Sartre: The Flies
The sky above Argos, even when the sun is shining, hangs heavily over the earth. The ground seems barren, whatever may grow on it. The streets are largely silent. And in their houses, the people pray for repentance, for salvation from their crimes. The Argos of Sartre’s “The Flies,” like its people, is filled with, in Zeus’ words, “the good old piety of yore, rooted in terror.” (54) This is Argos after the Iliad, after Agamemnon has returned home victorious only to be murdered in a scheme by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. A man who fought for Greek honor (dishonorable though he was) returned to betrayal, and the people, in their lust for blood, relished his death. The story of every person in Argos on the day of Agamemnon’s death is the story of the old woman of whom Zeus says, “while you peeped behind the curtains and held your breath, you felt a little tingling itch between your loins, and didn’t you enjoy it!” (54)
This is the backdrop of Sartre’s play about freedom and responsibility: it takes place amidst the very personification of guilt and repentance. After the cruel death of Agamemnon, the city began to feel dark, however bright the skies were; the soil became barren, landscape bleak; and in came the flies, to torture the people who listened to Agamemnon’s cries that night. They and their children wallow in repentance every day of their lives, wishing only to be forgiven. And one day every year, the dead rise from their place in hell to torment the living, to take revenge on those still breathing. The living in Argos regret many things, but nothing more than their forgetfulness of the dead, their ability to live while the dead linger in Hades; above all, they say, “Forgive us for living while you are dead.” (78) Only such regret, they believe, can make them whole.
Into this setting walks Orestes, son of Agamemnon and heir to the throne of Argos. Thrown from the city when he was a youth, saved from death only by chance, Orestes has no memories of his home to cling to or be restrained by; his past was one of high education, skepticism, and light-heartedness. He was never given to regrets, nor was he given anything to regret; in fact his past remained, until shortly before the events of the play, a completely mystery to him. Orestes thus stands as an absolute opposite to the people who were to be his subjects: they are weighed down by the shame of their actions, their desires, and their past, whereas Orestes can say truthfully of himself: “I’m free as air, thank God. My mind’s my own, gloriously aloof.” (59) Orestes is free; he has nothing to bind him, no secret regrets to enslave him.
Yet one must always be wary when quoting a play; a poorly chosen quotation hides the context, the subtext that only performance can show.
When I was seven, I know I had no home, no roots. I let sounds and scents, the patter of rain on housetops, the golden play of sunbeams, slip past my body and fall around me—and I knew these were for others, I could never make them my memories. For memories are luxuries reserved for people who own houses, cattle, fields, and servants. Whereas I—! I’m free as air, thank God. (59)
Argos is scorched earth; all in Greece know to give it a wide berth. And yet Orestes has entered the town itself to see it with his own eyes. Why? He has no memories of his family, no bond to lure him. No belongings of his are there, nothing to retrieve. Instead, he seems driven by a desire to see the thing that should have been his home: “an Argos evening like many a thousand others, familiar yet ever new, another evening that should be mine . . . .” (60) Orestes was raised an enlightened Greek, given the best learning and the finest fruits of civilized life. He had no need to suffer for crimes that he did not commit, that children who were not alive are paying for (“Please forgive us. We didn’t want to be born, we’re ashamed of growing up.” (78)). Yet he has a strange desire to return to his home, to have its past be part of him. He seems to be almost willing to take on the suffering of the people, a suffering that isn’t even his own, to do so. The question is, why?
Another question lingers as well: what of the people? Why do they stay in Argos? After all, the whole world is not cursed with swarming flies and repentance as Argos is. What keeps them there year after year, regretting their lives but unwilling to end them? There is at least one that doesn’t accept this fate: Orestes’ sister, Electra, who remains captive in the palace. Washing dirty linens all day, she scorns her fate and hopes for the day when it will end, when justice will be paid. She refuses to fall into the cycle of regret that the rest of the city has fallen prey to: “if I let myself be tainted by your remorse; if I beg the gods’ forgiveness for a crime I never committed . . . . Ugh! The mere thought makes me sick.” (67) Electra has suffered vengeance for a crime she did not commit. The people of the city, even those too young to remember the cardinal sin, allowed their freedom to be taken away by guilt; she, however, seeks only the moment when things will be set right. And every day she prays for the day when Orestes will be there to free her from her suffering, to make everything right.
And on this day, Orestes has come for her. He arrives and does the job, killing Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, who is also Orestes’ and Electra’s mother. In so doing he sets his people free of their corrupt king, and sets his sister free of the slavery their parents inflicted upon her. The people, driven by whatever drives their repentance, are livid; they beat on the door in anger the next day. But the people one can almost understand. The greater question is, why Electra?
For Electra does not celebrate in the shadow of their victory. She feels the weight of Orestes’ actions, and thus her desires, weighing in upon her. “Your crime. It’s tearing off my cheeks and eyelids; I feel as if my eyes and teeth were naked . . . .” (109) The sudden regret on the part of Electra is surprising, and it’s not clear where it is coming from. Is it the simple realization that what they have done will have consequences? Was her lust for blood just the longing of a foolish youth who didn’t yet understand the gravity of her choices? Perhaps it is a strange surge of filial piety?
It’s something else. For this crime was theirs both, but she said, “Your crime.” And she says it again, more clearly: “I dreamt the crime, but you carried it out, you murdered your own mother.” (111) She was the one who begged him to do it, she was the one who snuck him into the palace, she was the one who commanded Orestes to strike Aegisthus down at the vital moment. So why regrets now? Why does she, in the moment after her passion, act in the same way as the other people of Argos do? And why does Orestes not? What is their difference?
It’s not because Electra loved her mother; she hated Clytemnestra far more than Orestes could. It’s not because Electra is an innocent soul and Orestes has no morals. It is because, in the end, Electra couldn’t commit herself to her crime, and Orestes could. For there is an important difference between Orestes and Electra, the same difference that separates Orestes from all the other men and women of Argos, and the single difference that animates the play. Electra, like the people of Argos, is ashamed of herself, of her choice. In wishing death upon another, and in seeing the dead, she suddenly sees herself a criminal, the same as all those citizens of Argos who wished death upon their previous king. Her past becomes her shame, and she wishes to disown it, to put it behind her. For this she prays to Zeus, who offers her this solace: “You never willed to do evil; you willed your own misfortune.” (114) Electra was, Zeus tells her, the tragic heroine, tortured by living itself until, like any human would, she acted rashly, and in so doing brought about her own misfortune. She did not choose to be treated so harshly, to be degraded; had she known better, she would have been just. She did not wish to be so. There is a similarity here that is no coincidence. The children did not wish to be born; but they were, and now they can only regret it, and hope to be forgiven. They are criminals, all of them, Electra included; but they do not want to be; they only want forgiveness.
Except for Orestes. “I am no criminal, and you have no power to make me atone for an act I don’t regard as a crime.” (113) Orestes is not, with these words, pleading innocent to the killing of Aegisthus, nor trying to defend himself against Zeus. Nor does he wish to excuse himself of his crime by calling it a youthful indiscretion or a moment of passion. His act he declares without qualification to be his own:
Do you imagine that my mother’s cries will ever cease ringing in my hears . . . ? And the anguish that consumes you—do you think it will ever case ravaging my heart? But what matter? I am free. Beyond anguish, beyond remorse. Free. And at one with myself. (111)
Man is free; so says Orestes. And the god of thunder himself is powerless before this freedom: “Once freedom lights its beacon in man’s heart, the gods are powerless against him.” (102) Zeus can do what he will, summon whatever powers he chooses, throw lightning and crash down thunder, but he cannot take from Orestes the ability to choose his own actions. Determinism is of no account, for determinism is a matter of atoms and particles, of physical laws and constants. It never touches the person, who is free to make of his past, his future, of all of the events of the world what he will, to own or disown them freely. (If you think I’m being flowery here, it will be seen shortly just how literal this notion is for Sartre.) What of the past? What of one’s desires, wishes, and actions? They can crush one under the weight of fact, or they can be thrown aside in an instant. Orestes has no past to crush him; but those who let their pasts weigh them down, the people of Argos and Electra, are just as free to throw it all aside. First, however, they must accept the past for what it was, for the real events that they did or didn’t do, what they wished and desired and hated. Only then can they choose how the past will decide their future.
This is the weight of Sartrean freedom, the responsibility that comes with being the owner of all of existence:
Thus, totally free, undistinguishable from the period for which I have chosen to be the meaning, as profoundly responsible for the war as if I had myself declared it, unable to live without integrating it in my situation, engaging myself in it wholly and stamping it with my seal, I must be without remorse or regrets as I am without excuse . . . . (Sartre, Being and Nothingness. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992 709-710.)
This requires the recognition that one cannot step away from one’s actions, one cannot lay the blame on the contingencies of history or moments of weakness. History is one’s own to take as one will, to ignore or be controlled by, to love or hate. Humanity is free of gods, but as a result is left solely to its own devices. The past is the past, but it is still one’s own. The future is open. This tremendous responsibility on one’s shoulders is the greatest of burdens, as it is the recognition that there is no relief in confession, either to the priest or one’s own conscience. In light of this, Electra commits the same crime against human dignity as the people of Argos; she disowns her act, and thus her freedom. She succumbs to the temptation Zeus has offered her: an excuse, a story about her that takes away her freedom and makes her the plaything of social forces that forced her, like a doll, to act according to the assigned moves. But acceptance of this, like the repentance of the townspeople, is to throw away one’s freedom for the comforts of slavery to the gods.
Orestes, however, knows that such slavery is never absolute. Try as one might, freedom cannot be given away or disowned; “Outside nature, against nature, without excuse, beyond remedy, except what remedy I find within myself. But I shall not return under your [Zeus’] law; I am doomed to have no other law but mine.” (119) Every citizen of Argos is just as free, but they flee their freedom and themselves. Orestes is free, and he cannot escape it. All he can do is find a path of his own, choices of his own, which were what he lacked and what really brought him to Argos in the first place. “Today I have one path only, and heaven knows where it leads. But it is my path . . . .” (105) With the killing of his mother and her suitor, the taking of a sorrowful throne, Orestes has finally taken on a responsibility worthy of human freedom. Rather than being an insect flitting over the pages of history, he has a story, a life of his own; his mission is the liberation of his people, his task to free them from themselves. “Fear your dead no longer; they are my dead. And, see, your faithful flies have left you and come to me.” (123)