(New York, NY: Black Cat, 2017)
Toward the end of Euripides’s Medea, Jason (erstwhile Argonaut, theiver of the Golden Fleece) abandons his wife Medea to marry Glauce, the daughter of the king of Corinth. Hard to blame him quite – he and Medea had just escaped with their two young boys from Iolcus where Pelias, Jason’s uncle who usurped the kingship, had enslaved them – and now with this new alliance comes the promise of privilege, and not just for him, Jason argues, but for the children. Medea’s not having it, first poisoning a golden dress that she conned Jason into giving to Glauce as a wedding present; and then to make certain that male privilege feels its comeuppance in the most devastating manner, she murders the boys, Promachus and Aeson. The reason the play has been so compelling over two and a half millennia is that it is not so simple to say that Medea is merely psychopathic – she does show concern for her children, even as they are under her knife – but her rage over being scorned, inflamed by abusive patriarchal structure, overpowers her guilt. And because she feels no consequence, there is none. In the final scene she is swooped up by her grandfather Helios’s chariot, holding the wrists of her dead children as she looks down on her husband, denying him any part of the grief-cleansing burial ritual. So ends the play that presents perhaps the harshest feminist calculus in the history of literature.
In his intriguing new novel Bright Air Black, David Vann retells the Medea and Jason myth from a tight third person perspective, which allows for Medea’s covetous meditations on male power to pull back against the horror of what she’s willing to do to achieve the status of a king: she tosses her brother piece by piece into the sea to slow her father’s chase of the Argo, knowing he will be compelled to retrieve them to bury his son whole; she forages for insects and wild mushrooms to make hallucinogenic soup, straddling the Argonauts one by one, taking each into her hand, knowing there “can be no god without desire”; she tricks Pelias’s daughters into hacking him with axes as he sleeps, knowing it is either her children or his who will suffer for her enslavement. Medea doesn’t tell herself pretty stories about there being a higher power either. Her muse, Hekate, the goddess of sorcery and necromancy, is a personal construction, embodying her female ambition to succeed according to the terms of men. In a moment of desperation, as the Argo is being chased by Thracians intent on harm, Medea “does not call to Hekate. She won’t spend her last moments speaking blank words into air.” The impulse to pray replaced by the desire to “kill and dominate.” She wishes to “make all cower on the ground before her, every man in every land.” Isn’t the point that we find this thought all the more off-putting when it comes from a woman, our sense of power and therefore justice gender-relative?
In the epigraph to his novel, Vann provides a line from Euripides that externalizes the locus of morality, suggesting that as bad as we humans can be, it is not our fault to have created such a cruel universe: “What mortals hope, the gods frustrate. / From our dull lives and loves they make / an unexpected passion play.” However, in the denouement, Vann doesn’t have Medea escape punishment through the device of deus ex machina like she does in the play, where she is literally held aloft in a chariot, a semi-goddess above Corinthian authority. Instead, the top power is Medea’s extraordinary and grotesque human will, cinched in the ultimate scene when she pulls back Aeson’s head to expose his severed throat and “fills her mouth with blood…She lurches forward and sprays the air to turn it dark. Bright air black.” The poetic final line speaks to a middle space between cosmic justice and human fear, which she has well mastered. Who can contend with what she’s capable of? “Jason won’t dare follow. None will follow,” she thinks, knowing she is past the grasp of “human law, at war with the sun.”
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Trevor Payne teaches English at Radnor High School in suburban Philadelphia.