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In Francis Bacon’s Oresteia triptych we might interpret, in the central panel, Agamemnon’s fated, and reluctant, advance along the red carpet laid out for him by his wife, Clytemnestra, on his victorious return from the siege of Troy. In the left panel a fleshy form that is difficult to interpret hovers before a half opened door, from below which a channel of blood winds its way across the floor. The image evokes the foreboding words of Cassandra for whom the palace towards which Agamemnon has just advanced ‘exhales a smell of murder and blood’. A Cassandra who, brought back from the sacked city of Troy as part of the king’s loot, is cursed with the power of prescience and clairvoyance. In that sense, the carcass like form set before the door is perhaps a symbol not only of the carnage to come, but of the carnage that has plagued the house as part of the curse that has long hung over it. A curse that will not be lifted until Orestes is later tried, symbolically, in Athens under the auspices of Athena herself. The third and final panel shows a human figure entering a similarly half opened door. Perhaps the fulfillment of the bloody prophecy of the first panel that it mirrors, as Agamemnon enters the palace to his own death. Or perhaps it is an Orestes approaching in order to enact bloody revenge on his own mother.
“Oresteia” by Francis Bacon.
Interpreting any work of art in any definitive sense is naturally always a difficult, if not impossible, task. The same might also be said of interpreting the events taking place around us at any given time. Let alone how those events might turn out. In the case of Francis Bacon’s triptych, and the poem that inspired it, Aeschylus’ Oresteian Trilogy (a poem, and author, of which Francis Bacon was a life long admirer), if we are able to hazard any sort of interpretation it is perhaps due to the fact that the poem, at least, takes place within and evokes a long established cosmological order. An order which defines and dictates the events and machinery of Athenian tragedy. And that is central to the concept of tragedy itself. At least, in its 5th century Athenian form.
In the case of Athenian tragedy, that cosmological order was one driven by what might be loosely termed ‘fate’. As well as an overarching cosmological mechanism of justice, whose infringement brought into action a reflexive and irrevocable punitive backlash upon the offending individual. At the best of times obscure, and at others, seemingly arbitrary (at least in the eyes of the mortals in the thick of the drama), those that get caught up in the mechanism of this order might often appear ‘more sinned against than sinning’. As is certainly the case of Oedipus in Sophocles’ treatment of the subject, in which the the self-blinded and exiled king is finally vindicated, again symbolically, in the sacred groves of Athens.
In Pier Paolo Pasolini’s beautiful working of the latter myth, in his 1967 Edipo Re, the sense of the arbitrary and irrevocable is poignantly suggested by his young Oedipus’ game of chance that he plays at each cross roads that he meets along the course of his first exile. This time in the (futile) attempt to escape the prophecy that he was destined to commit both patricide and incest. Along his dusty road of exile, Pasolini has his young, and as yet innocent, Oedipus (Franco Citti) choose his path at each fork in the road by shutting his eyes and turning on the spot. Abandoning himself to chance. A chance, however, that only serves to lead him inevitably into the trap of his foreseen destiny.
This was the sort of sense of the inherently irrevocable, and therefore ‘unfair’, nature of the order governing the world of tragedy that Kafka would express with typical fatalism and brutality in his late aphorisms:
‘The dogs are still playing in the yard, but the quarry will not escape them, never mind how fast it is running through the forest already.’
(The Zürau Aphorisms, 43)
‘A cage went in search of a bird.’
(The Zürau Aphorisms, 16)
It is perhaps this sense of the seeming ‘unfairness’ underlying the tragic hero’s fate, as he or she becomes irrevocably caught up in the mechanism of their destiny, or of an absolute punitive order, that led Aristotle to outline that the inspiring of ‘pity’ in the spectator of the tragedy was to be one of the goals of tragedy, and of the tragedian.
It was also Aristotle who, in his fragmentary Poetics, was to formulate such concepts as hamartia (the making of a mistake) and hubris (excessive pride) as central to the hero’s becoming entangled in such a punitive absolute order. And their ultimate fall within it. It was, after all, to be represented as an ultimately ‘just’ order. However unfair it may have seemed from a human perspective.
And it is perhaps these latter concepts of commiting a fatal mistake, or of the hero’s excessive pride, that leads us back to the dramatic problem evoked in the central panel of Francis Bacon’s Triptych. For within the dynamics of the drama that inspired the piece, if Agamemnon’s slaughter is fated, there is also a human hand in the unfolding mechanism. For Clytemnestra, who is to be the agent of the slaughter, if she is to carry out ‘justice’ as she sees it (in revenge for the murder of her daughter, Iphigenia) she wants to make sure that she is on the right side of the existing cosmological order. That is, in coaxing Agamemnon on to pace across the luxurious red carpet she has laid out before him, it is because she knows that this would constitute an act of hubris, or offensive pride, in the eyes of that order, and would therefore justify her own crime. A device which adds a very human, political dimension to the play’s central crisis which unsurprisingly caught the attention of an artist painting in the shadow of the disasters of politics and the resultant bloodshed.
It is, of course, a dimension of both works of art (both that of Bacon and Aeschylus) that might resonate for many today. Though few of us will still see the affairs of man as governed by any sort of absolute cosmological order (and, indeed, the increasingly political dimension to Athenian tragedy might suggest that even for the 5th century Athenian such an order was increasingly taking on a more human, political dimension), the realities of a very real political and economic, and ultimately hegemonic, ‘world order’ are becoming ever more apparent. A hegemonic order that is widely felt and perceived as acting upon the lives of individuals and communities with a similar arbitrariness and irrevocable power. Driven by the economic and geo-political interests of an overbearing West, and still largely governed in its ideology by an imperialist mindset, its economic doctrine is that of the neo-liberal system ushered in from atleast the Reagan-Thatcher era.
It is also an order that has shown to wield an equally brutal and inflexible ‘punitive’ mechanism against any form of perceived ‘deviation’ from its principles. Indeed, those who are seen as not toeing the line are almost universally represented (with the help of their own state propaganda mechanisms, as well as an increasingly subservient corporate media) as ‘offenders’ who are ‘justly’ dealt with by either political or, increasingly, military means.
Again, similar to the political crisis at the centre of Aeschylus’ play, this process is more often than not played out in an uncompromising form of realpolitik, where the existing order, its laws and mechanisms are skilfully and cynically manipulated in order to reach a desired end, whether it be the removal of a non-compliant government or economic player.
Topically (and perhaps symbolically) as negotiations are set to intensify between the EU and Greece, many have interpreted the inflexible stance of the EU (and the ‘Institutions’) as an unjustified punitive measure against Greece’s utterly justified demands for an alleviating of crippling austerity. Similarly, as many observers have also pointed out, should the EU continue along the same lines of such unjustified inflexibility they could well be leading themselves into their own trap of hubris.
Adam Warren is an artist and writer.