A Forum for and the Background of the Mediation of Dialogue in Ancient and Modern Academies

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Let Us Talk About Pleasure...and..."Mourning Becomes Electra"

The very lively seminar on Plato's concept of pleasure belongs to the recent winter past. The pleasant winter gave way to the even more enjoyable spring, and how glad I am about that! It was extremely enriching to experience once more what a German seminar can offer: a lot of surprise as far as the background of the participants is concerned, and lots of critical attitude: I welcome the former --sometimes with a pint of salt, with regard to German academic education-- and I adore the latter. This time I got lots of both, surprises and critical attitude, starting with Kierkegaard's "aesthetic type" in "Entweder-Noch" as a more successful attempt to do justice to pleasure than Plato's. In order to address the critique but, above all, to promote the understanding of Plato's undertaking as sine qua non for all possible critique, I tried to stress adequately our being-in-time as the fundamental basis on which Plato rejects the hedonistic "atomic" concept of pleasure in his Philebus. If we unify some multifarious hedonistic tendencies, and turn the hedonists into metaphysicians (what else does Plato do with all his opponents? They have intended or not, they represent a certain ontology by the end of the day!), they may end up maintaining: pleasure is simple in its nature, you can either have it or not have it; "not having it" is no way falsehood. It is such and similar "simplistic" accounts of pleasure that Plato corrects throughout the Philebus. And what a delight to end with Aristotle's "atoms" of pleasure and time!

The critique became even sharper in the second session. As we started with the last portion of the Protagoras, a student expressed general complaints about the Platonic philosophy, in a state of awkwardness, if not despair, in accordance with the hot debates in Plato research on Plato's hedonism ad hoc: Where is Plato to be found here? And if you think this was the end, you are wrong: Why is the Platonic philosophy worth delving into, if we cannot find out whether Plato stands up for hedonism and what kind of hedonism? Which method should we adopt? And how can we escape relativism? What more is offered here than a theater play, in which we can find the writer in all characters? Oh dear me, how sensitive I am concerning the problem of the appropriate hermeneutics...Momentarily I reached my limits, but I found the courage and the argument for Plato, not as a partisan; I am not made for this.

Now that spring has entered for good, I am elaborating an article on Plato's receptacle and working on my necessity project. Because it is sunnier here in Berlin, I allow myself some "heavy" cultural experiences. Yesterday evening was dedicated to o' Neill's "Mourning becomes Electra", a play directed by someone who has become well-known because of his work on Schiller, Stephan Kimmig. First (complaint): not the entire text came on stage (I miss Peter Stein). Second, the performance was ...interesting (British English ;)). Electra's gazes were more telling than her talking moments, to be sincere, but the mother got into her role very persuasively and relatively quickly. The father was good, and the brother even better. I loved some moments, in which the director interpreted and in this manner "sealed" o' Neill's text, depicting personalities, complexes and illnesses, which fused.

What can we say about this cruel play? Let me start with the easy part, my personal interest: Now that I am sketching my steps on the necessity-path/project, I am finding it rewarding to initiate interdisciplinary discussions. Tragedy on the one hand, the trilogy of Aischylos (Agamemnon-Choephoroi-Eumenides), not to mention Sophocles' and Eurupides' Electras, and Freud and the psychoanalysis on the other hand: "Mourning Becomes Electra". How can we translate the title in German? "Trauer muss Elektra tragen" the available option. Fine: certainly, there is a necessity at play throughout here (do not ask me what kind of necessity), but still I prefer the English original, with the ambiguous "becoming".

What is happening? Where is it happening? We have a house, or isn't it a house? Is it a psychoanalysis couch? Or the complex itself, Electra's essence as a bunch of relationships? Too much clinical psychology and pathology is narrated and re-narrated. All characters are craving for a pair of ears in order to narrate their own account of their illness. Even god, who is absent throughout the whole play but is mentioned by Electra only in the last bit, is understood as a pair of ears or rather the ears of "all and every one"...Who is responsible for all this illness? The past? The mother? Or rather the father? As I listened to the text this time --I had a wonderful experience of this play in Athens twelve years ago, at the theater of Euaggelatos-- I think it is Electra herself who is to blame. She carries the responsibility of her interpretation. She decides to stay with death and with the dead of the past. Life becomes so full of death that death prevails although life has incredible powers to integrate death and illness, and nonetheless carry on and survive as life. The last horrible scene, in which Electra expresses her decision to inclose herself in "her" "house", left a lot to be desired with regard to the direction, if I might say so myself. That aside, the questions remain: Is Electra free to choose between options? Or is she rather confined to the bonds of her illness and her past? I leave these questions open for more disciplines and encourage you to go and see the play (Deutsches Theater). It is worthwhile.

With all due respect to Freud and -even greater, much greater indeed, to- Jung, I remain a fan of Sophocles when it comes to Electra. Dear greetings to Paris and Ottawa, just to mention two capitals and two dear friendships...

P.S.: A quick internet research confronted me with two sad facts. Lida Tasopoulou, the well-esteemed theater lady, who had performed a lot of ancient roles (as Sophocles' Electra in the following picture) before mesmerizing me with her interpretation of Electra in "Mourning Becomes Electra" passed away in 2005, and her husband and director, Spuros Euaggelatos had to close down his theater, Amphi-Theatro, last year, due to the unfavorable economic situation. I was not aware of either of these facts.