Saturday, January 16, 2010

© Eso Antons Benjamins, a.k.a. Jaņdžs

73 Climbing Mt. Citheron (VI)
Let us return to Sophocles’ “King Oedipus”, a play that has profound implications for politics. At least, I think, Sophocles thought so.

As some readers may have noted (though not those who see no “enemy” or adversary in sight, not even within themselves), the ancient method of defusing a potentially violent situations was through self-sacrifice. When the naked life-force embodied in the serpent Kirtimukha had shortened itself to its face without losing the urge to annihilate itself and was about to give birth to twins [who through annihilating each other would annihilate ‘naked’ life force (portrayed as Shiva’s wrath)], human consciousness in one of the twins found “religion” and stepped in with a self-sacrifice. This is how the Face of Glory remains energized by the force of life without destroying itself. No matter how awesome its appearance, it never becomes a death head over two crossed bones that underlies the piracy prone and victim seeking Western civilization.

I begin with the fate of the tragic theatre in Latvia. Needless to say, at the present time, such a theatre is playing in my imagination only, as is my interpretation of what Sophocles’ had on his mind. [See blogs 40-47 for “Tiresias’ Revenge”.]

Firstly. Once upon a time the proto-Latvian people possessed if not a tragic theatre, then at least the chthonic elements that are essential to its being. J. A. Jansons, a Latvian philologist, wrote a paper, published in 1926, which he titled “Why we should found our tragic theatre on Johns and Spirit days.”* [My translation; ‘spirit days’ = veļu dienas.] Jansons argued that already a century earlier the philologist J. Lautenbergs had made a connection of the Latvian Johns Days with the Greek Dionysian Festival. As a specific example, Jansons cites the rite observed (~1864) by “Old Andreys”, a peasant from Kurland, who set a table, called on, and greeted his forebears in the old sauna. The sauna was a sacred place, probably so since ancient times, because the ghosts of the departed had very likely been born there to substance. The sauna was the retreat and therefore also the ‘home’ of women giving birth. It was in the sauna that the Goddess Laima, a midwife and the Goddess of Fate, received on a towel the newborn and told his-her fortune.

We ought to remind ourselves that tragedy depends on fate and fate being fated on someone. Unlike the modern ‘career’ man or woman, fate leads a human being to his-her destiny, which cannot be achieved by ‘money makers'. No doubt, the necessity to make money and become a ‘money maker’ has provided work and career jobs for teachers, psychologists, career advisers, employment office workers, etc. Today one is born to a career, because without a career it is almost impossible for one to make ‘a living’. Even a man or woman in high a career position, if asked how they like what they are doing, may respond with a shrug and the words “it’s a living”. But is it fate?

In the days of Old Andreys and before him, a man or woman would describe whatever happened in their life as “it is (or was) my fate”. Fate is somewhat like a card players hand. The cards dealt become the player’s fate. This may be one of the reasons why “career” people become addicted to gambling: they wish to experience fate vicariously.

Secondly. J. A. Jansons paper had no echoes to speak of in Latvian society. While the Latvian theatre has a tradition of “drama”, it has no tradition of “tragedy” other than a replay of the classics. This is not to say that Latvians have no room for a tragic space. However, to this day it has not been realized. If there are exceptions, exceptions they remain.

Latvia, founded in 1918, was soon overwhelmed by the trends of modernity and the movement of people from the land of traditions to the city of “fashions”. Latvians lost ‘fate’ and gained a ‘career’. Though drama—one that included large numbers in lives lost to violence and emigration—was certainly a common experience, it was always an experience of having survived a wreck. Old Andreys forebears had to exchange the scarf of fog rising in the fields and forests that surrounded the sauna for a sandy path in the church graveyard, which was transferred soon to a cemetery in the city. In the city or its suburbs the ghosts no longer come alive by way of the mind projecting them on the fog, but are painted over by a 24-hour circus. For the city dweller, an Old Andreys was a curio, a survivor from another age. If Old Andrey was also known as Andreys son of John (Andreys Jāņa dēls), the city changed his name to Andy whose past no one knew or cared about. In the same way, tragedy was exchanged for a ‘mention’ of certain dramatic historical events, certain cultural shifts that had caught Latvians in their gears. In other words, Latvians saw themselves as having a passive role in these events. The people kind of put their lives in a state of suspended animation. Though Latvians still have a special place for the theatre, the Latvian government is no longer among the peoples’ best friends if one goes by the support the theatre receives from it. The Latvian theatre may not only have no place for tragedy, but is itself a receding phenomenon.

The Latvians of today see themselves better reflected in ‘soap operas’, almost all which take their cue from the fact that audiences around the globe like to watch characters who change their sexual partners every few weeks or so. Latvians may trace this tradition to the pseudo epic of “BearJawBreaker” (1888) by Pumpurs, who gave the hero two women as lovers, but because of the mores of the time left it to the imagination of the audience. He made no written commentary on the liaisons. The audience either may or may not read between the lines. I read it as love affairs within a situation that calls for the hero’s death, but only one of the women (the temperamental one) is so much so involved with the hero as to commit suttee by jumping into the river after he falls into it during a violent wrestling match with the Black Knight. The possibility of tragedy for the fair ‘other’ woman, especially if the writers (Pumpurs and Rainis) had caused her to be with child, is beyond anyone’s ken. Because the neo-Christian dogma does not permit the hero to marry or have an affair with two women at the same time, Latvian writers did not dare to imagine the superhero as having a descendant.

This is the background against which I wrote my version of the story of King Oedipus. The death of tragedy is not unique to Latvia. Even compulsive gamblers may now be rescued from their addiction to fate by career psychologists. Positivism has sent fate into hiding among Taro cards, where unhappy love affairs seek solace from what at least one of the partners may feel as a tragic unrequitement.

That said, a sense of something called fate lingers around the edges of Latvian consciousness, this blogger’s including. Without such stirrings, it is doubtful that after fifty-one years abroad, I would have returned to Latvia. No doubt such stirrings are traceable to a childhood, the last several years of which were spent on a farm, where horsepower was as real as twelve horses are at a full gallop.

I wrote my version of Sophocles’ tragedy in English and then translated it into Latvian. Perhaps I did the translation, because I knew that self-sacrifice in America—where I spent most of those fifty-one years—is the furthest thing from anyone’s mind, but Latvia—after so many years at a distance—was only partially known to me. Therefore, after I had invited a Latvian actor to help me in my efforts to rejuvenate the Johns Eve celebrations in my local area and had made his acquaintance, I used the opportunity to pass him my manuscript.

Asterisk & Notes of Interest:
*J.A. Jansons, Filologu biedrības raksti, issue VI, 1926.
On material depravation in Latvia.
On the theme of “more-equal-than-others”, see Orwell's Animal Farm
A recommended read: “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism” by Emmanuel Goldstein (A book within a book from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four)
Of great interest to me is this and like articles. It presents some of my reasons for supporting the growing of Johns Grass in Latvia.
These blogs tend to be a continuum of an idea or thought, which is why—if you are interested in what you read—you are encouraged to consider reading the previous blog and the blog hereafter.
Partial entries of my blogs may be found at LatviansOnline + Forum Home + Open Forum –ONLATVIANPOPULISM vs LATVIJASLABEJIE. If you copy this blog for your files, or copy to forward, or otherwise mention its content, please credit the author and  

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