The Flies, by Jean-Paul Sartre: Orestes And Christ As Existentialist Heroes

 

Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Flies (or Les Mouches) adopts the classic Grecian narrative of Orestes and frames the famous matricidal hero as an existentialist incarnation of Christ, whereby he takes the sins of the people of Argos upon his shoulders to relieve them of the burden of their past.  Though the Christ analogy is problematic at points, the narrative does demonstrate the existentialist qualities of Christian theology  mythology whilst also demonstrating the ways in the classical works of antiquity illustrate existentialist philosophies despite the fact that many of them seem deterministic in nature.  By incorporating issues like facticity, essence, the gaze, authenticity, fear and despair, and determinism, Sartre creates a well-rounded narrative that offers an abridge version of his seminal work Being and Nothingness (which at over 700 pages is in dire need of abridgement).  Unlike other Sartistic plays, like Huis Clos (commonly known as No Exit in English), which works on almost a purely theoretical basis, and both Dirty Hands and The Respectful Prostitute, which ground existentialist theory in contemporary political issues, The Flies may be the only one of Sartre’s plays that embraces a traditional narratives found on the stages of antiquity, which makes the work especially appealing fans of Grecian theatre, though it replaces the chorus and a strong emphasis on existentialism.

 

 

AUTHENTICITY AND ESSENCE

 

Sartre begins the play by framing Orestes as one who possess true existentialist freedom.  In existentialist thought, authenticity is defined as being able to create oneself on their own terms, whilst essence is defined as the contextual factors that shape one’s identity, often times linked with labels, roles and categories projected onto a person.   Orestes’s tutor makes a great effort to educate Orestes without such limitation.  He had not, until shortly before the play begins, let Orestes know about his familial history, and, with no memories or culture (58), Orestes’s mind was “free from prejudice and superstition” as he had “no family ties, no religion, and no calling” (59) and was therefore free to form an authentic self.  Orestes recognizes this, stating that “Some men are born bespoke”, but that he “had no home, no roots” (59).  With no religion or possession, Orestes doesn’t only sound like a John Lennon song, but he is in a position to form his own identity free of predetermined roles or categories.  However, upon learning of his home town, Orestes feels compelled to visit it, and after meeting his sister Electra (not to be confused with Electro), he finds that he has had roles projected onto him as she tells him that her brother “is doomed; tangled up in his destiny” (85), and frames Orestes as a coward who is disloyal to his own blood and destiny should he not avenge his father’s murder.  When he finally embraces his sister’s prescribed role, which she has constructed for him, she says that he is “talking like the Orestes of [her] dreams” (91).  His family lineage, coupled with socially constructed concepts like honour and justice, then, provide the essence that Orestes’s tutor has manage to keep Orestes free of, demonstrating how such influences can shape identity.

 

 

FACTICITY

 

TheFliesOne of the most prominent themes in the book is the notion of facticity, which existentialists often use in reference to the manner in which one’s past defines and influences one’s present.  Though one is defined by one’s past, the past does not necessarily define one’s future.  The issue in The Flies, however, is that each of the characters allows themselves to be defined by their past mistakes, and so allow their past to become a kind of deterministic influence over them.  Zeus, who is initially disguised as a man, tell Orestes that “Fifteen years ago a mighty stench of carrion drew [the flies] to this city, and since then they’ve been getting fatter and fatter” (51).  The stench of carrion is in reference to the murder of Agamemnon, who was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, and he lover, Aegistheus. The flies serve as a metaphor for the town’s collective sin, for though only two people carried out the murders, the entire town is considered culpable for not intervening.  Each of the town’s people dress in black and anticipate the day of the dead, when it is believed that those whom they have transgressed against will come back to haunt them.  Aegistheus claims to see the dead and narrates what is happening to the people, but this is entirely a fabrication on his part and the entire charade is a construct. By dwelling on their past sins, the people of the town lose their present and future, allowing their facticity to usurp their identity.

 

Some of the sins are perpetual, and Sartre employs the narrative around Electra, Orestes’s sister and Agamemnon’s daughter, to enhance the conversation about facticity.  Though Clytemnestra’s sin against her husband occurred in a single moment that is past, she has made a scullion of her daughter and continues to perpetuate her daughter’s oppression.  Electra notes the hypocrisy of her mothers’ remorse, telling her that she’s “made of her a scullion.  But that crime, it seems, sits lightly on your conscience” (69).  This further reinforces the deterministic nature of one’s facticity as Clytemnestra’s allegiance to her perpetual grief has made her blind to the fact she can change her behaviour and correct the problem.  Instead, though, she allows her grief to define her and perpetuates the oppression of her own daughter.  When she is challenged by Electra, she merely responds that it “is easy for young people, who have not yet had a chance of sinning, to condemn” (69), but in this process she condemns her daughter to a life of sin because her maltreatment of Electra fosters vengeance in Electra’s heart.

 

 

A caricature of Jean-Paul Sartre, borrowed from here.

A caricature of Jean-Paul Sartre, borrowed from here.

Electra, though, is able to break the bonds of her facticity and define herself on her own terms.  After convincing Orestes to murder Clytemnestra and Aegistheus, she is confronted with her crime and is challenged by Zeus to repent.  Orestes, who has ironically served as the prototype for existentialist freedom up until this point, asks his sister if she is “going to go back on fifteen years of hope and hatred” (114).  In pressing her to define herself by her past, is is discouraging her from breaking free of her facticity.  He encourages her to take ownership over her role in the death of her mother and stepfather, emboldening her to allow her past hatred to define her moving forward.  Orestes goes onto say that “A crime that its doer disowns becomes ownerless” (123).  This speaks to Orestes’s fear that Electra will become a different person.  If Electra repents her past actions, then she demonstrates that she is no longer the person who holds the values that led her to wish for such actions.  If that person is the gone, and the act has no owner, it then loses its meaning.  Orestes, though, sees the act of its virtue and does not wish to see the act lose its merit.  In compelling Electra to embrace the act, he links this with another key concept of existentialist: the idea that ‘hell is other people’.  Orestes seems to have a clear conscience, but he still needs validation from Electra, and without her support, the meaning of his actions change.  He therefore needs her, and so this notion that ‘hell is other people’ becomes manifest as the narrative demonstrates the way in which we are all dependent on others to bring meaning to our actions and in turn life.  Without Electra to validate him, Orestes trades places with her, allowing himself to be defined by his facticity whilst Electra breaks free of hers.

 

 

ANGST AND DESPAIR

 

Edvard Munch's The Scream, which seems to me to capture existentialist angst and despair pretty well.

Edvard Munch‘s The Scream, which seems to me to capture existentialist angst and despair pretty well.

Whilst Electra serves to encapsulate the ways in which one’s facticity serves to impact one’s identity, she is also emblematic of that ways in which angst and despair shape one’s identity.  The notion of angst is rooted in the fear that one’s freedom might also be one’s down fall.  For Electra this is manifest in her plan to murder her mother and stepfather.  When Orestes finally arrives to help her carry out the plan, she implores him to back out of the plan, fearing that the consequences would doom her.  Once the plan is carried out, she must confront her despair.  Since her identity has been define by her hatred of her parents and her wrathful plans against them, she now has to confront the fact that these things that have defined her for so long are no longer a part of her.  Like the athlete who has defined himself through his physical prowess only to suffer a career ending injury, Electra must now formulate a new identity, encapsulating the existentialist notion of despair.  Electra struggles with her new-found freedom, leading this despair to return to a kind of angst.  Orestes diagnoses this despair when he rejects culpability for it by noting that “her suffering comes from within, and only she can rid herself of it.  For she is free” (113).  This fear of freedom is central to the play as Aegistheus secures authority over others by manipulating their fear, and he admits when he says he “played upon their fear” (95), using their fear to inhibit their freedom.  Fear of one’s own freedom, then, serves to enslave a number of the characters in the play.

 

HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE

 

Another caricature of Sartre, this one borrowed from here.

Another caricature of Sartre, this one borrowed from here.

The masses that Aegistheus manipulates serve as a kind of antithesis to Sartre’s more famous play, Huis Clos.  In Huis Clos, the three lead characters discover that the afterlife is made up of a single room and that none of the imagined tortures associated with hell are present.  However, they are able to see and hear how they are spoken of by the living, and soon find that their identity is shaped, not by their intent, but rather by others interpretations of their actions.  Once all the living who have known them are gone, each realizes that the antagonists they have been housed with take the place of the living,  with each of them shaping the other’s identity, demonstrating the notion that ‘hell is other people’.  In The Flies, however, it is quite the opposite.  Rather than the dead being defined by the living, the living are defined by the dead.  On the day of the dead, the living are visited by those who have gone on and their past sins come back to haunt them.  Rather than being defined on their own terms, they are defined by the way in which they imagine the dead perceive them, the exact opposite of Huis Clos.  Though the dead are merely imagined by Aegistheus to manipulate the masses, this still serves to demonstrate the ways in which one’s identity is socially constructed, rather than personally.  Because each person agrees that Aegistheus has the ability to see the dead, they all give authority to his myth of the walking dead, and so perpetuate this join construction of identity that keeps them in a kind of hell.

 

 

THE GAZE

 

'The gaze', as depicted in this illustrative work.

‘The gaze’, as depicted in this illustrative work.

The social construction of one’s identity is also constructed through the gaze, which Sartre demonstrates through the collective guilt of the populace of Argos.  In defending her inaction on the night of Agamemnon’s murder, an old woman states that her “good man was in the fields, at work” and that as a woman she could do nothing, and so bolted her door. Zeus counters, though, noting that in hearing the death throes of Agamemnon, she took a peep of what was going on (54).  Before her gaze is acknowledged, she shares no guilt, but once another is able to recount her gaze, she then becomes culpable.  The same can be said of the rest of the town’s people.  Zeus tells Orestes that “a single word, might have sufficed” to save Agamemnon, “But no one said it; each was gloating in imagination over the picture of a huge corpse with a shattered face” (53).  As the citizens only heard the murder, they had to imagine the visual, so their gaze is both auditory and imaginative in nature, but it is still a kind of gaze.  Because they collectively know that the others heard/saw and did nothing,  they all bear witness against each other and so construct their collective, or co-constitutive guilt.  The gaze associated with the guilt, however, is challenged by Sartre.  When Zeus is called out by Orestes for not intervening on Agamemnon’s behalf, Zeus warns Orestes not to “blame the gods too hastily”, noting that in some instances allowing “such breaches of the law to point[s] a moral” is beneficial (53).  Though not a fully developed argument, it is one that challenges the gaze and notes that judgments made based on the gaze may be unjust if a broader context is not known.

 

 

DETERMINISM

 

Ingres's painting of Zeus, er, Jupiter, er... whatever.

Ingres‘s painting of Zeus, er, Jupiter, er… whatever.

Though Sartre’s play is existentialist in principle, he addresses how some view their fate and identity in deterministic terms.  When Electra speaks of her murder fantasy, she claims that “all the moments will link up, like the cogs in a machine” (92), suggesting that each moment is defined by those that preceded it and that personal choice does not come into play.  After her fantasy is carried out, Zeus speaks in similar terms, telling Electra that she was “haunted by the cruel destiny of [her] race” (114).  This use of the word destiny implies an overt lack of autonomy for Electra, suggesting that her life was planned out before her and that she had no real choice in how her life was to turn out. Zeus reinforces this, stating that “It was [he] who ordained [the planets’] courses, according to the law of justice” (116) and that she had not authority in her own destiny. He also speaks to elements of Electra’s essence, in that she, “At an age when most children are playing hopscotch or with their dolls… had no friends or toys”, and “toyed with dreams of murder” instead (114).  The essence, or context, served to shape Electra’s identity, though she had no hand in creating it herself. Electra’s lack of autonomy is placed in the frame work of patriarchal determinism on three levels. First, Zeus, as her creator, placed her in a situation he knew would shape her tragedy.  Aegistheus likewise used his authority to place Electra in a dismal servitude that instilled her wrath, and Orestes went forward with Electra’s murderous fantasy even after she asked him not to, tearing down the only identity she had ever know.  Though Orestes certainly seems to suggest that Electra has more autonomy than the play’s climax suggests, it is clear that there are instances in which Electra certainly lacks autonomy.

 

CHRIST AS AN EXISTENTIALIST HERO

 

The buddy Jesus, from Kevin Smith's Dogma.  Is Jesus an existentialist hero?

The buddy Jesus, from Kevin Smith‘s Dogma. Is Jesus an existentialist hero?

One of the most interesting parts of the novel is the analogous characteristics Orestes shares with Christ, which seems to frame Christ as a kind of existentialist hero.  The Jewish people depicted in the Old Testament have few differences from the people of Argos, outside of who they worship.  Both are born into sin, and both are weighed down and defined by their sins.  Both likewise have saviours that come to lift this burden from their shoulders.  Christ dies on the cross, and takes their sins away, whilst Orestes commits murder and thereby takes on the wrath of the Furies and the flies, lifting the cloud of sin that covered Argos.  Both the Jews and the pagans could then live a life unburdened by their sin, or the facticity that defined their past.  As for the heroes, both Christ and Orestes dealt with an angry mob who were calling for their respective deaths, and though Christ served as the passive martyr whilst Orestes took on the role of valiant heroic martyr, both gave up their lives that their people might be free of past wrongs.  The Flies, then, uses analogies to frame the gospels as existentialist narratives with Christ serving as the prototypical existentialist hero.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

And yes another caricature of Jean-Paul Sartre, this one borrowed from here.

And yes another caricature of Jean-Paul Sartre, this one borrowed from here.

The Flies is not my favorite work by Sartre, but it is one that has a number of merits.  In bringing existentialist theory to a narrative from antiquity, Sartre opens the door for any number of classical works to be appropriated by existentialist theory whilst simultaneously demonstrating to those who have a preference for the works of antiquity that existentialism is a universal philosophy.  By weaving several of the key tenants of existentialism into an entertaining revenge narrative, Sartre makes existentialist theory more engaging and demonstrates that humanity has the freedom to transcend its more visceral emotive responses to shape its identity, a lesson that was of particular importance given that it was published during WWII when visceral urges were running high.  In the context of his other works, the play adds depth to Sartre’s approaches and demonstrates both his range as a writer, extending beyond contemporary politics, as he did in Dirty Hands and The Respectful Prostitute.  Though Sartre drops some of the traditional elements of Greek plays, such as the chorus, the strophe, and anti-strophe, he still manages to capture the spirit of the story telling and packages up in a way that allows contemporary viewers and readers enjoy the story whilst remaining loyal to the source material.  The Flies serves as an expert experiment in existentialist theatre.

 

If you enjoyed this post and would like updates on my latest ramblings, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler, and if you are a fan of Jean-Paul Sartre, be sure to check out my reviews of No Exit, The Respectful Prostitute, and Dirty Hands.

 

Words I thought I’d look up:

Ordure:  Excrement.

Inexpiable: Unforgivable.

Scullion:  A servant assigned to the kitchen.

Bugaboo: A monster, or a song that Sartre did not actually co-write with Destiny’s Child.

Gossamer: Transparent.

Cavil: To complain.

 

Works Cited:

Sartre, Jean-Paul.  The Flies. From No Exit and Other Plays.  New York: Vintage.  1989.  Print.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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