Thursday, December 19, 2013

How to deal with a human monster: a great article that explains how a deep understanding of the humanities (Greek tragedy) can help us deal with the insanity of today's crimes

 article from the New Yorker

Unburied: Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the Lessons of Greek
Posted by Daniel Mendelsohn

“Bury this terrorist on U.S. soil and we will unbury him.”

So ran the bitter slogan on one of the signs borne last week by enraged protesters outside the Worcester, Massachusetts,
funeral home that had agreed to receive the body of the accused Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev—a cadaver
seemingly so morally polluted that his own widow would not claim it, that no funeral director would touch it, that no
cemetery would bury it. Indeed, even after Peter Stefan, a Worcester funeral director, had washed and shrouded the battered,
bullet-ridden body for burial according to Muslim law, the cadaver became the object of a macabre game of civic and
political football. Cemetery officials and community leaders in the Boston area were concerned that a local burial would
spark civic unrest. (“It is not in the best interest of ‘peace within the city’ to execute a cemetery deed,” the Cambridge city
manager, Robert Healy, announced.) While the state’s governor carefully sidestepped the issue, asserting that it was a family
matter, other politicians seemed to sense an advantage in catering to the high popular feeling. “If the people of Massachusetts
do not want that terrorist to be buried on our soil,” declared Representative Edward J. Markey, a Democratic candidate for
the U.S. Senate, “then it should not be.”

And so it went until late last week, when—due to the intervention of Martha Mullen, a Richmond, Virginia, woman who’d
been following the story, a practicing Christian who cited Jesus’s injunction to “love our enemies” as her inspiration—
Tsarnaev’s body was finally transported to a tiny Muslim cemetery in rural Virginia, and interred there in an unmarked
grave. Until then, the corpse had languished for over two weeks—not only unburied but, in a way, unburiable. In one of
several updates it published on the grisly affair, the Times quoted Ray Madoff, a Boston law professor who specializes in
“what she calls the law of the dead,” about the case. “There is no precedent for this type of thing,” Madoff told a reporter. “It
is a legal no-man’s land.”

A legal no-man’s land, perhaps, but familiar territory to anyone even casually acquainted with the Greek classics. From its
epic dawn to its tragic high noon, Greek literature expressed tremendous cultural anxiety about what happens when the dead
are left unburied. In part, the issue was a religious one: the souls of the dead were thought to be stranded, unable to reach the
underworld without proper burial. (And without a proper tomb, or sêma—a “sign” or grave marker—a dead person could not
hope for postmortem recognition, some sign that he or she had once lived and died.) The religious prohibition had civic
consequences: refusal to bury the dead was considered an affront to the gods and could bring ritual pollution on the
community. The right of all sides to bury soldiers who had fallen in battle was a convention of war; burial truces were
regularly granted. In myth, even characters who act more like terrorists than like soldiers—for instance, the great warrior
Ajax, who plots to assassinate his commanding officers but ends up dead himself—are deemed worthy of burial in the end.
Which is to say, even the body of the enemy was sacrosanct.

This preoccupation with the implications of burial and non-burial haunts a number of the greatest works of Greek literature.
The opening lines of the Iliad, the oldest extant work of Western poetry, refer with pointed revulsion to the possibility that
the bodies of the warriors who died at Troy could become the “delicate pickings of birds and dogs”; indeed you might say
that getting the dead buried—even the reviled, enemy dead—is the principle object of the epic’s grand narrative arc. Fifteen
thousand lines after that opening reference to unburied corpses, the poem closes, magnificently, with a scene of
reconciliation between the grief-maddened Achilles—who has daily defiled the unburied body of his mortal enemy, Hector,
dragging it back and forth through the dirt before the walls of Troy—and Hector’s aged father, the Trojan king, Priam. In a
gesture of redemption for himself as much as for the Trojans, Achilles finally agrees to release the body for burial. The
gigantic epic ends not (as some first-time readers expect) with the Wooden Horse, or the Fall of Troy, but with the allimportant
funeral of the greatest of the Greeks’ enemies—a rite of burial that allows the Trojans to mourn their prince and, in
a way, the audience to find closure after the unrelenting violence that has preceded. The work’s final line is as plain, and as
final, as the sound of dirt on the lid of a coffin. “This was the funeral of Hector, tamer of horses.”
As for the Odyssey, it, too—for all its emphasis on its fantastical, proto-sci-fi adventures—reveals a telling preoccupation
with this issue. The great adventure epic features an extended visit to the underworld, where, among other things, the flitting
shades of the dead express anxiety about their own funerals (and where Odysseus learns how he himself will die, many years
hence, “from the sea”); precisely at the poem’s midpoint, Odysseus dutifully halts his homeward journey—and the epic’s
narrative momentum—to bury, with full honors, the body of a young sailor who has died in a clumsy accident, as if to say
that even the most hapless and pointless of deaths merits the dignity of ritual. And in the work’s final, culminating book,
Homer slips in the information, ostensibly en passant but of course crucial, that the bodies of the hated suitors—whose gory
deaths we are, to some extent, invited to savor, given their gross outrages against Odysseus and his family—were duly
permitted to be retrieved by their families for burial.

* * *

But no work of ancient literature is as obsessed with unburied bodies as Sophocles’ “Antigone,” a tragedy first produced in
Athens around 442 B.C.: the entire plot centers on the controversy over how a community that has survived a deadly attack
will dispose of the body of the perpetrator of that attack—the body, as it happens, of a young man who had planned to bring
destruction on the city that had been his home, who “sought to consume the city with fire…sought to taste blood.”
The young man in question is Polyneices, a son of the late, spectacularly ill-fated king Oedipus who, after a power struggle
with his brother Eteocles, fled the city, eventually returning with an invading army (the “Seven Against Thebes”) to make
war on his homeland. At a climactic moment in the battle, the two brothers slay each other, but the invasion is ultimately
repelled and the city saved. In the opening lines of the play, we learn that the body of Eteocles, the defender of the city, has
been buried with full honors, but, according to a decree promulgated by the new king, Creon (who is the young men’s uncle),
no one, under pain of death, may bury or mourn Polyneices, whose corpse is to be left “unwept, unsepulchered, a treasure to
feast on for birds looking out for a dainty meal.” (The particular horror, expressed from the Iliad on down, that humans could
become the food of the animals we normally eat ourselves is noteworthy: a strong signal of a total inversion in the scheme of
things of which the unburied body, the corpse that remains above rather than below ground, is a symptom.)
Creon, like the Senate candidate from Massachusetts, cares a great deal about public opinion, as we later learn; but it’s
certainly possible to argue that his edict is grounded in a strong if idiosyncratic morality. When confronted about his
rationale for enshrining in the city’s law what is, after all, a religious abomination, the king declares that Polyneices’ crime
against the city has put the young man beyond morality—that while burial of any dead is a religious obligation, it is
impossible to imagine that “the gods have care for this corpse,” that one might ever see “the gods honoring the wicked.” As
he sputters his final line in this debate, you sense that he is acting out of a genuine, if narrow, conviction that evil men do not
merit human treatment: “It cannot be.” (“It should not be”: so Representative Markey, apropos of the burial that offended the
sensibilities of Massachusetts voters.)

But just as strong as Creon’s convictions are those of his niece Antigone, sister to both of the dead young men—Eteocles
enshrined in his hero’s tomb, Polyneices lying naked on the ground, his nude, weapon-torn body exposed to the elements, to
the ravenous birds. From the moment she appears on stage, outraged after having heard about the new edict, Antigone’s
argument is for the absolute imperative of burial—indeed, for the absolute. For her, burial of the dead is a universal
institution that transcends culture and even time itself: the “unwavering, unwritten customs of the gods … not some trifle of
now or yesterday, but for all eternity.” (She mockingly asks whether these can be overruled by the mere “pronouncements”
of Creon.) This conviction is what leads her to perform the galvanizing action of the play: under cover of night she goes to
the desolate place where Polyneices’ body lies out in the open and performs a token burial, scattering some dirt on the body.
It is to this symbolic burial that a terrified soldier—one of the guards whom Creon had set around the body, to make sure no
one would inter it—presumably refers later on, when he anxiously reports to Creon that someone has performed the rite.
Enraged, Creon orders the man to go back and “unbury” the body: to strip off the thin covering of dirt and expose the corpse
once more to the elements. It is upon his return to the foul-smelling site that the soldier discovers Antigone, who at that
moment is arriving, and who cries out in despair when she sees the denuded corpse. She is taken prisoner, has her great
confrontation with her uncle (from which I quote above), and, in one of the diabolically symmetrical punishments so beloved
of Greek tragedians, is herself buried alive as punishment for her crime of burying the dead—walled into a tomb of rock, to
expire there. (By not actually killing her, Creon, who has the master bureaucrat’s deep feeling for the small procedural detail,
hopes to avoid incurring ritual pollution.)

There she does die—imperious to the end, she hangs herself, rather than waste away as anybody’s victim—but not before
Creon has been persuaded of the folly of his policy. As often happens in tragedy, the persuasion takes its final form as a heap
of dead bodies: not only Antigone’s but those of Creon’s son, the dead girl’s fiancé, who has slain himself over the body of
his beloved, and Creon’s wife, too, who kills herself in despair at the news of their child’s violent end. The king who had
refused to recognize the claims of family is, in the end, made horribly aware of how important family is.
“The claims of family” is just one way to describe what Antigone represents. The titanic battle between her and Creon is, in
fact, one of the most thrilling moral, intellectual, and philosophical confrontations ever dramatized; inevitably, it has been
seen as representing any number of cultural conflicts. Certainly in the play there is the tension between the family and the
community, but there is also that between the individual and the state, between religious and secular worldviews, between
divine and human law, feminine and masculine concerns, the domestic and political realms.
But perhaps a broader rubric is applicable, too. For you could say that what preoccupies Antigone, who as we know is
attracted to universals, is simply another “absolute”: the absolute personhood of the dead man, stripped of all labels, all
categories—at least those imposed by temporal concerns, by politics and war. For her, the defeated and disgraced Polyneices,
naked and unburied, is just as much her brother as the triumphant and heroic Eteocles, splendidly entombed. In the end, what
entitles him to burial has nothing to do with what side he was on—and it’s worth emphasizing the play is not at all shy about
enumerating the horrors the dead man intended to perpetrate on the city, his own city, the pillage, the burning, the killing, the
enslavement of the survivors—but the fact that he was a human being, anthropos. (This tragedy is, indeed, famous for
expressing a kind of astonished wonder at what human beings are capable of, accomplishments for which Sophocles uses the
ambiguous adjective “deina,” which means both “terrible” and “wonderful”—“awesome,” maybe, in the original sense of
that word.) This is why, during her great debate with Creon, while the king keeps recurring to the same point—that Eteocles
was the champion of the city, and Polyneices its foe, and that “a foe is never a friend”—such distinctions are moot for
Antigone, since the gods themselves do not make them. “Nonetheless,” she finally declares, putting a curt end to another
exchange on the subject, “Hades requires these rites.” The only salient distinction is the one that divides gods from men—
which, if true, makes all humans equal.
* * *
It was hard not to think of all this—of the Iliad with its grand funereal finale, of the Odyssey strangely pivoting around so
many burials, and of course of “Antigone”—as I followed the story of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s unburied body over the past few
weeks. I thought, of course, of canny politicians eyeing the public mood, and of the public to whom those politicians wanted
to pander. I thought even more of the protesters who, understandably to be sure, wanted to make clear the distinction
between victim and perpetrator, between friend and foe, by threatening to strip from the enemy what they saw as the
prerogatives of the friend: humane treatment in death. The protesters who wanted, like Creon, not only to deny those
prerogatives to an enemy but to strip them away again should anyone else grant them—to “unbury the body.” I thought of
Martha Mullen, a Christian, who insisted that the Muslim Tsarnaev, accused of heinous atrocities against innocent citizens,
be buried just as a loved one might deserve to be buried, because she honored the religious precept that demands that we see
all humans as “brothers,” whatever the evil they have done.
This final point is worth lingering over just now. The last of the many articles I’ve read about the strange odyssey of
Tsarnaev’s body was about the reactions of the residents of the small Virginia town where it was, finally, buried. “What do
you do when a monster is buried just down the street?” the subhead asked. The sensationalist diction, the word “monster,” I
realized, is the problem—and brings you to the deep meaning of Martha Mullen’s gesture, and of Antigone’s argument, too.
There is, in the end, a great ethical wisdom in insisting that the criminal dead, that your bitterest enemy, be buried, too; for in
doing so, you are insisting that the criminal, however heinous, is precisely not a “monster.” Whatever else is true of the
terrible crime that Tamerlan Tsarnaev is accused of having perpetrated, it was, all too clearly, the product of an entirely
human psyche, horribly motivated by beliefs and passions that are very human indeed—deina in the worst possible sense. To
call him a monster is to treat this enemy’s mind precisely the way some would treat his unburied body—which is to say, to
put it beyond the reach of human consideration (and therefore, paradoxically, to refuse to confront his “monstrosity” at all).
This is the point that obsessed Sophocles’ Antigone: that to not bury her brother, to not treat the war criminal like a human
being, would ultimately have been to forfeit her own humanity. This is why it was worth dying for.
* * *
Sometimes, a less elevated instinct, a raw practicality, could lead the characters in Greek plays to a version of the same
conclusion: that because we will all want to be treated like human beings at some unimaginably low moment—because we
all die—we must treat the “monsters” thus, too. This, too, is a possibility worth considering right now.
It is, in fact, the point of the tart ending of another play by Sophocles—one he wrote about Ajax, the good soldier turned evil
terrorist. At the end of this tragedy, written not long before “Antigone” was composed, a conflict arises over whether the
body of the criminal should be buried. His enemies—Agamemnon and Menelaus, the leaders of the Greek expedition, whom
Ajax had plotted to murder—insist, of course, that his body be cast forth unburied, like the body of an animal, “food for the
birds.” (Again.) Yet unexpectedly, there springs to his defense a man who also had been his enemy. That man is Odysseus,
who in a climactic confrontation with the two Greek generals—who are his allies and commanding officers—persuades them
that to pursue their hatred after death would be grotesque. Rather typically for this type, the swaggering Agamemnon worries
that to relent would make him appear “soft”; but Odysseus, wily as he always is, argues that “softness” is nothing more than
justice—nothing more than acting like a human being. Then he makes his final, stark point, one with which, you suspect,
even Creon wouldn’t argue:
AGAMEMNON: You will make us appear cowards this day.
ODYSSEUS: Not so, but just men in the sight of all the Greeks.
AGAMEMNON: So you would have me allow the burying of the dead?
ODYSSEUS: Yes; for I too shall come to that need.
Or, as Antigone put it, “I owe a longer allegiance to the dead than to the living, for in that world I shall abide forever.”
Daniel Mendelsohn is the author, most recently, of “Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture,” a
collection of his essays for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, which was a finalist for the 2012 National
Book Critics Circle Award. His other books include two memoirs, “The Lost” and “The Elusive Embrace”; a translation of
the complete works of C. P. Cavafy; and a study of Greek tragedy. He teaches at Bard College.
Painting by Nikiforos Lytras, Antigone in front of the dead Polynices (1865), National Gallery of Greece-Alexandros Soutzos