Aeschylus, the Lost

Ismail Kadare

Artwork by Elephnt

When you pull out a volume by Aeschylus on an October day seemingly made for curling up and rereading something special, you know immediately if you have found the right day for this kind of undertaking. Aeschylus is one of those writers who does not suit just any day. He demands a certain frame of mind. You probably know of Aeschylus from your early youth; you might have studied him in school, or heard about him in cultural documentaries on television. In short, there is nothing novel about him, so reading, or, more precisely, rereading him, is the ultimate conscious choice.

In reality, the words “reading” or “rereading” seem imprecise in this case. Leafing through Aeschylus feels more like a creative meditation than a reading. In fact, it would be quite natural if, during reading, the book itself were to remain firmly shut most of the time.

Certainly, this sort of thing requires an unusual state of mind that cannot be mustered up at any time. And if instinct tells you that today is not the right day, it is better to return the book to the bookcase and bide your time until such a day comes along.

The pages that follow are notes about Aeschylus jotted down on different days. These thoughts will allow the reader to judge if they were written on the right kind of day.

It is natural to want to know how a writer works. What hours does he keep? Where does he write? In the case of ancient writers, whose entire lives have been enveloped in oblivion, this desire turns into an agonizing dream. Everything feels unreachable, nonexistent.

And yet, it was a human hand that wrote the eternal tragedy. Somewhere, a hand once held a writing instrument that stitched together tragedies—letter by letter and line by line. There must be a house on some corner where tragedy was first born.

What did Aeschylus’ workroom look like? We do not know anything about it, except the most important piece of information: there were no books in it.

Aeschylus was the “father of tragedy,” and one of the forefathers of world literature. Was his unique fate a great sadness or a blessing? It is impossible to know for certain. Much about Aeschylus is not known. We can only imagine that he must have had a workroom with something resembling a table, where he likely piled the black tiles on which he wrote with a sharp object. On another side of the room, he might have had other tiles, perhaps containing a monologue from a recently performed tragedy by Phrynichus, or a few translated verses from the Epic of Gilgamesh. Homer he must have known nearly by heart. This was all he had. The rest he had to create himself.

He had to have closed his windows during the cold season, when a murky light likely shined through his oiled window paper as if in a dream, simultaneously bringing him closer to and further from the world.

Did that murky light color his tragedies? What would they look like if his windows had been covered by glass instead of oiled paper? Two thousand years later, the tragedies written from behind glass windows by the Englishman Shakespeare were no brighter. Quite the contrary, in fact. Was the dark north to blame for this, or was the darkness inside of Shakespeare?

Many questions and suppositions arise when leafing through Aeschylus. This is why reading him can feel richer when we close the book often.

Like every creator, Aeschylus probably liked to go outside at the end of his workday. Perhaps he went to the theater to discuss an upcoming drama or to resolve a complication regarding the latest performance. Or maybe he wandered around in the market.

The marketplace he encountered was large, with few people. The temples were scarce, too, and they were hard to tell apart from smaller, more mundane buildings lining the square. But from a landscape that appears empty to our eye, in his mind rose unprecedented tornadoes of thought and imagination.

In Aeschylus’s time, photography was not available to freeze into memory the happenings of a month or a week prior, let alone more distant events. At the mercy of anyone’s imagination and interpretation, events grew malleable to the point of resembling the phantasmagorias conjured up in dreams.

The ordinary-looking Aeschylus, the one with a receding hairline whose likeness was captured in sculptures, conjured thoughts and creative deliriums large enough to circle the globe thousands of times. At the time, no matter how aware he might have been of his status, neither he nor anyone else could appreciate the full extent of his achievement.

Tragedy was in its infancy. It was still a workshop, and he was its architect, builder, and possible victim. What literary news could he share in the market or in the gathering place of theater actors? Maybe some part of Phrynichus’ upcoming drama that, finally, the selection committee was allowing to be viewed? Or perhaps he gleaned news regarding his predecessor, Thespis (but the original conveyor of these reports was a questionable source: the itinerant merchant Y or perhaps the prostitute X, who claimed she was an old friend of the departed Thespis). Maybe he encountered a foreign traveler who accidentally heard thirty verses of an ancient Sumerian poem about a certain Gilgamesh—a poem about the horror of death. But the rest of the poem proved to be hard to find. Aside from Homer’s poetry, this was the entirety of his literary tradition.

Aeschylus had to return to his workroom in the company of the ghosts he carried within. Tragedy was there, at his feet, with its foundations laid open, its blueprints not yet completed, with its railings and dust.

Was it happiness or sadness to father tragedy, a doomed creature that sallied forth into the world to live a thousand lifetimes?

Aeschylus begat tragedy in the broad sense in which we understand it today. Naturally, there were others before him, covered over with dust by time. There was the tradition of oral poetry among the Greeks and other peoples of the Balkans. Additionally, there were Dionysian parties and nuptial and funerary ceremonies, as well as dozens of other phenomena organic to human society that naturally produced drama. At the end of the day, as Czesław Miłosz says, “trees were writing their own Divine Comedy about the ascent from hell to the spheres of heaven long before Dante wrote his.” 

Undoubtedly, his contemporaries played an important part in his work. Their thirst for spectacle, their excitement, their applause, their silence, the large polemics on the eve of competitions, the fights before performances, the scandals—all these were present in his work. Over the years, due to the tiredness that comes with age, it got harder and harder to get the wheels spinning inside his brain. He needed motivation, and it would have been difficult to find a better source of encouragement than the distant racket of spectators that came from the theater. He was often annoyed by them, cursing them to himself, calling them brainless, thoughtless, and blaming himself for even engaging them at all, but in reality, he knew that he could not do without their noise. He could not function without their murmurs, fieriness, and sadness; in short, he could not do without the collectivity with which his powerful brain was constantly engaged in an exchange of ideas.

From behind his oiled window paper, passersby seemed like shadows. “These are the Greeks,” he would say to himself from time to time, during those breaks when his tired mind sought inspiration. He plucked the Greeks from his immediate reality and turned them into characters for his tragedies. This transition from reality into fiction was no less burdensome than the imagined, literary transition from hell into the living world and vice versa. For this reason, the Greeks were unrecognizably disfigured in his dramas, and perhaps it was precisely in these moments of disfigurement that theater masks were first born.

But who were the Greeks? What was special about them?

No doubt many things about them were special. They had a beautiful country, with a pleasant climate, olives, sun, a marvelous language, and music. They were smart, ingenious, and adventurous. They had a sense of beauty, philosophy, a moral code, and a well-developed concept of democracy. They had a mythology, temples, and a belief in hell and fatality. Although at a first glance it might have appeared as if they did not need anything more, a day came when the Greeks were enriched by a new treasure.

Just as the man who after rain falls on him unexpectedly remembers the crimes of his youth, so the conscience of the Greeks was surprisingly awoken, and in its age of maturity the Greek nation remembered a crime it committed in its childhood. Eight hundred years ago, the Greeks had suffocated the Trojans in their sleep.

The Greeks’ collective regret may seem affected, but the fact that this regret became the primary nourishment for ancient Greek literature is enough to render it believable. If you were to take out the rotting corpse of Troy from Greek literature, the canon would be diminished by at least half its worth.

Greek writers took it upon themselves to expunge this crime from the conscience of their nation. The crime was exposed from all angles by the Greeks themselves, without any pressure exerted by other nations. They revived the Troy they had once sworn to bury so deeply that no memory would be left of it; they exhumed it themselves, brushed off its dirt, and testified on its past as tenderly as if they were speaking about themselves.

It was an unprecedented exorcism, a shocking act, simultaneously liberating and emancipating. For the first time in the history of mankind, the conscience of a people was willfully undergoing such a disturbance. That this disturbance was sought after signaled the nation’s readiness to produce great literary works.

We cannot know what world literature would look like without Aeschylus. We only know that his absence would disrupt its balance greatly. What would Shakespeare’s witches be like? What would the Englishman’s Hamlet or Macbeth be like? Dramaturges would have had to devise other means for expressing the despair of human consciousness. They might certainly have found a compelling alternative, but their concoctions could never surpass what the great balding dramaturge discovered 2,500 years ago in his spare room without books.

A contemporary interpretation of Shakespeare might rewrite the apparition of King Hamlet not as that of a ghost, but as that of an intelligence agent from a neighboring country. The agent is masked as a ghost, sent to show the successor of the king that, according to the data at his state’s disposal, the king did not die peacefully, but was murdered by his brother as a result of an oath. This hypothetical might contextualize Hamlet and satiate our curiosity. But very quickly we remember that it is inadequate, because the ghost is more substantial than a corporeal being. It is a more complete being than Aeschylus, the lost, because it embodies the whole process of doubt, the allegations of the prince concerning potential murders, the communal whispers that affect everyone, the premonitions, the fear, and the intoxicating influence of the neighboring country’s counterintelligence.

If it is difficult to imagine world literature without Aeschylus, it is just as difficult, if not more so, to imagine world literature with the entirety of Aeschylus’ work present. How high would the status of the dramaturge rise if we had more than eight percent of his work? It goes without saying that his status would rise proportionally with each new work.

The person who most suffered from the erasure of Aeschylus’ work is Aeschylus himself. His loss was titanic, and because of it he is eternally two-dimensional—always both in light and in shadow. Aeschylus embodies the world vision of the Greeks: his life was inextricably embroiled in the darkness of hell. Since loss is such an integral part of him, no study of Aeschylus can ever be complete without accounting for this emptiness. It creeps in from all sides. There comes a time when night falls on any such study, and it is futile to try to uncover the way or ask for directions . . . No one will answer.

Aeschylus called his work and that of his contemporary writers fragments from the banquet of Homer. But in reality, Aeschylus, just like the other great tragic poets, sat at the table alongside Homer. It may indeed be the case that the entirety of ancient Greek literature fed off Homeric motifs, but we must not forget that the great Homer also sat at a table filled with delights from the past feast of Greek mythology: the collective work of people born in the dawn of world civilization. Drunken by light, these people created a series of creatures that were both terrestrial and celestial, dead and immortal, and awash in history, drama, and passion of the most complicated kind. This mythology filled the world with light, from Mount Olympus down to the depths of the sea, from the royal courtyards to the deep caves, and from the dark subterranean space all the way to the stars of the Milky Way.

Homer was the first to claim for himself part of the mythological banquet of endless epics, which once existed alongside one another and have gradually disappeared over time, leaving only a few scant titles such as the Nostoi, the Thebaid, the Oedipodea, the Danaides, and Agamemnon. These poems spread across the Balkans as though they were a cosmic substance from which miraculous systems and boundless universes could be created.

For centuries, Dionysian parties have been considered a point of origin for tragedies, a thesis echoed with great authority by Nietzsche. This theory has been called into question lately, albeit somewhat tentatively. A cautious vein of thought finds fault with linking Dionysian parties to ancient tragedy when the two have so little in common. Even the use of masks, often cited as a significant connection between the Dionysian parties and ancient tragedy, might be a tenuous fastening point. Unlike the masks of the Dionysian parties, which always resembled animals, tragic masks were human.

The final problem with determining the genesis of tragedy has to do with the name itself: tragedy. In fact, the roots of the word, tragos (goat or buck) and aide (song), would have disappointed the great disciples of the tragic theater. Whether we like it or not, the goat somehow found itself in the midst of all this. A goat must have either been the prize won by dramaturges, or the animal sacrificed over the party. And yet, goats were mentioned in many of the surviving first-person testimonies from the period. Whether by chance or because the goat earned its place through spilled blood, the bovid found itself at the root of the most sublime artistic genre.

Those who call into the question the theory that tragedy came from Dionysian parties often go too far and end up denying tragedy an origin altogether. This is due to the mere absence of another explanation. The theory that ancient Greek tragedy is a social phenomenon with a specific chronological beginning does not exclude the possibility that tragedy might also be traced back to the distant root of all arts—the beginning without beginning.

It is tempting to declare the loud and wild Dionysian party the mother of tragedy, but these parties could just as easily have birthed musical comedy. Because they seemed a more tangible concept to academics, Dionysian parties unjustly supplanted two essential moments in human life: death and marriage.

Precisely these two rites, the funerary one and its helpmate, the marital one, are the true and unfairly denied parents of tragedy.

Friedrich Nietzsche came close to revising this backward thesis that puts the Dionysian parties at the origin of tragedy. Even though Nietzsche wrote that tragedy, like all art, was first born of pain, an emotion unsuited to the happy Dionysian festivities, the anticonformist Nietzsche did not catch this discrepancy. He also did not catch on when he revisited this assertion during his later years, when his brain was on the verge of madness and emitting its last few embers of genius.

More so than the study of ancient texts, witnessing Balkan funerary and marital rites would have given Nietzsche the needed epiphany about tragedy.

These two ceremonies, the funerary and the marital one, have been the core cultural institution of the Balkan people for millennia. Often called the mirror image of each other, the similarity between these ceremonies is no accident: it comes from the interconnection of life and death as unique phenomena that spill into each other. Marriage and death, likely the most traumatic and sacred moments in a community, also served as communal schools for aesthetic education. Happiness, regret, burdens, the kidnapping of brides, excitement, the revenge of the dead, and anger were all contained in a small surface, a stage almost. No other rituals have the same spiritual disturbance one encounters in a wedding or funeral.

In no other communal ceremony is a single character, the dead person, or two characters, the bride and groom, the center of attention. What did it matter that they were not speaking? They exuded a wide range of passions and thoughts. The participants of the ceremonies fully depended on them and imagined themselves in their stead—those who were married remembered their own happy or unhappy weddings, the unmarried ones thought about their own future weddings, while everyone else thought about how they would be grieved or avenged after their deaths. In short, the air seethed with drama.

This disorder, delirium, and self-identification must have been the first iteration of dramatic art. At times people needed to reexperience the delirium of standing alongside a wedding dress or a burial hole in the ground. Could this delirium be experienced without waiting for a future wedding or funeral?

Aristotle’s famous “catharsis,” that cleansing of the spectator that was carried out after every show through “fear and pity” (Aristotle’s Poetics), happens only through prior preparation. Nowhere does fear and pity strike a person more powerfully than in a funeral rite. Eventually, season after season, the ancient people turned from funeral guests to spectators. They could go to the theater and experience the emotions otherwise only felt at life’s extremes, when people confronted their fates. Much like a spectator who goes to the theater in order to imagine himself in the situations he sees on the stage, so others go to funerals to imagine their own deaths.

In no other part of the world are tragedy, marriage, and funeral rites as similar as they are in the Balkans. The similarity was particularly striking among the Greeks and Albanians. As Austrian scholar Maximilian Lambertz says, the Albanian wedding ritual is nothing more than a leftover from the old scenario of the kidnapping of the bride. The way the wedding guests are seated, the firing of rifles, the changing return path, and the various rules about tracking the wedding party’s movements are all reminiscent of a kidnapping—except now it is all staged.

Even today similar customs remain, although now a car is often used as a means of transportation. No Albanian taxi driver is surprised when a bride’s escorts ask that the route and final destination be changed, even though the proposed itinerary makes no sense.

Funerary rites resemble tragedies even more closely: from the way they were publicly announced, which in the absence of a postal service was done through yelling, to the self-inflicted scars on the mourners’ faces, which resembled the masks of tragedy, and the professional women mourners, who often read their lines like actresses.

Let us examine the funerary rites up close. They peak in intensity at the moment when the corpse is buried. The burial area is, without a doubt, nearly identical to the great tragic theater. It is an unusual space with its hole, or absence, in the middle. As the corpse is lowered into this absence, the boundaries between life and death are bridged. The main protagonist, the dead person, lives their last moments between two kingdoms. Despite their inanimateness, they are at the center of attention. Because they cannot speak, others, such as relatives and professional mourners, have to speak on their behalf.

These mourners were the first incarnation of the ancient choir.

According to August Wilhelm Schlegel, the ancient choir is the ideal spectator, a chosen elite that speaks on everyone’s behalf. Friedrich Schiller clarifies this further by adding that the choir is a type of living wall, which, while isolating tragedy, also protects her.

This is precisely the role of the mourners. They are invited to witness death in order to articulate, in an ordered manner, the spontaneous and uncouth pain of those close to the deceased. Just as the ancient choir protected tragedy from the masses of spectators, so the mourners protected the funerary rites from the family members and from blood vengeance seekers.

This sidestepping of the family’s grief and its transformation into a public matter initiated the process via which mourning became a public institution.

The transformation of mourning could not have been an easy one. The burial ground must have witnessed many confrontations between mothers and sisters drunk from loss, and cold, professional mourners.

Everything becomes clearer if we remember that in ancient Greek the word for “actor” is hypokrites, which really means liar, hypocrite—a fitting description for the professional mourners who mourned death without having any blood ties?

To this day, in Albanian we use the expression “crying according to the laws.” The word “law” in Albanian is the same as “to read,” and when turned into a participle it can mean to sing a funerary song. “Crying according to the laws” means to cry as per a codified text.

Undoubtedly, the mourners must have been condemned many times. Disgusted by their hypocrisy, relatives must have asked that the mourners leave the grave site. The mourners may have even considered abandoning their strange and sad performances, but the requests to display their odd mastery, and the offense that its false grief elicited, continued.

At that same scene, surrounding the burial hole, it became clear that the performance of grief was more interesting to an audience than unvarnished pain. One of the universal laws of art became manifest in these Balkan grave sites: by distancing itself from life and from personal passions, art renounces a shackled truth and takes on a heavier burden—that of creation. This distance makes for a fraught relationship between life and art. Homer famously verbalized this contentious relationship by saying that gods sent us misfortune in order to provide us with a subject matter for our songs. Schopenhauer similarly tiered art above life by declaring life an unworthy subject of art.

Rejecting the uncouth cry of a relative in favor of the cold, professional cry that has been filtered through technique or artifice was one of the foundations of art. Let us now imagine what would happen at the burial site of a man murdered over blood vengeance, a common enough scene in the Albanian mountains. According to the rules of the Code of Lekë Dukagjini, or the Kanun, the killer was obliged to participate in the burial of the victim by visiting the home of the deceased and sharing a meal with his family. To call this moment a dramatic one is, needless to say, insufficient. The drama connects everything together, as if these funerary rites were a theater of life.

The burial hole has haunted humanity throughout the course of history. That hole in the ground is where the value of the cold, artificial cry really came to light. The hypocrites wore masks that embodied estrangement. They paved the way for another kind of tragic mourning, in which they could imagine mourning someone else and even becoming someone else. Eventually, the mourners got tired of the silence of the dead and began to dream boldly and sinfully of the dead speaking back. The return of the dead has undoubtedly been the greatest dream of the human species. Confronted with its impossibility, the great tragedians raised the dead from the grave and allowed them to testify on their demise.

This action had a dual scope. On the one hand, these things happened on the scene. But beyond the scene, funeral-goers become both mourners and spectators.

In his Poetics, Aristotle twice hints at the relationship between the theater and the funerary rite. In chapter four, he expresses the idea that “Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies.”

In other words, a theatrical performance could be seen as a continuation of the ritual, but this time the corpse, perhaps by now decomposed, is tolerable in our eyes because it is mirrored by an actor.

In chapter twelve, Aristotle speaks about the components of tragedy. Aside from the prologue, episode, exode, and the chorus, he mentions the commos. Chapter twelve of the Poetics ends with the phrase: “A commos is a joint lamentation between the chorus and one or more of the actors on the stage.” The Albanian town of Gjirokastra still uses the term “cry with the world,” meaning an intimate mourning in which non-relatives also participate. In his typically terse style, Aristotle does not provide further explanation. If he had added that the communal lament of the theater echoed the funerary ritual, he might have spared humanity the two-thousand-year-old torment that the murkiness of tragedy inspired.

Aristotle is notoriously terse at the end of chapter nine of Poetics, where he speaks of the statue of the athlete Mitys, which avenged itself by falling on the person who had killed the athlete. But the philosopher withholds any further commentary on the relationship between the theater and sculpture.

The statue, the mark, the tombstone, the corpse, and the actor are all as related to one another as they are connected to the theater.
The first statues must have caused a great disturbance by showing mankind a frozen, stony manifestation of itself. Ancient drama reverted this process by reanimating the frozen corpse on the stage. The unnatural movements under the heavy costumes, the white and chilling masks, the whispered voices—all of these made death seem more tangible.

Raising the first character from the dead could not have been easy. The ghost must have played an important intermediary step in all this. Older than any artistic creation, but no younger than most primitive objects, it was natural that the ghost would facilitate this artistic process.

For ancient Greeks, ghosts, nightly dreams, and prophecies constituted the liminality between people and divinity. As such, they played an important role in the transmission of omens from one world to another. In the tragic scene, where crimes were often covered up, the ghost served the role of the investigator, the witness, or the instigator of vengeance and remorse.

Jean-Pierre Vernant connects the origin of the ghost with the tombstone. The tombstone, long and raised, signals the resting place of he who has departed from the world. The tombstone was the dead’s double, and shadow. Empty tombstones were even built in order to construct a tangible representation for those whose bodies were missing.

For the Balkan people, the tombstone, with its weight, silence, and coldness, was the silent placeholder for death. To this day, in Greece and Albania people swear “to this stone.” To go back to Vernant, the expression “silent like a tombstone” retains its powerful meaning. The epithet “silent” contains an urge to speak that goes unheeded. “Silent” is a qualifier that can only be attached to an entity that can speak. The collective consciousness believed that
tombstones were capable of speaking, just like a shadow or a ghost. Under the moonlight the tombstones retained their silence, but eventually the great tragedians came along and forced their mouths open. They called the shadows to the stage so that spectators, with their hair raised in horror, could hear the dead testify.

translated from the Albanian by Ani Kokobobo

An excerpt from the essay “Aeschylus, the Lost,” from Essays on World Literature: Shakespeare • Aeschylus • Dante by Ismail Kadare, translated by Ani Kokobobo, is forthcoming from Restless Books.