Into Extra Time

Deborah Steiner

  • Mocked with Death: Tragic Overliving from Sophocles to Milton by Emily Wilson
    Johns Hopkins, 289 pp, £35.50, December 2004, ISBN 0 8018 7964 7

So great was the Greeks’ concern with living too long – what Emily Wilson calls ‘overliving’– that they had a cautionary myth about it. The immortal rosy-fingered Eos, who is renewed each night by a therapeutic plunge into Okeanos, falls in love with the mortal Tithonos, abducts him, and bears him off to a life of everlasting love at the ends of the earth. But, like all fairytale victims, Eos gets the wish-formula wrong. Asking Zeus that her beloved might enjoy immortality, she forgets to demand the second quality that distinguishes gods from men; not just undying, they are un-ageing too (there is even a Botox-like salve which goddesses and a few favoured mortals use as make-up). So Tithonos remains eternally alive but is locked up in the Greek equivalent of a retirement home, hidden away behind doors and reduced to being fed with pap by an embarrassed Eos.

But, pace Wilson, who cites the story in the introduction to Mocked with Death, Tithonos’ trouble is not that he lives too long, but that he loses his youth: not dying merely prolongs that horror. The Sappho fragment recently recovered from the wrappings of a mummy includes the story as an illustration of its sad central truth: ‘Not to grow old, being human, there’s no way.’ Zeus’ beloved Ganymede has no problem with immortality. Eternal, and eternally young, he serves as Zeus’ wine-pourer, dispensing a substance whose liquid state suggests his continued (sexual) vitality and contrasts powerfully with the desiccated condition of the old (Tithonos, in some versions of the myth, turns into the dry but vociferous cicada). And Heracles, according to versions of his myth not dealt with by Wilson, remains in Olympus free from disfiguring old age by virtue of the nuptials he celebrates with Youth herself.

Overliving was loathsome to the Greeks because the old were, at best, objects of pity, and more frequently of disparagement and disgust. For Anacreon and other celebrants of the love of blooming girls and boys, it’s all about losing your ability to attract. Artists and image-makers imagine Geras, Old Age, as an emaciated, grotesque individual, endowed with the swollen, drooping genitals that elsewhere characterise the marginal, the déclassé and those who have lived beyond their time. Death, often imagined as Sleep’s brother, had nothing on Old Age: poets call Thanatos ‘soft’, not ‘hateful’. Nothing is a clearer demonstration of divine displeasure than the rapid senescence that figures as the culminating horror in the apocalyptic vision of the eighth-century poet Hesiod. It’s a society in which children maltreat their aged fathers, a subject on which some of Wilson’s characters have much to say. The end is near when men age over-rapidly and babies are born with grey hair at their temples.

Wilson has achieved something rare. She has opened up a genuinely new perspective on texts so weighed down with the burden of commentary that they sometimes seem to suffer from the same condition of ‘overliving’ that Wilson assigns to their protagonists. Several of the figures who inhabit her book – Oedipus and Lear most prominently – are emphatically old and frail, but for the most part she underplays the powerful bond the Greeks construct between life gone on too long and the horrors of ageing. ‘There is no necessary connection,’ she says, ‘between tragic overliving and old age and physical incapacity.’ She selects her protagonists on a different basis: they wish to die not because they are geriatric, but because some terrible event brought on by their own actions has left them with a distaste for continued life. (Although for those caught in the trammels of Greek double determinism or Aristotelian hamartia, their crimes – patricide, incest and infanticide among them – have come about through no fault of their own.) In what Wilson offers as a qualification to existing definitions of the genre, tragedy need not be about death so much as about the failure to die. It’s an ingenious idea, but the category she creates is so broad that virtually every ‘canonical’ work is a candidate. Achilles, longing for death after his alter ego Patroclus has perished in his place, fits her tragic bill; so too does Vronsky, who sees himself as condemned to live on after Anna’s suicide. A vague suggestion of crimes and misdemeanours, even if it’s nothing more than the sin of having been born, attaches to the characters in Beckett’s plays, who endlessly prolong an existence vacant of meaning and think about (but fail to achieve) its termination.

Time figures centrally in all the cases of tragic overliving that Wilson explores, along with the distortions, hiccups and gyrations which are the consequences of a life that has seemingly missed its terminus. From the perspective of someone suffering from ‘life-fatigue’, time seems fragmented or undifferentiated, repetitive in its horrors. Characters from Oedipus to Lear endlessly mouth the same barely articulate phrases in their impotent denials, their frustration at the unchanging state of things. But Wilson’s decision to leave aside most of the historical context risks imposing a uniformity more apparent than real. Times change, and with them so does time. The temporal model that persisted through much of the archaic and classical age was Hesiod’s. It depends on a dichotomy: at the human level, where man moves inevitably from birth to grave, time is linear; at the divine, once Zeus’ hegemony is assured, it is undifferentiated and eternally, wonderfully the same. The closest man can come to divine time is through cyclically performed rituals and the immortality guaranteed by poetic celebration.

Ritual, cult and the tradition of song are central to two of the texts Wilson considers, Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus and Euripides’ Heracles, but she largely ignores their deployment of the hero cult and epinician celebration as a form of resolution or rejoinder to the protagonists’ seemingly desperate situation. Seneca’s Hercules – which Wilson reads along with the discussion of suicide, death and time in the Epistles – belongs in an age where time has acquired a frenetic, speeded-up quality, when a Damoclean sword seems poised above every diner at the indigestion-causing banquets Neronian literature loves to stage. It’s not only that a flick of Nero’s fingertips can abruptly terminate an existence or literary career barely begun, or that authors suffer from the sense of being footnotes to the grand poets of an earlier age. Wilson tells us that the precocious emperor despised the old, mocking the grey hairs on a victim’s head. With everyone in a hurry to make hay while the fierce and unpredictable imperial sun shines, images of excessively rapid growth, of burn-out, haunt the works produced in this climate.

Moving forward, Wilson acknowledges the central difference that the advent of Christianity made, with its introduction of an apocalyptic and redemptive perspective to the existing register. As Augustine remarked, ‘the circles have been shattered by the coming of the Redeemer.’ Dante plays on an altered chronological scale: the pilgrim pursues an ultimately upward trajectory, advancing on God’s path. But a new and nagging irony has been introduced, as Brunetto Latini performs his perpetual circles on the burning sands. The problems of overliving have now been transferred to the realm of the dead, where punishment has no term and death goes on too long. Not for nothing does Satan freeze rather than burn.

The characters that interest Wilson belong to texts which themselves struggle with the problems of closure and loss of narrative coherence. In Euripides’ Heracles the old encomiastic tradition is represented by the superannuated chorus, but it balks at canonising a hero whose weapons are stained with the blood not just of venom-breathing monsters, but of his own children. The dramatist has to come up with a new vision, offering reliance on others and mutual benefaction. Wilson also shows that some characters must choose between different ways of ending their tales or at least of breaking the narrative stasis. Not an easy choice: either sterile repetition of the ghastly past, or a frequently bloody vengeance that will end the cycle but at a heavy cost.

As the Freud-inspired David Quint has argued, this is the dilemma that confronts the central character of the Aeneid. The first part of Virgil’s epic portrays a retrogressive Aeneas, whose boat turns about, who seeks to found a simulacrum of Troy and who wishes for the death that claimed so many of his fellow Trojans. In the second part, however, a teleological perspective comes to replace repetition. Now the hero turns the tables on those who forced him into the loser’s role and, rather than endlessly rehearsing his own defeat, he becomes the aggressor, victimising others with the weapons (horses and stones) of his earlier humiliation. (Virgil does remind us that the shield portraying the glorious future awaiting Aeneas’ descendants displays the very cyclicity from which his protagonist seems to have escaped, but his hero is spared awareness of the danger.) Wilson, however, ignores Aeneas’ change and offers the unfortunate suggestion that the Cumaean sibyl supplies a ‘concentrated image of the longing for death that haunts the whole poem’. As a footnote indicates, Wilson has read the Aeneid through the lens of Petronius’ Satyricon, which offers us a prophetess longing for a death too long postponed. Virgil’s sibyl, very differently, tries to keep Aeneas on his forward track: don’t look at dead images, she urges him. Nor, as Wilson goes on to suggest, is Petronius’ Trimalchio a mirror image of his sibyl. What drives him and the other gourmandising freedmen at his dinner party to nauseating excess is the too-fast passage of time, and the sense of time squandered when he was still a slave. His arriviste extravagances are all about exploiting what remains to him, of trying to second-guess time, which, hand in hand with Fortune and the no less volatile imperial regime, risks sending down those it has raised up.

Suicide, of course, supplies a quick fix, and swords, nooses, slit wrists and precipitous plunges from high places are among the exit routes available to Wilson’s characters (and their authors). Suicide seems chiefly a female option (Sophocles’ Jocasta and Eurydice); men choose not to die (Lear never even considers the possibility), or make a botched job of it (Gloucester). Such gender distinctions inform several of Wilson’s preoccupations. The epic and tragic women of antiquity are notoriously blocking presences, who try to put time into a tailspin. Penelope unravels by night the shroud she weaves by day to forestall the plot’s onward progress and postpone the decision the text confronts her with; Jocasta tells Oedipus not to ask. Like the Sirens detaining Odysseus, Dido wants to arrest Aeneas’ onward passage by means of a marriage that would allow her to recover her own former state and stop the epic in its Rome-directed tracks. Men are, literally, the movers and shakers, breaking the state of impasse and vain repetition devised by women. They are the survivors, too.

But those characters who choose not to die are haunted by an ambivalence about survival. In the epic tradition, Achilles and Odysseus represent the two possibilities: an untimely but glorious death on the battlefield, or living on to goodly old age, with all the risk of obscurity and senescence that entails (‘stewing’, Pindar calls it, imagining the old endlessly simmering on a low flame). Odysseus turns his back on the Iliad model of death, and bound up with this refusal is the particular weapon with which, as Wilson notes, the tradition chooses to equip both Odysseus and Heracles. The bow allows you to fight defensively, to preserve your life while dealing death to others from the relative safety of an ambush. (Archers get a bad press in the classical period, branded as cowards and stuck in the back of the vase painter’s field or relegated to its corners.)

Living on while others die carries a second risk. In Wilson’s chosen examples, following the calamity the protagonists provoke, the worlds of life and death become inverted or intertwined. Again, this can be culture-specific, a response to current, lamentable times. It’s the running joke of Aristophanes’ Frogs – produced after Athens’s crushing defeats in the Peloponnesian War and staged in a city in such dire financial straits that impresarios couldn’t afford suitable dress for their choruses – that a trip to the underworld is unfortunately de rigueur. But Wilson is right to generalise the theme. Euripides’ Admetus thinks he can cheat Death. Given the chance to outlive his proper term if he can find someone to die in his place, he makes the round of family and friends, refused by all except his seemingly selfless spouse. But just as Eos finds her heart’s desire thwarted, so Admetus’ apple of immortality has a worm. Following the death of his wife, his home becomes a second Hades, with dirges in the place of the raucous dinner party songs he’d enjoyed previously.

Both Aristophanes’ and Euripides’ plays are preoccupied with the problem of their own senescence, with their place at the tail end of a mythical or generic tradition that seems to have run its course and outrun its audience’s patience. In her introduction, Wilson suggests the works she analyses form a ‘tightly-knit’ group, where ‘each writer alludes back to and interacts with his predecessor.’ But though this claim holds good for several of the works in question, largely missing is a sense of how deeply their authors and protagonists struggle against earlier, seemingly definitive versions of these stories. A further problem is that reader fatigue may set in if a life is made to continue: writers need to know when to bring the curtain down. Many of us rebel when Tolstoy tries giving his subjects an afterlife. Natasha, plump and happy among nappies and nursery concerns, seems a sad falling off from the fleet-footed naiad of the novel’s opening. She has outlived her story, refusing to make the graceful exit that Jane Austen reserves for her eternally young heroines, whose marital bliss and expanding waists are best left to the reader’s imagination. Overliving, whether as a narrative choice, or that of individuals within a story, is not a condition exclusive to the products of the tragic muse.