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Life was harder

I was listening today to a podcast of an excellent On Point program, in which Tom Ashbrook interviews Arnold Weinstein about what we can learn from literature about the stages of life. Here’s a passage Arnold read from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. (I’m using a 2009 translation by G. Theodoridis — thanks!). These lines are uttered by the chorus:

It is obvious to me that those who shun moderation and want a longer life are fools.

The days of an overly long life are filled with pain.

Happiness eludes those who want to hang on to life longer than what the fates have allotted for them and in the end…

…the same attendant awaits him: Hades! Hades waits upon us all!

No ceremony, no wedding songs, no dances and no songs…

Just death!The end of us all is death.

The best would be not to be born at all.

But then, if he is born, the next best thing for him would be to try and return to where he came from…

…in the quickest possible time!

While youth and its careless mind lasts, no thought is given to what pain, what misery will, most certainly, follow.

Murder, mayhem, quarrels, wars will come before the inescapable end…

The hateful old age, frailty, loneliness, desolation and…

…your own misery’s neighbour, is even more misery.

And so, Oedipus like us, is old. Unhappy Oedipus! Bashed about like a reef facing north…

Bashed about on all sides by tempests of all sorts.

Never ending rain and wind crash over his head…

…fierce waves crash over him.

Now from West…

Now from the East…

Some during the midday’s light…

Some from the mountainous North…

…which the deep night darkens.

I’ve loved the bleakness of these lines ever since I read them in college. But I’ve always wondered whether we should read them as eternal truths that apply to us all, or as an anthropological glimpse into another culture. Today listening to them I had a different reaction: Man, have I had it easy!

When I was a youth, my careless mind was actually fairly morbid. I thought about death a lot. I still do. Yet, I think I did not have a vivid sense of “what misery will, most certainly, follow. Murder, mayhem, quarrels, wars will come before the inescapable end.” In fact, of those four, all I’ve directly experienced are quarrels. Murder? No one I knew has been murdered. Mayhem? Nothing that didn’t occur around a conference table. Wars? I missed the draft and did not serve, although like every other American, I have lived with some of the awful consequences of war. But that’s really not what Sophocles had in mind. He was thinking about the imminent sacking of a city, the cleaving of skulls, the starving of children.

Life sucked back then. To those of us in affluent countries, with a job and some health coverage, I wonder whether Sophocles would have sung a different song.

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