Heracles to the Stars

Many these days bemoan the preponderance of false claims, e.g., linguists and runners complain of a poorly-informed public. Not everyone has qualms about presenting their passions, as opposed to professional training, authoritatively, and perhaps worse, devoting their words to matter they only partially care about, if at all, in a bid for self-promotion or gain. In the tragedy about Heracles attributed to Seneca, there is a passage that speaks to this problem. Seneca writes of the "overweening hopes" that "stalk abroad in cities" and "the mob more shifting than the sea uplift; this, trafficking in the mad wrangles of the noisy court, shamelessly lets out for hire his passions and his speech". In this marketplace of confused values, at its most extreme, "prosperous and successful crime goes by the name of virtue". There can be prestidigitation because sometimes we are fooled into easy 'solutions' or, at the other extreme, continue to apply what is virtuous in one situation to another situation where this same quality becomes vice.
Xenophon, in Memorabilia, relates one of Socrates' exchanges on this topic. Socrates (quoting Hesiod) speaks of the smooth and easy road to wickedness and the taxing, steep path to virtue, which becomes easy once it is reached. He then illustrates the difference between the two paths by recounting how when Heracles pondered whether to follow the path to virtue or vice in life, he had a vision of being approached by personifications of these paths. Vice, "my friends call me happiness", offers him a life free from toil, with plenty of delicacies to eat and much enjoyment, while virtue begins by saying she's going to tell him about things as they are - no sweet talking. Her speech ends with the advice: "if you ... want power to liberate your friends and subdue your foes, you must learn the arts of war from those who know them and must practise their right use: and if you want your body to be strong, you must accustom your body to be the servant of your mind, and train it with toil and sweat". Virtue accuses vice of being tedious, using tricks, and never winning words of praise. Virtue claims that food tastes better when one is hungry for it, enjoyment sweeter after travail, and old age pleasant when not tainted by shame.


Many of these themes come up in a documentary of one woman's days-long run across a trail, called Finding Traction. One of the things she says is that the tough really does get going but if one can endure it, moments of beauty, though short-lived, will be remembered forever. That story further shares the theme of friendhship with Euripides' tragedy of Heracles. Winning is presented as far less important than having a good support system and being a help to others.
The Euripides tragedy also addresses the problematic theme of the fluxuations of fate, hence the importance of true friends. Apart from family, Heracles' friend in the play is Theseus, who he brings back from Hades though his last labour only required that he bring Erebus the dog. Theseus' fate is similar to Heracles' (and also addressed by Euripides, addressed here). Repeated throughout the play is the idea that some stories are beyond all expectations (a timely read?)
This is also a trait of heroes - both in mythology and life, which we know is stranger than fiction: the hero being one whose life is suspenseful. While wicked lives may be similar in that they are bent on taking down (like Lycius' snide remarks in Seneca's tragedy), the virtuous incline towards creation, and by extension discovery, invention. It is also creative to be able to bear "as weapons what [one] once fought and overcame" - though the question remains as to whether or not we are ever fully in command of what we bear and whether duration of some labours wears us down.
Besides the numerous sententiae that can be extracted from Seneca's play, one can also take away a few clues about the discovery for a life, which centers around a clash of stellar metaphors. Great accomplishment is juxtaposed with vengeful hatred - both written in the stars, and the path that leads to exposure also leads to blindness. Just as vice is described in Memorabilia as being tricky, the paths in Hercules Furens are also tricky: we learn that the path to death is hardly felt and interestingly it is noted that along this path, shame comes too late (which also harkens back to Memorabilia where virtue makes her case through the illustration of old age that bears no shame and a present that is free of distress). Narrowness or narrow spaces seem to lead to trouble (quite opposite to magnanimity). Reaching for the stars, even promised ones, is risky. Maybe some things are better left hidden (like madness - though a less extreme example might be not dwelling on frustration). Virtue as we know from Seneca's other works is also about discerning between appearance and reality: preserving mind and what matters. Below are excerpts from Seneca's play that correspond to these themes.


1. Paths.
Juno says of Hercules' trip to the underworld on his last labour: "It is not enough merely to return; the law of the shade has been annulled, a way back has been opened ... and the mysteries of dread Death lie bared."
Theseus speaks of the path to death and notes, "not in utter darkness does the way first begin ... It is not toil to go; the road itself draws them down" and the course meanders so "there may be no power to retrace the path".
This path can be compared to madness. After Heracles goes mad, his father says, "let hs former mind regain its course".
Before Heracles had returned from Hades, the chorus said he would find a way to make his way back. Thus, at the end Heracles is instructed to be himself: "Now must thy be Heracles; bear thou this weight of trouble."
2. Space.
In Hades, once one has been drawn down the road, "from here, ample spaces spread out".
While that space is ample, earth is not space "enough for Juno's hate".
Juno had feared Heracles would attempt to overcome the highest realms now that he had overcome the lowest.
Heracles is also out of space: He wants to be hidden, "if any place is left"; "I have lost place for exile" he says.
Also, chaos needs to re-echo the outcries of his grief in order for it to reach all three kingdoms.


3. Stars.
The tragedy begins with Juno's lament over the harlots in heaven, i.e., the constellations marking Zeus' infidelity. She admits a star is promised to Heracles.
Juno, who orchestrates Heracles' demise, says ominously of him, "Nor will he come to the stars by a peaceful journey ... he will seek a path through ruin and will desire to rule in an empty universe." She "sets war in motion" on Heracles when "stars shine few" - at the darkest time of early morning.
The chorus, in contrast to all this shooting for the stars, praises the humble home content with what it has: "Let glory of others be sung level with stars but from lofty height ambitious courage falls".
When Heracles goes mad, he says: "Let me seek the skies; the stars are my father's promise" - and even the stars turn away from him in the end.
4. Darkness and madness.
Juno asks to go mad first so that she may enact her vengeance. She wants to drag out of Dis what Heracles left - like madness. Megara, though admitting her ignorance of "the fate in store for us", similarly entreats in her hope for Heracles' return: "whatever lies hid in the hold of murky night, let forth with thee".
There are three figures made with rage in the tragedy, the third being the dog Erebus.
5. Comments on virtue and vice.
Lycius observes that "Of war men ask the outcome, not the cause."
Fortune is accused of being "jealous of the brave" and unjust to the good in allotting its favours.
On trolling: Lycius makes snide remarks to Heracles' father and asks snarky questions of Heracles' wife. Examples of the latter include why she so staunchly supports someone "burried in the depths"; why Heracles is a slave to kings if he's so great; Heracles is no hero because it's not valourous to defeat beasts. Heracles' wife has some great comebacks, like, "Who can be forced has not learned how to die"; "Do away with harsh command - what then will valour be?"; "There is no easy way to the stars from the earth"; "He reaches the depths that he might reach the heights".

Image in background: Amy Butler's Midwest Modern
brush: Egg's favourite brushes at DeviantArt.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License