For transformation to occur there must be a catalyst, a force so powerful that it has the ability to change the psychological as well as the physical human form. This catalyst is desire. Desire to transform chaos into order set the stage for the stories of creation. Desire to gain access to more food is the foundation of evolutionism. Desire to eat the forbidden fruit is thought to be the fall of man, thus transforming the world from a pristine paradise to a moral battleground. Since the beginning of time, our world and its inhabitants have been metamorphosed according to this natural law of desire.
The civilization of ancient Greece was one of male dominated hierarchy and rigid social order. In The Bacchae, Euripides brilliantly demonstrates the terrible ramifications brought about by denying the nature of human existence, the struggle between rational morality and uncontrolled passion. Dionysus is the god of wine, dance, excess, savagery and ecstasy, he appeals to the inner desires of mankind and encourages people to experience life without restrictions. Euripides uses him as the embodiment of all that the Hellenistic society feared: the irrational, the primal, the exotic, the Other.
His followers retreat to the woods where they have orgiastic festivals, feed upon livestock that they have ripped apart with their bare hands, and dance to exhaustion. They indulge in ceremonial wine and exist in a sort of delusional stupor. Dionysus easily engages the female population of Thebes because he provides a release from their otherwise rigid and oppressed existence. He takes them from Thebes, removes them from their domestic chores and transforms them into self-reliant individuals with supernatural powers.
The women’s obsessive worship of the Bacchae is a result of their suppressive society, where their worth and desires were not recognized. Because Dionysus’ empowerment of women attacks the very foundation of Greek civilization, Pentheus orders an army to be assembled stating, “This is beyond all bearing, if we must let women so defy us” (Euripides 219). Pentheus, the young King of Thebes, rejects the new religion that Dionysus brings to his land and desperately seeks to preserve order and control.
He is the embodiment of rationalistic skepticism. Upon returning to Thebes after being away for quite some time, Pentheus is shocked by “the astounding scandal” that has overtaken his land, and gives a cold-hearted address: “Those still at large on the mountain I am going to hunt out; and that Includes my own mother Agaue and her sisters Ino and Autonoe. Once they’re fast in iron fetters, I’ll put a stop to this outrageous Bacchism… I’ll cut his head from his shoulders; that will stop him from drumming with his thyrsus. ” (Euripides 198)
Not only does Pentheus propose the incarceration of his own mother and two aunts, but also he goes on to insult his grandfather Cadmus and the honored seer Teiresias stating, “I am ashamed to see two men of your age, with so little sense of decency” (Euripides 198). From his first scene in the play, he expresses his objective moralism and judgmental attitude. Cadmus unsuccessfully attempts to persuade Pentheus using a rational argument asserting familial gain: “Don’t stray beyond pious tradition; live with us. Your wits have flown to the winds, your sense is foolishness.
Even if, as you say, Dionysus is no god, let him have your acknowledgement; lie royally, that Semele may get honor as having borne a god, and credit come to us and our family. ” (Euripides 202) By refusing to attempt a comprehension of Dionysus’ mysterious force, Pentheus refuses to accept his own nature. Dionysus is not only his nemesis but also his cousin, and the rites of his religion correspond with the truths that touch all men, including Pentheus. As was the case with the women, the object of Pentheus’ suppression eventually transforms itself into his obsession.
Originally Pentheus planned on taking an army into the Cithaeron Mountains to hunt for the women; however, due to his desire to witness the reveling of his mother and the other women he is ultimately transformed from the hunter to the hunted. His obsession about the lewd Bacchic rites reveals his own suppressed sexual curiosity, and his own imagination becomes the bait with which Dionysus uses to trap him. Pentheus falls prey to the decadent nature of Dionysus and the primal forces he represents. Ironically, Pentheus is destroyed in the very rituals he tried to suppress.
As seen in the characters of Pentheus and his mother, Agave, societal opinion of one’s desires plays an important role in his happiness. It is fortunate if one’s desires are regarded as socially acceptable and tragic if considered unacceptable. This aspect of the transformative powers of desire can be seen in Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice. Gustav Aschenbach spent his entire life in passive acceptance of his European Bourgeois ideals, but what he “sought was something strange and random” (Mann 206).
Aschenbach ‘s “fear of not finishing his task – the apprehension that time might run out before he had given the whole of himself by doing what he had it in him to do – was no longer what he could dismiss as an idle fancy” (Mann 198). It becomes apparent that Aschenbach, repressed by his native culture and deeply entrenched in “inner appropriateness,” has become unbalanced. His lifelong suppression of his inner desires now threatens his artistic productivity; therefore, he must escape his mundane existence and seek out the inspiration needed to release his deeply buried passions.
Upon arriving in Venice, Aschenbach discovers the object of his inspiration in the form of a fourteen-year-old boy named Tadzio. Originally, Aschenbach observes the youth as a Platonic Soul, believing that the inspiration for his creativity will radiate from this figure. Unfortunately, because Aschenbach, playing the role of his bourgeois existence, has always kept his passions suppressed, once he admits sensual beauty into his life he begins to experience a moral breakdown. Succumbing to an emotional state of delusion, he becomes increasingly obsessed with Tadzio and plans his daily schedule so as to be in constant contact with the boy.
While observing Tadzio frolicking on the beach, Aschenbach has a vision of an elderly ugly Socrates instructing the young beautiful Phaedrus on desire and virtue. In his vision Socrates slyly woos the young boy by telling him, “Beauty is the lover’s path to the spirit… he who loves, he said, is more divine than the beloved, because the god is in the former, but not in the latter – this, the tenderest perhaps and the most mocking thought ever formulated, a thought alive with all the mischievousness and most secret voluptuousness of the heart” (Mann 235).
Aschenbach’s vision temporarily legitimizes the sensual attraction he begins to feel toward Tadzio and produces an overwhelming desire to write. He has an irresistible desire to pen his “opinion on a certain important cultural problem, a burning question of taste… and what he craved, indeed was to work on it in Tadzio’s presence” (Mann 236). However, after writing one and a half pages of “exquisite prose,” Aschenbach realizes that the object of his inspiration must be kept secret from his intended audience, theorizing that knowledge of the source of his inspiration would confuse and shock his readers.
By coming to this conclusion, the writer understands the immorality that lies beneath his interest. Aschenbach soon learns that an epidemic of cholera is spreading through Venice, but his overwhelming desire to remain close to Tadzio prevents him from leaving the city. In addition, Aschenbach neglects to warn Tadzio’s family of the hidden dangers for fear that they will take Tadzio away from him. The sickness that spreads through the town is symbolic of the sickness of uncontrolled desire that is infecting Aschenbach.