Greece in the News: The Folly of Pentheus

A particularly compelling article appeared recently in the Chronicle on underage drinking.  The author, Rob Goodman, boldly remarks that the most important book for new college students to read might be Euripides’ Bacchae because he interprets the play as an important lesson about the perils of excessive drinking.

Certainly excessive drinking is a problem that plagues North American youth culture.  Young men and women turn 18, move away from home (either to attend colleges or just to have more independence) and seemingly fall into what amounts to a dangerous binge drinking (and often party drug) culture.  Goodman implies that excessive drinking is an acceptable part of the college experience and his description of the college freshman’s relationship with intoxication is almost romantic:

Across the street from me is another place where drinking is new. Many of the freshmen who wheeled their things across Broadway and into the Columbia dorms just a few months ago brought some experience of drinking with them—but probably not in the volume or freedom that started for them this fall. Universities’ engagement with these things is mostly limited to fear of 18-year-olds drinking themselves into the hospital. But fear blinds: How to be intoxicated—not just with alcohol, but with politics, religion, sex, or any of the other kinds of drunkenness that are part of being young—is as much a practice to be learned as any other skill taught in the curriculum, and yet it’s one that’s almost always taught by accident.

There is a valid point here: that the undergraduate experience is a fundamentally disorienting one.  I can remember my own experiences as a college freshman at the University of California, Santa Cruz when everything that I thought I knew about the world and about life seemed to be yanked violently out from underneath me as I was exposed to new and, for me, life altering academic and non-academic experiences.  I would argue though that binge drinking is a problem that affects more than university students and is often not associated with such profound life changes as moving away from home to attend university.  Often binge drinking begins in high school (or, perhaps more disturbing, even in junior high school).  

But there are problems with Goodman’s interpretation of youth culture drinking and the Bacchae. I would argue instead that the root of the problem is more likely found in the way that we teach our youth about drugs and alcohol.  Abstinence education has been around forever in Canada and the United States.  We teach our children to stay away completely from drugs, alcohol, and even sex rather than teaching them about the safe and healthy way to experience them.  Thinking back to my own youth I can remember visits from DARE officers who warned that avoiding all drugs all of the time was the only sure fire way to avoid ending up dying from a drug overdose in the street.

Even when we teach youth about moderation it if often of such a stringent variety that it too becomes part of a puritan agenda.  Moderation allows for safe drinking (but only once one has reached the age of majority) so long as only one drink (and never any drugs) is consumed.  Once that one drink has been surpassed it is acceptable to throw caution to the wind because the transgression has already occurred.  One needs to think only as far as the concept of a “gateway drug”  to see that the idea of the slippery slope is alive and well in the concept of “moderation,” leaving only two extremes: the one (or none) and binge drinking.  

In fact there seems to be no room at all in youth culture, or culture in general, for the kind of drinking I’ve settled comfortably into now that I’m in my thirties where wine, beer, and even the occasional gin and tonic are indulged with among friends.  Certainly by more stringent moderation standards, we drink too much because we consume several drinks and become intoxicated over the course of the evening.  What moderation and abstinence imply is that there is no difference between having an extra glass of wine and drinking until you throw up so that you can drink some more.  That extra glass of wine is perhaps too much (and I might wake up in the morning thirsty and tired) but is not likely result in a visit to the hospital.  

Goodman reads the Bacchae as a cautionary tale about the importance of finding that middle ground between the straight and narrow (Pentheus) and complete transgression (Dionysus):

This is not the kind of cautionary tale about drinking that we’re used to, nor is it the familiar reverse-cautionary tale of the Puritan hypocrite. It is harder than those. It’s a story about lives so attached to control that the smallest loss of control destroys them. Against the happily paradoxical god, Pentheus is a man of certainties and fear. Of course he gets smashed offstage, hidden from everyone but the god—have you noticed how much of that fearful kind of drinking happens in dark rooms? There is no middle ground for him: He can conceive of intoxication (of whatever kind) only as a thing that destroys. When intoxication inevitably comes, then, it comes in its destructive aspect, Dionysus as the devourer of flesh rather than the bringer of peace. And I can’t read about Pentheus without thinking of myself at his age, and about the students across the street: Which of their projects of self-control and risk-aversion will turn brittle and come apart at the lightest touch? 

For Goodman, the play warns that either extreme can cause harm, a message that is perhaps most appealing to youth.  Instead of advocating abstinence, the play advocates for realistic moderation and Goodman’s interpretation of the Bacchae emphasizes that it is possible to find a safe relationship with intoxication.  While I wish in no way to discount Goodman’s important commentary on the phenomenon of underage and excessive drinking in our society, his interpretation of the Bacchae is problematic for a number of reasons.  Let’s consider the following paragraph which illustrates many of these problems: 

And this, by the way, is another reason to read old books: Just when the play is most likely to offend us moderns—in the suggestion that a man is humiliated by being dressed as a woman—it’s also at its most interesting. Here is a standing reminder that “progressive” and “regressive” fail to come in neat boxes. On the one hand, we have one of the oldest portrayals of political repression as tied to the repression of women’s sexuality, along with Euripides’ insight that the men demanding that repression are terrified. On the other, we have his sneaking suspicion that the terrified king is right: Intoxication, in this play, does turn a man into a woman; it does turn a Greek into a barbarian. I can only suggest that the playwright is falling here into the same error that he wants to attribute to the king. In those moments when he paints intoxication as something fit only for women and men who have “become” women, he is thinking like Pentheus, a young man who can imagine drunkenness only as something that destroys a specific kind of manliness, as a cataclysmic force that threatens to wipe out his identity for good and all. At its best, I think the play can tell us something more humane than that.

First, Euripides is relatively new in the scheme of western literature.  To claim that Euripides is the oldest anything is patently absurd considering the fact that the literature of Egypt, India, and China are likely more than a thousand years older than anything from Classical Athens.  Furthermore, women’s “sexuality” implies a culture that allows for women’s agency, which was not present in Classical Athens.  Women were not citizens and were therefore, by virtue of being women, denied any ability to participate politically.  There is no repression of women’s sexuality in ancient Greece, merely the complete control by men over women.

Second, while Dionysus is the god of wine in Greek mythology that isn’t all he is.  He is also importantly the god of dramatic performance and most scholarly interpretations of the Bacchae tend to focus more on that aspect of the god’s character.  Most notably Dionysius’ connections with the Athenian City Dionysia, a festival that celebrates Dionysus and the dramatic arts and the ritualized violence of the play.  The dichotomy presented in the play is not necessarily men vs. women or even Greek vs. Barbarian, but rather civilized vs. uncivilized.

What is perhaps most disturbing about Goodman’s interpretation of the Bacchae in the context of youth alcohol culture is his lack of comment on Euripides’ much-touted “misogyny” and the reading of the Maenads as drunken threats to the established social order (much like stereotypes of Drunk Girls whose complete loss of control while intoxicated is “what she gets“).  In the light of recent debates on date rape and “rape culture” (see here here here and here just to name a few recent articles on what is a widespread cultural problem), Goodman’s reading of Euripides seems at best insensitive.


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