There’s a fine Daniel Mendelsohn article over at The New Yorker comparing John F. Kennedy to various ancient Greek heroes and discussing why we turn to literary tragedy and epic to process our own tragedies. It’s so good that I recommend clicking on the link and reading it in its entirety, but here are some of the highlights.
–Apparently, following the shooting of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy quoted from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon.
In the verse he quoted, the Chorus of city elders ponders the meaning of violence and suffering:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
Kennedy concluded his remarks with an exhortation to heed the wisdom of the ancient classics: “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” That the savageness could not be tamed was demonstrated, with a dreadful Greek irony, three months later, when Kennedy himself was murdered. The lines he cited on the night of King’s death were used as the epitaph on his own tombstone.
–Mendelsohn notes that the Kennedy family itself seems to suffer from a modern version of the curse of the House of Atreus, where each generation meets up with tragedy, culminating with Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy. Those who talk of a Kennedy curse, Mendelsohn says, are
essentially thinking the way Aeschylus thought, assuming that there is a dark pattern in the way things happen, a connection between the sins of the fathers and the sufferings of the children and their children afterward.
–Mendelsohn notes that the conspiracy theories that have grown out of the Kennedy assassination come from an impulse the Greek dramatists understood well:
[T]he impulse to expose, to bring secret crimes to light, to present evidence of deeds done in the past to an audience in the present, is one that itself lies at the heart of Greek drama. You could say that all tragedy is about the process of discovery, of learning that the present has a surprising and often devastating relationship to the past: King Oedipus, faced with a plague on his city, is told by an oracle that he must find the killer of the previous king, only to learn, as the play unfolds, that it was he. Another way of saying this is that all tragedy is about the way that we live: slowly uncovering the deeper meanings of things, often long after we can do anything about them. However extreme its manifestations over the years, the tragic yearning to go back, to get it right this time, to use our present knowledge to understand what we couldn’t understand then, is a vital part of our response to the Kennedy drama—another reason why it remains so insistently alive.
–Mendelsohn then switches from tragedy to epic and says that, far more than one of Greek tragedy’s kings, Kennedy resembles a Homeric hero. After first considering Achilles, he says that Kennedy is most like Hector:
Hector, by contrast, is characterized from the start as bound up in a web of political, social, and family relationships: he is the prince of the city, on whose shoulders its defense depends (“Hector” means something like “the one who holds things together”), the dutiful son of the aged king and queen, Priam and Hecuba, the responsible older brother to numerous siblings (not least the playboy Paris) whom he must often whip into shape, and, above all, the husband of a beautiful young wife, Andromache, and the father of an enchanting child, Astyanax.
So while Achilles has the glamor of extremity, it is Hector, more than any other character, who feels real to us, bound by competing obligations, anchored to his world and its claims. Homer poignantly dramatizes this conflict between the warrior’s public and private selves in a famous scene in Book 6. Here, Hector comes off the battlefield to seek out his wife and infant son, but the baby recoils in terror from his father, who, still in armor, is unrecognizable to the child. It’s only when Hector removes his helmet that the family unit can cohere once more.
–Having invoked Hector, Mendelsohn then compares his funeral with Kennedy’s:
The last line of the entire epic, with its mad quarrels and awful carnage and odd moments of privacy and tenderness, its battles and sex and scheming, emphasizes the importance of the ceremonial closure: “This was the funeral of Hector, breaker of horses.”
The end of the Iliad is, in other words, a narrative about grief yielding to mourning, about the way in which civilization responds to violence and horror. This dark solace is one that only culture can provide. Our endless need to replay the events of November, 1963—by which I mean all of the events, from Friday to Monday—is not only about a perverse, almost infantile need to revisit a scene of primal horror (although our own refusal to let go of Kennedy’s body—expressed most strongly in our endless looping of the Zapruder film, which, like a tragedy, turns the death of the king into a kind of entertainment—certainly shows an Achilles-like unwillingness to bury the past). It also bears witness to our desire to hear, once again, a very old tale that is not only the story of a fallen warrior and how he died but the story of what we did after he fell, of how the bloodied body was washed and anointed and clothed and grandly entombed and eulogized. (All of these activities presided over, in 1963 as in antiquity, by the attentive widow, alert to the symbolic power of ritual details.) It is a story, in the end, that only civilization can tell, one in which, however miraculously, calamity is alchemized into a kind of beauty.
–Mendelsohn says that, while we often talk about the role that media played in our response to the death of Kennedy, what we should really be talking about is the role of drama. If we keep returning to television clips of the assassination, it is because, like the ancient Greeks, we have a deep need
to see certain elemental plots reënacted before our eyes, at once familiar but always fresh. As superficially shocking as their outcomes may be, these plots tell us things about the world that we know (or at least suspect) to be true: that nature can avenge herself brutally on culture (Bacchae), that hidden sins of generations past visit suffering on the next generation (Oresteia), that rulers and heroes who are remarkably brilliant and gifted are often crippled by secret flaws (Oedipus), that innocent young girls will be sacrificed to the ambitions of greedy men (Iphigenia).
And, of course—the oldest tragic plot point of all, the plot that some believe to be at the root of tragedy as a genre, the reason why drama exists in the first place—that the king, the beautiful, powerful, élite, and talented figure on whose glittering figure all eyes are happy to rest, in whom we seek a model ruler, warrior, husband, and father, is, by virtue of those very excellences, conspicuous, marked out as a sacrificial victim. Hero and victim: our ambiguous relationship to the great—our need to idolize and idealize them, inextricable from our impulse to degrade and destroy them—is, in the end, the motor of tragedy, which first elevates and then topples its heroes; not coincidentally, it has characterized our half-century-long response to the Kennedy story, oscillating dizzyingly, as it has done almost from the start, between idealization and demystification.
–Mendelsohn concludes his article by saying that our response to the assassination reaffirms our need for literature’s dramatic structures:
The question isn’t why we keep going back, after so many years, but how we could do anything else.
The article is further proof—not that readers of this blog need more proof—that literature is foundational to our lives.