This weekend, I went to see a performance of the ancient Greek tragedy, Euripedes’ Iphigenia in Aulis. During the drive back, I talked the performance over with my friends. We came to conclusions about what was distracting, what worked well, and what was inspiring. These decisions were reached through a process called “analysis”.
I believe that if something is worth doing without complete understanding, it’s even more worth doing with understanding. Analysis is that rule of philosophy in action. It is the process by which we understand what is at first hidden.
Analysis comes from the Greek ana meaning “up” and luein meaning “loosen”. Together, the word means to take apart. To find the causes.
The first step is to observe. Watch something objectively. Note your reactions to the thing. Pay attention to the layers of causes in the thing and its many aspects. In the same way, each reaction of yours is layers of thought, emotion, bias, and philosophy. Analysis can help you sort everything out, and discover which are worth keeping and which are not.
Is analysis good?
Analysis can detract from enjoyment if you can take analysis to an extreme. It pulls you out of the moment; you watch yourself think, pay attention to your reactions, and in general distract yourself from whatever you’re actually doing. Besides, nothing is perfect, and if you’re too picky, you’ll miss what’s good. As in everything, you must find a balance between critique and contentment.
But I still use it all the time. Analysis helps you to be more conscious of your own likes and dislikes. If you make a habit of examining yourself in this way, you’ll soon see that things often termed “opinions” can either have a lot of truth or none. You can train your reactions to participate in your reason. Analysis is, in fact, a road to freedom.
Let’s look at analysis at work:
Thoughts and Language
Observation: The first thing I noticed was that the Greek was translated into very modern English language. And I didn’t like it.
Question: “Why didn’t I like it?” Was it just that I generally prefer Shakespeare, where most of the language is so elevated and poetic? Or was there a deeper reason?
Analysis: I won’t pretend that I’ve lost my bias for Shakespeare. (I won’t even pretend I want to.) But at least part of the problem was also the disconnect between the modern vocabulary and phrases and the ancient, terrible thoughts that guide the play. Questions of human sacrifice, ambition, betrayal, and the will of the gods should lift the soul to great heights or plunge it into the depths of destruction. In modern English phrases and vocabulary without the aid of poetry, however, they run the risk of sounding fake or silly.
Still the actors spoke clearly, which is important in an outdoor setting. We were never in doubt about what they were saying.
Observation: The Chorus of Women of Chalcis were very interesting. Most of their speeches were set to music, tunes that sounded strange to our ears. Their dresses were outlandish, with no set style or time period. They moved choreographically unlike anyone else in the play, used the stage and setting to its full advantage. From this, I had the sense that they were more than they seemed.
Question: Why was this behavior, so out-of-line with most of the modern words and costumes of the others, not distracting to me?
Analysis: I love to see what different performances do with the chorus. The Greek chorus is a part of theater that has no equivalent in most modern productions. They are usually a group of people, who function both as characters in the play and as narrators. In their narrator portions, they speak lines all together, stories or songs that are tied to the story, but are really pieces in themselves. It’s difficult to bind those roles in a way that isn’t distracting to a modern audience.
The director’s decisions for the chorus worked well. The strangeness of their performance, rather than jarring us, set the audience at ease; we weren’t supposed to completely understand these part-human beings. We were only supposed to listen and watch.
Observation: We all agreed that our most heartfelt sympathy was for Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon and mother of Iphigenia. At first, I expected not to like her. Perhaps unexpected care for her is more powerful.
Question: Why did I feel more sorry for her than I did for Iphigenia and Agamemnon, the two who are faced with and nobly accept their cruel lots in life in order to promote the greater good?
Analysis: Clytemnestra is certainly a selfish character. From her first scene, when she’s planning for Iphigenia’s wedding, she isn’t thinking about Iphigenia; she’s thinking only about her own role as Mother of the Bride. When she discovers her husband’s awful plan to sacrifice their daughter for the good of the Greek army, she is angry mostly because he manipulated her. When she pleads with Agamemnon to reconsider, she reminds him of all the pain he’s put her through; how can he put her through more?
And yet my pity for her was most true. Partly it was her horribly sad back story. Partly it was the fact that she was never able to accept the greater good as the others were. She received no comfort in her distress. But mostly, I think it was because the actress, and probably the director, used that selfishness as a unifying force in her performance. She became completely human. You could understand her every word, decision, and action as flowing from her character. And that made her much more pitiable.
In this way, we can come to truly understand our reactions to things. And once we understand them, we can express them in a way that is intelligible and even convincing to those around us.