On Contact: The power of classics
On the show this week, Chris Hedges discusses with Emily Allen-Hornblower and Marquis McCray the power of the classics, such as Sophocles’ play Philoctetes, to elucidate mass incarceration.
Emily Allen-Hornblower is a professor of Classics at Rutgers University and is the recipient of a Whiting Foundation grant to foster dialogues about the classics with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women.
Marquis McCray is a social justice advocate. He spent 28 years in prison, during which time he studied the classics through the prison college program offered by Rutgers University.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today, we discuss the power of the Classics to elucidate mass incarceration.
Marquis McCray: Society chose at that moment to engage in mass incarceration, right? It's an injustice that speaks to itself and is outrageous, but when you talk about reintegrating to people that, as an adult, you know preyed on you predatorily as an adolescent, it's almost as if you're asking me to come out of a barn where I've been raped in, you know, just clean off, and try to just walk back in to society, among all those people that walked past hearing me scream all that time. No. There's a--there's a certain--there's an indignity in it. Right? My defiance, man, it's like, the last refuge, Philoctetes defiance is his last defense against that indignity. That is a greater indignity.
CH: The poet T.S. Eliot in What Is A Classic, argues that a society that does not protect and nurture its artistic and intellectual patrimony and those of the civilizations that came before it commits suicide. Those who blind themselves to the past can only stumble forward in darkness. In our age, Eliot writes, "When men see more than ever prone to confuse wisdom with knowledge, and knowledge with information, and to try to solve problems of life, in terms of engineering. There is coming into existence a new kind of provincialism, not of space, but of time, one for which history is merely the chronicle of human devices which have served their turn and been scrapped, one for which the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares. The menace of this kind of provincialism is that we can all, all the peoples on the globe, be provincials together. And those who are not content to be provincials can only become hermits." Eliot understood that the capacity to see ourselves reflected through the lens of another era, another time, is revelatory. And Eliot, like Sigmund Freud, also understood that few did this better than the ancient Greeks who used the extremes of a human condition to lay bare the complex ethical, social, and philosophical issues that perplex all societies. The Greeks also knew that we gain a conscience only by building relationships with the oppressed and bearing witness to their suffering. Today, we will look at Sophocles' play, Philoctetes, and how it gives us insights into the plight of the 2.3 million of our citizens who are incarcerated with Emily Allen-Hornblower, a professor of Classics at Rutgers University and a recipient of the Whiting Foundation grant to foster dialogue about the Classics with incarcerated and formally incarcerated men and women, and Marquis McCray, who spent 27 years in prison and studied the classics through the prison college program offered by Rutgers University. So Emily, just give us a brief outline of Philoctetes.
Emily Allen-Hornblower: Sure. Everyone's familiar with the face that launched a thousand ships, right? And the Greeks go to Troy to get Helen back. A lesser known story maybe is the one on which the Philoctetes, Sophocles is based, which is that on the way, they stopped on an island to worship a deity, and somehow, one of their men, Philoctetes, got bitten by a snake. We don't know why, it was on sacred ground and he got a sacred wound that was festering, and he became loud, and he's suffering, and he was smelly. And ultimately, they determined to just abandon him on the island for nine years and continue on to Troy, only to find out from a Trojan prophet that they actually need Philoctetes to take Troy. And I should add that Philoctetes has a special bow that he received from Heracles. I'll say more on that later maybe. So he's been able to survive, and that special bow is now necessary to take down the city. So they have to come back, and that's awkward, right? What can they use? Force, persuasion, manipulation? They can't use force because he has this special bow and they can't use persuasion because they've abandoned him for nine years. So they're going to resort to manipulation, that's Odysseus' plan, so he takes Achilles, Achilles is now dead. He asks Achilles' son, Neoptolemus, whom Philoctetes has never seen, to please go ahead and tell him a bunch of lies so he can just get him on the ship. That's the play.
CH: And when you read it, Marquis, and I, you know, I found teaching in the prison kind of striking examples of what it means to be cast aside by society to become a pariah, the kind of loneliness. What did you see in the play that resonated, as somebody who spent almost three decades incarcerated?
MM: First is, the apparent, is Lemnos, this place of isolation is completely synonymous with prison, right? It's a place of isolation. It's a place of abandonment. But more than that there's the reasons why he's there, right, that resonated, right? Again, I was incarcerated during those critical '80s, right, that perfect storm of tracking, the collapse of the economic system as we understood it, the rise of the prison industrial complex, right? And so there was a whole lot of machinations that kind of made a predatory prosecution out of, like, pursuing adolescents, right? So as unjust as it was for who to be left there is how unjust I felt, that me and my brother should be sitting in prison. And not just in prison, we were, like, abandoned, like, by society, you know? It's not--it's not like we're going there and where correction actually resonates throughout, right? It's, like, no, it was a way, you don't really care what happens, beyond that point. You're not concerned at all. So there's a lot of pain that Philoctetes feels are justifiable, her--that he feel that is also felt in us, you know and the voicelessness of it all, right? Not that even--not even--it's not even that we voice it, like, even if we had a voice, you don't care, right? You don't care. And the only reason--well, one of the reasons I can attribute to you not caring is because the deficient of humanity, the development of our humanity so underdeveloped that we don't reach to the stage of empathy, right? And without that, you can't even get to justice because there's no balancing going on. Then you're looking at the engineering or the facticity right, but you're not looking at, you know, the spirit behind, you know, some of the behavior, some of the actions, if you did, you know what I mean? Then I think C. Wright Mills, one of them be right to say, like, you can't judge a man outside the context of his milieu. I think I learned that in your class as well, you know. But again, those--it's so strikingly parallel that it would be harder for me to just--to take the opposite position, like, to say, like, how doesn't it apply, like, it applies in every possible way.
CH: I want to ask, Emily, about pity, this is a term Aristotle uses. I don't read Greek--I did Biblical Greek, but don't remember much of it, and I don't know the Greek translation, but it--he's really, I think, speaking about compassion and Neoptolemus is used by Odysseus to lie, manipulate because they need the bow, they need Philoctetes to go to Troy, they need to use deceit because of the anger that Philoctetes has towards the Greek leadership, Agamemnon, Menelaus, and especially Odysseus. And yet that compassion that is fostered because of the deep suffering that Neoptolemus witnesses, essentially makes him unable to--it makes him vulnerable, it makes him see himself in many ways in Philoctetes. I think that's an experience you and I have, we both teach in the prison program. And I think that part of the play, for me, it includes our own experiences in prison. But can you speak about the importance of empathy as a vital element in terms of understanding?
EH: Sure. Well, I want to pick up where I left off, which is the deception plan, right? And as you said, Chris, after Neoptolemus agrees to deceive Philoctetes, he agrees in the abstract with some reluctance. He doesn't like a man who says one thing and has another in his heart, he's the son of Achilles, that's a line from Iliad 9. But he agrees because he wants honor and glory. And then he actually has contact with the man, then he actually sits with Philoctetes while Philoctetes goes through bouts of extreme pain. And so we watched this young man witness suffering and witness also the dignity and resilience of Philoctetes as he goes through these bouts of suffering and it changes him. He gradually comes to feel a feeling of disgust for himself. It's a paradox there because remember that Odysseus said, "This man is disgusting. He's smelly, he's disruptive, he's crying, we can't have this. Oh, turns out we need him, but why don't you go deal with him?" Neoptolemus, on the contrary, feels a sense of disgust with himself. And so the play, you can really count on the Greeks to make a play about compassion. As you said, the word pity that Aristotle uses is not at all with any of the condescending connotations that we might have in English. It's really about--compassion is the Latin word, right? Suffering with--another word with a Greek root would be sympathy, suffering with. And as he sits there and witnesses suffering, Neoptolemus is completely changed. And what's fascinating about this play is that it doesn't make compassion, kind of a squishy, optional, you know, eyes-filled-with-tears individual experience. It's really a civic duty and imperative, a necessity, actually. And there are several ways in which the play does that. One of them is that the reason that Philoctetes has this bow that makes him specially powerful is that he was the only one who was willing to light the funeral pyre for Heracles, this is a long story, but Heracles is dying slowly, burning alive, and nobody wants to light the funeral pyre. He's terrifying, it's Heracles, he's shouting, and he's in agony. And Philoctetes is the one who lights that pyre. So he got his power from his compassion. In turn, what we see with Neoptolemus and the bond with Philoctetes is that the one who was deemed a social pariah, right? Everybody said, "We don't want this man among us. Let's put him on an island and abandon him." We really don't need to push too far to see the parallels here, right? Well, the Greeks love to turn things on their head and say, "Well, actually, the social pariah was the one who is necessary to this survival of the community." Right? He's the one who is necessary to take Troy. And there's a really good Greek word for that, to think about that, which is pharmakon. Pharmakon means poison, but also remedy, right? So we can think of a vaccine, for example, very topical right now. It's all about the dosage, right? It's all about the dosage. But the very same element that can be a source of destruction can be a source of vitality. So there's so much in this play that's essential to our reflection on compassion, not as optional, but as essential to the survival of the community, and to its well-being, of the individual and of the group.
CH: Well, I think you would agree that, you know, you spend as many years as I have in prison, you begin to see yourselves among your students. And I think that that is an important part of all of Greek tragedy because Greek tragedy, at its core, its understanding that tragedy is not just a sad story, it's about the personal disintegration that comes with forces that tear you apart. And when you truly understand those forces, poverty, police violence, a corrupt judicial system, 94% of people in our prison system don't get a jury trial, they're just railroaded, coerced, is the right word, into pleaing out. You begin to understand that if you were in their place and I think that's one of the power, not only of this play, but of most of Greek tragedy, and why it's so important. But when we come back, we're going to continue our conversation about Greek philosophy and Greek tragedy with Professor Emily Allen-Hornblower and Marquis McCray. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about the power and importance of Greek drama with Professor Emily Allen-Hornblower and Marquis McCray. Marquis, I want to ask you about language. One of the things I remember our friend Ron Pierce known as Rebel, everybody runs by a kind of nickname in prison. He once said to me, "You have to do your grieving in prison alone, you know, because this is a house of grief, you can't put any more grief on the brothers." And I thought that struggle by Philoctetes on Lemnos, on the island there's no other person, he's alone. There's a very poignant part in the play where he said, one of the lines is that, the only--the only thing he has to respond in terms of a voice is an echo, an echo to his grief and so even though within a prison, you're densely packed among other people, that grief is something that you have to deal with by yourself, can you talk a little bit about that and maybe in relation to the play itself.
MM: I think--I think for me it was more about dealing with anguish, right? I don't know if those words are parallel here. But it was anguish. It was--it was--anguish, the idea of, like, repressing what you know is appropriate about your human--your being, about your humanity to watch somebody collapse on a pull-up bar, I know CPR but I can't give it to him, anguish, right? To no longer be able to exercise whatever's epic or heroic in me because I have to watch a group of men, you know, overpower another group of men, it's because that group has a different uniform on, right? Anguish, right? To not be able to lend resources to my fellow men even though I got them accessible because my rock is anguish, like, there's no--I don't know, it's ineffable to try to--try to describe that Chris, to me the only thing that keep coming to my mind in terms of verbally expressing it in a way that you get it is like a form of rape. It's a--it's a--it's a demand over your being that's holy un-right, it's beyond, like, there can be nothing humane about it and again to have to deal with that alone, we can't--we can't quantify, we can't--we can't--we can't possibly find a metric that's going to measure the cascading effect of how that's impacting different psyches, right? Because, you know, again, like, in the drug game, some people chemical constitution is stronger than others or whatever, they vary. Psychologically, the variations is like exponentially diverse, I could not possible tell you like the effect of it but to deal with it alone it only leaves to anguish, that is to say you have to repress even though you want to scream out, you want--if it ain't going to do no good or if it's just going to bring, you know what I mean, guards to your door, it--you know, you just sit there and after a while, it just getting off. It just getting off to the point where you no longer are in tune with your own emotional state.
CH: Let's talk about anger because Philoctetes once--he keeps lamenting when he's talking to Neoptolemus about how all of the great warriors, Achilles, Ajax, all the good have died and all of the people that he detests, Ulysses, Agamemnon, Menelaus, the hierarchy of the Greek leadership live and that element of anger, of retribution, of vengeance, is very much part of the play, maybe you can just talk briefly about that Emily and then Marquis, you can talk about that as well.
EH: So what's fascinating about the--Aristotle in particular but also these Greek plays is that they really explore the emotions, not in a way that ranks them as good or bad but really highlight that as Aristotle said, "It's about feeling the right emotion at the right time, in the right place to the right degree toward the right person and applying it in the right way." And anger is one of them, right? Emotions are not to be pushed aside because reason is what should reign, there's a cognitive component to the emotions is what Aristotle says and I can talk about pity in a moment but just focus on anger, there is an evaluative component to anger and there's something that in fact could connect it to righteous indignation, another important category to think with. So anger can actually be related to a sense of injustice done, and this comes out very much towards the end of the play when they decide that they're just going to have to take Philoctetes whether he likes it or not and since he's trusted Neoptolemus and given him the bow, they can do that and he prefers to commit suicide, he attempts to commit suicide rather than be reintegrated with a community of Greeks that essentially told him what? When they abandoned him on this deserted island, they told him, "You are nothing." Because the way Aristotle would put it is if you are worthy of being my friend then I'm going to do you good and if you are an enemy who is capable of doing harm then surely I'm not going to mistreat you but if I do, what I do is to abandon you. I'm saying you're nothing, you're not a friend, you're not an enemy, you are nothing. So at that point of course, Philoctetes is incredibly reluctant to reintegrate a community that discarded him as worthless and I think that one thing that really struck me when we were discussing this play together with Marquis is we were talking about the themes of isolation of the dehumanization that comes with a lack of touch, a lack of true communication, with language, themes that we touched on earlier and he mentioned how painful that isolation was and also just extreme feeling of abandonment and I said, "Oh, you were--you're--are you talking about the 28 years behind bars or are you talking about solitary confinement?" And he said, "No, I'm talking about right now. Em." About right now.
EH: And that's Philoctetes right there, the pain and difficulty of reintegration, I think Marquis can speak to that much more so than I can.
MM: Yeah, and to just think about integration from his perspective. Just think about from his perspective and I'm saying it resonates with me because we talking about predatory prosecution of adolescence, man, the time of storm is stressed when you are like nature-driven to be in your wrong mind, society chose at that moment to engage in mass incarceration, right? It's an injustice that speaks to itself and is outrageous, but when you talk about reintegrating to people that, as an adult, you know preyed on you predatorily as an adolescent, it's almost as if you're asking me to come out of a barn where I've been raped in, you know, just clean off, and try to just walk back in to society, among all those people that walked past hearing me scream all that time. No. There's a--there's a certain--there's an indignity in it. Right? My defiance, man, it's like, the last refuge--Philoctetes' defiance is his last defense against that indignity. That is a greater indignity to just go back in, you all just ignored me, you all just treated me like I was nothing, like I was worthless and in his case, it's a little bit worse because he had a chance to prove his worth and value, the fact that he was in that situation was in the--in the line of duty, you know? So yeah, like, like talking about reintegrating if you're not even going to have real treatment, man, real address, what has been done in all that isolation, in all that--in all that lack of cohesion, and all that disintegration, right? Right? In all that crumbling effect of my humanity. How far have I fallen apart as a human being? How integral and congruent are all my internal faculties right now? I don't know. I don't know. I'm discovering stuff right now Chris as I go along and if it wasn't for Em being my Theseus like jumping in the pit with me because I can't get out and to help me navigate through it, I would've been worse off than I am now. I got--I got so many--every police contact ends up with a court date for me and, you know, we'll get to it later, we'll get to it later but that's one of the things I love about the Classics, right? Is that I don't have to pretend to be strong, even if I'm a hero, I could be like Hercules but at the end of the day, I'm Heracles, right? I have the--I have the right to fall apart under this stress. I have the right to that and I kind of get more angry. I get more angry when people try to normalize this type of suffering for--
CH: I just want to talk about the end of the play because it ends with Heracles and, you know, coming down from heaven or wherever, kind of divine intervention because the conflict between the Greeks who are completely utilitarian, they don't care for Philoctetes, they just need him, they manipulate him, they use him, his anger is completely justified, and I--when I read that, it reminded me of a Christian notion of grace, that finally the only way to reconcile that comes through a kind of divine intervention, a force outside of ourselves, I only have a few seconds left but let's go to you Marquis, what do you think of that?
MM: Of grace? Of grace? I experience grace every time.
MM: Every time a human being, right, voluntarily opens up the channel of empathy, right? Looks upon me with sympathetic regard, right? And that feeling, that creature feeling of love is shared, that's when I experience grace. Grace is at our disposal every day, all day, it don't have to be some sport--spontaneous miracle. It is a part of our humanity, it's like the capstone of our humanity, it's the reason why humanity is so important, it's the reason why, like, we can have the debate about what's best in prison, whether we're going to take the process and say let's give him some craft but again with this engineering thing you said in your opening salvo, now you could be an engineer but you might create weapons of mass destruction, like, you know, you're not tempered as a human being, right? The grace is in these faculties, it's in these different hierarchal--the dimensions of--that we are introduced to, it's in that region that we refer to sanitize like as emotions but I would call spirituality, I know I'm not supposed to say that but I would call our spirits, core self, like, like that's where the grace is at, that's where we experience it all the time.
CH: Great. We're going to have to stop there. We'll just end the Aristotle's great understanding that compassion is action. That was Rutgers Professor Emily Allen-Hornblower and Marquis McCray.