Sunday 19 April 2015

An Unfolding Greek Drama

To be subject to political machinations can be very confusing, distressing and disorientating. In such circumstances, ancient stories are powerful. They contain the archetypal redundancies of history: the human regularities which appear to be universal. The one I'm most concerned with at the moment is King Priam and his son Paris.

Priam's wife Hecuba, when pregnant with Paris, had a dream which was interpreted by Aesacus as a warning that the not-yet-born Paris would lead to Troy's destruction and Priam's death. Priam was advised to kill the child. However, on the birth of the child, neither Priam nor Hecuba could bring themselves to do it, instead entrusting the chief herdsman to kill the child instead. The herdsman, Aegelus, left Paris to die on Mount Ida, but when the child survived after several days, decided to spare his life. At this moment, Priam and Troy's fate was sealed.

Paris's elopement with Helen is no doubt metaphorical. The irrationality of the passions sets in motion terrible events whose uncontrolled and grim inevitability is simply a force of nature. Here is where fiction meets the everyday reality. Paris is Priam's weakness, and Paris's weakness is not only Priam's downfall, but Petroclus (Achilles's lover), Achilles himself, Hector (Priam's elder and most beloved son) and Paris. Who will kill who? Well, we almost know in advance before it all kicks off: it has an inevitability to it. Hector kills Petroclus (who was fighting dressed as Achilles); Achilles kills Hector; Paris kills Achilles; Philoctetes kills Paris; and Priam dies at the hand  of Achilles's son, Neoptolemus. Troy is destroyed.

Was this Priam's fault? Should he have killed his son? Like the apparently benign despot, Paris is no obvious threat at any point. Yet it is the insidious effects of his actions and particularly his passions which cause the tragedy. Once he takes fancy to Helen, there is nothing to be done.

Passion does this. With so many stories in the press at the moment about powerful individuals abusing their privilege causing lifelong trauma for victims and eventual meltdown for the perpetrators there is plenty of testimony to the way single events trigger the creation of tissues of lies which are gradually knitted together causing increasingly irrational actions. This draws in not just themselves but many other people who (they believe) can protect them. Paris's behaviour incurs Menelaus's wrath, which draws in (eventually) not only the rest of Troy, but the deceit of Patroclus and Achilles's bloody revenge. Eventually it all gets top-heavy, everything topples over: today, the equivalent of the Trojan destruction would probably be senior people ending up in prison. It seems that there is nothing to be done; events have to run their course: powerful individuals will always protect themselves and anybody who attempts a premature unmasking will be dealt with ruthlessly. But it rarely ends well: which is, perhaps, a sign of hope.

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