Knowledge vs. Love

Recently in my English 203 class Dr. McCoy asked us to work in a small group to discuss what Percival Everett is doing for, to, and with Euripides play The Bacchae in his novel Frenzy.  Immediately our group began to examine the additions that Everett made to the original story. Frenzy incorporates the character of Vlepo, whose sole purpose is to observe and perceive for the god Dionysos. A member of my class, Kevin, found that the origin of the Greek name “Vlepo” means “to see.” Vlepo literally exists to see and feel, so that Dionysos can understand human emotion. As a group, we began to question why Everett chose to make the addition of this character. What does Vlepo’s knowledge do to the story?

            Contemplating this question reminded me of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus is so in love that he crosses the river Styx, enters the land of the dead, and makes a deal with Persephone to try and bring Eurydice back with him. Persephone allows Orpehus to leave with his love as long as he does not turn around to see her until he clears the groves of Avernus. Ultimately, Orpheus cannot overcome the temptation and turns around to see his love fade away. He says “I cannot be without this love of ours. I do not want to turn around, but I am turning, turning, because I cannot act without being and I cannot be without knowledge of you.” His need for knowledge overcomes his desire to live happily forever with his love. Our group began to wonder why Everett chose to include this story in his novel. I began to make the interpretation that Frenzy is saying that the pursuit of knowledge is stronger than love.

            Another group member, Molly, cited more evidence for this interpretation in the story of Theseus and Ariadne. Ariadne is deeply in love with Theseus even though she is betrothed to Dionysos. Theseus must kill Ariadne’s brother, the child eating minotaur, but he needs her knowledge to accomplish this task. Although he has no love for her, Theseus acts as her lover to get the information he needs. Ultimately, he slays the minotaur and runs away with Ariadne and her sister Phaedra. Later, Ariadne discovers that she is pregnant with Theseus’ child. She also realizes that Theseus does not truly love her and that he has been in love with Phaedra the whole time. Ariadne dies in childbirth showing once again knowledge overcoming love.

After our discussion was over I decided to compare the way we were beginning to see knowledge presented in Frenzy, with The Bacchae. To start, I examined the different interpretations of the God. The character of Dionysus in The Bacchae is portrayed as all-knowing. There is one conversation, when Dionysus is first captured by Pentheus, that draws attention to attaining knowledge. Pentheus asks, “What is the nature of these rites of yours?” Dionysus responds, “They are secrets that only Bacchus initiates must know.” Pentheus then asks, “What benefits do they bring to his worshippers?” Dionysus responds, “You are not permitted to learn but it is knowledge worth knowing.” In this brief conversation Dionysus makes a point that those who follow their God are rewarded with attaining higher understanding and greater knowledge.

This differs greatly from the character of Dionysos throughout Frenzy, who is in search of a greater understanding of mankind. The addition of the character Vlepo shows that the God needs help to understand human emotion and feeling. At one point, Dionysos says this directly to Vlepo. “Have you noticed, Vlepo, how much you are capable of feeling?” He goes on to say, “You feel so much through these people, and then you pass it on to me, and then you feel for having done that, and then you feel more for having considered the way you felt for having shared it with me. His head was shaking. You are very complicated.” This interaction shows that Dionysos is not all-knowing. Instead, he is curious and confused by the amount of feelings that Vlepo presents to him.

This draws attention to the character of Vlepo once again. Since Vlepo’s entire existence is to help Dionysos gain knowledge it is impossible for him to experience any emotions of his own. Everything that Vlepo feels is for the greater purpose of helping his master gain knowledge. Therefore, when Vlepo interacts with Sibyl, who he proclaims that he loves, he finds himself conflicted because he cannot tell what is real and what is manufactured by Dionysos. Everett has created a character, that can only relay knowledge and cannot experience his own love. It made me wonder why he used this character to ultimately kill Dionysos, the all-powerful God?

In different parts of Frenzy, we see Dionysos faking or attempting to find sleep. His search for sleep becomes a sort of obsession. It is something that he is constantly searching to obtain and understand. When he finally becomes successful in reaching a state of sleep, he asks Vlepo to kill him. The character that cannot experience his own emotion kills Dionysos at the point where the god finally reaches understanding.

I think that the changes Everett makes to The Bacchae in his novel Frenzy are meant to show the danger that having too much knowledge can have. Throughout the novel, whenever a character gains understanding, it ultimately leads to their punishment or death. In the story of Orpheus, he sacrifices love for knowledge. In the story of Ariadne, she is overcome by love and unable to see that her lover only cares about her knowledge. In the end, Dionysos meets his death when he gains knowledge and understanding of human sleep. Frenzy examines the dangers that come from the pursuit of knowledge which adds a greater depth to the story of Euripides play The Bacchae.

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