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Tragedy, Myth and Leadership

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, December 12, 2013

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."

These 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.

We're 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.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  leadership 

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