Germany vs. Greece, a Greek Tragedy

Bernardino Mei, "Orestes Slaying Aegisthus and Clytemnestra"

Bernardino Mei, “Orestes Slaying Aegisthus and Clytemnestra”


Novelist Tom McCarthy has written an intriguing article for yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Magazine arguing that the current economic struggle between Germany and Greece is captured in the great Greek tragedies and perhaps even anticipated by them. It’s a complex piece but I’ll try to make sense of it.

In the article’s introduction, McCarthy asserts,

It is rare that a contemporary political state of affairs perfectly corresponds with a classical literary one — when the contours of the two align so entirely that not only does the latter help explain the former, but the new situation, with all its messy contingencies, seems to follow the carefully wrought logic of its aesthetic predecessor with such precision as to appear like a manifestation, or symptom, of it.

I don’t entirely follow McCarthy’s reasoning here. I like the idea that Greece’s financial collapse might unfold according to the logic of a classic Greek tragedy since art often captures deep patterns of human and social behavior. As this blog demonstrates daily, I obviously believe that literature of the past can cast light on current events. I’m just not sure what McCarthy means by Greece’s current problems being a “manifestation” or a “symptom” of classic Greek drama.

But set that aside. McCarthy makes the nice point that both economics and Greek tragedies involve dramas of the home:

Economics, etymologically speaking, is a Greek invention. The word comes from the Greek oikos, which means “house” or “dwelling.” At the basis of all economics is the practice of keeping one’s house in order. This is what virtually all Greek drama is about: the attempt to manage domestic affairs, whether “domestic” be understood at the scale of one household, or of a family spanning several generations (the house of Oedipus or Atreus, for instance), or of the literal stones and mortar of a home — the attempt to quell its rebellions from within, fend off attacks from without, keep it self-contained, autonomous, intact. What lends the drama to the equation is the fact that this attempt invariably fails. Take Aeschylus’ Oresteian trilogy. The patriarch Agamemnon is murdered by his wife, and the ensuing household struggle escalates into affairs of state and even conflict between gods. One oikos opens up into another — Greek oikoi are never closed. If it’s not present violence blowing them wide open, it’s past acts (as she approaches Agamemnon’s house, Cassandra shrieks that its very walls are spilling dreadful histories, “Remnants of bodies hacked / And murdered children’s bones”), private intimacies unfolding into public knowledge — the whole process driven by an inexpungeable reserve of guilt.

McCarthy, a fan of James Joyce and Joycean word play, then goes on to note connections between the words “guilt” and “debt,” especially in German (“schuld”). “To be guilty, schuldig, is to be in debt, and vice versa,” he writes and then adds that, while Greece owes a crippling debt to Germany, Germany hasn’t faced up to the ways that it also is guilty and in debt:

Greece is schuldig by definition, since it owes. But its debt, crippling though it is to the Hellenic household, is miniature compared with that of a nation that, within living memory, first (during occupation) plundered Greece’s gold, then (after armistice) received monumental sums of unearned credit.

And further on:

The great lesson of Greek literature (as Oedipus learns to his cost) is simply: You are guilty. Before you’ve even done anything, guilt is the precondition of your being. The house of Germany is indebted, more than most; it takes no Cassandra to spot the murdered children’s bones spilling from its walls. Its leaders, having profited from an open economy, are imposing upon Greece a spurious closed one tailored to suit their own ends. 

McCarthy observes that the incessant blood debts haunting the House of Atreus are finally resolved by the Athena’s intervention. Through her mediation, Aeschylus shows how democracy solves the problem of  blood feuds:

In the Oresteian trilogy, the inexorable guilt (of Agamemnon, who sacrificed his daughter; of Clytemnestra, who murdered him in revenge; of Orestes, who killed her as a riposte to that; and so on, backward and forward for generations) gives rise to a series of claims and counterclaims that get resolved in what is effectively the West’s first civic trial, presided over by Athena. The task, for her and the citizen-jury she appoints, is not to work out who is right (all parties’ arguments are good), but rather to come up with an arrangement that can set all these contesting demands in some kind of balance that accommodates all sides. In so doing, she founds democracy. The groundbreaking event takes place in Athens.

So can the current economic standoff have a happy ending? Keynesian economists like Paul Krugman, who have argued against austerity economics, think that there must be some kind of accommodation if the euro and the Europe Union are to survive. Greece, as even the European bank has admitted, will never be able to pay off its debt. To insist that it continue trying to do so will lead to social upheaval and the rise of rightwing violence. Reasonable people, with or without the help of a goddess, should be able to see this.

McCarthy, unfortunately, foresees no goddess bringing the contending parties to an arena where all can be worked out. By playing hardball, Germany is threatening Greek democracy:

That the current Athenian parliament’s own resolutions are being struck down by Berlin-mandated bureaucrats makes the Greek citizenry’s long-running slogan “Error 404 — Democracy Not Found” even truer than they might realize.

Further note: In this morning’s New York Times column, Roger Cohen mentions Volkswagen’s immense cheating scandal (finding ways to fool emissions tests) as undercutting the country’s claims of moral rectitude. Dramatic irony, as every student of Oedipus knows, involves looking elsewhere for the culprit when at least some of the fault lies with you:

Germany has been pretty relentless about Greek cheating on its public accounts, tax evasion, nepotism, lax work habits and the rest. It had a case. Greece did all the above to get itself and the eurozone into their current hole. But its prescription — be more like hardworking, honest, reliable, virtuous Germany and get there through austerity alone — was far too rigid, and now all those lessons about cheating smack of gross hypocrisy. Leadership from the new Germany will fail if the temptation to hand out lessons is not resisted.

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