Also Seen: JFK as Greek Hero?

Over at the New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn has penned a piece comparing JFK (and family) to various Greek heroes … here’s a bit from the middle, the ideas of which have probably crossed your mind every now and then:


The family-curse theme, especially, is one we like to invoke in thinking about the Kennedys. The motif is nowhere stronger than in the “Oresteia” itself, the text that Robert Kennedy quoted that April evening forty-five years ago. When the Chorus speaks of suffering and pain, it looks as if they’re referring to current events: the queen Clytemnestra’s plot to murder her husband, Agamemnon, in revenge for his decision to sacrifice their virgin daughter Iphigenia to win from the gods favorable winds for his fleet to sail to Troy. But this act, it turns out, is merely a grim continuation of a cycle of carnage that goes back generations, as the Chorus knows only too well: to Agamemnon’s father, Atreus, who murdered his brother’s children; to Atreus’s father, Pelops, who won his bride by violence and betrayal, and was cursed by the man he betrayed; to Pelops’ father, Tantalus, a king so favored by the gods that he used to dine with them, until he murdered his own son and fed his flesh to his divine hosts to test whether they were, in fact, all-knowing.

In many tragedies—certainly in the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles—the gods are indeed all-knowing, are pulling the strings unbeknownst to the mortals whose lives they control: works like the “Oresteia” or the “Oedipus” (whose hero learns, to his horror, that he cannot escape the “plot” the gods have written for him) seem to confirm an invisible but palpable order in things. We, too, often seek to discern a kind of order—to find a plot—in the hodgepodge of events we call history. When people talk about the harrowing catalogue of sorrow and violent death in the Kennedy family—not only the uncannily twinned assassinations but the wartime mid-air explosion that killed J.F.K.’s older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr.; the two airplane crashes, his sister Kathleen and his son, J.F.K., Jr.; the lobotomy and institutionalization of a sister; Chappaquiddick; the murder scandal involving a nephew of Ethel Kennedy; the drug addictions and early deaths of some of R.F.K.’s children—they often mention, in the same breath, the alleged crimes of the family patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy. (The bootlegging, the election-fixing, the Mob connections, Gloria Swanson.) In referring to a “Kennedy Curse,” they are, essentially, thinking “tragically”: thinking the way Aeschylus thought, assuming that there is a dark pattern in the way things happen, a connection between the sins of the fathers and the sufferings of the children and their children afterward.

Also Seen: On ‘Greek Life’

Lucy Ferriss at Lingua Franca/CHE ponders something I ponder every now and then … in medias res:

[…] Here’s a sign of my generation: For years after I began teaching in the 1980s, I didn’t understand what Greek life referred to. I thought GLO stood for some sort of financial category, as in “We’re having a lot of problems with GLOs this year.” Yes, I’d seen Animal House with its toga party, but the toga was an outfit worn in ancient Rome, not ancient Athens. My mother was a Kappa Alpha Theta and remembered her sorority chant, but she went to college during World War II. Attending college on the West Coast, I knew these organizations existed, but they didn’t add up to any sort of life, much less a Greek one.

By now I’m used to hearing Greek life bemoaned, but I got curious: How have the Greeks, those exemplars of philosophy, Olympic games, and misbehaving deities, become a metonym for student-run social clubs? It turns out that the Greeks themselves had such clubs, known as phratries, membership in which was at one point a requirement of Athenian citizenship. They seem to have been hereditary and to have been associated with various Greek deities. The idea of club membership didn’t begin with the Greeks, of course, and it persisted both in and out of academe right up to the founding of the College of William & Mary in 1693. But the Greek motif returned when a group of William & Mary men grew sick of the secret organizations on campus that were “noted only for the dissipation & conviviality of members.” They chose Greek initials for their new, more high-minded organization because many of the societies already on campus were Latin-themed; and although all students (unlike most today) entered college with some Latin and Greek under their belts, Greek was considered more scholarly and esoteric. As all current members know, the initials they chose, ΦΒΚ, or Phi Beta Kappa, stood for Philosophia Biou Kubernētēs, “Philosophy [is the] guide to life.”

Obviously, there’s a difference these days between honorary organizations like Phi Beta Kappa and Duke’s recently suspended Kappa Sigma. But what strikes me is how “Greek life” has changed its meaning from, say, 1895, the high point of the phrase’s use according to Google Ngrams, when it referred to the thought and customs of people living by the Mediterranean “from the age of Alexander to the Roman Conquest.” In the more recent uptick of the phrase, beginning in 2001, it refers more to Torn Togas: The Dark Side of Campus Greek Life or to Fraternities, Sororities, and the Pursuit of Pleasure, Power, and Prestige. […]