Zoë comes to us from Chicago and is greatly looking forward to coming to Toronto for the first time to lead the discussion of Sophocles’ Theban plays in her seminar The Fall of the House of Oedipus. The three plays trace the fall of a great king and the subsequent tragedies that befall his children. Zoë Eisenman is the chair of the University of Chicago’s program for Liberal Education for Adults and the recipient of that school’s Excellence in Teaching award. She is also an instructor at Great Discourses, one of Classical Pursuits’ partners. She enjoys pairing ancient and modern works “in dialogue” with one another.
We asked Zoë a few questions about herself and the plays she has selected.
Classical Pursuits: How did you become interested in the ancient Greeks?
Zoë Eisenman: My first name is Greek—it means “life.” That’s not why my mother chose it. Finding her own long first name a bother as a child, she pledged to give her own children short names. And she thought the umlaut was cool. But because I had a Greek name, people tended to give me Greek mythology books as a kid, and a lifelong interest was kindled. Recently I found a book report I wrote on Socrates in the sixth grade! I went on to study Greek at Vassar and classics at University of Chicago.
CP: Why read classical Greek tragedies in the 21st century? Why do they speak to us?
ZE: We have always suffered; we have always tried to cope. That urge to understand suffering is what’s behind one of humanity’s richest literary traditions—tragedy. The classical Greek tragedies are the bedrock of the form. We have been reading these plays for over 2,000 years because they deepen not only our understanding, but also our experience of suffering far more profoundly than answers we find on Google or in self-help literature.
CP: Why Sophocles’ Theban plays in particular?
ZE: I love these plays. Every time I come back to them I learn something new both as I reread them and as I discuss them with others.
Also, the theme of Toronto Pursuits this year is metamorphosis and these plays are an excellent fit. Oedipus transforms from the highest point in the social order to the lowest. Antigone and Creon explore concepts of role reversal and a blurring of gender boundaries.
Aristotle said Oedipus the King was the “perfect tragedy.” If our obsession with heroes with serious family issues who have the fate of a civilization resting in their hands is anything to go on, he was dead on. Think Luke Skywalker. Think Hamlet. Think Game of Thrones.
CP: How do you engage people in discussion about these ancient texts?
ZE: I try to humanize things, make it relevant to our experience. These works are not about which god is which and who is in love with which one. It’s much more interesting to look at what the characters are feeling and doing. At the centre of these plays is the issue of knowledge—what we think we know, what we can know, and what we actually know. Is what we think of as truth the real truth? There are serious consequences to being wrong, but are there ways to correct our understanding or are we doomed to learn the hard way?
CP: Tell us a little more about yourself.
ZE: Well, I have given all three of my three of my nearly-grown children Classical names—Molly Augusta, Hadrian Alexander and Camilla Audrey. But I do not live in an exclusively ancient Greek world. I am a boxer! I am a sci-fi fan. I like to knit.
CP: Welcome to Classical Pursuits, Zoë. We look forward to having you with us at Toronto Pursuits this July.
This article is part of our Getting to Know You Series featuring Toronto Pursuits 2016 leaders. Click here to read about Nella Cotrupi, who is leading Migration and Metamorphosis in Nabokov’s Pnin and Hill’s The Book of Negroes.