The Ecstasy of Vengeance
What do Homer’s Agamemnon and Game of Thrones’ Oberyn Martell have in common? A blinding obsession to exact revenge on their enemies.
One of the great achievements of the Greeks was their profound way of dealing with transgressive and negative emotions on a cultural level. They accomplished this by undergoing the Aristotelian process of catharsis, the purification of the soul, which they induced by appreciating tragic literary and dramatic works. When it comes to negative emotions, none is more destructive and harder to resist than the desire for vengeance. Two Greek authors in particular wrote works which dealt with this transgressive and dangerous emotion. I’m thinking of Homer’s Iliad and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. In this essay, I will describe the deeds and death of Achilles, the tragic hero of the Iliad, which is of special significance.
An interesting aspect of Greek storytelling is the fact that its various authors built upon the works of their predecessors. When Aeschylus wrote his tragic drama, he continued the story that Homer had begun by taking one of its main characters, namely Agamemnon, and imagining his fate playing out over the course of a very different trajectory. Agamemnon is the king of Argos, one of the main commanders of the Greek army which laid siege to Troy, and who is the commanding officer of the wilful Achilles. The fate of Achilles is, however, decided in the Iliad; Agamemnon will meet his fate in another time and place.
Achilles is the greatest warrior in the Greek army, and he also commands his own unit, the Myrmidons. The persona of Achilles is best described by the Greek word thymus, which originates in Plato’s writings concerning the faculties of the human soul. According to Plato, thymus is located in the chest and thus stands bellow the thinking faculty, which naturally is in the head, and above the faculty of the appetite, which is said to be located in the belly. Someone with thymus is gifted with traditional manly virtues like courage and a sense of honour, but also with somewhat more dangerous aspects like pride and the capacity for rage. Thymus represents the power of the soul.
Friedrich Nietzsche analysed the lack of thymus in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, when he described the Last Man. The man without thymus is a man without a chest, capable of enjoyment and logic, but not courage and honour. I see utilitarianism and hedonism to be the perfect attitudes for such a man, where everything is measured in relation to pain and pleasure. Maximum pleasure is a moral good, whereas pain, on the other hand, is always perceived as a moral evil. The Last Man would indeed find himself comfortable in the Swedish welfare state, where he is safely tucked away from the hardships of the world and the more dangerous aspects of his own nature.
In contrast, Achilles represents the ideal of the man driven by thymus; both in terms of its virtues and its more demonic aspects. This ideal played out in the Iliad when Achilles’ friend, Patroklos, is slain by the Trojan prince Hector. Patroklos dressed himself in Achilles’ armour and went out onto the battlefield in order to raise the morale of the troops, since Achilles had refused to participate in the fighting because he had fallen out with Agamemnon. Agamemnon had claimed Achilles’ slave mistress, Briseis, in order to demonstrate his power, and Achilles had become angry.
The duel between Achilles and Hector is the stuff of legends, with the champion of the Greeks and the champion of the Trojans facing each other in single combat. In this duel, Achilles is representing the more dangerous aspects of thymus, namely that of rage. Achilles kills Hector, mutilates his body, and then refuses to give it back to his family so they can give Hector a proper funeral. In the end, the anger of Achilles is appeased when Hector’s father, Priam, pays him a visit and begs him to return the body of his fallen son.
Achilles does not survive the Iliad since he chooses to continue along his dangerous path rather than to back away from the fighting and settle himself for the quiet and peaceful life. A man of thymus seldom lives long.
It is interesting to note that while the Iliad is respected as one of the primary examples of high culture, and has been analysed on countless occasions by scholars, one of its main protagonists is basically an action hero. If Achilles were to be portrayed in a film today, it would be in the role of an action hero. As Jonathan Bowden once noted, these sorts of extremely masculine values are not compatible with an inherently Left-wing culture, and they would never admitted to the domain of high culture today.
However, as Bowden also noted, they will not disappear either; they will simply turn up somewhere else. Bowden analysed this concept in the talks contained in his book Pulp Fascism (from Counter-Currents Publishing), where he examined various works in popular culture which are not well-regarded in the cultural hierarchy, and perhaps for that reason can express values that cannot be found in other cultural forms. When looking for a modern representative of thymus, the heir of Achilles, we would indeed have to look for it in unexpected places. I want to make the case for one modern form of literature being a safe haven for Right-wing themes: the genre of fantasy.
Overall, the fantasy genre tends to feature Right-wing values over Left-wing ones. If I were to look for an heir to Achilles, the modern man of thymus, I would refer to George R R Martin’s epos A Song of Ice and Fire and his anti-hero, Oberyn Martell. This is important in regards to cultural renewal. The Iliad and Achilles are part of the heritage of European civilisation, but it is essential that the symbols behind it can be retold and be given new life by the living. It is not good enough only to look back at what has been written previously; the principles of a tradition must be kept alive and given new expression.
Oberyn Martell is also a man of thymus. Just like Achilles he is driven by courage and honour, but also by the dangerous aspects of the human soul such as pride and rage. Also like Achilles, he is driven by the lust for vengeance. The object of his vengeance is the knight Gregor Clegane, who killed his sister during a revolt against the crown which had taken place two decades before the events depicted in the book. Oberyn’s sister, Elia, was married to Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, and had two children with him. Clegane raped and killed Elia, and then he killed her children on orders from his Lord, Tywin Lannister.
In the book, Oberyn comes to King’s Landing, the capital city of the Seven Kingdoms, where the murders had occurred. His official reason for being there is to sit on the small council of the King, Joffrey Baratheon, who is the grandson of Tywin Lannister; but he has other intentions of his own. The realm has just undergone a civil war, and it was only due to the shrewdness of Tywin that the crown was victorious. When the war ends, the internal problems of the Lannister family re-emerge. The boy king, Joffrey, dies from poisoning and his uncle, Tyrion, is accused of the crime.
Tyrion Lannister is in truth a tragic character. Tyrion was born a dwarf, and his mother died while giving birth to him. Thus, from the beginning his family have hated him for it, blaming him for her death, with the exception of his brother, Jamie. When Joffrey is murdered, Tyrion’s intriguing family sees on opportunity to be rid of him. His trial is rigged, and all the lickspittles of the court come to testify against him in order to win favour with the Lannister family. Tyrion is, however, quite shrewd himself, and when he understands that he will receive no justice from men, he chooses to put his fate in the hands of the gods; he demands that his fate be determined by a trial by combat, as is his right.
Tyrion’s family is infuriated, but they are still certain that they will convict Tyrion in the end. His sister, Cersei, the mother of Joffrey, calls the most feared knight in the realm, Gregor Clegane, to be her champion. Who will be Tyrion’s champion under such dire circumstances? Not only is death virtually certain when Clegane is the opponent, but opposing the will of the Lannister family, the most powerful one in the realm, means there is little to gain even in attempting to fight him. But danger and the risk of losing favour with the powers-that-be means nothing for the man of thymus. This turn of events plays right into Oberyn’s hands, as he realises that this is the perfect opportunity for vengeance, which is the genuine purpose of his visit to King’s Landing. He visits Tyrion in his dungeon cell and offers to become his champion. Tyrion cries from relief.
The duel between Oberyn and Gregor likewise has a legendary quality; it seems to me that it is a tribute to Achilles and Hector. A major difference, however, is that Gregor is no Hector. He is a beast of a man, in both size and mind. The duelling scene is intense. Oberyn starts out playfully, toying with the slower Gregor. But before long his emotions get the best of him, and the ecstasy of vengeance consumes Oberyn’s mind. Fighting with a spear, he wounds Gregor severely and to such a degree that he is forced to his knees. Then Oberyn rams the spear through Gregor’s chest and mortally wounds him.
Oberyn is so enraged by his lust for vengeance that he screams at Clegane to confess his crime against his family before all those who are gathered to witness the duel. He is so enraged he forgets that Gregor is like a wounded bear, weakened but still dangerous. In the television version of the scene, Gregor at first feigns unconsciousness, but then suddenly reaches out and knocks Oberyn onto the ground, and then uses his superior size and strength to smash Oberyn’s head while, with his last words, boasting of his deed of murdering Elia and her children. Oberyn dies immediately, whereas Gregor later succumbs to his own wounds.
The story of Oberyn Martell and his attempt at vengeance contains both tragic and heroic elements. It is tragic in the cruel manner of his defeat, in that the reader understands the justness of Oberyn’s cause and likely hopes for him to succeed. But it is also heroic, in the same way that Achilles’ trajectory can be said to be heroic, in the sense that it shows one man taking on a dangerous task for the sake of honour and vengeance. Many modern stories lack the tragic element, and thus can never be more than pure entertainment. In them, the heroic becomes nothing more than playfulness.
When the tragic and the heroic are synthesised, as they are in the stories of Achilles and Oberyn, they becomes something more than just entertainment; they become conveyers of deeper meanings. In his lecture on Julius Evola, Jonathan Bowden spoke of constructionism as something opposed to deconstruction, the idea of deconstruction being that you can deny that texts and cultures have any meaning beyond the personal, whereas constructionism is the art of building upon the interactions you have with the texts that you read and the culture that you are in which can then be shared for the benefit of others. It is the art of creating foundations for culture and civilisation, rather than tearing those foundations down.
Everything I have mentioned in regard to the story of Oberyn Martell — the connection between a modern work and an older tradition and the values of thymus — would in other contexts be read as a negative interpretation of this story, which would likely lead to it being disregarded as reactionary and Right-wing. I’m asserting the opposite. I regard stories such as this one, which one can often come across in fantasy literature, which tends to support anti-modernist perspectives, as signifying that a European heart is still pounding within the shell of the postmodern ‘West’.