Discourse and Truth: The Problematization of Parrhesia.

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ELECTRA: Mother, remember what you said just now. You promised that I might state my opinion freely without fear
And Clytemnestra answers: "I said so, daughter, and I meant it" [l.1057] But Electra is still wary and cautious, for she wonders whether her mother will listen to her only to hurt her afterwards:
ELECTRA: Do you mean you’ll listen first, and get your own back afterwards?

CLYTEMNESTRA: No, no; you’re free to say what your heart wants to say.

ELECTRA: I’ll say it, then. This is where I’ll begin ...
And Electra proceeds to speak openly, blaming her mother for what she has done.

There is another asymmetrical aspect between these two discourses which concerns the difference in status of the two speakers. For Clytemnestra is the queen, and does not use or require parrhesia to plead for her own defense in killing Agamemnon. But Electra—who is in the situation of a slave, who plays the role of a slave in this scene, who can no longer live in her father’s house under her father’s protection, and who addresses her mother just as a servant would address the queen—Electra needs the right of parrhesia.

And so another parrhesiastic contract is drawn between Clytemnestra and Electra: Clytemnestra promises she will not punish Electra for her frankness just as Pentheus promised his messenger in The Bacchae. But in Electra, the parrhesiastic contract is subverted. It is not subverted by Clytemnestra (who, as the queen, still has the power to punish Electra); it is subverted by Electra herself. Electra asks her mother to promise her that she will not be punished for speaking frankly, and Clytemnestra makes such a promise—without knowing that she, Clytemnestra herself, will be punished for her confession. For, a few minutes later, she is subsequently killed by her children, Orestes and Electra. Thus the parrhesiastic contract is subverted: the one who was granted the privilege of parrhesia is not hammed, but the one who granted the right of parrhesia is—and by the very person who, in the inferior position, was asking for parrhesia. The parrhesiastic contract became a subversive trap for Clytemnestra.

  1. Ion [c.418-4171]

We turn now to Ion, a parrhesiastic play.

The mythological framework of the play involves the legendary founding of Athens. According to Attic myth, Erectheus was the first king of Athens-born a son of Earth and returning to Earth in death. Erectheus thus personifies that of which the Athenians were so proud, viz., their autochtony: that they literally were sprung from Athenian soil . In 418 B. C. , about the time when this play was written, such mythological reference had political meaning. For Euripides wanted to remind his audience that the Athenians are native to Athenian soil; but through the character of Xuthus (husband to Erectheus’ daughter Creusa, and a foreigner to Athens since he comes from Phithia), Euripides also wanted to indicate to his audience that the Athenians are related, through this marriage, to the people of the Peloponese, and specifically to Achaia—named from one of the sons of Xuthus and Creusa: Achaeus. For Euripides’ account of the Pan-Hellenic nature of Athenian genealogy makes Ion the son of Apollo and Creusa (daughter to Athens ancient king Eretheus). Creusa later marries Xuthus (who was an ally of the Athenians in their war against the Euboeans [ls. 58-62]. Two sons are born from this marriage: Dorus and Achaeus. Ion was said to be the founder of the Ionic people; Dorus, the founder of the Dorians; and Achaeus, the founder of the Achaeans. Thus all of the ancestors of the Greek race are depicted as descended from the royal house of Athens.

Euripides’ reference to Creusa’s relationship with Apollo, as well as his placement of the play’s setting at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, is meant to exhibit the close relationship between Athens and Phoebus Apollo: the pan-Hellenic god of the Delphic sanctuary. For at the historical moment of the play’s production in ancient Greece, Athens was trying to forge a pan-Hellenic coalition against Sparta. Rivalry existed between Athens and Delphi since the Delphic priests were primarily on the side of the Spartans. But, to put Athens in the favorable position of leader of the Hellenic world, Euripides wished to emphasize the relations of mutual parenthood between the two cities. These mythological genealogies, then, are meant, in part, to justify Athens’ imperialistic politics towards other Greek cities at a time when Athenian leaders still thought an Athenian empire was possible.

I shall not focus on the political and mythological aspects of the play, but on the theme of the shift of the place of truth’s disclosure from Delphi to Athens. As you know, the oracle at Delphi was supposed to be the place in Greece where human beings were told the truth by the gods through the utterances of the Pythia. But in this play we see a very explicit shift from the oracular truth at Delphi to Athens: Athens becomes the Place where truth now appears. And, as a part of this shift, truth is no longer disclosed by the gods to human beings (as at Delphi), but is disclosed to human beings by human beings through Athenian parrhesia.

Euripides’ Ion is a play praising Athenian autochtony, and affirming blood-affinity with most other Greek states; but it is primarily a story of the movement of truth-telling from Delphi to Athens, from Phoebus Apollo to the Athenian Citizen. And that is the reason why I think the play is the story of parrhesia: the decisive Greek parrhesiastic play.

Now I would like to give the following schematic aperçu of the play:

Delphi Athens Foreign countries

Apollo Erectheus Xuthus


We shall see that Apollo keeps silent throughout the drama; that Juthus is deceived by the god, but is also a deceiver. And we shall also see how Creusa and Ion both speak the truth against Apollo’s silence, for only they are connected to the Athenian earth which endows them with parrhesia.

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