Krzysztof Czyżewski - FOREIGN, OTHER, FAMILIAR: New Incarnations of Medea

The border region of foreignness, otherness and familiar is the territory of the agon, man's battleground to win a name, read one's fate and become the way one is. And because it is about “becoming” and not just “being” we speak here about the agon - not only about a struggle but about being on the road, crossing to the other side. The agon embraces all that was not granted and pre-established for us, all that is our victory or defeat, transgression or omission. 


The way man seems “familiar” is tied with the borderland of foreignness and otherness. It  is bound: here, in Europe, the multicultural continent, with the inflow of the new waves of immigrants, with the memory of the murders committed on the other and with the fear of the foreigner – with the conqueror, but also the plunderer; here, in the world in which the distant otherness imperceptibly becomes part of the commonplace of the nearest neighbourhood; here, between the alternative definitions of the female and male identity; here, where the new ousts the immemorial; here, where man borders on nature; here, where the divine is just a visitor or leaves the trails of its absence; here, between “I” and “you”- in the dialogue which enroots the captive or exiled ones.

Venturing into these borderlands we enter the space of the presence of the myth. We are overcome with the anxiety caused by that something beyond us, coming seemingly from another aeon of time, speaking to us, and from within us to boot. Instead of trying to suppress it, we should travel to all the places where the old tales are better audible to be able to listen intently to their whisper, the way the ancients did, on their pilgrimage to the oracle of Delphi or taking part in the mysteries. It may turn out instrumental in our recovery of the correspondence between the phenomena experienced by us on the surface of events in the embracing us historical time, and the archetypal deposits buried deeply in us, in the communities and places we inhabit. And because of the troubling us surface crisis of identity and communality, swelling into the conflict of cultures, we naturally plumb the depths of the collective subconsciousness for these bequeathed by gods tales recording the memory of clashes of cultures and encounters with otherness. Among those, special power exerts the myth of Medea and the Argonauts' expedition, the oldest Mediterranean tale about a foreigner among us and about a man transgressing borders. Already Homer in his Odyssey, mentioning the quest of Argo for the Golden Fleece calls it Argo pasimelusa - one that concerns all1 . 

New Incarnations of Medea

After September 11 2001, observes Celia Wren “an ancient Greek femme fatale is the American theatre’s passion of the moment”2 . “I can’t think of a play that’s more relevant right now - I really can’t”3 - the words spoken by Charles Schick, director of Love, Medea: could be spoken by directors from other parts of the world, too.

In Europe, the resonance of September 11 was of course also felt quite strongly, even though the Old World has its own “battlefields” where the conflicts of cultures make themselves felt. One of the first ones appeared in the Netherlands. Sounds bitter irony, if one remembers the often quoted for their pertinence words of Heinrich Heine who claimed that if the end of the world was nigh, he’d head for Holland where everything happens 50 years later.4 

Theo van Gogh, just before his tragic death in 2004 at the hands of an Islamic extremist, completed a six-part TV series in which the Euripidian Medea has been transferred to the realities of the world of modern Dutch politics. In it, the enamoured Medea tries to help the ambitious would-be prime minister Jason, reminding one of Pim Fortuyn, a right-wing politician describing himself as “culture nationalist”, notorious for his enmity towards foreigners, assassinated in 2002 by a leftist activist.

In the Viennese Burgtheater, Grzegorz Jerzyna staged his own version of Medea, a play about a Georgian woman brought West by a young careerist with German roots who fails to observe the marriage vows, forbids his sons to speak Georgian and seeks assimilation through the marriage of his daughter to an influential businessman. The betrayed, alienated and lonely girl, to her husband's and her Viennese environment's surprise instead of consenting to a rational divorce contract, offered to her bona fide with a guarantee of a better future to her children, resorts to murder.

The Flemish playwright, Tom Lanoy wrote a tragicomedy Mamma Medea, already staged also in Poland. According to the programme of the Polish premiere at the Teatr Polski in Poznań says that it is “a parable of man, who in the name of love and under the influence of the youthful impulse renounces all that was once held close and dear – somewhere on the road to losing his/her own self”.

Jason and Medea in Dei Loher's drama Manhattan and Medea are illegal immigrants in the American metropolis, exiles from the engulfed by war Balkans, whose love does not stand the test of the New World ruled by the laws that Jason quickly adjusts to unlike Medea who is unable to detach herself from the roots of her culture.

The myth of Medea could not resist the mass culture, enough to mention a popular computer game Jason and Argonauts. The recent news from the web site interia.pl tells us that “the prison comedy Medea Goes to Jail occupies the first place on the movie charts of the most popular movies of the last weekend in North America. The comedy starring its director, Terry Perry, earned $16.5 m. at the weekend box office. 

Over 2440 Years Long Conversation with the Myth

Quoted above were only selected and recent examples from among the growing number of the contemporary readings of the intercultural and old as the hills voyage of the Argonauts. They represent the final parts of the debate, continuing since the very beginnings of our culture, on the crossing of the frontiers between different worlds, on the loss of roots, and attempts of dialogue at the junction of foreign, other and familiar. A critical and perhaps the most powerful incarnation of the debate took place two thousand four hundred and forty years ago; it was in the year 431 BC during the City Dionysia in Athens that Medea by Euripides was performed. But it was not Euripides himself who originated the debate. It had already been present in the times of Homer and Hesiod, in the longest preserved Pindar's Pythian Ode and in the lost tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles. And later on, Apollonius of Rhodes, the director of the Library of Alexandria devoted to it the only surviving to our times Hellenistic epic: Argonautica whose Roman version titled Medea was penned by Seneca. In the course of centuries the debate has found its reflection in the real masterpieces that have accompanied homo creativus inextricably in their attempts of rebellion, quests towards new horizons, breaching the established conventions and mental limitations. “Gods are not to be trifled with; only at Olympus, in the heaven of fantasy and religious imagination, do they remain in blissful peace and unity, but now as the definable pattern of human individuality they really enter life…”5 

Medea fascinates, because she has the power of the hatred of the colonized and enslaved world – the Third World, this other Europe, the minority, the exploited and humiliated – the world could see her face in its definiteness on September 11. She carries with her foreignness – one that is mysterious, attractive, wild, untamed and eternal. Moreover so, it is not a foreignness petrified in her archaic faraway kingdom: she is mobile, worldly and lives among us; the foreignness that we and our dirty conscience owe something to: the foreignness we need.

Medea is a woman, beautiful and independent, asserting her rights. She is victorious in the world – the world that is masculine and rational – in which “others” such as her are usually victimized. And this is enough, for most of the contemporary recipients of the myth, to obscure the awareness of the price she has to pay to succeed. The enchantress is a sorceress with an access to the powers seemingly tamed by the progress of civilization – she can rouse them the moment she is driven to her reckless despair.  She seems different, like a woman different to a man, but also like minority next to majority, like the otherness of a sexual or racial identity, like anybody who will not become part of the dominant convention, system, logic or necessity.

Medea, the infanticide, challenges the world with the issue of the crisis of the family, marriage and the fate of children. She leads to the verge of a precipice ruining the dearest to her thing – love to another human being, wherever he might have come from, whatever race he might have been and whatever culture he was born in. And it is in the name of this love to her husband and her children that she renounced all other values in her life, including her own homeland. The sacrifice she herself makes of her children is a tragic refusal to continue a life of the broken vows, broken laws of love and the breach of the holy borders of humanity established not by humans but by gods. Because it is them, who leaving us their tales, enrooted in us the values that make us human. 

One could continue to multiply various variants of the incarnations of the modern Medea, though it seems that those presented above refer us to the most important ones. Bearing in mind, of course, the fact that our references should relate also to the other heroes of the tale: Jason and the Argonauts. The tragedy of Medea is one of the possible climaxes of the myth; and it is a tragic one because we are aware of the deeds and fates of the participants in the agon.

 

Medea in her modern incarnations is a foreigner. And not only in the sense of coming from the Caucasian Colchis. She is anti-systemic, untamed, familiar – never ours. When asserting her femininity, or the rights of a minority, of a different sexuality, becoming a guardian of love and family, an immigrant sharing the fate of exiles – her foreignness becomes otherness, or at least it has a chance to become. It means she is closer to us and we can sympathize with her, her right to be different does not alienate her from our community and by the same token she may feel familiar, an, in a sense – ours. And we, likewise, classified as “ours” are given a chance to feel the bond with another human being, to share a common fate, the universals, something more than what is usually guaranteed by the kingdom of our ego with its defensive borders, backyards, our distinct culture, our single truth.    

We refer here to something very significant, something that makes Medea in all her foreignness and otherness be familiar. Not because she became tamed or got closer to us  e.g. through immigration or engagement in the struggle for the rights of the weaker or oppressed ones. She is familiar because she awakens herself in us, inside ourselves, in all her foreignness and otherness to become part of us. She has always been there, we have just not been aware of that or it was deeply hidden by the culture we belong to. Her exile is our exile, her irrational emotionality is our emotionality, her rebellion against conventions and systems governing our ways is our own rebellion, her tears over the sacrifice of her children are our tears.

The ancient tale about a Greek who brought home from his voyage an enamoured sorceress again opens before the modern man the agon of the borderland of what is branded foreign, other and familiar. In this struggle, Medea epitomizes the unleashing of the powers, once suppressed by oppressive forces, persuasion or culture, but never vanquished. The power of Medea herself lies in the fact that she comes to our world not from its  outside, but from its inside. We know that Medea's power can be destructive. But we also know that it happens only when she is rejected, betrayed or lied to. The power of community – whether it be family, country or civilization – is measured by the degree we can integrate Medea into our life – simultaneously foreign, other and familiar, the degree of our sacrifice, understanding and wisdom towards her and the degree she will be able to love, understand and change us.


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