restricted access The Furies of Orestes: Constructing Persecutory Agency in Narratives of Exile
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The Furies of Orestes:
Constructing Persecutory Agency in Narratives of Exile

Given that paranoia has been regarded both as a clinical mental disorder, substantiated by an ever increasing number of textbook cases, and as a metaphoric maladie du siècle, the twentieth century’s political master-folly, it is hardly surprising that the studies on this disease are numerous and methodologically highly diverse. Over the past century, these scholarly approaches have gradually moved from Kraepelin’s essentialist and unproblematic definition of paranoia as a distinct form of psychosis, characterized by persecutory delusions and illusions of grandeur,1 across different hypotheses on its causation and classification, to the more recent idea that paranoia is not at all a firm diagnosis but a context-specific construct sustained by deep epistemic and logical paradoxes. However, virtually all of these approaches share an underlying assumption. Namely, ever since the nineteenth century, they have been tracing or at least presupposing the histories of ‘stationary’ patients. Not unlike the archetypal case of Justice Schreber, so eloquently expounded by Freud, these individuals have been seen as neatly embedded in their social and geographical milieus until some pathogenic slip set them in opposition to those milieus, and to their earlier selves.

In this article I will address this subject by looking into the literary coincidence and structural similarity between paranoia and exile. It seems sensible to ask how the element of force that accompanies every act of political banishment relates to the paranoia of the exiled persons and, also, to what extent the condition is aggravated by the inimical attitudes of their host communities. Rather than in a psychiatric approach, the discussion will be grounded in the theory of narrative and rhetorical tropes, especially because scholarly approaches to the paranoid and the exilic narrative have consistently been applied to each other as explanatory metaphors. In the second part of the essay, I will [End Page 179] then take the motif of persecutory folly of displaced persons in two literary narratives, Aeschylus’ tragedy Libation Bearers (Choephoroi) and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and present a comparative analysis of the paranoid ideation in these two texts as it looms during their protagonists’ exile. In the third part of this article, finally, I will argue that there is in both texts a narrative construction of the agency of force which compensates on a rhetorical level for the uncertainty of the persecutors on the level of historical exile.


Earlier research on the link between enforced migration and psychotic developments has suggested that persecutory delusions may arise in individuals who were subject to banishment or to a particularly severe form of immigrant identity crisis. However, since the most influential approaches to paranoia have been focused on its endogenous causes in personality, the actual mechanisms behind the exogenously determined pathogeny in exile have remained rather elusive. At best, one gets such vague pronouncements as: ‘Paranoid anxieties escalate into true panic when the demands the immigrant perceives as overwhelming become too intense, and he becomes unable to face loneliness, ignorance of the language, the search for work and housing, and so on.’2 However, in a number of studies, the prevalent tendency to circumvent the empirical input of geographical mobility in psychoses has been defied by an opposite trend on the rhetorical level, namely the metaphoric use of displacement and its derivative images to describe the paranoia. Therefore, in order to approach the rhetoric of paranoia in literary texts, I shall first look into the scholarly heuristic tropes through which paranoia and exilic narratives come closer to one another.

First of all, there appears to be a certain form of general analogy between paranoid ideation and narrative fiction in that both depend on an underlying plot. In his classic psychiatric compendium, Emil Kraepelin described paranoia as ‘the insidious development from inner causes of a persistent unshakeable delusional system in which clarity and order of thinking, willing, and action, are completely preserved’.3 It is easy to recognize in this definition that Kraepelin’s stress on the internal coherence and clarity of paranoid thought, as well as on its temporal progression, is characteristic of the unravelling of narrative imagination. For in standard...