30 June 2024

“Psychoanalysis and Euripides’ Suppliant Women. A Tragic Reading of Politics” by Sotiris Manolopoulos

By Vitaly Zimin (Moscow Psychoanalytic Society)

Routledge Focus, London, 2022

The book is devoted to the psychoanalytic study of politics. As a material that both inspired and illustrated the author's ideas, Sotiris Manolopoulos have chosen the little-known play of Euripides’ Suppliant Women.

From the author's point of view, there is a political theory in this play: a reflection on what is the difference between tyranny and democracy, how politics resolves the deep contradictions of human nature.

In Suppliant Women we encounter a post-oedipal situation - a time when the prophecies associated with the curse of Laius have already been fulfilled.

After the exile of Oedipus and his death in Athens, a civil war broke out in Thebes between his sons - Polynices and Eteocles. Polynices, enlisting the support of Adrastus, king of Argos, gathered an army and came to the walls of his native city. As a result of the bloody battle, both brothers, as well as the fellows of Polynices, died. Creon, the brother of Jocasta, forbade the burial of the dead soldiers and left their bodies to be torn to pieces by wild animals on the battlefield.

The prohibition on the burial of fallen enemies was a gross violation of the traditions of funeral rites, and from the point of view of ancient ethics it was an act of arrogance. The grief-stricken mothers and wives of the deceased Argives appeal to Aithra, the mother of King Athens, Theseus, with a request to help to return the bodies of the deceased to perform the burial rite.

Theseus is the main character of this play. He finds himself in a difficult situation: in order to restore order and justice by returning the dead bodies, he must gather an army and go to war with Thebes. This is a complex moral dilemma that requires him to make a wise political decision.

Sotiris Manolopoulos writes that in order to make this decision, Theseus should ask himself a difficult question. On the one hand, this is not his war. He considers that Adrastus entered the war with Thebes and lost his sons guided by arrogance. Theseus doesn't want to take actions on the base of this motive. Instead, he is led by another motives. He should imagine what his enemies would think of him if he refuses his mother's request, what would be the political consequences of this refusal. On a deeper level, Theseus couldn't refuse his mother's request, since it's related to the restoration of the violated social law. It is necessary to return the bodies of the fallen soldiers in order to calm the immeasurable suffering of women, which could become the beginning of a serious social illness. Funeral rites could facilitate the work of grief and break the chain of violence that was started by the crime of Laius, and thus lead to social reconciliation.

How could this play be read and understood by a modern reader? The story of the Oedipal tragedy begins with an epidemic and ends with a fratricidal civil war. And it creates a strong resonance with modern events. Mankind, which has just survived a pandemic, is on the verge of a new World War.
War embodies an archaic state of the human psyche, threatening to subjugate all other meanings of human beings, blurring the boundaries between the past and the present, between fantasy and reality. The most destructive fantasies, restrained in peacetime by intrapsychic prohibitions and civilizational laws, break out and become embodied in reality in the most disgusting forms.

Sotiris Manolopoulos, exploring the Euripides' play, writes about what politics is, what is its deep essence and meaning. He believes that the political leader of a democratic society could develop only if he or she could accept the tragic position of human existence. The entire second chapter of the book is devoted to this concept.

What is the tragic position that a political leader who rules the state should take, especially in times of acute crisis? A tragic subject is a hero who does not avoid, but agrees to suffer from his fate, which has been predetermined by divine forces long time ago. Sotiris Manolopoulos writes that the deep unconscious origins of this position could be found in natural development. The tragic situation includes the shock of the loss of omnipotence during the separation from the primary union with mother and the appearance of the self, accompanying the beginning of the processes of internalization. People come out of the primary union as autonomous tragic subjects on whom the yoke of necessity lies, that is, they personally accept everything that happens to them as inevitable, because it was predetermined long ago by mysterious unknown forces.

Politics is the art of the achievable and the possible. Omnipotence is an impossible thing for politics, because it makes the leader ignorant of reality. Sotiris believes that a tyrant, a dictator is a negative of a tragic politician. He writes that tyrants hate the next generation because it represents the passage of time. They kill young men in order to preserve their own reign, Euripides says in this play. We can relate this to the maniacal refusal of tyrants to recognize the inner reality of loss and grief. They can't make a tragic plot out of their lives. They cannot achieve a sense of the tragic; they cannot live in time and die in time; they create real destruction in the world in order to be able to die themselves. They cannot imagine that they can die while the world continues to live. Today, as thousands of years ago, tyrants mercilessly send hundreds of thousands of young men to the slaughter, and behind their pseudo-rational rhetoric justifying the beginning of invasions, one can easily see the acting out of archaic fears of aging and death, a shameless thirst for immortality and glory.

It is especially worth noting the problem of femininity, which Sotiris Manolopoulos considers as a deep dynamic factor that has a fundamental influence on the formation of the psyche and causes resistance in both sexes.

The human soul is feminine in its deep core. What do we mean by femininity? The ability to nurture and nourish, to wait and hope, a passive-receptive mode of existence? Femininity is enigmatic, but it is what makes a person human. War, traditionally a man's business, is an aggressive attempt to overcome and often destroy femininity, an attempt to break out of a frightening and absorbing addiction. "War does not have a woman’ face" — it's the title of the book by Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian writer and Nobel Prize winner, has become an aphorism.

Achieving and maintaining the tragic position depends on the possibility of integrating the female core of the psyche and implementing the work of mourning. These are two interrelated factors. The integration of the female core - the ability to be passive, to wait, undergoing frustration and dependence, as well as the ability to feed the ego with hope - allows you to survive the collapse of omnipotence and mourn its loss. Empathy for suffering then takes the place of omnipotence.

In the course of the play, we see the evolution of Theseus as a political leader of a democratic polis, who is able to overcome the temptation of omnipotence, restrain his anger and fear, and able to consolidate society to solve complex political problems. To do this, he has to give up arrogance, the satisfaction of which requires new and new victims. Theseus' task as a politician is to resolve contradictions and stop the vicious circle of violence. According to Sotiris Manolopoulos, an unfair war, which is based on arrogance, is a failure of politics, because the art of politics is to overcome the temptation of arrogance.

Suppliant Women is a play in which Euripides tries to find a way out and overcome a deep conflict, in which arrogance generates loss and trauma, which is reproduced in subsequent generations and transmitted as a contagious disease, a disease of unmourned grieving. The curse of Laius triggers the transgenerational transmission of trauma: the seduction of Chrysippus by Laius - the curse of Pelops - the rejection of the infant Oedipus - the parricide of Oedipus - the marriage of Oedipus to mother Jocasta - the self-blindness of Oedipus and his exile - the fratricidal war of Oedipus' children - the prohibition on the burial of corpses. Trauma generates a desire to restore the disturbed narcissistic balance, which demands retribution, feeds arrogance and cruelty. This play raises the question of how politics could become an important tool for overcoming the vicious circle of loss and violence.

Having defeated Thebes, Theseus holds his army and does not allow to destroy and plunder Thebes. He himself washes the bodies of the dead and prepares them for burning and burial, thus taking on the work that women usually do. He is guided by mercy, protecting women from excessive suffering from direct contact with the decomposed and destroyed bodies of their sons and husbands. Sotiris Manolopoulos suggests that Theseus is a ruler who integrated the feminine core. He is a leader who does not crave the triumph of victory, but establishes peace and brings comfort. By performing the burial ritual, he creates conditions in which the hard work of grief could lead to social and political reconciliation and transformation.

Sotiris Manolopoulos' book is filled with metaphors, references to classical Greek tragedy, mythology, history and religion. In this psychoanalytic study, he refers to the works of Freud, Winnicott, Bion and Green. He touches on the issues of identity formation, narcissism and overcoming omnipotence, as well as femininity and the work of mourning.

Reading Sotiris Manolopoulos' book opens up for the modern psychoanalytic reader the opportunity to understand psychology and the nature of political decision more deeply, and also stimulates thinking on psychoanalysis, politics and classical ancient literature, contributing to the expanding our knowledge and horizons.

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