A very large (albeit unspoken) determining factor behind Jean-Pierre Vernant‘s study of classical antiquity was the contemporary political climate in which he was writing. During WWII, France, and in particular the capital city of Paris, had been occupied by the Germans and administrated by the cooperating Vichy government. After the war, the fiercely nationalist de Gaul government, along with the liberal social institutions maintained by it, continued, to many radical thinkers, to mirror too closely the oppressive regime from under which France had just emerged. This new order seemed simply to be a softer and more insidious version of the older order, one vast self-regulating penitentiary.
Or, groups such as Situationist International (the source from whence were pirated the look, attitude and slogans of first-wave British punk), saw modern French life, and in particular students life, as a state of perpetual captivity to ubiquitous banality and boredom. Consequently, leading intellectuals and motivated students (the diametrical opposite of the quintessential ‘good student’ in the Honors College), banded together to resist what they considered to be the virulent fascism of the established regime.
One of the principle wings of this intellectual and political resistance to authority was the Anti-Psychiatric Movement, which arose in reaction to the pervasiveness of Freudian psychology through French academics and therapeutics. One of the classic statements (still widely read and taught today) of this movement was a volume co-authored by philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychiatrist Felix Guattari (a specialist in psychosis), Anti-Oedipus. This landmark text, which unmasked that numerous oppositional drives and desires held in a state in extreme “tension and ambiguity” by Freud’s socially constructed and reinforced Oedipal Complex, seeks to challenge compulsory and normative neurosis with a post-psychological view of the schizoid body; a restless and excessive anti-Human body which recognizes no rules of due proportion or any ‘golden mean,’ but rather manifests itself as a perpetually mobile ‘desiring-machine’.
With this background in mind, it should become abundantly clear to any careful reader what Jean-Pierre Vernant is trying to say about Aristotle’s theory of Sophoclean tragedy (as well as Freud’s attempt to universalize the Oedipus Complex), and also why Vernant is trying to say it. Any comments or questions on these matters, however, are perfectly welcome.
When the act of narration becomes as integral to the total story as the actions narrated, as motivated by restless urges, as fraught with perils, pains and ecstasies; then the story suddenly bristles, an automaton turned inside out. All the inner devices of poetics are exposed, brought into plain view. The author is revealed to be a writing machine. His desires now figure as mere drives, his unfathomable creative force as hydraulic differential flow. With this inversion the artist passes beyond himself, outside his ego. Likewise, the work of art, originally and reassuringly emblematized by the scenes of peace and plenty contained within the gilt frame of the shield of Achilles, inverts itself. Its cogs, planes, levers, screws and pulleys, its ropes and bellows now exposed and live (as wires are said to be live); the work of art then becomes Deleuze’s war machine, Vaucanson’s famous defecating duck gone on a killing spree. The horror . . . and the hilarity.
– Brian Kubarycz, UNSAID magazine, Volume V, issue 1.