Tuesday 9 July 2013

Sharing the spoils

I've had a long-standing interest in geographical oddities - enclaves, exclaves, and fragments of territory that seem to have the wrong 'owner'.  When the state of Israel was carved out of Palestine by the British for the UN after the Second War it was a rather bizarre shape because, notwithstanding the Balfour Declaration, the U.N. wanted to acknowledge existing title as well as the aspirations of the surviving Jews in The Promised land.  In 1948, some bright spark graffitied the sign on the window of a train going from Haifa to TelAviv "Caution, do not lean out of the window country" .

I was delighted to find yesterday that there is an island in the middle of the river that separates France and Spain  which has been administered in a civilised turn-and-turn-about manner for centuries.  Modern nation states (well, these two aNNyway) are clearly much more grown up than Polynices and Eteocles, sons of Oedipus.  These chaps agreed to share the task of ruling the city of Thebes on alternate years after their father left town for shame of having known his own mother.  But Eteocles liked being king too much after the first year (and who wouldn't?), and refused to cede the trappings of power when the time came to step down. This selfishness precipitated one of those small Greek wars during which there was a barney in which the brothers killed each other.  

The tragedy continues with the story of what their sister Antigone did next.  Antigone is one of only 7 plays of Sophocles (he wrote 123) which has survived.  Jean Anouilh's 1943 adaptation is particularly compelling because it was written in and subtly commented on the rather straitened (Paris, Vichy, Drancy) political times in which it was published.  Antigone deals with issues - honour vs pragmatism, politics vs religion, obedience vs integrity, sexual vs family love - about which we may need guidance but on which science has very little to say. The greatest tragedy of Sophocles is that, of the 123 plays he is known to have written, 116 have disappeared. I haven't seen a convincing case that only the best have come down to us and we're better off not having to trudge through his workaday pot-boilers.  I believe rather that for all the things that matter, human beings are the same now as they were in 450 BCE and that Sophocles nailed the answer to some of the big questions.  Usually by affirming that there is right on both sides and that it is both hard and unproductive to see things as black and white rather than in gradations of grey.  Next time you hear a pal braying some truth in the pub "GMOs bad", "economic growth good", "microwave ovens are handy", "we can dispense with regular religious practice" ask how Sophocles might have exposed the unthinking certainties upon which the statement is built.

It's hard to imagine that Athenian audiences of those days, if they tired of Sophocles (Σοφοκλῆς 497-406BCE), could go listen to the latest by Euripides (Εὐριπίδης 480-406) or Aeschylus (Αἰσχύλος 525-456).  High times indeed!

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