Iphigenia in Woebegoneland

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by Emilio DeGrazia | July 22, 2009 • Again the latest bad news comes home to us with a poignant sadness not nearly as long-lived as indifference. Four more Minnesota warriors killed this week, in one war allegedly winding down, in another heating up. Our business as usual indifference saves us from the grief that would trouble us if we paused to memorize the warriors’ names. They’re Minnesotans like us, but thankfully they’re strangers to most of us. We hold ourselves at attention for a moment, then try to let go of them, perhaps not pausing to imagine each one having a mother, sister, lover, daughter, or wife.

Emilio DeGrazia has authored four books of fiction, including Seventeen Grams of Soul, winner of a Minnesota Book Award, and Enemy Country, winner of a Writer’s Choice Award. A founding editor of Great River Review, he has co-edited (with his wife Monica) 26 Minnesota Writers and 33 Minnesota Poets. His most recent book is a collection of essays entitled Burying the Tree. He lives downstream in Winona. All Downstream blog entries ©2008 Emilio DeGrazia.

We brushstroke the warriors’ deaths with the word “tragedy,” the same word we use when someone we know dies in a car accident. By itself the word “tragedy” brings drama into the equation and helps generate some emotion, if not understanding, of what led to the violent deaths of the warriors. They did not die by accident. We like to think an accident just “happens”––it can’t be helped, is a mere function of chance. But a “tragedy” is both deeper and loftier than an accident. In tragedies, victims die for a cause, and their deaths are caused. Tragedy challenges our need to understand why things went wrong, and it implicates us in the wrong for our failure to understand in time the conspiracy of causes––elements of choice, chance and circumstance––that have made a terrible outcome inevitable.

The webs of choice, chance and circumstances that trap victims are complex, and they overlap. Parents, schools, churches, economics, friends and flaws––et cetera––combine to nudge victims this way or that until they are hopelessly trapped and undone. When we examine the webs in a tragic light we pity and we grieve for victims who fall, and sometimes we see ourselves in them. It takes a second and more imaginative gaze for us to see that the tragic victim’s mother, sister, lover, daughter, or wife are also caught in the web.

In Woebegoneland only a few cranks enjoy reading tragedies, particularly the ancient Greek ones we now call “myths,” as if they are fictional and therefore entirely false. The ancient Greeks themselves kept respinning their myths, trying to understand themselves and their histories through them. They were not above using myths to serve special interests. The Greeks were also low-tech, most of them unable to read or write, so their poets made careers out of memorizing the myths or setting them in motion in vast and lovely theaters made from stone. Some of the dramas ritually performed in their theaters no doubt carved indelible impressions on the minds of the throngs that listened and watched.

Take, for example, the (perhaps) 3,000 year old legend of Iphigenia. Iphigenia was the daughter of Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the various Greek tribes gathered at the seaport of Aulis to begin the Greek invasion of Troy, a city-state in the nation we now call Turkey. Agamemnon has his excuse for going to war: Helen, beautiful and blonde Greek queen, has run away from her husband to be with her lover Paris in Troy. Her passion for love-making (and nice clothes) appears to have been sufficient cause for thousands of Greek men to get passionate about war. So the Greeks, according to their own hero Achilles, “left at home their wives and children, all because a terrible passion seized all Greece to make this expedition.”

But Helen’s abandonment of the Greeks––criminalized by her extraordinary beauty––is the moral equivalent of the Vietnam war’s Gulf of Tonkin Resolution or Iraq’s mythical weapons of mass destruction: Accuse someone of throwing the first stone so you have a reason for dropping bombs on them. The Greeks had motives other than Helen for invading Troy. With Troy under their control the Greeks would dominate trade in the region, and Troy was full of gold. And there were women to be had––Helen, of course, the trophy, many older women useful as slaves, and the younger more attractive ones useful as concubines.

What did the mothers, sisters, lovers, daughters and wives think about this?

The Greek warriors at Aulis were stalemated. All they had was each other. They had left their mothers, sisters, lovers, daughters and wives behind in order to achieve the great honor and glory that comes from war. And once they left their home towns they found themselves stuck with each other at Aulis, waiting for winds that refused to blow, as if the winds themselves were conspiring to prevent them from going to war.

Why won’t the winds blow? We discover that commander-in-chief Agamemnon has offended Artemis, goddess of the chase and the chaste, by arrogantly encroaching on her hunting turf.

How can Agamemnon get the winds to blow so the ships can sail and the war can bloom? He solicits a priest’s advice and is informed that he can have his war if he sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to appease the goddess he has wronged.

These days fathers don’t kill their daughters in order to start a big war. Today we’ve progressed to the point of doubting our own kings, and a few of us probably know a preacher or priest we don’t trust.

But Agamemnon, desperate to keep his war-plan alive, cuts his daughter’s throat (though in Euripides’ version of the myth she escapes in the nick of time). And the winds begin to blow. What follows is a most miserable history, not only for the defeated Trojans but for the Greeks who conquered them.

So what is the point? What were the mythmakers trying to make unforgettable by memorializing Iphigenia’s ritual sacrifice?

There is no one point, no way to reduce these stories to simple sermons. The Greeks had a sharp feel for the way thick webs entangle individuals, especially those who try mere reason to force their way through the webs.

But this much seems clear: Iphigenia and her mother had little power to stop Agamemnon’s hand, for Greek women in general had little control over their warrior-men. Agamemnon was so hell-bent on having his war he had to look into his daughter’s eyes as he cut her throat. The warriors went merrily away to their miserable ten-year war, leaving their miserable families behind. In the absence of husbands, fathers, and sons, family ties broke down, and when Agamemnon returned from Troy his wife murdered him with a knife. Many warriors and women on both sides suffered and died, and the “victory” over the Trojans turned into a defeat for the Greeks.

Iphigenia’s ritualized sacrifice memorializes a pattern: Innocent females––mothers, sisters, lovers, daughters, and wives––suffer terribly in all wars, not only as collateral casualties of actual battles but bitterly in the safety of their home towns. If tragedy offers anything, it gives us a chance to widen and deepen the scope of our grief. We grieve, as we must, for fallen warriors, and for the ritual sacrifices war requires of their women too.

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