Poets are intelligence assets

Aeschylus’s Oresteia is an ancient Greek tragedy about the dialectic between the natural desire for vengeance, order, and the rule of law. This is most likely what contemporaries thought the play was about, including Aeschylus himself.

It is also a play about sexual politics, and the relationship between the idea of the rule of law as actually implemented in the West, and patriarchy.

This is a good example of the well-known phenomenon in which literary criticism and other forms of textual analysis frequently get something “out of” the text that the author had no apparent intent of putting into it - and that many coherent narratives can be extracted from the same text. Far more than an author could plausibly have meant to put into the text. This is often taken as evidence that such readings are spurious.

Robin Hanson argued that one way to extract information from published studies that was comparatively uncontaminated by publication bias, was to look at the coefficients of control variables. The idea is that if your study is about, say, the effect of alcohol on life expectancy, journals may be unwilling to publish it if you get an improbable-seeming result, or no significant result. But less scrutiny is applied to the estimated effect of alcohol if you’re studying something else, and simply “control for” alcohol (i.e. include it in your model as a possible predictor).

Likewise, great literature is typically an integrated, multi-dimensional depiction. While there is a great deal of compression, the author is still trying to report how things might really have happened, to satisfy their own sense of artistic taste for plausibility or verisimilitude. Thus, we should expect that great literature is often an honest, highly informative account of everything except what the author meant to put into it.

Two readings of the Oresteia

The cycle of revenge and the rule of law

In the classic reading of the Oresteia, the central theme is the cycle of revenge.

The proximate origin of the cycle is that Paris, a Trojan prince, violates hospitality norms by absconding from Sparta with the wife of king Menelaus. The king’s brother Agamemnon, who is king in Argos, leads an alliance of Achaian cities to wage war on Troy, to recover his brother’s wife. En route to Troy, the Achaian fleet is becalmed by an angry goddess who sympathizes with Troy, and Agamemnon is told by his priest that he must sacrifice his own daughter to save the fleet. He does so.

There is also a mythological origin of the cycle, in which multiple ancestors of Agamemnon feed someone their own or someone else’s son, which brings a curse onto their family, which leads to more conflict, which leads to more such revenge-motivated atrocities, which lead to more curses.

Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra - a woman, and therefore associated with the spirit of primal, subterranean, feminine, emotional vengeance, rather than open orderly masculine discipline - is unhappy that her husband murdered their daughter. So she teams up with her lover to murder Agamemnon when he returns home from the war. Apollo, god of open orderly masculine discipline, then instructs her son Orestes to kill his mother in response, because she killed his father. Orestes does this, but thereby incurs the wrath of the Furies, primal subterranean feminine emotional vengeance spirits.

Orestes seeks sanctuary in Apollo’s temple, and Apollo directs him towards a neutral party - the goddess Athena - to seek adjudication of the competing claims. Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, comes up with a characteristically clever solution. After getting both sides to agree to her arbitration, she empanels a jury of twelve Athenian citizens, to judge the case. Clytemnestra and Orestes each had no recourse except vigilante violence, because they were operating at the level of kings, who have no earthly authority above them to prevent them from doing injustice. But if everyone is subject to the law as a formalism, then in principle everyone has recourse when injured, no matter who the offender was.

The jury decides for Orestes. The Furies at first warn that letting a kinslayer go free will lead to unrestrained violence, but Athena points out that the jury trial system will for the most part serve as an adequate deterrent. Athena then compensates the Furies by establishing permanent rites in their honor.

Sex, reproduction, and patriarchy

The sex of the various “sides” of the cycle is not mere chance. Helen of Troy may not have been unwillingly abducted. If not, then treating Paris’s behavior in the court of Menelaus as a violation of hospitality builds in the assumption that women are subsidiary to their men. Agamemnon was not compelled to go to war to recover a stray wife, and when he chose to continue against the will of a goddess, he sacrificed his dispensable daughter instead of his son and heir.

On the home front, his wife Clytemnestra was dealt poor hand, but played it very well. Constantly dismissed and written off as a flighty, emotional woman, it would have been quite difficult for her to hold political power on her own. So she took a lover, Aegisthus, who was a plausible rival claimant to the Argive throne. Exiling her son Orestes served two purposes: it removed a potential threat to her lover and puppet king, and also provided her with a potential backup plan in the form of a blood relative with a claim on the throne, if things didn’t work out with Aegisthus.

When Agamemnon returned home together with his war-prize Cassandra, Clytemnestra managed the politics of the scene cleverly, persuading Agamemnon to walk from his chariot to his palace on an expensive oriental tapestry, in the fashion of the great kings of the East he’d just been at war with, driving home to onlookers that he’d just spent the lives of many of their relatives to greatly enrich himself. At the end of the first play, she restrains Aegisthus from getting into a shouting match with an angry crowd, pointing out that they have no actual power.

Orestes returns at the command of Apollo to kill his mother, but is only able to do so with the help of other women of the court, including his wet-nurse.

When Orestes seeks sanctuary in the temple of Apollo, Apollo comes up with a clever plan. His argument in court will hinge on the claim that Orestes is not kin to his mother - and moreover that fathers, but not mothers, are blood relatives of their children. Since the Furies are specifically pursuers of kinslayers, this argument destroys their case. It’s also ridiculous.

So Apollo decides to go venue shopping. In particular, he has Orestes seek judgment from the one goddess who uniquely has a father but no mother: Athena. Thus, at a key moment in the proceedings, he is able to point to the presiding judge herself as evidence for his wackadoodle claim.

The gambit works and Orestes is freed, with Athena herself casting the deciding vote. Athena promises the Furies honorary rites by the elder men and women of the city as compensation, but in the end, we see only the women of the city honoring them, not the men whose patriarchal authority has been consolidated by this victory.

This generalizes. It’s part of a broader pattern, in which the dominance of one group over another is rationalized by lies about where production comes from. The claim that women are not blood-kin to their own children but instead analogous to the fertile earth that seeds sprout in is structurally similar to the contemporary devaluation of traditionally feminine labor, such as many caretaking tasks that women are often asked to do by default, for free, under the assumption that this is not work in need of recognition and reward but instead just the way women are.

This has serious implications for the project of financializing and legibilizing human interaction. Even honest metrics of value-creation are vulnerable to Goodhart’s Law. All the more so should we be careful, since there is ample reason to believe that the standard metrics for assessing contributions have been designed to favor entrenched interests. If we’re going to have real rule of law, we’re going to need to reconceptualize the relationship between sex, production, and reproduction, otherwise we’ll just stay locked into a framework that systematically deprecates a class of entirely legitimate claim.

Likewise, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Orestes all end up in double binds, but Clytemnestra’s behavior is framed as gratuitous vindictiveness, while Agamemnon and Orestes are both depicted by the characters in the chorus as dutiful men making their best of a bad lot.

I owe the seed of this interpretation to Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, though I’ve added some detail.

Sensitive reading

In an interview with Russ Roberts, Chuck Klosterman - author of But What If We’re Wrong? - points out that the art that stands the test of time is often art that later generations can read new meanings into, that stands up to multiple readings. He suggests that anything too famous now, like the writings of celebrated authors such as David Foster Wallace, is at a disadvantage simply because it’s already been contextualized, with discussion that’s likely to stymie future attempts at reinterpretation.

Of course, some readings really are made up, erroneous, or otherwise ungrounded in the text. But that doesn’t mean that these new readings are an entirely arbitrary creative exercise. Writing is many-dimensional; great writers really do put a lot into their text. Tone, pacing, characterization, occasional telling details - and of course the things being described generally have many attributes. Writers seeking verisimilitude of any sort will of course compress the details quite a bit, but when compressing, they have recourse not to their conscious intent - the problem is incomputable - but to their sense of taste when deciding which details to add, which angles to depict, which scenes to skip entirely.

An honest, sensitive reporter will often include telling details that permit interpretations they did not intend. My reading of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs is an example. Isaacson seems to have meant to imply that Jobs felt abandoned by his birth parents, and that his troubled relationships with other potential mentor figures were caused by this inner trauma. But Isaacson conscientiously included enough detail - details which seemed interesting and telling even if he couldn’t articulate exactly what they meant - to enable my alternate reading - that Jobs felt abandoned by his adoptive parents, insofar as he was clearly smarter than them.

When reading authors from very different times and places, often the most interesting thing to us may have simply been background to them. Aeschylus’s Oresteia may have been intended as a work about the rule of law and its relation to democracy. But after reading Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, I cannot help but see it as a work about the relationship between the idea of the rule of law as actually implemented in the West, and patriarchy. For Aeschylus, perhaps the sex dynamics in his story were a mere background - but for verisimilitude, his poet’s eye included them. And he was a sensitive and honest enough reporter of the way things are, that we can get things out of his stories that he didn’t mean to put into them, and talk about the sexual politics of his work as foreground.

Of course, this does take talent. Pulp novels are less informative, not because they are meant to appeal to “low” tastes - so did Shakespeare! - but because they appeal to cliches instead of trying to see each thing anew, rather than coining new expressions - like Shakespeare - not to show off, but because the old grooves did not satisfy the poet’s eye as a precise description of what they saw.

Curiously, I end up at the same conclusion as Klosterman about authors such as David Foster Wallace - but for a different reason. Wallace’s writing seems to be consciously multi-dimensional, optimized along every dimension I can think of for contemporary interests. In Infinite Jest, his largest work, he expertly weaves together themes of communication, writing in multiple dialects, themes of addiction, writing in an addictive style, and an alternate world that has itself been shaped to match these themes. So many things are intelligibly interesting to the sensitive contemporary reader that I suspect he has optimized away as noise the things that would be interesting to future readers.

So, it is not the fact that such a work has been analyzed in its own generation, that will make it uninteresting to future readers. It is the sacrifice of serendipitous interestingness that was necessary to make it so analyzable so soon.

It is a learnable skill to see poets - or, as we call them now, writers of fiction - as intelligence sources, as a valuable source of uncorrupted reporting about what’s really going on - and not just as entertainment (and poor entertainment at that, since it’s for people with a different outlook than our own).

I’ve had some training in this skill, in college. If you think that my writing’s been helpful in framing things, a fair amount of that comes from this sort of “close reading.” I think that with a little practice and iteration I can teach this skill, and it might be worth taking the time to try; I suspect it’s also helpful for generating new insights, especially ones that are out-of-model for the dominant paradigm. It might be helpful for the sort of discourse that is needed to seed a productive culture - not least because it could open up participants to outlooks genuinely outside the post-1950 Western consensus.

This is the sort of thing that would require some amount of patience - I can’t just tell you what to get out of the text, that’s much lower-resolution than the sort of perceptiveness and curiosity that can come out of guided discussion. And of course, I’ve learned this sort of thing, but have had limited experience teaching it. But it’s patience on the order of weeks, not months or years, before we should be able to evaluate results.

If a group of between six and twenty people were interested in making an extended time investment, I’d likely be happy to organize an experimental retreat of appropriate length - or series of regular in-person meetings - to have facilitated discussions of a series of texts that appear to be in conversation with each other. Doing this work one-on-one seems less highly leveraged, but I might could be persuaded.

Here are a few reading lists of texts - mostly written - that I think - if read together - would be good sequences for this sort of exercise, as they seem to be in conversation of a sort with one another. These are provisional and subject to lots of revision. I’m also happy to try to put together a sequence on other topics.

Related: Lego my Ego, The Value in Vagueness

8 thoughts on “Poets are intelligence assets

    1. Michael Vassar

      If he was compiling at about three discernable levels below where he is, but was on this topic, I think he would.

      For practice of the skill discussed though, I think Genji might be the best place to go. Or if one wants to be closer to to home, in the coherence loosing context immediately preceding our incoherent context, Virginia Woolf. Joyce might be more like Super-Wallace.

  1. estelendur

    It's truly a shame that this kind of discussion works so much better in a physically proximate, socially demarcated setting (like a retreat, or one of the better kinds of college discussion seminars). This is exactly the kind of thing that I most enjoy doing intellectually -- but I'm unsure if I could find anyone to have a discussion group with local to me, and I do not think I have the skill to facilitate or guide.

    1. Benquo Post author

      Attempts to learn this sort of skill on one's own aren't totally doomed - there's some historical precedent for autodidacts actually getting it. If you actually believe me that there's a nontrivial skill here, and try to forget everything you learned in school about How To Read a Great Text, and just pick up some Plato (The Hackett edition of 5 Platonic dialogues is a good & cheap starting point) and read it slowly and carefully, and respond to a sense that something is obvious crap with confusion and widening your hypothesis space rather than immediate dismissal, you might be able to bootstrap yourself into the thing.

      It's just that that process I describe is actually hard, and schools mostly make it harder.

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  4. Phil Goetz

    "Likewise, great literature is typically an integrated, multi-dimensional depiction. While there is a great deal of compression, the author is still trying to report how things might really have happened, to satisfy their own sense of artistic taste for plausibility or verisimilitude. Thus, we should expect that great literature is often an honest, highly informative account of everything except what the author meant to put into it."

    I'm not convinced, but this is one of the most-interesting theories of literary interpretation that I've read lately.

    One issue is that the errors writers make in their intended themes are, I think, not usually particular things that the author is fixated on and irrational about (though it can be; think of Ezra Pound's ravings about monetary policy, or Margaret Mitchell's beliefs about slavery). They are errors caused by fundamental misunderstandings about how the world works, which not only cause a large number of errors in perception, but do so in a way that correlates across many writers.

    For instance, Tolkien wanted /The Lord of the Rings/ to convince people of his understanding of Evil as a Real Thing which causes wars. This was fucked-up, because Tolkien had been in World War 1, and was modelling "evil" on that, yet failed to notice that WW1 was caused not by Evil Overlords, but by a mass mania across Europe for violence. But LOTR contains many other messages which may have been accidental, like the idea that entropy rules the world, and the new things are always pale imitations or corruptions of the old things.

    And if you compare the messages embedded in LOTR to those embedded in the works of CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, George MacDonald, and so on, you'll find these wrong beliefs are strongly correlated across clusters of like-minded writers. It isn't hard to show in this case that that's because they share an underlying cause: Christian faith plus a fascination with medieval beliefs.

    Once the underlying cause for their ideology is identified, perhaps you can factor it out of the work... but I suspect not much would often remain.


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