Seneca Revisited

Written by: Justin Biggi.

Content Warning: This post contains graphic discussions of violence, gore, and self-harm.

Seneca’s tragic works are known for being, at the very least, polarising. Making liberal use of gory violence, they have often been considered liberally ‘sensationalised’ versions of the Greek plays they draw from. However, a number of scholars have, in recent years, begun to rehabilitate Seneca’s tragic violence, and read it through the lens of his own Stoic philosophy. As such, violence becomes at times a cautionary tale on the excess of emotions, an example of the ways in which furor rules one’s life, or an aid when confronting one’s own mortality. I believe that an ulterior dimension can be added to how we read Seneca’s use of violence if we read it through the lens of modern-day horror theory. 

The sharp contrast between Seneca’s frequent use of violence in his works and his Stoic philosophy can often be puzzling. Tragedy is where we find some of Seneca’s bloodiest, violent and most intense images. In Hercules Furens (54 CE), Amphitryon describes in great, gory detail the way in which Hercules is driven to madness by Juno and kills his children: ‘the arrow, piercing the middle of the neck, flies through the wound’ (Herc. Fur. 994 – 995), ‘[t]he room is covered in his scattered brains’ (Herc. Fur. 1007). Another example is Medea (50 CE), where the titular character performs a gruesome sacrifice to Hekate, using her own blood: ‘[m]ay [it] drip down onto the altar. Stricken, I have gifted the sacred liquid’ (Medea 811). Additionally, in stark contrast to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Seneca’s Oedipus rips out his own eyes, as opposed to using his mother’s brooch. The details given by Seneca are both realistic and absolutely chilling: ‘[w]ith curved, greedy fingers he finds his eyes and … yanks both eyeballs from the depths of his sockets, by the roots … he breaks away the last of the filaments from his sockets, so inexpertly torn’ (Oedipus 965 – 976). 

Amy Olberding argues that Seneca’s use of violence ‘invites empathetic apprehension of the felt personal quality of death’ which results in pushing readers to reflect deeply on death and dying. In her interpretation, she focuses primarily on Stoicism’s relationship to death, and Seneca’s own discussions of what constitutes a ‘good’ death and what does not. According to Olberding, the ‘particular’ of specific examples of violent deaths allows Seneca to prohibit his readers from interacting with death as a simple concept. Rather, it becomes an ‘event’ that cannot be ignored or denied, therefore helping them to ‘meet death well’ by extensively reflecting on it. His graphic depiction of violence serves an important educational role as it does not allow the reader the comfort of simple self-reflection. Instead, it complicates the issue of death, and invites a deeper level of understanding of it. Violence, in the form of specific examples, becomes a physical space that the spectator is forced to inhabit. Of course, this visualization is brought a step further when we bring theatre into the fold, seeing as theatre brings it beyond the imaginative powers of the reader.

In modern-day horror, we see a similar pattern of violence and gore. Not only is violence often excessive, it also serves a similar purpose: through it, the genre allows for larger questions of mortality, death and the body to come into play. This process occurs in two phases. On the one hand, we have the recognition of the dead body as a fundamental aspect of the recognition of the self. On the other hand, we have the inherently dehumanising nature of violence. Julia Kristeva identifies the witnessing of a dead body as an act which causes a violent recognition of the self. She calls this process “abjection”. It is the recognition of the self through an understanding of one’s physical presence. The human mind, however, is ill-equipped to fully understand what this means and recoils in terror; the ‘refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live’. What should be a moment of recognition causes instead a depersonalisation. The self, brought to the forefront by witnessing a dead body and being therefore made fully aware of death, rejects itself and its newfound physicality. In the horror genre, this depersonalisation is emphasised further through the frequent use of violent deaths. Horror, Adriana Cavarero argues, ‘has to do with repugnance’, a repugnance which lies in one being unable to justify ‘violence for violence’s sake’, which signifies the loss of individuality and personhood.

The depersonalisation and self-recognition typical of the horror genre I described above are also employed by Seneca in a similar manner. In his plays, the violence is so physically present that it becomes inevitable. It must be confronted. Through this confrontation, the audience must then come face-to-face with their fear of death. The process presented by Olberding bears a striking similarity to Kristeva’s description of the process of abjection. The audience, in witnessing the violent act, is forced to come to terms with their own mortality, and then modify their own approach to death – similarly to how, when confronted with death in the form of a body, Kristeva describes feelings of terror which culminate in a rejection of death. Furthermore, the violence is, in and of itself, a cause of horror and repulsion. This contributes to the forming of an empathetic bond between the audience and the subject matter. This empathy, I argue, is born because of the audience’s awareness that violence is inherently dehumanising, as Cavarero describes. 

In conclusion, horror theory can help us build on other scholars’ interpretations of the use of violence in Seneca. By applying concepts such as abjection and dehumanising violence, we are able to see not only the ways in which Seneca’s own approach to violence was strikingly modern, but also how it has continued to this day in other forms of media, such as the horror film or novel. Seneca uses violence as an educational tool, and yet this educational aspect is what also contributes to its excessiveness. In the context of horror studies, it is clear how he makes use of violence as a dehumanising tool to further strengthen the audience’s empathy towards the characters, as viewing a person violated and eventually dead pushes the audience to re-examine not only their relationship to their own body as a physical object, but also to death as an inevitable element of their life. Unlike Kristeva, however, Seneca hopes that this confrontation will lead to a better, healthier relationship with death, rather than one of sheer terror. 

Bibliography

Cavarero, A., Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

Kristeva, J. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982). 

Olberding,  A., ‘A Little Throat Cutting in the Meantime: Seneca’s Violent Imagery’, Philosophy and Literature, 3.1. (2008), p.133. 

Image: Alamy

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