When the Chorus speaks of suffering and pain, it looks as if they’re referring to current events: the queen Clytemnestra’s plot to murder her husband, Agamemnon, in revenge for his decision to sacrifice their virgin daughter Iphigenia to win from the gods favorable winds for his fleet to sail to Troy.
The family-curse theme, especially, is one we like to invoke in thinking about the Kennedys.
The motif is nowhere stronger than in the “Oresteia” itself, the text that Robert Kennedy quoted that April evening forty-five years ago.
In the verse he quoted, the Chorus of city elders ponders the meaning of violence and suffering: Kennedy concluded his remarks with an exhortation to heed the wisdom of the ancient classics: “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” That the savageness could not be tamed was demonstrated, with a dreadful Greek irony, three months later, when Kennedy himself was murdered. K.’s allusion to the Greeks turned out to be prophetic.
The lines he cited on the night of King’s death were used as the epitaph on his own tombstone. However Jacqueline Kennedy may have labored to make Camelot the official myth of the Kennedy Administration, when we have tried to make sense of the Kennedys and their story—to try to find the larger, “mythic” structure beneath the details—we have turned to the Greeks; to Greek tragedy, in particular. Athenian drama returns obsessively—as we do, every November 22nd—to the shocking and yet seemingly inevitable spectacle of the fallen king, of power and beauty and privilege violently laid low.
(That other favorite tragic subject.) But the impulse to expose, to bring secret crimes to light, to present evidence of deeds done in the past to an audience in the present, is one that itself lies at the heart of Greek drama.
You could say that all tragedy is about the process of discovery, of learning that the present has a surprising and often devastating relationship to the past: King Oedipus, faced with a plague on his city, is told by an oracle that he must find the killer of the previous king, only to learn, as the play unfolds, that it was he.
Achilles subsequently takes revenge, slaying Hector in combat and desecrating his unburied body—knowing all along that his own death is fated to follow Hector’s. So while Achilles has the glamor of extremity, it is Hector, more than any other character, who feels real to us, bound by competing obligations, anchored to his world and its claims.
Many readers are familiar with the poignant choice that Achilles has made—to die young and gloriously rather than live a long, uneventful life—and to a large extent that choice has, since Homer, defined our understanding of what heroism is. Homer poignantly dramatizes this conflict between the warrior’s public and private selves in a famous scene in Book 6.
This dark solace is one that only culture can provide.
Our endless need to replay the events of November, 1963—by which I mean all of the events, from Friday to Monday—is not only about a perverse, almost infantile need to revisit a scene of primal horror (although our own refusal to let go of Kennedy’s body—expressed most strongly in our endless looping of the Zapruder film, which, like a tragedy, turns the death of the king into a kind of entertainment—certainly shows an Achilles-like unwillingness to bury the past).