Using a comparative analytical approach to the phenomena of honor, guilt, and absolution in The Oresteia and The Godfather trilogies, this essay investigates both ideology's compelling force in determining social relations and the distinct rhetorical strategies used in two different cultures to support these relations.
The concept of ideology has been the target of formidable detraction of late by critics who maintain that the term has been appropriated by so many different discourses that it is now little more than a fashionable, but empty, signifier. Responding to such trends, Terry Eagleton adopted the strategy of using "end of ideology" prognostications as a subtext for writing his Ideology: An Introduction, which represents his history and defense of the term's value. Similarly, David Hawkes begins his recent Ideology by arguing for the concept's continued relevance, "especially at a time when political and philosophical developments have cast significant doubt on the use and value of this concept" (xi). One might also argue that the concept of ideology continues to be a profitable and practical locus of critical attention, particularly in the context of comparative literary study. Comparative ideological readings provide an interdisciplinary theoretical approach to literatures produced across nations and across historical periods, from which we may better understand late 20th-century Western culture by comparing it to cultures past.
Two "classic" trilogies that serve well to illustrate the importance of a comparative ideological approach to literary study are Aeschylus's Oresteia and Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather; in each of these dramas, the tension hinges on a dilemma in which the respective protagonists are forced to negotiate a nearly identical conflict that appears both inescapable and impossibly contradictory. Of Orestes's dilemma, Hugh Lloyd-Jones writes: "If he...fail[s] to avenge his father, the Erinyes would have [to pursue] him for his failure; since he does avenge him, they pursue him for the killing of his mother" (91). In Coppola's trilogy, when Michael Corleone learns that his brother, Fredo, has cooperated with Michael's enemies, he orders Fredo's murder to protect the Corleone family; but killing a brother is a direct assault on the ideal, and the very structure, of the family. Both of these situations place a character's sense of honor, which is rooted in his respect for the filial blood-line, into direct conflict with the guilt that will follow the very action that he believes is required to protect honor. Yet whereas Orestes's guilt seems entirely absolved by the time we come to the end of Aeschylus's trilogy, at the end of Coppola's trilogy Michael Corleone dies, psychologically destroyed by guilt.
My purpose in the following essay is to account for this discrepancy in outcome by elucidating the process whereby a text's material conditions of production determine the text's rhetorical expression and stabilization of such ideological phenomena as honor, guilt, and absolution. To do so, I will first conjoin the materialist notion of ideology associated with Louis Althusser's structuralist Marxism with those post-structuralist considerations that discuss the role of figural language in literary signification. Then, drawing the connection between certain material features of 5th-century Athenian civilization and the form of ideology in Aeschylus's text, I will show how Aeschylus establishes his text's ideological authority by manipulating a metaphoric rhetoric in which words correspond directly to a divine exterior referent, whereas, because Coppola is writing under late capitalist material conditions that are characterized by definitive crises of ontological and linguistic reference, he has no recourse to this divine exterior referent and must instead construct his text's ideological authority on a synecdochic rhetorical strategy designed to conceal a material absence, not to signify a material presence. …