We're hard wired for stories, and classical scholar Daniel Mendelsohn
says the myths and dramas of ancient Greece are so embedded in our
consciousness that we can't help but revisit them as we interpret
contemporary culture. One example, he says, is our obsessive need for
anniversary replays of film footage and commentary on President
Kennedy's death and the days of shock and mourning that followed. Our
conflicted desire to marvel at charismatic leaders and to witness their
fall, he says, is rooted in Greek tragedy.
In a New Yorker essay J.F.K, Tragedy, Myth, Mendelsohn, a professor at Bard College,
says Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963, and the many other
traumatic events and deaths in generations of the Kennedy family,
reflect elements in Greek tragedy. In many tragedies, including the
plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, he writes, the all-knowing gods are "pulling the strings unbeknownst to the mortals whose lives they control; works like Oresteia and Oedipus,
(whose hero learns to his horror that he cannot escape the plot the
gods have written for him), seem to confirm an invisible but palpable
order of things."
ancient stories distill certain vibrant narratives in an elemental way
that animates all cultures, Mendelsohn says. In fact, he writes, we have
a desire to find a plot "in the hodgepodge of events we call history."
And he says our impulse to make sense of events, to expose past secrets,
and to present evidence of past deeds to present-day audiences, helps
fuel elaborate conspiracy theories about the assassination. Tragic
thinking, the way Aeschylus thought, he writes, encourages us to seek
dark patterns behind events, and suspect all happenings are connected to
the past, and that the sins of the fathers are connected to the
suffering of their children and their children's children.
a visual society, he continues, and the horror and shock of Kennedy's
death was intensified because it happened before people's eyes and was
captured on film. Spectacle is at the root of drama, he notes, and the
need to keep watching replays is part of the Kennedy trauma. And he adds
that we watch the whole spectacle-the horror, the mourning, and the
ceremonial conclusions-also important in Greek tragedies-that reassure
us order can be restored. He speculates the equally traumatic
assassination of Abraham Lincoln may have been less obsessively replayed
because it wasn't visual in the same way.
In a New Yorker podcast,
Mendelsohn says it's no accident that democracy and tragedy flourished
in partnership in 6th century Athens. We want great leaders, but our
democratic anxieties make us distrustful of them, Mendelsohn observes,
so the mythical and tragic stories of leaders brought down help us work
our way through our competing attractions and suspicions. One recurring
theme in Greek mythology is that the most beautiful, brilliant,
remarkable humans do things that invoke the envy or wrath of the gods,
who cut them down. It's a theme that has to do with a boundary that
needs to be maintained between human excellence and the divine,
Mendelsohn says, and one that people grapple with as they contemplate
greatness and ordinary lives.
In the podcast, Mendelsohn speaks of other news events that evoke myth. The sinking of the Titanic,
a ship that was too grand, too beautiful, too glamorous, and lost in
man's struggle against nature, is one example. The difficulty of finding
a burial place for Tamerlan Tsarnaev,
the accused Boston marathon bomber who was shot by police and run over
by his brother, replays the ancient and culturally fraught issue of what
to do with the body of an enemy, and the definition of what an enemy is. Refused burial in Massachusetts, Tsarnaev was eventually buried quietly in Virginia. Read Mendelsohn's enlightening and provocative New Yorker piece here and listen to his podcast here.