Thursday, November 10, 2011

Ajax on my mind

Watch Joe Paterno address the students gathered outside his house last night. He advises them to get a good night’s sleep and to study, and adds one more thing: “We are Penn State,” with a fist in the air. As George Vecsey writes of Paterno in the New York Times, “he still doesn’t get it.”

The disgraceful events at Penn State have me thinking about Sophocles’ Ajax, a play I taught last week. As the play begins, Ajax, the great representative of old-school warrior values, is doing the unspeakable. Furious that Odysseus and not he has been given Achilles’ armor, he sets out to murder Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Odysseus. But Athena deludes him, and he ends up torturing and killing animals, thinking they’re the Greek leaders. Then he comes to his senses, and his pain grows infinitely greater. His wife Tecmessa describes his reaction to what he has done:

And when he saw the carnage under his roof,
He grasped his head and screamed,
Crashing down onto the bloody wreckage,
Then just sitting in the slaughter, fists clenched,
His nails tearing into his hair.
Ajax, as we would say, gets it, and chooses to fall on his sword. Paterno might at least acknowledge some measure of shame and sorrow for his silence.

[Source: Sophocles, Four Tragedies. Trans. Peter Meineck and Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2007). The Ajax translation is by Meineck.]

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