Tag Archives: Tragedy

Putting My Shaken House in its New Order: What 2020 Has Taught Me

I normally compose a year-end post discussing the books I’ve read and how my reading, writing and thinking about literature progresses and shifts over the course of time. I contemplate my ever- evolving literary choices in light of what George Steiner writes in his essay Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: “Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers. We seek to record their impact, to put our shaken house in its new order.”

But this year I’ve read fewer books then ever and a personal tragedy has overshadowed every aspect of my life. It seems much more fitting to write a post about what I’ve learned about myself—how my perceptions and views of the life, love, happiness and the people around me, have shifted over the course of the past 6 months. Every day I feel like I struggle to do what Steiner describes in that last sentence: put my shaken house in its new order.

I was riding home with a good friend today and we were having a discussion that comes up often between us—attempting to look for the positive that comes out of a tragedy. But there is no silver lining, so to speak, to my story or my daughter’s—at least not yet anyway. A husband, a father, a teacher being tragically killed while doing what he loves most. Where is the sense, the positive spin to that? It’s nearly impossible to find something, anything. But this struggle and this pain have taught me many valuable lessons most of which are admittedly cliche or mundane. But I share them nevertheless for those who look at me with sympathy, pity, and yes, even horror, because life is so damn unfair and this could happen to any one of us.

In the days and weeks immediately after my husband’s death I learned practical things which I believe helped me to keep moving forward and keep my mind from sinking into an abyss of despair. How to plan a funeral, how to get a body home across state lines, how to deal with coroners and autopsies and police reports, how to hire a lawyer, are just a few of these tasks that carried me on day after day after day. And then began the numerous household tasks that occupied me—and still do—how to run the generator, how to deal with the tank for the well, how to figure out what’s wrong with my leaky sink, etc. I have had help and lots of offers of help, but in the end all of these things are my responsibility and their success or failure comes down to how I handle them. Every time something else breaks or stops working I keep reminding myself that it’s another learning experience and that the number of things to quit on me around the house are finite—eventually everything will be replaced at this rate!

I’ve also learned that having even just a little bit of a sense of humor every day is a lifeline.

I’ve learned, and thought a lot about, what kind of a single parent I want to be. Raising our teenage daughter by myself is the scariest part of life nowadays. I want her to see me as an example of strength and perseverance despite suffering; I want her to think that I have been a good provider for her and given her a warm, nurturing and comfortable home. And, most importantly, I want her to know she is cared for and safe and loved. I constantly think about what she will remember from this period of time and I plan my actions sensitively and carefully with this in mind.

I’ve learned that, quite surprisingly, I am a dog person after all. We adopted a golden retriever puppy and I love that big, goofy dog—and her best dog friend Quantum—with all my heart.

Phoebe and Quantum.

I’ve learned that letting go, and even forgetting, is okay. Some days the pain of what I’ve lost is still unbearable, but new memories, new connections, new surroundings are not bad things. At first I felt guilty about connecting with an old friend and making a new one—two people, in particular, that happened to enter my life as a result of specific choices I made after this tragedy. As I mentioned in a previous post, I think that in life we are either moving forward or backward and we have a choice about which direction we are going in every day. Letting go of a life that no longer exists is both sad and hopeful. As a friend wrote to me recently, “…You have suffered greatly and yet are transcending suffering. That is the greatest and most terrible lesson of life—that we suffer and yet also can, must, and do transcend suffering.”

I’ve learned that the book community and literary Twitter are some of the best and kindest people I know from around the world. Even though I haven’t met many of them in person they have sent me, and continue to send me, gifts, notes, well-wishes and love. I’ve realized there are a few, in particular, that I’d like to meet in person as soon as it is possible.

I’ve learned that everyone handles grief and suffering in such different ways. At first I was surprised at some of the friends, colleagues and former acquaintances that didn’t reach out or say anything to me. But those looks of sympathy and horror that I do get have taught me that sometimes there just are no words.

I’ve learned that I am as strong as, or stronger than, I thought. In the beginning it was a struggle just to get out of bed, sit on the deck and stare at the sky. I still catch myself staring at the sky, but my days have slowly filled with new, wonderful people and activities and ideas and endless possibilities. I was having a conversation with my daughter the other day about what we’ve both learned through this experience. She mentioned that she was afraid she would become a different person—dark, depressed, angry, bitter. But she learned that she is much stronger than she thought as well. We both agree that anger is a wasted emotion and that we are determined to get through this together and are, at heart and soul, strong people, committed to finding gratitude and happiness despite a horrible situation.

I’ve learned that, regardless of a lack of concentration for my usual, epic reading projects, poetry continues to be soothing and thought-provoking and mind-bending in brilliant ways.

And finally, I’ve learned that when all is said and done, nothing else matters in this life but love. Neither possessions nor careers nor broken appliances nor money nor anything else matters. For a while I was haunted by all the questions I would really like to ask Alan: Why do you have so many tarps/tents/knives? What did you think was wrong with the furnace and why did you keep working on it? How did you keep track of so many notebooks? But then I realized that the love expressed between us in our last text messages to each other were simple, and said it all—that was everything we needed.

If anyone learns anything from me it should be this: don’t be afraid to express love or find love or show love or seek out love. Even if it’s not returned. Trust me, love is always a good thing. Don’t let anger or bitterness or any number of other obstacles close your heart off to love. Edward Hirsch’s thoughts on this in his poem “Heinrich Heine” are perfect:

For man and woman the days pass into years

and the body is a grave filled with time.

We are drowning. All that rescues us is love.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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Caveat Regnator: A Translated Excerpt from Seneca’s Trojan Women

Andromache and Astyanax, The Fall of Troy.

What is it like being an advisor to a powerful, narcissistic leader whose main interest lies not in serving his constituency but instead in acting and performing for his sycophantic groupees?

No, I’m not talking about the current state of American politics.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in 4 B.C. in Corduba, Spain, the second son of Annaeus Seneca the Elder and served as the emperor Nero’s closest advisor.   When he was brought to Rome at an early age to obtain an education that would prepare him for a political career, one wonders if he ever imaged that his fate would be entangled with the affairs of two volatile and difficult emperors. In 41 A.D., during the first year of the reign of Claudius, Seneca was condemned to death by the senate on the charge of having committed adultery with Julia Livilla, Claudius’s niece. Claudius, however, spared his life and banished him to the island of Corsica where he spent the next eight years.

Seneca was recalled early in 49 A.D. by Agrippina, Claudius’s new wife, in order that he might become the tutor of her sixteen-year-old son Nero. When Nero ascended to the throne, Seneca acted as the Emperor’s chief advisor for at least five years. Somewhere in the midst of all of this Seneca managed to write treaties dealing with moral philosophy, volumes of private letters, a work dealing with terrestrial and atmospheric phenomena, a satire on the deification of the emperor Claudius and even several tragedies. Scholars have debated for centuries about when this influential rhetorician and adherent of the Stoic sect found time to compose these tragedies.

Seneca’s extant dramatic works include the Hercules Furens, Phoenissae, Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes, Hercules Oetaeus, and the Troades. My post and translation today focuses on the Troades. This play deals with the aftermath of Troy’s destruction, as the Trojan women are standing amongst the ruins of their city and waiting to hear which Greek hero will claim them as plunder. Andromache desperately tries to save her son Astyanax by hiding him inside the tomb of her husband Hector. After Andromache is forced to give up her son, he is thrown by the Greek soldiers from the last remaining citadel of the city. Achilles’ ghost also demands the sacrifice of Polyxena in this play and the pathetic account of her death is related to us in the messenger’s speech. Seneca drew his subject matter from a long tradition of Greek plays that include Euripides’ Trojan Women and Hecuba and Sophocles’ Polyxena, as well as the epic tradition that includes Homer, Vergil and Ovid.

In this opening scene in the Troades, Hecuba, the once proud queen of this glorious city,  has a warning for any leader who takes his power for granted.  No wonder the Greeks were afraid of her (translation is my own):

Any ruler who has faith in his power and who reigns supreme in his grand palace and does not fear the fickle gods and gives his trusting spirit to happy matters, let him look at me and at you, Troy:  Never has fortune presented a greater proof that the haughty stand on weak ground.  The pillar of powerful Asia has been overthrown, that extraordinary work of the gods; and even though many came to her aid—Rhesus who drinks from the cold waters of the Tanais, spreading its sevenfold mouths, and the neighboring Amazon who, looking over the wandering Scythians, strikes the shores of Pontus with her unmarried troops, and Memnon son of Aurora who first, greeting the newborn day, mixes the warm Tigris with the red colored sea—Troy still falls by the sword,  Pergamum collapses on itself.  And the highly adorned walls lie heaped in ruins with scorched roofs.  Flames surround the royal palace and the entire house of Assaracus is smoldering.  The fire does not hold back the greedy hands of the victor:  Troy, as she burns, is torn to pieces, and the sky is hidden by the billowing smoke.  This black day, overcome by a dense cloud, is covered with the embers of Troy.

This has always been one of my favorite passages in Latin literature to translate.  Hecuba stands among the burning ruins of her once grand city and, before she laments her sad fate, gives a stern warning to any ruler who might feel secure in his position.  How very Stoic of her.

Maybe this warning does aptly apply to current American (and global) politics?

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Love is War: Penthesilea by Heinrich von Kleist

As I was reading Klest’s tragic play, I kept thinking about Ovid’s imagery in Amores IX in which poem he portrays love as warfare.  The Latin poet writes:

Militat omnis amans, et habet sua castra Cupido;
Attice, crede mihi, militat onmis amans.

Every lover is a soldier, and Cupid has his own camp;
Atticus, believe me, every lover is a soldier.

Ovid proceeds, in the rest of his poem, to lay out the similarities between soldiers and lovers: both must keep up a constant vigil, pass through companies of guards and be willing to fight against challenging obstacles.  Kleist weaves this theme of soldier-as-lover throughout his tragedy, but what is unique to the German writer’s use of this motif is that he applies it to both male and female.

Odysseus and other Greek warriors are the first to appear on stage in the drama.  They describe Penthesilea, this strange Amazon warrior, as a crazed woman who can’t settle on an alliance; she fights both Greeks and Trojans alike.  As the Greeks approach her to make an attempt at an alliance with her Amazon forces, she sees Achilles and can’t take her eyes off of him.  From that moment forward, her greatest desire is to take him as her captive.  But, as the customs of her all-female society are gradually revealed in the play, we understand that her motives for overtaking the Greek hero in battle are unusual—warfare for her is a means to achieving love.

Kleist, in an attempt to build classic dramatic suspense, doesn’t give his main characters any dialogue until the fourth scene of the play during which Achilles finally makes an appearance.  We have been told by the other characters that Achilles has narrowly escaped being overcome by Penthesilea and he is very angry that a woman almost got the better of him.  At this point he has no romantic feelings for this woman, but her attack causes him to go into a rage and he refuses to go back to the Greek camp until he engages her in battle.  Kleist’s speech is a brilliant and emotional inversion of Ovid’s image of lover acting as soldier.  In Achilles speech it is the soldier whose actions resemble that of a lover:

A man I feel myself and to these women,
Though alone of all the host, I’ll stand my ground.
Whether you all here, under cooling pines
Range round them from afar,
Full of impotent lust,
Shunning the bed of battle in which they sport
All’s one to me; by heav’n you have my blessing,
If you would creep away to Troy again.
What that divine maid wants of me, I know it;
Love’s messengers she sends , wings tipp’d with steel,
That bear me all her wishes through the air
And whisper in my ear with death’s soft voice.
I never yet was coy with any girl.

Warfare is described with terms normally associated with love—the bed of battle, for instance—which not only lends emotion to Achilles’s speech, but also foreshadows what will develop between him and Penthesilea.  Later, when he meets her in battle he can’t believe that a woman who can fight with such ferocity and skill exists; it is her prowess as a warrior that causes him to fall in love immediately.  When he wounds Penthesilea in their skirmish, he puts aside his weapons and professes his feelings for her.   He sees in this fierce woman, a soul that is equally as intense and misunderstood as himself.  One of the most shocking declarations Achilles makes in the entire play is to Penthesilea: “Say to her that I love her.” Kleist’s Achilles is just as passionate and emotional as that of Homer’s; what is shocking about this version of Achilles is his declaration of the emotion of love, and for a woman who is not his captive or his prize.

The image of lover-as-soldier and soldier-as-lover also pervade Penthesilea’s speeches and actions.   The very reason she is on the battlefield in the first place is to find a man as a partner.  She explains the savage founding of her female city where men are not allowed to live or fight.  A warlike tribe of Scythians invaded their city, Penthesilea explains, killing all of the men and taking the women as their captives.  After suffering horrible abuse, the women fought off their subjugators and banned all men from the city as the women themselves became fierce warriors.  The Amazons continue the lineage of their city by conquering men in battle, bringing them back to the Temple of Diana  where they mate with the fertile Amazons in what is called the “Feast of the Flowering Virgin.”

Penthesilea by Arturo Michelena, 1891.

 

The war at Troy with the Greeks was the Amazon’s perfect opportunity for subduing soldiers for the annual mating ritual.  Penthesilea doesn’t expect, however, to find such a spectacular hero and mate as Achilles and she is overcome with passion for him to the point of madness.  In an even stranger inversion of Ovid’s poem, the female becomes the soldier of love:

Do I not feel—ah! too accursed I—
While all around the Argive army flees,
When I look on this man, on him alone,
That I am smitten, lamed in my inmost being,
Conquered and overcome—I Only I!
Where can this passion which thus tramples me,
harbor in me, who have no breast for love?
Into the battle will I fling myself;
There with his haughty smile he waits me, there
I’ll see him at my feet or no more live!

Once Achilles and Penthesilea finally meet they confess their deeply intense love for one another.  But an issue as to where they would reside—among the Amazons or back in Greece—causes a misunderstanding that leads to tragedy.  Kleist’s ending for both of these characters varies greatly from that of Homer and the Greek tradition in epic.  I usually find it hard to read sources that alter the Greek tradition, but Kleist’s play preserves the spirit of these fierce warriors and lovers, so I was able to get beyond his changes to their story.  I will end with a line from Ovid’s Amores that sums up what happens to both of these soldiers/lovers:

quosque neges umquam posse iacere, cadunt

Those whom you would never have thought possible to be brought down, they fall.

As a side note, I read the translation by Humphrey Trevelyan that is included in the German Library’s edition of  Kleist’s plays.  I found the archaic language and verse distracting at times.  I just ordered the translation by Joel Agee and published by Harper which is a prose translation with illustrations.  I am very interested in comparing the translations.  Has anyone else read either of these?

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