Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"Poor Faun! Poor Faun!" A Nietzschean Reading of Empedocles on Etna

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"Poor Faun! Poor Faun!" A Nietzschean Reading of Empedocles on Etna

Article excerpt

In Matthew Arnold's verse-drama of 1852, Empedocles on Etna, two terrible deaths are narrated. The primary action concludes when the title character commits suicide by leaping into the crater of Mt. Etna. In an intradiegetic narrative, the faun Marsyas is flayed alive before being executed on the orders of the god Apollo. My essay seeks to understand the relation between these two violent deaths and to establish how that relation illuminates the main subject of the poem, Empedocles' "modern" state of alienation. (1) Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy (1872) is useful in this enterprise, because it analyzes the same struggle between Apollonian and Dionysian forces that characterizes the stories of both Marsyas and Empedocles. Furthermore, Nietzsche's deconstructive approach to Greek culture and its modern legacies helps us to understand the impasse reached by Arnold's poem as it investigates the condition of world-exile imposed on human beings by progressive civilization. The poem presents, and founders upon, a knowledge of civilization's deep, violent estrangement from nature. In his subsequent writings on culture Arnold sought to repress this knowledge, but it continued to haunt his poetry. I seek to show how the unresolved dilemmas posed by the deaths of Marsyas and Empedocles resonated in Arnold's later thought, affecting key Arnoldian concepts such as "Hellenism" and "natural magic."

The story of Marsyas is narrated by Empedocles' young friend Callicles, in the fourth of five songs that he sings "unseen, from below" (I.ii.) while Empedocles ascends Mount Etna. Callicles' song cycle moves from an idyllic celebration of glen and glade, of the here and now of the moment of singing, through a progressively darkening sequence of mythological stories, to a final reinstatement of pastoral serenity. The story of Marsyas, as recounted in the fourth song, represents the darkest point in the sequence. When the flute-playing faun engages in a musical contest with the lyrist Apollo, the Muses award victory to Apollo, and the god orders the vanquished Marsyas to be hung upon a branch, tortured, and killed. The "triumph of the sweet persuasive lyre" (II.126), which represents an epochal shift from a primitive culture to a more advanced civilization, thus transforms the sylvan setting of Callicles' first song into a scene of butchery, which echoes with Marsyas' "piteous cries" (II.186). However, no trace of the cruelty and violence of this scene is carried into Callicles' final song, a hymn to Apollo whose serene and lovely verses suggest a harmonious reconciliation of pastoral nature with Olympian art. A kind of amnesia marks the transition from the fourth to fifth songs, re-enacting a similar forgetting or turning away from suffering in the third song. There, Callicles tells how the "son of earth" (II.103) Typho, another challenger of Olympian authority, lies crushed beneath the stone of Etna while the gods on Olympus enjoy music's "appeasing, gracious harmony" (II.75) as they drink from a cup "whose draughts beguile / Pain and care" (II.85-86).

Empedocles interprets Callicles' third and fourth songs as evidence of Olympian tyranny. He responds by explicitly declaring his sympathy for Typho, and implicitly siding with Marsyas when he throws away his laurel bough, "Scornful Apollo's ensign" (II.193). Some critics have condemned Empedocles for his "romantic misreading" of Callicles' songs, or have seen his reaction as evidence of a "modern" unresponsiveness to the classical ideal. (2) Many others share Empedocles' disquiet at the dissociation from feeling, indifference to suffering, and complicity with tyranny that are integral to Callicles' celebration of Olympian art and order) Within this second group are some readers whose approaches to Callicles' songs seem to me particularly useful for understanding the story of Marsyas and its place within the poem's overall structure and meaning. One such approach brings nineteenth-century classical scholarship to bear upon the mythic material of the songs; another involves reading the song-sequence as an anthropological narrative. …

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