In and Out of the Mind: Greek Images of the Tragic Self
Whom Gods Destroy: Elements of Greek and Tragic Madness
By Ruth Padel
Reviewed by Marianne McDonald
University of California, San Diego
La Jolla, CA
Ruth Padel, poet and classicist, has written a meditation on the mind as the Greeks thought about it. These books are truly a pair; in fact, In and Out of the Mind is almost a prerequisite for Whom Gods Destroy and is referred to in many of its notes. Padel brings a self-conscious, witty style to the serious problem of how the Greeks conceived their own mental activity. She piques our imaginations from the start by saying that the main brief of her book 'is that the phenomena of consciousness are the phenomena of religion.' What can this mean? First of all, that a poet is writing this rather than a philosopher, and traditional barriers are freely crossed. Then evidence is mustered from the ancients - primarily tragedians and medical writers - and she builds a persuasive case that the ancient Greek psyche (you will have to read the book to see how inadequate the choice of one term is) is subject to attack (often divine) from within and without: it is seen as fluid, gaseous, permeable, and changeable- -in short, it proves the truth of Heraclitus' claim that panta rei: 'everything flows.'
In other words, the argument of In and Out of the Mind is this: Greeks, until Plato, represent the process of their thinking as taking place in their splanchna, in their midriff, not in their head. When we hear them say that a thought churned their innards, we must believe them literally: there is no metaphor. Usually they depict thought, and its emotional accompaniments, as invading their inner space. There is, nevertheless, some flowing and ebbing, some inward and outward movement of thought, as if there were something already there inside to receive what enters from outside. This, in fact, is the main difference between the two books, that Whom Gods Destroy develops the ambivalence of this inner-outer movement, in its analysis of ate.
Padel takes as her principal god Hermes, the god of goings-in and -out, rather than Dionysus, the god of tragedy, although she claims tragedy is the prime locus of her study. She wants to understand, and communicate that understanding, so Hermes, the interpreter, and messenger god, is a fitting choice. Tragedy is seen to be the playground of the soul's fluxes. We see attacks from within and without, with the sense that we, like the tragic hero, leave with an enhanced view of the self. Tragedy is, like Hermes, that which brings the inside out. (We might think of the ekkyklema, that machine from the Greek theatre which rolls out the bodies from within, and thus reveals secrets.) Padel concludes In and Out with 'Tragedy, like its own vision of the self, was where the terrible could also, for a while, be good.'
Having done my dissertation with Bruno Snell, who was as interested in terminology as Padel, and having published on terminology myself (Terms for Happiness in Euripides, Terms for Life in Homer), I share Padel's fascination with the complex relations between thought and work. What Padel offers, different from conventional philological studies, is a constant reminder that words change their meaning according to their context. As a poet she calls attention to this dynamic of language and forces us to look closely at words and phrases we thought we knew, and thus had begun to ignore.
Her background in anthropology allows her to bring in references to the Ilongot, a Philippine tribe of headhunters, who have a word liget that sheds light on the Greek word menos because it combines the notions of both 'energy' and 'anger.' She also speaks of the Dinka language, and words used by Argentinian gauchos. She thus brings a wide- ranging familiarity with other languages to her own study of the Greek. Her bizarre quotations enhance her own text. 'Pain is a natural and intended curse of the primal sin. Any attempt to do away with it must be wrong,' according to the Zurich City Fathers who banned anesthesia. This also shows that the role of religion in what happens in the body is not unique to the Greeks. Gods affect man, and much within man is seen as a god's work. Padel cites Euripides, who in turn seems to be paraphrasing Heraclitus: 'Nous is to us in each of us a god.' Diseases could be divine punishments. Her references include sociologists, philosophers, anthropologists and psychiatrists, such as E. Cassirer, C. Levi, and R. Laing.
I quarrel slightly with some things I feel have been left out, simply because at times in this very broad work the focus can be too narrow. Padel, for instance, rightly associates horses with Hippolytus' name, translating its ambiguity 'one who releases or is released by horses.' The chapter is on 'Animal, and Daimon: Bringers of Death and Definition' and in a sub- chapter 'Animal Weaponry.' She mentions Euripides' play. It is, however, among other things, a play about love, and the suppression of love: Artemis and Aphrodite face off against each other, the force of sexual suppression vs. the force of sexual expression. Hippolytus does not make the proper sacrifice to Aphrodite, and he is ultimately torn apart by his own horses as they panic and bolt away. The sexual symbolism of the horse is as apparent as the one investigated by Padel, namely animal as weapon. One has to remember that Poseidon mated with Demeter in the form of the horse, and it was Poseidon who sent the bull to frighten Hippolytus' horses. Both the bull and the horse, as they are associated with Poseidon, suggest common sexual associations, raw energy and power. Here we find a major fault in the format of Padel's two books: she isolates short passages from plays and does not give us a sense of the place of the passage in the work as a whole.
So also Padel says, in In and Out of the Mind, 'The human part of the soul must be nourished and capable of controlling the animal within,' and cites the Republic of Plato. It would be appropriate to cite as well the Phaedrus with its image of the human charioteer driving two horses as a model of the soul (the logical controlling the passionate and appetitive). She does treat this image in the Phaedrus with elaborate detail in Whom Gods Destroy. Here, as often, one has the impression that the two books are like similar decks of cards: they have been shuffled together when they should have been laid out in suits.
Sometimes Padel's massing of evidence is overwhelming. One feels victimized by lists, rather than informed by analyses and generalizations based on these lists. When, for instance, Padel mentions that children are important in the festival of Choes, I would have liked her to tell us why, and analyze the children's relation with the dead, the seasons, and the other associations. Why mention children at all without some link? The way quotations are cited is also rather bothersome: for instance, when three or four references are made in one paragraph, a single footnote will come only at the end of the paragraph, listing the references in order, with perhaps one or two added. I would prefer citations with each quotation, perhaps placed in the text in parentheses, so that one can know immediately to what one is being referred. Some citations are opaque to me; I would like some precise identification for the vase paintings to which she refers.
These are minor quibbles in comparison with what Padel has accomplished. She gives us a feminine perspective, and her vision allows her to argue, among other things, that men see their minds as female agents, passive and receptive rather than active and controlling. She carefully maps out the geography of complex ideas and uses language which is both colloquial and precise.
Whom Gods Destroy begins with a chapter which summarizes In and Out of the Mind, and not only does almost every footnote refer back to it, but there are quotations from it and observations summarizing it. There are those who that we all write one book, over and over; these two books illustrate this point only too well. The second supplements the first in dealing with tragedy more explicitly, but then, most of the references in the first book are to tragedy. There is a certain circularity in the argument. The footnotes in the second book are better placed, usually with one number for each quotation, but when the quotations start to mass up in one paragraph, we again get the all-inclusive note, which makes identification a bit of a bother. Notes can also be arbitrary, superfluous in some cases, such as p. 83, n. 15, where a reference to Padel's earlier book sends us back to a quotation from Kahn, a reference to Vlastos, and fragments of Heraclitus. Sometimes notes are omitted, such as for the series of quotations from Democritus (p. 91). This passage includes the statement, 'Democritus is the chosen alias of Robert Burton,' which sticks out as a piece of esoteric (and irrelevant) trivia. Some notes are difficult to understand, such as note 28 on p. 180, which directs one: 'below, nn. 8, 10': below in the next chapter? One wonders whether the copy editors were so overwhelmed by the plethora of references that they just gave up.
The premise of this book is that we must understand how the Greeks thought about their own thinking processes if we are to understand Greek tragedy, which figures deranged thinking so prominently. Padel rightly discusses ate, which is found in Homer as a process that the gods used to punish hybris. It is often seen as the fall (ate) that follows pride (hybris). However, this is not so neat, since ate can can also describe the blindness that the gods send to make man commit a crime, as well as the punishment that follows the crime. (Padel takes her title from the apocryphal motto: 'Whom God wishes to destroy, He first makes mad.') Ate can also be a family curse, and attack generation after generation, as in the house of Atreus (one reason Clytemnestra says that she killed Agamemnon was that she was the ate haunting the Atrides, Ag. 1433). In my course,'Introduction to Greek tragedy', I often compare it to alcoholism, or some genetic defect, which generation after generation can plague a family. Padel usefully provides an appendix showing ate's use in tragedy, in addition to her chapter discussing its use in Homer, pointing out its manifold meanings and its ambiguity.
One wonders perhaps why the positions were not reversed, with Homer in the appendix rather than tragedy, since tragedy is the emphasis of this book. Padel rightly shows how the term ate is symphonic in its associations. It also diminishes in importance in Greek tragedy as madness itself seems to replace it. Her argument might have been easier to follow if she would have followed a historical format with Dodd's analysis of Agamemnon's ate speech in Iliad 13, and worked downwards through early lyric and Pindar to tragedy. She calls her appendix 'The Thinning of Ate.' Is this not the gradual evolution of the idea of guilt and responsibility as devised by Snell, Dodds and Adkins?
Nevertheless, Padel investigates the phenomena of madness in Greek tragedy with linguistic and poetic sensitivity, and has written a book which has appeal to a literate reader. Once again, she brings in her wide reading and ranges from Greek tragedy to Shakespeare, the moderns, and even the Trobriand Islanders.
My quarrel with her is that madness is not so prominent in Greek tragedy. Padel rightly notes its appearance in the three major playwrights, and its growing prominence in Euripides. But I wish that she had pointed out that the main tragedy in each of these authors' plays is not the madness, but rather that the victim awakes from madness: this is the kairos of tragedy, that magic horrific moment in which one gains insight into the abyss. This is certainly the case with Agave, and her father says, after she has killed her son mistaking him for a lion, she would have been better off if she had remained mad (Bacchae 1260-1262). What makes Medea so singularly horrible is that she is sane when she kills her children, as Padel herself says: 'The worst, strangest thing about Medea is that she is not mad.' Medea shows anger, and claims it overcomes her rationality, but that she can reflect on this verifies her sanity. The greatness of Greek tragedy is to show the terrible in a healthy person: as the chorus in Antigone says, there are many terrible things, but none more terrible than man, using the word deinos, which can mean both 'terrible' and 'wonderful'.
It is humanness which is at the core of Greek tragedy, not divinely sent punishment. Greek tragedy is not epic. There was a link between the gods and men, but Euripides, like Protagoras, saw man as the measure of all things. This is where Padel misses the complexity of all the discussion in Snell, Fraenkel, Dodds and Adkins, modified by Rosenmeyer and rejected by Lloyd-Jones, about development in Greek thought. She claims, 'Gods sometimes punish one person through another's madness: Dionysus punishes Pentheus through Agave's; Aphrodite punishes Hippolytus through Phaedra's.'
The madness in these cases is not really comparable. Agave is truly inflicted with madness by Dionysus so that she kills her son thinking he is a lion. How much worse to kill one's child thinking he is a child, as Medea does. So, also, one could eliminate the gods from Euripides' Hippolytus (and many modern versions do), and see Phaedra as completely rational, although swept away by passion, as was Medea. It should be noted that Padel does not discuss tragedy as theater and she never mentions any specific production of a Greek tragedy. Nevertheless, a theater-goer will be better able to understand the words of ancient tragedy by understanding some of their archeology.
Phaedra makes 'rational' plans to save her honor, and her final words alive claim she will teach Hippolytus to be sane and temperate, using one of the terms investigated in this context by Padel, (sophronein, 731), the verb which combines the elements of a sound (sos) and healthy mind (phren). This is a complex term, and there is certainly not only one meaning, but rare is the person that would call Phaedra mad, and this increases our horror at what she does.
Padel rightly points out the different views of madness in antiquity and in modern times. In antiquity madness is regarded as mainly of divine origin, and most of the examples that we see in Greek tragedy are attributed to gods. In Euripides' Orestes, we have the first articulation of the consciousness of guilt as an illness (nosos). When Menelaus asks Orestes what ails him, he answers, 'Conscience (synesis), because I know that I have done terrible things' (Orestes 396). This type of reflection could not happen in Homer, a point was something specifically noted by Snell. In Aeschylus these hallucinations were shown on stage as god-sent furies (Erinyes). In Euripides, Electra also characterizes Orestes' hallucinations as mental illness (Orestes 314-5).
There are a few idiosyncratic additions which tell us more about the provenance of the author than the subject at hand. For instance, Padel refers to oistros ('the 'gadfly' word for 'madness''), which she points out 'is not like the tsetse fly (known to the nineteenth-century British in Africa), whose poison stays and works in the blood.' Her point is well taken, that ancient madness, particularly as described in ancient tragedy, is something transient: 'when oistros is absent, you are as sane as anyone else.' We note the colonial aside, that this fly was known 'to the nineteenth- century British in Africa.' I would have thought it might have been even better known to the locals.
I also quarrel with Padel's statement, 'Before the fourth century, Greeks have no separate category, 'metaphorical''. Even in Homer, when Odysseus says his heart 'barks within him,' that was metaphor. He is not a dog. While it is true that there is an extraordinary correlation among the three levels of life in epic (human, divine, animal) this is nevertheless metaphor. To say it is not seems to me wrong, and one might call it a kind of reductio ad absurdum of British empricism: if I, unaided, do not see it, then it does not exist.
There are more positive additions, which are poetic and familiar to the author, such as her description of Cassandra: 'Cassandra promised sex to Apollo. His interest marks her story like the city's name in Brighton rock: that peppermint stick of candy, which kept its red letters while you sucked the white away. Their relation, her life, her susceptibility to madness, end together.' Or, and again related to food, 'Inner darkness is a mille feuille image, many layered even in tragedy's time.' It is touches like this which make the text charming as well as informative.
Padel refers to Benjamin Britten's Curlew River as based on 'a mediaeval Noh play,' which she does not identify, but it is the Sumidagawa ('Sumida River') by Zeami's brother Motomasa. In this play a mother searches for her lost son, and seems mad from her sorrow. A boatman informs her that her son is dead and shows her the grave of her son, and she remains to mourn him. In the Noh play the ghost of the son appears. This play is comparable to the Greek in not glamorizing madness, as many European works do. Padel might have pointed out some of the parallels and differences between the fifth-century Greek and mediaeval Japanese view of madness as expressing unrelieved tragedy.
Padel, nevertheless, has produced a valuable study, tracing the forms of madness in ancient Greece. She shows Plato's endorsement of the inspirational, creative and religious aspects of madness, but goes into the details of the horror in fifth-century tragedy. She follows Snell in emphasizing the double bind that underlies so much of tragedy, the tragic dilemma exemplified by Orestes, who must choose between obeying a god's command to kill his mother and violating human law, or disobeying Apollo while following what is conventionally thought as right. Other gods, such as the Erinyes, who protect those who are related by blood, are ready to enforce other divine laws that are violated by Orestes following the order of Apollo.
Padel is to be applauded by pointing out the narrowness of modern psychological interpretations which are put forward as universals. She also praises the discoveries of anthropology, and urges us to use all the tools of interpretation we have at hand, realizing at the same time, 'For all our command of chemistry, our own chaotic approaches to madness and its relation to divinity are as anthropologically local, as historically constructed, as those of fifth-century Athens.' She points out crucial differences between the moderns and the ancients. For instance, many Freudians tend to see madness as lasting, sometimes hidden, but bound to erupt again, whereas the ancient Athenians saw madness exemplified by the intermittent attack, usually triggered by external causes.
I agree with Padel's inclining more to Vernant, who said, 'Take as your starting-point the work itself as it comes to us...studied from every point of view possible, in an analysis appropriate to the particular type of creation,' [then progress to] 'the historical, social, and mental context which gives the meaning of the text full force.' Padel adds, taking the poet's perspective, that we only understand by 'believing [the ancient poets] when they say people are mad, sane, or about to become divine.'
Padel defines the tragic hero as the embodiment of the human mind 'which lives catastrophe, suffers divine damage, and endures.' Then she observes, 'A tragic hero produces truth out of pain most deeply and simply by embodying it.' She concludes with the image of Munch's 'The Scream,' with its face that resembles a tragic mask, and locates the etiology of tragic madness in Greece. She has recognized Aeschylus' truth that man must learn through suffering, and joined it with the aesthetic observation that this lesson is expressed in sublime beauty through the creativity of man. Padel's book itself is a creation to be admired. She has taken us along the wandering paths of the human mind and Greek tragedy; the persistent reader will be rewarded by greater insight.
University of California, San Diego
(An earlier version of this paper will appear in Theater magazine (26:3). Editor: Tom Sellar. Subscription address: Yale School of
Drama, 222 York Street, New Haven, Connecticut 06520.)