Les mouches (The flies)


Once, when I was enrolled in a Victorian Literature class in college, reading novel after essay after poem that grieved deeply over the religious upheaval brought on by the scientific breakthroughs of Charles Darwin and others, I asked my professor whether there weren't any 19th-century authors who felt liberated, rather than bereft, by these developments. As a profoundly a-religious person myself, I can try to imagine myself into the position of Arnold, Tennyson, Ruskin and others, who either grieved the loss of, or struggled to reconcile, their Christian beliefs with new geological and biological evidence. (Though I have trouble understanding the objection to a metaphorical reading of the Bible, which would seem to tie up all these problems with a neat little ribbon). But I would have thought that some 19th-century writers would embrace the demise of the god-concept and welcome a life of intellectual freedom and self-determination. My professor thought a while and then said yes, there were those writers, but that we wouldn't be reading Nietzsche in this class.

Nor have I read him since. But Jean-Paul Sartre's Les mouches (The Flies), an existentialist re-telling of the murder of Aegisthos and Clytemnestra at the hands of Orestes and Electra, comes close to what I was looking for back then, despite not having been written until 1943. Sartre takes the classical Greek tale, in which Orestes returns from his exile and is egged on by his long-lost sister Electra to avenge their father's death by killing their mother and her lover, and turns it into a parable about the changeable reality of gods in human lives, the role of remorse, and the power of free will. Having just read Anne Carson's translation of Sophocles's Orestes, the contrast was particularly clear in my mind between the crushing inevitability of the characters' fates in Sophocles, and the clarity with which Sartre's Orestes freely creates his own destiny.

There are other differences. In Sartre, we see the effects of Clytemnestra's and Aegisthos's crime on the regular citizens of Argos. The common people share in their rulers' guilt—something that feels alien to the royalty-centric worlds of Aeschylus, but very appropriate to a France of 1943, in which citizens had to decide whether to support the Resistance or collaborate with the fascist Vichy regime. Fifteen years before the play's action, Clytemnestra and Aegisthos murdered Agamemnon (Argos's king, Clytemnestra's husband), but were immediately seized with horrified remorse at their action. This remorse has taken over their lives and their style of ruling, becoming the ruling cult of Argos. As Electra tells her disguised brother,

[L]a reine se divertit à notre jeu national: le jeu des confessions publiques. Ici, chacun crie ses péchés à la face de tous; et il n'est pas rare, aux jours feriés, de voir quelque commerçant, après avoir baissé le rideau de fer de sa boutique, se traîner sur les genoux dans les rues, frottant ses cheveux de poussière et hurlant qu'il est un assassin, un adultère ou un prévaricateur. Mais les gens d'Argos commencent à se blaser: chacun connaît par coeur les crimes des autres; ceux de la reine en particulier n'amusent plus personne, ce sont des crimes officiels, des crimes de fondation, pour ainsi dire. Je te laisse à penser sa joie lorsqu'elle t'a vu, tout jeune, tout neuf, ignorant jusqu'à son nom: quelle occasion exceptionelle! Il lui semble qu'elle se confesse pour la première fois.
The queen is just amusing herself at our national game: the game of public confessions. Here, everyone shouts their sins in each others' faces; and it's not rare, on feast days, to see some merchant, having closed up shop, crawling on his knees through the streets, rubbing dirt into his hair and yelling that he's an assassin, an adulterer, or a liar. But the people of Argos are starting to get bored. Everyone knows everyone else's crimes by heart; the crimes of the queen, in particular, no longer interest anyone, they're official crimes, founding crimes so to speak. I'll leave you to imagine her joy when she saw you, young and new, not even knowing her name: what an extraordinary opportunity! It feels to her like she's confessing for the first time.

Thus the guilt and penitence of Aegisthos and Clytemnestra have become the dominant characteristic of the entire society—everyone is defined by their misdeeds, and are forever trying to leech some kind of absolution out of everyone else—a vicious spiral that becomes more and more insular and stagnant as time goes on, as symbolized by the plagues of flies that infest the city. The big national fête, for example, involves twenty-four hours of heightened fear and remorse for the citizens of Argos, as a priest moves a boulder away from a cave entrance, and Aegisthos declares that the city's dead have returned from the underworld. (Whether or not the dead actually have returned is a point of contention among the citizens, highlighted by a darkly funny conversation between two guards about whether the dead flies return on this night, or only the dead humans.) Jupiter, god of flies, death, and decay, rules over Argos, feeding on the back-looking contrition of its citizens, and he often demonstrates his vested interest in keeping the Argos people enchained.

Into this pit of recreational remorse steps Orestes, reared in privilege away from Argos and only recently informed of his parentage. Until now he has had no real ties, wandering the world at liberty, belonging to no one and with no one belonging to him. The central conflict of the play, then, involves Orestes's inner struggle over how to claim ownership over his ancestral past, not having shared his sister's years of servitude and hatred, and whether he can or should act to break the cycle of fear and remorse in Argos. In Sartre's hands his eventual murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthos becomes a declaration of independence, a unique, freely-chosen action, over which Orestes takes full ownership and for which he refuses all regret. The furies, who in classical Greek tragedy haunt Orestes to madness after he murders his mother, are here sent by Jupiter as partisan beings who attempt to bully him into remorse—and must fall back when they see that he does not fear them, or regret his action.

It's such an interesting take on the story, because if I were to choose any era of literature that inclined least toward an expression of free will, I would probably choose ancient Greek tragedy. In a way, Sartre himself accomplishes something similar to Orestes's coup in overthrowing the dominant worldview in Argos: just like the people of Argos have believed for years that they are defined by the confession of their sins, the tellers of this story have always believed that the events therein were fore-ordained and controlled by the gods. For Sartre, however, as Jupiter unwillingly admits,

Quand une fois la liberté a explosé dans une âme d'homme, les Dieux ne peuvent plus rien contre cet homme-là. Car c'est une affaire d'hommes, et c'est aux autres hommes—à eux seuls—qu'il appartient de le laisser courir ou de l'étrangler.
When once freedom has burst into the soul of a man, the Gods have no power to act against him. Because he's now a human affair, and it's up to other men—to them alone—to let him run or to strangle him.

I've hardly mentioned Electra at all here, but Sartre's depiction of her was another unique feature of Les mouches, and the only part of this play that was a bit disappointing to me. In Sophocles and Euripedes (I haven't read Aeschylus's version of events after Agamemnon's death), Electra is if anything the stronger, more vengeful, more obsessive sibling, the one who never falters in her quest to see her mother dead and her father avenged. She is the one who cares for Orestes after the murders are done, the one less affected by the furies. In Sartre this dynamic is reversed: although Electra initially desires Orestes to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthos, she recoils when faced with the reality of the deed. In the end she can't resist the pull of the remorse-cult on which she was raised, fleeing back into the killing arms of Jupiter. It's an effective choice, I think, and I understand why Sartre worked in this contrast between brother and sister, but I was still a tad bit disappointed not to encounter the blazing, defiant Electra I have come to expect.

All in all, though, another fascinating foray into existential theater, and a rare opportunity to see enacted a celebration of human self-determination, even when that self-determination is difficult and morally ambiguous.


  • Do you have a preference between this and the last Sartre you read or are they too different to compare in that way? I like the Greek tragedy rewrite idea here, but I'm so rusty on the tragedians that I'm not sure I'd appreciate everything Sartre does to rewrite them.

    • Hmm, No Exit might stand on its own better, although they're both super interesting and, as you say, really different from each other. Hard to compare! No Exit is also shorter, if you only have a few reading hours. (Lots of thinking hours, only a few reading hours, haha.)

  • Hard to think of many 19th century writers that welcomed the freedom that Darwin's theories afforded, though evident in late-Hardy perhaps, but Wilde would be first to mind.

    The importance of careful reading: I read this fascinating post twice, the first time missing that all- important "a-" in front of religious. Changes the slant completely.

    In the early '90s there was a production company that performed all Sartre's plays in little rooms above pubs and bakeries in London. I saw this at the time, but never read it. Another to add to the list.

    • Ha, and you were taken aback, I'm sure, given previous posts of mine on (a)religious subject matter. ;-) No, we're all about the agnosticism here at Evening All Afternoon.

      Wilde is such an interesting case. I never know to what degree to take seriously his life-long flirtation with Catholicism and deathbed conversion. He was so good at striking a pose that it is sometimes difficult to tell which parts of his persona were heartfelt.

  • I will confess that Les Mouches is one of Sartre's plays I haven't read (the other is Le Diable et le bon Dieu, which I really want to read but keep forgetting about). Beautiful commentary here on the play and you tease out the themes of Sartre's intriguing rewrite with great finesse. You're very good at reminding me that I really want to keep up with my reading in French!

    • What a nice compliment, Litlove! :-) My timing on this one was very fortuitous, especially as the Carson Oresteia translation has me eager to imbibe as many versions of the House of Atreus story as possible. I was really impressed with this one - highly recommended.

  • Actually I find it a fascinating question about what lit departments teach and don't teach in Victorian literature, and also what got published and what didn't with regard to secularism in that time period. One thing the sudden rise in blasphemy laws during the period teaches us is that there were far more people that were a-religious than have been represented in lit departments or in period publications. The imprisonment of Charles Southwell, the first editor of the working-class atheistic journal The Oracle of Reason comes to mind.

    I agree with you about Sartre's Electra. She is interesting. I know nothing about it but I wonder how much she is a reflection of some aspect of the dynamic in his and de Beauvoir's relationship.

    • Mary, that's such a good point about selective canon-formation and contemporary publication—and one I've just seen the merest hints of here and there since taking the class above. Another fairly outspoken atheist of the period who leaps to mind is Wilkie Collins, of whom I was not even aware until after college graduation. Certainly the narration of Drusilla Clack in The Moonstone leaves a reader with little doubt where Collins's sympathies lay vis-à-vis evangelical Christianity. I haven't pursued any personal writings or essays of his that may exist, though.

      As for Electra and Orestes being a reflection of Sartre and Beauvoir, I have to admit I hope you're wrong, but you could very well be right! :-)

  • This sounds like an excellent play! I really like the whole Orestes cycle so I have to read this since it is such an interesting twist. I can't read French though. My library has an edition translated by Stuart Gilbert. Any idea if he is a good translator?

    • Stefanie, I don't know anything about Stuart Gilbert in particular, but it seems to me that this play would stand up pretty well to translation in general. Its conceptual quality and the ways in which it diverges from its classical models - it seems like those would come through in English. And yeah, if you're a fan of the Orestes/Electra story it seems like a must-read!

  • I wonder if it would be easier to find writers who felt liberated by religious upheaval and doubt if you looked to the Americans? Whitman perhaps, and Emerson? Anyway, I'm not familiar with Sartre's plays beyond No Exit, so I was glad to learn more here!

    • Ah, you may really have a point there! Since I haven't traditionally "gelled" with the transcendentalists I don't know much about their theology (beyond the fact that Emerson was a Unitarian minister), but certainly my mental image of Whitman fits. He was at least enthusiastic about the idea of freedom, for sure.

      And glad you enjoyed my thoughts on Sartre - I quite liked this play.

      • Don't let Emerson being a Unitarian minister color your idea of him. He was a minister for a fairly brief period. His church pretty much asked him to leave because his ideas were a bit too radical for them. He read Darwin and was not at all upset about evolution. Rather, I think it fascinated him and provided fuel for his ideas that through nature we could better know God.

        • If I hold anything against Emerson, it's Thoreau, not Unitarianism. ;-)

          Which I know isn't really fair. I remember reading at your place and Dorothy's that even Emerson got frustrated with his friend for some of the same reasons I do. I also find "Self-Reliance" a bit annoying for its failure to recognize the ways in which the titular self-reliance (whether material or intellectual) might be easier for a white male landowner to achieve than for someone in a less privileged position. It's a thread running through my relationship with the Transcendentalists: it just irks me the degree to which they ignore their own privilege. But I should probably branch out a bit & read more of Emerson's work—I know so many folks who love him.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography