Democracy and Revolution
In Athens on 10 May 2012 at 12:57
Athens, May 10
While many of us keep chilling on the hill, or wandering through the desolate city, Agora Athens is going on, every day. Surely it’s not a big event, but it’s an event. We were told to nurture no illusions about it, so the fact that it exists is definitely positive.
It’s all thanks to the people who kept believing in this opportunity to meet and exchange ideas. They have been working on it for time, on the ground and on the net, and in the last few days they have been putting up manifestoes all over Exarchia.
The agora has attracted some attention from Greek activists, immigrants, and foreign travellers. It has addressed major themes like the debt, immigration, police violence, the dangers of tear gas, and the psychological effects of repression, with interventions by experts on the subject.
Yesterday the agora changed its usual meeting place in Syntagma with the quiet hill of Pnyx near the ancient stoa, meeting place of the philosophers of old. The topic would be direct democracy and self organisation.
The whole scene is like one of Plato’s Dialogues. In between the marble, the bushes and the trees, a few dozen people – mainly Greeks – are sitting in a circle on a hill. They are discussing the concepts of liberty, equality, solidarity, justice, democracy.
Far from Syntagma and the oppressing dailiness of the city all these words sound like perfectly unreal ideas, exactly like Plato himself would see them. This event is not going to change the world, but here on Pnyx, it has a very evocative aesthetic value.
Athens is not one of the major cities of Greek tragedy, like Thebes or Mycene, but in the great Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylos, the city symbolically represents the triumph of reason and right.
The Oresteia is the only complete trilogy that has survived. It is practically the oldest pieces of theater, but it has one of the most beautiful opening sequences that I know. It’s a simple summing up of names, as if it were a biblical geneaology. But with a little bit of imagination, those names become incredibly cinematographical. As if the intro were written for wide-screen 3D.
It’s told on stage by the introducing character. Troy has fallen, finally, after ten years of bitter strife. The Greeks are inside the citadel, the Trojan men are killed, the women and children are enslaved and the babies are thrown off the walls without mercy. The palaces are plundered, the city is in flames.
Those flames spell a message, a message by supreme commander Agamemnon, king of Mycene, to his wife Clytaemnestra. It says ‘Mission accomplished. I’m coming home.’
Opening credits. Burning Troy fades into the distance. On a hilltop far away, a guard notices the flames. He runs to pile up wood, he takes a torch and lights it.
The camera zooms out again over the nightly panorama of the Aegean. As the poet spells the names of land and sea, the light travels over islands, hills and forests like a telegraph. In every one of those places a man spots the light, and passes it on. Cut to space, you see all of Greece and Asia Minor, in the middle you see a red glow where Troy had been, and all around you see little white lights expanding over the earth to bring the news that mighty Troy has fallen.
At sunrise, the message reaches Clytaemnestra on her balcony of the royal palace of Mycene.
Cut to Clytaemnestra. Her eyes are dark. She is all but delighted by the news of her husband’s return. She hasn’t been faithful to him.
Agamemnon hadn’t been faithful himself either. He had claimed more than his fair share of female booty during the conflict. His greed had caused Achilles to retire from the war and almost brought complete doom over the Greeks. Finally, he wasn’t ashamed to bring one of his conquests home with him. She was called Cassandra, she had the gift to foretell the future, and she was cursed by the fact that no-one ever believed her.
When she crossed the treshold into the house, Cassandra started to scream. She cried doom, death and destruction over the house of Atreus. But people laughed at her impatiently, and told her to shut up.
Her cruel predictions came true when Agamemnon was killed in his bathtub by his own wife, with the complicity of her lover.
This is when the real story starts. The tragic hero is Oreste, son of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra. He has to avenge his father. And his perverted fate is that to do so, he has to kill his own mother.
In a certain sense the Oreste tragedy is a mirror of the tragedy of Oedipus. Oreste would do anything to avoid his fate, but he doesn’t have a choice. He asks the god Apollo for help, and the god confirms. However painful, revenge is a must, and only Oreste can do the job.
And he does. With a dagger, Oreste kills the woman who gave him life. At the instant she dies, the hero breaks down and he is attacked by clouds of black-winged goddesses of remorse, the Erinyes. They swirl around him constantly, hissing that he is the most despicable of all creatures, and that he has committed the gravest of all crimes.
Oreste flees, he is on the verge of going mad, he returns to Apollo, begging to liberate him from his sense of guilt. “I had to do it. You said so yourself. Why don’t you help me?”
And Apollo: “There is nothing I can do for you. You have to go to Athens. Run, boy. Run. In the sanctuary of Athena you will be judged.”
Oreste runs to Athens, to the temple of the goddess of wisdom. Athena herself presides over an assembly that hears the case of Oreste and the case of the Erinyes.
Oreste is absolved. And yet the Erinyes get their recompensation. While Athena orders them to stop harassing Oreste, she acknowledges their importance, she offers them a place in the pantheon and with it the right to be revered.
The piece ends with a triumphant parade to celebrate the victory of reason.
According to Pasolini, who made a splendid translation into Italian, the Oresteia symbolizes the transformation of ancient tribal society based on force to an urban society based on the law. It’s a hymn to Athens as founding city of democracy.
The concept of revolution, of revolt against the ruling system in the name of human principles, is buried even deeper in the human psyche.
It starts with Prometheus, the bringer of fire.
In Aeschylos’ Prometheus Bound, the son of man is nailed to a mountain in the Caucasus. He had brought light among men, he had tought them the arts and the crafts of the gods. And he alone would pay for it all.
Every day Prometheus’ liver is eaten out by an eagle, and every day it grows back again. Crucifixion and eternal torture is his share for stealing the fire.
While he is up in agonising pain, various visitors, gods and humans, try to persuade Prometheus to make his peace with Zeus and ask for forgiveness. But Prometheus sends them off with words of rage and folly.
Where Jesus on the cross stoically accepted his fate, except for a single lament, Prometheus remains defiant all the way, against all hope. He is the archetype of the revolutionary martyr, when he screams with all his fury…
“Go away, and kneel! Fold your hands in prayer and be the dog that licks the foot of power! I don’t give a damn about Zeus! Let him do whatever he wants with the world, his time is almost up! He won’t be the king of gods for long!”