I Owe the World a Dead Person

15 Aug 1994
Ten to Eleven
Heiner Müller
Heiner Müller


In order to justify interpreting the Oresteia as a representation of the "birth of democracy" (P. Stein), one has to repress a lot, for example the sacrifice of Iphigenia or Elektra's feminist rebellion. The Oresteia represents an "Egyptian" material, situated between Europe and Asia, incomprehensible to both. That makes it interesting for a possible, currently necessary rapprochement between the two parts of the world. One would need, Müller says, to undertake a completely new translation, because in the existing ones the irrational elements have already been smoothed over. One example of this is Goethe's "iambification" of Iphigenia, which was originally written in prose, a process that "pushes away and represses the barbarism." Müller, who does not believe that he will live long enough to finish a completely new translation, is working on an opera libretto (Oresteia Digest) for Pierre Boulez, which condenses the material of the entire Oresteia by means of the "stenographic medium" of music.

Starting with the example of the story of Idomeneo, who, having been rescued from drowning, murders the first person he encounters, the conversation turns to the differences between the ancient and the Christian, modern understandings of the world, differences that are especially evident in attitudes towards death and guilt. Ancient logic assigns every human being on earth his or her place. If an individual like Idomeneo escapes his appointed death, then he owes the world a dead person. If, however, in keeping with Christian-modern logic (original sin), everyone is guilty of everything, then no one is responsible for anything. And so, as Hegel writes, Oedipus would be completely innocent according to modern legal concepts. As a result, however, life becomes "uninteresting" and "obscene" according to Müller. Kluge poses the question of what counts as injustice in the twentieth century. According to Müller, the difference between Aeschylus's and Sophocles's Antigone can be demonstrated with reference to Reagan and Kohl's visit to Bitburg. As in Sophocles's play, this is a case of the state interfering with the dead. The only alternative, however, is to return to Aeschylus. An "alliance of the guilty" (Virilio) against the "occupation" of the realm of the dead by the representatives of the state is, for Müller, Europe's only hope.