Sunday, July 29, 2012

Agamemnon in Aulis: Please Bless Allan and His . . . Work

“It has been said that the myth is a public dream, dreams are private myths. Unfortunately we give our mythic side scant attention these days. As a result, a great deal escapes us and we no longer understand our own actions. So it remains important and salutary to speak not only of the rational and easily understood, but also of enigmatic things: the irrational and the ambiguous. To speak both privately and publicly.” 
--Mary Zimmerman, Metamorphoses


Soldiers wait on the coast. Drums no longer beat, their vigor lost to stillness. The air refuses to breathe life into the warrior’s sails. No plea will abate its silence. No sacrifice will appease its indifference. The wind obeys its god. Not like men. Men slay hosts without abandon. Futures fall to swords of desire. Death hangs across the bows of ships that will not return from Troy’s shores. And still, men—lusting after blood born of war—strike down the beasts of Artemis. Her fury matches the brightness of her brother’s light. She stays the air of glory, accepting no recompense for her slain treasure. And the Greeks wait. Enticed by promised victory, a thousand faces look on at dreams unable to launch.

In a vengeance forged by Hephaestus’ flames, Artemis extends an offer to man’s general, Agamemnon: the winds will blow and the boats will sail, but only at the price of royal blood. For Agamemnon’s eternal glory to live, his daughter Iphigenia must die. Honor. Glory. Gold. Women. Immortality. Prizes for a daughter’s heart. Agamemnon’s nation calls upon him to lead the way. If he denies them and saves her life, others will overpower him, offering them both to Artemis. War claims its victims. It will always start at home. A daughter’s tears will not beat back ambition. Agamemnon’s knife sinks into Iphigenia’s chest, but it severs the ties of families—Priam’s and his own. Iphigenia’s blood stains the altar’s stone. The winds blow. Troy falls. Agamemnon gets everything he ever wanted. What is a daughter’s life to a father’s immortality?


Recently, I have struggled to think of a tragedy greater than that of Agamemnon at Aulis. Let’s leave aside all of the violence that happened as a result of Agamemnon’s blood lust: this not only includes the death of most of Prium’s family in Troy and the rape of most of the city’s women but also the subsequent murders of Agamemnon, his concubine Cassandra, and his murderers—his wife Clytemnestra and her lover (his cousin) Aegisthus. Not to mention the death of Agamemnon’s murderers came at the hand of his children, Orestes and Electra. The story starts with a father killing his daughter and wraps around to children killing their mother. But for right now, let’s leave all of that violence aside. And also, let’s leave aside Helen as the impetus for this great war. Let’s simply focus on Agamemnon in Aulis. That’s all the tragedy we need.

A great man gathered armies to lay waste to an impenetrable city. But he gathered no patience to satiate his zealotry, his ambition, and his desire for blood. A lust for glory seized his senses, his hubris, his daughter, and his future. Agamemnon had a choice: the nation of Greece or Iphigenia; military prowess and victory or Iphigenia; the honor and praise of men or Iphigenia; success on the battlefield of the great world before him or Iphigenia. His precious daughter—first-born to his house and into his heart—she never stood a chance. As his child, she offered him a future through the blood she would spill bearing him grandchildren; but he couldn’t wait. He poured her blood upon his name, sanctifying his immediate desires.

When Euripides told the story, he humanized Agamemnon. Agamemnon was not a callous warlord. He was not a monster. He lived as something far more terrifying: a loving father. Iphigenia gave him joy; her presence evoked smiles and hope. When he learned of Artemis’ demands, he wept; he cried in pain, racked by the goddess’s cruelty. But a wrathful and greedy army sat outside his tent. The gathered forces of Greece’s kingdoms see Troy’s gold and women. Agamemnon knew that refusing Artemis was not a simple choice; he and Iphigenia could both die to satisfy the lust, rancor, and ambition which Agamemnon ignited in others when he convinced them to combine against Troy. For Euripides, Agamemnon had to choose between his role as a general and his life as a father. 

The tragedy rests in his choice. The horror is the myth that he had no choice. Agamemnon brought his daughter to the place of sacrifice. He put her in a place of danger. It seems that he had no choice—that they’d both die if he defied the forces of war—but he chose to live. He sacrifices his fatherhood for his name to be the one carrying the troops to Troy. Fear might have been present and it’s important to understand the man, but ultimately fear is a red herring. Agamemnon loved his daughter, but love was not enough to swallow personal ambition. It is easier to stomach a soulless tyrant: Hitler, Stalin, Mao—illogical as it might sound, they make sense to us. Or rather, we can make a sense of them. But Agamemnon, a loving father who places his beloved daughter on a tainted altar . . . that’s more troubling. Agamemnon in Aulis: it’s not just tragic, it’s incomprehensible. It is sin.

Most of how I think about Agamemnon is based on Neil LaBute’s retelling of the ancient tale in his play Iphigenia in Orem. This one act monologue features a man recounting, confessing, and rationalizing the murder of his daughter. The man reveals that a coworker deceived him as part of a practical joke; the coworker convinced the man that he was going to lose his job. The man didn’t lose his job, but the false threat combined with the terror of real debt. The man could not afford his standard of living and his daughter’s medical bills without his job. The audience slowly learns that the man suffocated his baby girl in his bed. Forced to choose between material possessions and fatherhood, LaBute’s Orem-ite sacrificed his daughter. Given LaBute’s time at BYU and in the “ProvOrem” area, it is a terrifying but a wonderfully scathing commentary on Utah and Mormon culture, specifically a perceived glorification of capitalistic materialism. When contextualized within an understanding of Mormonism’s sincere exaltation of the family unit and familial relationships, Iphigenia in Orem’s criticism bears greater weight—particularly its critique of Mormon culture’s tendency to worship of wealth.

I think LaBute lacks Euripides’ subtlety—there is no question that we are to despise the man who suffocates his daughter—however, he takes the greater challenge of bringing the power of the myth and the protagonist into our immediate presence. Agamemnon exists as a man above and beyond our daily life; the man in Iphigenia in Orem is our brother, our neighbor, and each of us. We despise him because he exists as a manifestation of our worst selves. Very few of us will suffocate our baby daughters to afford the debt of a new car, a new townhouse, and a new plasma TV. I doubt many of us will plunge knives into our children so we can have wind to sail into battle. I don’t even have kids. And yet, I cannot get Agamemnon and Iphigenia out of my mind. For the past few months, their story has cycled over and over again in my heart. I have tried to understand why this violent myth has grabbed me so much, why it has haunted me.

About a year ago—perhaps a little more than that now—I sat patiently in my apartment’s living room with two of my roommates as two more young men about our age administered to us spiritually. They were our hometeachers. For anyone unfamiliar with the hometeaching program in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there is neither a paid nor a trained clergy in the church. All positions of ecclesiastical authority are held by members of the laity. There’s a nice democratic and communal ideal to the organization but it does necessitate a distribution of spiritual duties since there is no individual or collective tasked with caring for any particular congregation as their sole job. Hometeaching is one manifestation of how the institution maintains an ecclesiastical laity while spreading out work. Generally, pairs of men are assigned different individuals and families they are responsible for visiting and helping. Ideally, once a month the pair will visit and impart a spiritual lesson designed to uplift those committed to their stewardship. This was one such meeting. A meeting I cannot look back on without laughing.

Bless my hometeachers’ hearts, they really wanted to encourage the three of us in our individual and variant lives. With a prepared lesson in hand, they executed their plan to share scriptures, their testimonies, and heartfelt convictions about God caring about the many and important things occupying our time and attention. But there was a dynamic in the room that did not make the lesson exactly work in my favor. See, it was a couple of weeks before one of my two roommates was getting married. So throughout the visit he talked about the excitement and stresses involved with the life-altering event that is a wedding. My other roommate took time from packing to visit with the hometeachers. He was moving out of our apartment to begin an internship with a US Senator from Nebraska. This was after he had returned from his internship in Belgium with an organization associated with the European Union. 

And then there was me. At that point of my life, every waking hour was spent either on my masters thesis or the theater history class I was teaching. Friends did not see me. For the better part of six weeks, I left the apartment every day around 8 AM and usually returned at about 11 PM or midnight. The Subway franchise on campus and I grew very close that term. I did not feel like I had the time to sit and listen to my hometeachers talk about faith or happiness or Jesus. But they wanted to come over and they set up an appointment. I figured that if I did not feel like I had the time, then I needed the break; I needed to listen to their short message and it would do me good. If you can't make time for Jesus, well . . . that's not a good sign.

Oh, and how I listened. During the lesson, one dear hometeacher attempted to relate how what he was saying about Christ and the gospel related to each of us. I heard him say that God cares about what’s going on in our lives and what challenges we’re facing, “whether that applies to challenges that come up with getting or being married, or moving to a new place and having new responsibilities, or work. I did not quite notice how I had been framed into this litany until the young man repeated the application again as he ended the lesson with a prayer and a blessing upon each of us. He asked that God would help my first roommate with the new and exciting adventures that come with marriage. He asked that God would help my second roommate with the new and exciting adventures that come with being in a new place with exciting opportunities. And then he called down the Heavens to bless me: he asked that God would bless Allan . . . and his work.

It was in that moment, in the enunciation of the prayer and propitiation that I glimpsed the pattern. I recalled how he had made sense of our lives earlier in the lesson. I saw how people around me were embarking on new adventures in marriage and great internship opportunities. And then, I was the guy blessed . . . in work. I choked back a chuckle as he continued on. We all shook hands and they left. I ventured back to my room and proceeded to laugh. I realized that I AM that guy. I am that guy who has nothing else to bless in his life but his work. I am that guy that people see as a person successful at their work, but that there’s not really anything else you can pray about for them. Almost every time I tell people about this, they laugh. Rightfully so.  There is something incredibly pathetic about becoming so terribly cliché. And there’s something so ironic about seeing your life reflected in such a belittling mirror while someone is praying for your capacity to find success. There’s something inexplicably crushing about such little words: please bless Allan and his . . . work.

It’s as though we’re all searching for something else in that gap, in between those little ellipses. “Is there anything else to bless this guy in?” No. Okay. Odd thing about it is that I am. That is, I am incredibly blessed in my work. I wrote a kick-ass thesis about Hell Houses. I am a damn good teacher of theater history—very edu-taining and I know both history and theater backwards and forwards. Every time I taught, I had excellent TAs. I even got to co-teach the class that changed the course of my life with the teacher who changed my life. Not only did I go to London to study theater for six weeks, but I received funding to pay for the program and because I was the TA got paid while I was practically on vacation. I co-created an amazing production of Romeo and Juliet with some of my favorite people in this world and with one of my best friends in this life.

I was accepted into a great PhD program. I am studying theater history and performance studies right outside of Washington D.C., where I don’t have to pay tuition and I get a stipend for being a teaching assistant. My first year I was on a fellowship so I was effectively paid to study there—I didn’t have to work at all. I completed two degrees at BYU without any student debt. I have never taken out a loan. I have an amazing credit rating because my funding at BYU allowed me to purchase all sorts of plane tickets on my credit card so I could go to conferences and Hell Houses around the country. I hold leadership positions in a number of graduate student groups, both in my department and in national organizations. For the next four years, I will be in a position to either continue as a teaching assistant or be a teacher of my own class again. And I have this time to conduct research into whatever topic I want to advance. I am indeed blessed in my work.

And yet, I look at my labors and I can’t help but wonder what Iphigenias I’ve sacrificed these years. To stay out of debt, to retain my scholarship, I had to maintain a 3.92 GPA. There was no room for error. I stayed home studying and working, passing on road trips and adventures of college life. In a matter of years, I have grown greatly in intellect and confidence. And I say that I don’t think I would give that up for anything in the world. But there are moments that I am concerned by just how true that statement might be.

In a matter of weeks, perhaps the best friend I have ever had in this life is about to marry a wonderful woman. We have other friends (particularly the organizers of this blog) who—individually and as a couple—I hold in similar esteem. By virtue of their existence rather than any manner of proud or self-aggrandizing declarations, these friends boast the type of relationships I deeply envy and wish to have in my life. In passing thoughts, I wonder if I lack their blessings because I keep returning to Aulis. I stand ready to drain the blood of possibility into the life of my name. Recurring and frequent as the thoughts might be, though, they tend not to endure interrogation. Quite frankly, I do not believe that I have ever passed on a relationship that might have been because I overworked myself. I like to think more positively that while my life has not known the joy of love and family I have always wanted, I have known strength in myself and the success that, for now, is serving as mysubstitute for love.

Perhaps I see Iphigenia as my faith. I might wonder if I walk the cliché path of forsaking testimony and spiritual might for victory in academia. But the circles of academia I engage with, while critical of faith and religion, are not necessarily hostile. I have trouble with hearing how there is great animosity harbored by institutions of liberal education and religion, not because there are not instances of that (I’m not naïve), but because I instead see how much such educational institutions have sought to address their errors and faults. My faith is not what it once was, but I see it as matured by learning. At times I doubt that I would have remained a member of my faith tradition were it not for my education that allowed me complicate or challenge my own frustrations or faulty premises regarding the church. I think I could consider my faith and my career as apt to this metaphor, but because the winds gave life to a reincarnation of my faith, it’s hard to draw the parallel completely. So I suppose that I am not entirely convinced that there is any easily identifiable Iphigenias on my altars right now. And yet . . . I cannot shake how much Agamemnon haunts me. He is a companion at this time, occupying my thoughts and calling my life into relief.

Where is my Aulis? Who is my Iphigenia? What is the wind in my sails? What Troy do I seek?

To be honest, I don’t know. It would be easy to say that I felt like working hard prevented me from having success in other aspects of my life. But I simply don’t think that’s true. In fact, I honestly feel focusing on my career brought me a confidence and a maturity to seek after good things in my life—that the blessings in my work procured as well as prepared my Iphigenias for sacrifice. I have no children that I have betrayed. I do not think I have bled out my future to feed my own ambition. But this myth remains buried in my soul. I feel called to hearken to it, but I don’t know what beating drum I am to hear. I wait for the winds but they refuse my pleas for understanding. Maybe it’s enough to only partially hear the myth’s grand invocation, even if I can’t make out its significance now. But still, at times, I feel like I would give anything to know why this story means so much to me.

10 comments:

  1. First of all...

    http://youtu.be/a4ChERg__G8

    Second of all, great post. As an aficianado of world myths, I like the subject matter a lot. Plus, you have a great way of tying things together, particularly with your own life, in interesting and insightful ways. Nicely done.

    Good luck with, you know, your work.

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    1. Youtube video successfully linked. Thank you.

      Also I appreciate the endorsement from a mythologist such as yourself. It means a lot. I'll keep at my work but I do look forward to making choices between it and other things in my life.

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  2. Great post, Allan. I love the insight into your own head, particularly this bit: "I stayed home studying and working, passing on road trips and adventures of college life. In a matter of years, I have grown greatly in intellect and confidence. And I say that I don’t think I would give that up for anything in the world. But there are moments that I am concerned by just how true that statement might be."

    When we're all at judgement day watching ourselves on the big screen of life, I'd like to know what things I've given up without realizing it to be where/who I am today. With very few exceptions I have no regrets in this life, but I know there are plenty of things I've given up to be here today. Heck, even leaving my parents' house yesterday I gave up time with them and you guys so I could come back home and work on things here.

    There may not be much value in constantly looking over your shoulder to see what you could have done differently, but every once in a while it's a great exercise in preparing for the future by learning from the past. At least that's how I think of it.

    I hope you do well in your ...... work.

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    1. Thanks Brooke. There are moments when I write that I learn what I think and believe. As much as what I post might give any of you insights into me, I experience similar insights into my own head. The quote you pointed out was certainly one of those. There's a particular tension. I know at times I would like to say that there are in fact things that I would rather have than my intellect and confidence, that intellect and confidence are my possessions that I could sacrifice for something greater. I have those feelings, but at the same time, it's not entirely true or at least it's not the predominate sentiment I hold. Instead, I really have no desire to give up those attributes and I don't think there's much to entice me away from them. But that very resolute commitment is what gives me some pause because I don't entirely know if they are attributes I should treat as I do. And so I wrestle and contradict myself and continue on.

      I think when I started this post, I intended it to be a reflection on what I lost as a result of working so much, but in the end, not only did that feel cliche, it just simply didn't feel true for me. It was an interesting notion to work through. Because like you say looking over your shoulder wondering how things could have been differently--it's not that helpful a strategy. For me though the value was challenging the impulse to do it while thinking that that's what the myth is asking us to do. And maybe that is the point of the myth. Maybe it is just a cautionary tale warning us not to reach a point in our lives where we regret how much time we spent at the office instead of home. But that does not seem to be what's resonating for me right now. So the value of looking over my shoulder this time was actually to come to the conclusion that I haven't and don't need to do that.

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    2. Interesting idea - remembering the past once in a while to realize how useless it is to look back at all. Is it useless? Does anyone actually need to look back? Maybe (at least to me) this is a valuable lesson in forward thinking.

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  3. Oh Allan, I can't describe how much I adore this. I believe we all have Agamemnon moments where we wonder what we have given up in exchange for our successes or to follow a certain life path. Even though I have been blessed with my Iphigenia (husband, one child and another on the way), sometimes I also wonder what I have laid upon the alter. How would the story of Agamemnon ended if he had refused Aulis? That's the story I often wonder. Could I have had the successes and spoils of war? Too bad none of the old Greek guys gave us that story.

    I just adore you and miss our lengthy discussions in the annuls of the graduate office. Best to you and your Iphigenia (because, is she really the love of family or is she simply the greatest sacrifice we can make)?

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    1. Ooo, I like your final question. I had not considered abstracting Iphigenia outside of a metaphor or symbol for family. Oh, I miss our discussions too . . . and making everyone else in the office listen to the minimalist stylings of Arvo Part, Philip Glass, or Michael Nyman. Imagine how much we would have had to talk about and listen to if Downton Abbey was on while we were in the office.

      Also, congratulations on your next child. Do you know the sex yet?

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  4. At the moment, the child is sexless. Well, you know, not really, but we won't know for about another month. My only request is to not say anything on Facebook yet. We're sending off an announcement to Brennan's family here really soon (Brennan somehow thought that would be more fun) and, you know, that might spoil the surprise.

    I think I need to go listen to some Glass. The Philip kind.

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  5. Point the first: if you ever decide on a career in writing fiction of some sort, some of the prose here indicates you've got the chops. Second, this post made me thinking of a much more prosaic way of imagining Agamemnon's dilemma in economic terms (sort of) as opportunity cost -- the idea that basically everything we do necessarily precludes many other things we could have done. I suppose it's a useful enough way of thinking about the past provided, as Brooke said that it doesn't lead to spending all our time looking over our shoulders, but it's definitely a useful way of thinking about the present and future: whatever choices we make are to the exclusion of other choices, including some paths that may be lost forever. The trick is prioritizing and figuring out which ones are actually important; I find that's much easier to discern long after the fact :)

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    1. Something about Brooke's comment made me think of opportunity costs as well. And I like the idea of shifting the focus from the past to more present and forward thinking analysis. There's less criticism and more critical thinking in that.

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