The director said that in the actual CBC studio, Welles could see the orchestra and the other speakers, so could act as more of a conductor. They thought about this, but it was difficult to set up the stage to accommodate this. Someone asked if anyone had died. The answer was no. But with a population of 140,000,000 at that time, you’d think that quite a few people would have died during the show. If 1 out of 100 people die each year, there would be 140,000 deaths in 1938 or roughly 380 deaths per day. How would anyone know whether the sudden stress of the alien invasion pushed anyone over the mortal precipice? Some good comments on how dramatic radio performances are: the mind fills in all the blanks. Back when I was a lad, we used to gather around to watch X-Files on Saturday night. After the show, we would put on the radio, there was this one station that, at 10 at night, would replay these old radio dramas. They were fascinating.

The most interesting point was made by the director: in a recent New Yorker article, the writer argued, and convincingly, that the panic itself was a media creation. The argument goes that, the newspapers did not like this upstart medium of radio. When Welles’ panic broadcast came out, to be sure, some were discomfited, but not to the extent that we had previously thought. What happened was that the newspapers blew it all out of proportion to discredit radio. I had a little laugh when I heard this. Not only was the broadcast a hoax, the panic was also (largely) a hoax as well. While we laugh at the people who fell for the alien invasion hoax, we ourselves, even today, fall victim to the hoax perpetuated by the newspapers that there was widespread panic. The urban legend continues today. When I told my friend MR about the show, he said, ‘Yeah cool, that the broadcast that incited pandemonium and people to kill each other’. Moral of the story: before we laugh at how gullible others are, we should make sure we have control over our own ‘fake news’!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

The End of History and the Last Man – Fukuyama

1992, 2006 Free Press, 432 pages

Back Blurb

Ever since its first publication in 1992, The End of History and the Last Man has provoked controversy and debate. Francis Fukuyama’s prescient analysis of religious fundamentalism, politics, scientific progress, ethical codes, and war is an essential for a world fighting fundamentalist terrorists as it was for the end of the Cold War. Now updated with a new afterword, The End of History and the Last Man is a modern classic.

Author Blurb

Francis Fukuyama is a Bernard L. Schwarz professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the President’s Council for Bioethics. He has twice served on the Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. Department of State. In 1981-82 he was also a member of the U.S. delegation to the Egyptian-Israeli talks on Palestinian autonomy. His past boos include TrustThe Great DisruptionOur Posthuman Future, and State-Building.

This one has been sitting on the reading list for a long time. Funny, the Greater Victoria Public Library didn’t have it. But they were able to provide it through their wonderful interlibrary loan service. It ended up coming from Kaslo Public Library. ‘Kaslo?’ you say? Kaslo is a village in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia. Population according to the 2011 census stands at 1026. Ya, 1026. And they have Fukuyama’s The End of History. How do these buying decisions work at public libraries? Okay, The End of History is an academic book. Well sort of. But it’s pretty famous (or infamous) as well. One would think the GVPL, which serves 370,000 people, would have it?

Well, who’s the last man? In historicist approaches (approaches that look at social and cultural phenomena as determined by the laws of history rather than by human nature, chance, individuals, and religion), the last man is the last man standing after history reaches it teleological end goal. The last man stands opposite to the first man of some theories, such as Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’. The last man, according to Fukuyama, is the enfranchised citizen of a capitalist liberal democracy.

What a great formula! Take the current state of the political world and say that the laws of history have made is so. Other historicists didn’t have it so easy. For both Hegel and Marx, the end of history occurs in the future (for Hegel it is a polity where citizens enjoy recognition and for Marx history ends with the triumph of the proletariat and the end of class struggle). For Fukuyama, history has already ended (in 1992). Some people criticized his book because they thought he was saying history had literally ended. Wow. The thing that suspect about his book is that his thesis isn’t falsifiable. At least not today. We’ll have to wait a century or more to see whether he’s right. And what more, his thesis is based on inductive logic, which, in the long run, stands on very shaky ground. Fukuyama provides a thousand particular instances that back up his claim. But remember, inductive logic (where a law is derived from observing many particular instances) can be overthrown by a single contrary observation. Say someone sees a thousand swans. Or even a million swans. And says that: ‘There are no black swans’. Well, that’s inductive logic. Just by seeing one black swan, a thousand years of inductive logic can go out the window. By the way, this actually happened when they saw a black swan in Australia.

It’s risky to declare that history has ended. The centuries and millenia still to come stand against you. The strongest case against The End of History was, and continues to be, the rise of political Islam, which tends away from capitalist liberal democracies. I’ll withhold judgment on this book until the end of my life. I’m 42 today. If in another fifty years, the world completes the shift to liberal democracies, I’ll say Fukuyama is a genius. Time will tell. But even after I’m dead, things can go the other way too.

But for now, here’s a great quote from the book that’s too good not to pass up. Fukuyama quote Vaclav Havel. I’m going to have to learn some more about this guy, he seems fascinating, a political dissident and writer who became the first president of the Czech Republic. Here Havel tells the story of a greengrocer:

The manager of a fruit and vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the World, Unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean? …

Obviously, the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in this window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greeengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer’s superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protect the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan’s real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer’s existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?

Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan, “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even thought the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.

Wow, a lot of weight falls on the end of the quote. What a splendid writer!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Clio’s work.