Consent, Fate, and the Humanities Curriculum

The catalog entry for the Western Humanities I course says it is “A search for moral, social, and political alternatives and meaning embodied in the institutions, culture, and literature of Western Civilization from the beginnings to 1600.” The entry for the Humanities II course is the same, except that it is the study of the works from the 1600s to the present.

My suite mates and I have been discussing this pursuit, and why it might not be the most logical in terms of understanding our humanity, which seems to be the desired outcome from this moral, social, and political search. The conversation was actually started from my reading of Aeschylus’s Oresteia at the same time as we read Butler’s Fledgling, and my comparing of the two. Professor McCoy mentioned the Oresteia trilogy during class in relation to Fledgling because of both stories concluding with a trial. When reading the two side by side, I found a lot of other similarities and themes about fate and consent as well, which led me to think about what lessons about humanity are better taught in Fledgling, the merits of reading one over the other, and why the HUMN curriculum doesn’t function as it should.

The Oresteia is a series of three plays about the return of Agamemnon, the commander of the Greeks during the Trojan War and King of Argos, to his hometown. Before the start of the first play, Agamemnon kills his daughter as a sacrifice to goddess Artemis so that he can successfully bring his troops to Troy. The first play begins after the victory over the Trojans, when Agamemnon returns to his home; his wife kills him for killing their daughter. Their son, Orestes, returns a few years later, ‘persuaded’ by Apollo, to kill his mom and avenge his father. He is then put on trial to decide whether killing his mother was just, or not.

What didn’t make sense to me was that Orestes was never angry about his sister being killed, only about his father’s death. This could be explained away by saying that Orestes understood that his father’s actions were to help his troops, but why was his mother exempt from that reasoning? The text would have you think it is because she is a woman and therefore incapable of critical thinking. And just because his father was the head of the household, Orestes is not exempt from the human emotion of grief. This was one of the main elements that made me start to question the underlying humanity of the story, and to consider better, more relatable, alternatives.

In Fledgling, Shori’s reactions to her hardships, despite her only being a fraction human and an Ina child, never felt unrealistic to me: her emotions always seemed justified, whether it was her growing self-realization that went hand in hand with increased upset at what had happened to her, or her search for justice and the whirlwind of both believable and relatable emotions during the trial.

This prompted me to compare the two stories more thoroughly. I was tempted to automatically link the “heroes” of both Fledgling and the Oresteia, but the more I read it seemed apt to compare Shori and the Ina to the Greek gods and Goddesses, and Orestes to the human symbionts. In the third play, Orestes is threatened that he will live a life of misery and pain if he doesn’t kill his mother as Apollo kindly suggests. Orestes does not have a choice and does as he is instructed. This is similar to the issue of consent between the Ina and the humans they make do their bidding, such as the Silks who made humans like Victor kill Ina without fully understanding what they were doing or why, without ability to disobey. Orestes is similarly misled and forced. Apollo promised him that the Furies (old goddesses who punish crime and vengeance) would not be an issue if he killed his mother, but after he does murder her, the Furies do, in fact, swarm him, driving him near to insanity. Without Athena interfering, he would have been killed. Think back to Victor, who would have died from the Gordons’ questioning of him if it wasn’t for Shori’s strong venom.

The humans in the Oresteia are essentially playthings for the gods when they don’t wish to get their own hands dirty or need entertainment. Some members of the Silk family in Fledgling treat the humans the same way. The difference between the stories is that at the end of the Oresteia, Orestes is on trial for what he did despite being forced into the action by Apollo. (Apollo is present at the trial, acting in Orestes’s defense though I still believe he should have been the one on trial). Jack Roan, who killed Theodora, was not on trial at the end of Fledgling. He was, of course, out of town, but regardless it was Katherine Dahlman who forced his hand as her symbiont, and therefore Katherine who was judged and sentenced on his behalf.

This treatment of humans as pawns is prevalent in all Greek stories where the gods interfere with human lives. Both of these stories teach about power dynamics, but only Fledgling discusses the issue of consent. This made me think about the difference between the two, where consent and abuse of power did not seem to be anything out of the ordinary in the past, and it went unquestioned because “gods” committed this abuse. Today, this abuse comes from peers. The evolution of the way we see power/abuse of power and respond to it is something that is crucial to discuss: How have power dynamics (and the discussion thereof) shifted over the years? How have western narratives reflected this shift? These questions could only be addressed by reading both side by side, which leads to the thought that the only way for the Humanities curriculum to stay relevant is to teach modern literature alongside of the classics. Not only will this help to address the changes in mentality and morals; it will keep the stories relatable and prevent us from dismissing the modern struggles of class and race that have changed and developed over time.

The class and race struggle in America can be related to the Greek theme of fate. Fate which plays a large role in most Greek dramas but an especially large roles in the Oresteia, as all of the family’s misfortune can be traced back through their family tree to a man who had so much pride he tried to trick the gods. His son, who cheated in a chariot race and wrought a curse upon their family line, was no better. The misfortune and terrible acts continue through to Orestes killing his mother. Despite it being the act of Apollo that he does so, you could say it was because of his fate being born into a cursed family. In this way, Shori is the equivalent protagonist, in that she has no choice in being born how she is, which drastically changes the events of her life. She too loses her family because of the circumstances of her darker skin. Both characters struggle with their fate, but Shori not only takes control of her situation and acts maturely, her situation is also reflective of human racism in the world. Presently, us humans don’t have the problem of dealing with gods who intervene, or curses on our family, but we do still have to deal with intolerance. When reading the two together, we can construct an image of a person born into a caste they cannot change (be it family line, or skin color), and what actions they would have taken in the past or need to take currently to get out of their situation (if that is even possible).

The study of humanities teaches us the origins of western society, and helps us bolster our background knowledge of Greek life that has helped to shape our culture, which is an understandable pursuit. We want to learn about humanity so we look to the past. In Eumenides, the third play of the trilogy, the very democratic, very respected trial scene is largely made up of Apollo giving a speech on how women don’t even play a role in creating a child, and therefore Orestes’s punishment for killing his mother shouldn’t be considered the killing of one’s own blood. The entire play is laced with subtext about the unimportance of women from the first scene of the first play to this climactic speech. It may have its merits as a piece of humanity’s history, but I don’t see how reading the Oresteia is helpful unless it is taught with a more modern story that has similar theme of intolerance/undermining of gender, and intent to examine the sexism side by side.

The main problem with the humanities courses is not that the stories we are given are poor choices, rather that the large amount of reading we have – all from a similar time period – limits the time we’re given to address the way that the problematic themes have been institutionalized alongside the examples of democracy. It seems to practically nullify the importance of the study, in my opinion. This is especially true when we may acknowledge – but more importantly don’t take the time to analyze the consequences of – the fact that the writers of these classics were all white, powerful men, and their stories were put on “Most Important Book” lists across the country by other white, powerful men.

We ourselves are diverse students who are being educated to fit the “worldly” white man mold of education. This has its benefits; this is the group of people that run the world and it will help us advance ourselves inside of the system we are trapped in. (The breaking down of said system is an entire other discussion – one that could be spurred by more diverse readings.) The Oresteia teaches us about power, as does Fledgling, but where the former seems outdated and not relatable, the latter does not cover the beginnings of power structure and government of human society.

I personally enjoyed Fledgling more than the Oresteia, so my comparisons may have been biased toward Butler’s book, but what I think can be agreed upon regardless of opinions of the two is that a full understanding of humanity cannot be gathered from stories written only by privileged people from the past. If we are looking to understand society and our system of laws, we need to also understand the people that our society puts at a disadvantage and how this has come to be: we need to add diversity and modernity to what we read to help cover a larger breadth of characters, authors, and stories to facilitate a larger understanding. Reading Fledgling was what truly brought the central themes of the Oresteia to my attention, and if every book on our Humanities reading list was accompanied by a modern story with similar (yet more diverse) issues, it would do a great deal for helping us to understand the human condition in full.

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