Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Failure of imagination

"It was on the Thursday after September 11 that 'Persians' first started making sense to me. All those years I'd been teaching it, I'd failed to notice the most obviously remarkable thing about it—the device that transmutes the raw and chaotic stuff of lived history into something bigger, something with a universal resonance. As I have said, the play was produced a mere eight years after the Greeks' fabulous and unexpected victory over their immense foe. How much more striking, then, that Aeschylus—who, it's perhaps necessary to point out, fought in the Persian Wars, and lost a brother in the aftermath of the great naval triumph at Salamis, a description of which, put in the mouth of an impressed Persian, furnishes his play with its glittering rhetorical climax—should have chosen to focus is imaginative sympathy not on the exulting Greeks, but on the sorrowing Persians. Which is to say that in the very moment of their greatest victory, he asked his fellow Athenians to think radically, to imagine something outside of their own experience, to situate the feelings they were having just then—about themselves, about those others—in a vaster frame: one in which they might see that present triumph could induce a complacency that just might bring about future disaster. The sense of these larger, moral themes hovering over the play's spectacle is, in the end, what gives the play a resonance that transcends the particulars of the history it purports to represent. No wonder the Athenians, for whom tragedy was a form of political dialogue as well as popular entertainment, gave it the prize that year."
Daniel Mendelsohn - September 11 at the movies

My comment on United 93 is here.

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