Petraeus–Karenina, Oedipus, or Antony?

From what I can tell of David Petraeus resigning after a case of adultery came to light, there was no breach in national security and the FBI should not have been involved. Frankly, it seems like much ado about nothing. I find it interesting, however, that many pundits are invoking literary works to capture the drama.

Let’s first look at allusions that have been made to 19th century melodrama.

The Washington Post’s David Ignatius says the story “has the poignancy you might find in a novel by Leo Tolstoy or Victor Hugo.”

David Brooks and Gail Collins, in their weekly conservative-liberal chat, also invoke Tolstoy and, more specifically, Anna Karenina:

David: I guess we could all learn something about human nature if we dug deep and discussed every little of detail of their lives. But there’s something that feels demeaning about that. If we want to discuss adultery and the weakness of men and women, we’ve got Anna Karenina.

Gail: We’re having a national conversation about the limits and responsibilities of power. Plus the perils of e-mailing. That can’t be all bad.  But certainly a little Tolstoy never hurt anybody.

Anna Karenina, of course, contains the immortal line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” From what we know about the unremarkable Paula Broadwell, Petraeus, like Anna, threw himself under a train for a very unworthy lover.

Which Victor Hugo novel does Ignatius have in mind? Maybe the priest who loses his soul over Esmeralda in Notre Dame de Paris.

There’s a reason that 19th rather than 20th century melodrama is mentioned by these columnists. Adultery, while it appears in contemporary novels, is more significant in 19th century novels since they take more seriously the tension between desire and social propriety. As Herbert Marcuse noted in the 1960’s (in One Dimensional Man), Emma Bovary’s tragic adultery-abandonment-suicide story doesn’t have the same resonance in a culture of looser sexual mores. That’s why the Petraeus incident seems bizarrely old-fashioned.

Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post invokes the Greek dramatists:

Think Sophocles in cyberspace.

The fall of David Petraeus is part Greek tragedy, part cautionary tale about the omnipresence of modern technology.

The tragic part is classic: the protagonist who believes himself invincible, not subject to the rules governing ordinary mortals. Hubris is part of the human condition. Each of us is captive to the capacity for self-delusion. Every hero has a fatal flaw, every Achilles his heel. If the hero is a man, it’s a safe bet that it involves susceptibility to the opposite sex.

Frank Bruni of The New York Times bolsters Marcus’s case for Sophoclean hubris by looking at why political celebrities like Petraeus choice are drawn to adultery:

Sure, the spotlight these men have attracted and the altitude they’ve reached should, theoretically, give them greater pause. But they’ve either become accustomed to or outright sought a kind of adulation in the public arena that probably isn’t mirrored in their marriages. A spouse is unlikely to provide it. A spouse knows you too well for that, and gives you something deeper, truer and so much less electric.

It has to be more than mere coincidence that Bill Clinton had an affair with a White House intern; Newt Gingrich with a Congressional aide (now his wife); John Edwards with a woman who followed him around with a camera, creating hagiographic mini-documentaries about his presidential campaign; and Petraeus with a woman who made him the subject of a biography so worshipful that its main riddle, joked Jon Stewart, was whether Petraeus was “awesome or incredibly awesome.”

These mighty men didn’t just choose mistresses, by all appearances. They chose fonts of gushing reverence. That’s at least as deliberate and damnable as any signals the alleged temptresses put out.

In Oedipus’s case, the preeminence and reverence he has achieved for defeating the sphinx (comparable to Petraeus’s counter-insurgency success in Iraq?) lead him to behave intemperately when he becomes king of Thebes. Thus we see his nasty arguments with Teiresias and Creon, which contribute to his final downfall and his resignation of the kingship.

Maureen Dowd goes more for Shakespeare than Sophocles (more on that in a moment), but she does make brief mention of the Greek dramatist. She does so, however, more for contrast purposes since, in her irreverent way, she sees the Petraeus affair as farce rather than tragedy. In fact, she seems to argue that invoking literature inappropriately elevates the incident:

His fall started as Sophocles and turned sophomoric, a mind-boggling mélange of From Here to Eternity, You’ve Got Mail, The Real Housewives of Centcom, and Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

Nevertheless, Dowd can’t help but bring in Shakespeare:

As Lyndon Johnson said, the two things that make leaders stupid are envy and sex.

Macbeth kills a king out of envy. Egged on by an envious Iago, Othello smothers his wife out of a crazed fear of her having sex with his lieutenant.

Now another charismatic general has shattered his life and career over sex. When you’ve got a name like a Greek hero, and a nickname like a luscious fruit [Peaches], isn’t hubris ripe to follow?

I’m not sure who is who in Dowd’s application. Paula Broadwell was envious of Jill Kelley, sending her anonymous e-mails that triggered an FBI investigation (the FBI seems prepared to access anyone’s e-mail these days). Broadwell, then, would be both Iago (suspicious of Jill Kelley) and Othello (smothering Petraeus as Desdemona).

In another reference to Othello, Dowd seems to turn Petraeus into Cassio, who stares at his shattered reputation after Iago has done his dirty work:

Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!

Actually, if we’re going to bring in Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra may be better, given that Antony is married but gives up everything for the Egyptian queen. (My thanks to Rachel Kranz for this parallel.) But Petraeus isn’t the only or even the best example of an Antony. After all, General John Allen, who has been caught sending 200 flirtatious e-mails to Kelley, is (like Antony) supposed to be fighting a war. Will he, like Antony, fall on his sword? Will Broadwell self-administer an asp bite?

My take is that this whole affair is more 19th century melodrama than Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. But Petraeus is, I believe, a Greek name, so maybe he is Oedipus after all, If so, he can find consolation in Oedipus’s happy ending. In Oedipus at Colonus, the suffering hero achieves purification through suffering and reascends to his godlike status.

Added note: I’ve actually just thought of the best literary quotation summing up the situation, which I also find to be one of the most desolate lines in all of literature. It’s Emma Bovary discovering that her affair is just as empty as her marriage: “Emma retrouvait dans l’adultère toutes les platitudes du mariage.” (Emma rediscovered in adultery all the platitudes/cliches of marriage.”) I feel that we are witnessing a cliche.

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