New Directions, 2012
180 pp., 32.24
Who's old enough to know this joke?
Q. Where does a five-hundred-pound gorilla sleep?
A. Anywhere he wants.
To me, Anne Carson is a literary gorilla—exotic, powerful, yet arousing a protective instinct in my homey breast. I say a genius writes anything she wants. Alas.
In Antigonick, Carson's new translation of Sophocles' Antigone, the brightness—I think that's really a fair term—of the original tragedy is erased. It is erased with all of Carson's verve and authority, but the result is still so distressing that I'm brought to a conundrum: If this is literature now, the most heightened version of our reality, then I prefer the fantasy of the Harry Potter books, for what it's worth, which is roughly nothing. But who cares what I prefer? The gorilla is fast asleep across my legs, but that's, well, just a fact on the ground.
Carson's publications—poems, translations, essays, all enriched by if not based on her expertise in Classical Greek—tend toward the exquisitely visual and tactile. Her Nox [Latin for "Night"], on the death of her brother, is a paper-accordion scrapbook in a cardboard library box of the kind that protects a fragile old book. I react to her books, to start with, with my senses. For Antigonick, that entails a comparison of the physical book with what I know about the outward experience of watching an Athenian tragedy.
The plays were part of national festivals open to all male—if not also female—citizens. The City Dionysia—the festival at which Antigone debuted, around 442 BC—also welcomed foreigners and showed off Athens' wealth and culture to them. Festival plays, three of them back to back in a single day, took place in large outdoor theaters, in natural light. Rich men produced the dramas as a special gift to the commonwealth, competing in the magnificence of costumes, music, dance, and of course the poetry that made up the texts. Tragedians with the status of Major League pitchers today composed the poetry.
Aristotle's discussion, in the Poetics, of why people like to see terrible things acted out is plausible enough in its psychology (the catharsis or emotional "cleansing" effected by pity and fear) but neglects the obvious for his era: watching tragedy was a big party. We can add to the psychology the notion of a defiant, life-affirming tension between the social, posh, in-control presentation of art and art's stories of doom. It's Schadenfreude without the shame, because the agony is fictional.
To look at and sit with, Antigonick is vastly unlike historical Athenian tragedy. It is much emptier, narrower, and quirkier than even the ordinary modern book. On the cover is a blurry slice of a photo—black and white except for the faint blue of what may be sand or snow—showing a distant figure between vertical cliffs. The text is made up of thick black and gray hand-drawn block letters—except that speeches are attributed in red to actors—with broken-off lines and a good deal of white space. The drawings, on semi-transparent pages overlaying the text, depict bleak landscapes, mundane interiors, and hopeless figures, like panicking horses and three cheerleaders standing listlessly in a row, with cement blocks in place of heads. Colors are sparse, and in places almost random-looking. These illustrations—by Bianca Stone—are impressive. But their very impressiveness saps my will to live.
The translation—perhaps better classified as a "version" because of its liberties—is also fragmentary, whimsical, and arcane. When Sophocles' original Antigone and her sister Ismene, King Oedipus' daughters through incest with his mother, meet secretly outside the city in the opening scene, they deplore their family's catastrophes and discuss what (if anything) they might do about the most recent one. After Oedipus blinded and exiled himself, the girls' brothers Eteocles and Polynices quarreled over the right to rule Thebes and were both killed when Polynices attacked the city unsuccessfully with an army of foreigners. Now Polynices' corpse lies rotting, because Creon, the children's uncle and the succeeding king, has forbidden the burial rituals that will assure the soul's due passage to the underworld. Carson's new Antigone and Ismene, before addressing any of these events, dispute whether Antigone's opening words about darkness, birth, and death allude to Samuel Beckett or to Hegel.
In all seriousness, I think it's too bad that there's hardly any follow-through on this gambit. As Hegel's famous disquisition on Antigone shows, the play does hold a great deal of philosophical interest—in fact, a more pointed, central interest for us than for the ancients. The Greeks and Romans were inclined to cite Socrates' trial and execution, not Antigone's insistence on burying her brother at any cost, as an example of conscience in defiance of the state, that staple of Western civilization. But at any rate, from its first performance the play would have provided a fair selection of abstractions to talk about.
It's a fable of hubris, like Oedipus the King, warning a democratic polity about the recklessness of concentrated power. Also like Oedipus, Antigone contains a "tragic bind": it is difficult to impossible to make a moral choice in the story's circumstances. Creon, in the aftermath of a plague in the city, the loss of a beloved ruler, and a combined civil war and invasion, may not feel able to spare a troublemaker like Antigone—but his punishment of her destroys his other niece, his son, and his wife. His brutal policies make the chorus—the "voice of society" in a tragedy—uneasy, but when Antigone marches with loud self-pity toward her living tomb, these fellow citizens prove, for the most part, sententious: they are on the king's side in this crisis.
Like many other tragedies, Antigone is concerned with a contrasting female point of view, though—again—the interest seems largely philosophical. Women have their distinct interests, to some degree sanctioned by heaven. They are in charge of preparing the dead for burial and can incur divine wrath for neglecting this task. But that merely places Antigone in her own tragic bind. Pace Hegel's thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, tragedy does not care much for reconciliation, or for ultimate, inclusive justice. The Athenian audience's satisfaction came from contemplating, not disputing, life's imbalances. The terrible steepness of these help keep the works meaningful and exciting for us.
Carson doesn't strikingly assist with this in Antigonick. The translation reaches a climax when Eurydice, Creon's wife, enters after Haemon, her son, has broken into Antigone his betrothed's living tomb and killed himself from grief at finding she has committed suicide. At this point in the original play, Antigone herself is all but forgotten amid the consequences of her death for the current royal family. (Critics have noticed how little time she has on stage in all, and how few lines, compared to Creon.) But Carson's Eurydice does not, like Sophocles', concentrate on the loss of Haemon and disappear wordlessly to commit suicide when she confirms that he is dead. Instead, she reflects on the mystery of Antigone,
… THAT GIRL WITH THE UNDEAD STRAPPED TO
HER BACK. A STATE OF EXCEPTION MARKS THE
LIMIT OF THE LAW THIS VIOLENT THING THIS FRAGILE
TRY TO UNCLENCH WE SAID TO HER SHE NEVER DID. WE
GOT HER THE BIKE WE GOT HER A THERAPIST THAT POOR
SAD MAN WITH HIS ODD IDEAS, SOME DAYS HE MADE
US SIT ON THE STAIRCASE ALL ON DIFFERENT STEPS
OR VIDEOTAPED US BUT WHEN WE WATCHED
IT WAS NOTHING BUT SHADOWS. FINALLY WE EXPELLED HER
WE HAD TO. USING THE LOGIC OF FRIEND AND FOE THAT
SHE DENIES BUT HOW CAN SHE DENY
This comes across as the piercingly exact reality of a child with extraordinary gifts, whose parents can do nothing for her, either to convince her that she is not so different or to hurry the expression of her gifts. We can picture the child's embarrassed disgust with things she herself demanded in her frustration, things as disparate as a bike and therapy. And we can picture the family's confused, resentful mourning when she flees the scene of these mundane dramas outside her imagination's control.
"THE NICK OF TIME WHAT IS A NICK X I ASKED MY SON," says Eurydice and repeats the question before exiting, "BLEEDING FROM ALL ORIFICES." Well, what is a nick? Chance? Time? Damage? Androgyny? A significant person in Carson's life? A sound or verbal association such as she teases us with in Nox? The impenetrable individuality, if not self-involvement, of our best writers may be the real tragedy here.
In its tone, Carson's version is authentic to a brilliant degree, full of grim puns and unforgettable images to complement the drawings ("TONGUES [NAILED] TO THE FLOOR," for example, instead of just "curbed," as in the Greek—that metaphor has no power in modern English). There is nothing lofty or white-robed about Greek tragedy to preserve, and she has the gritty horror down pat. But she deprives us of tragedy's greatest comfort, which is that this story is about everybody.
1. I use the traditional spellings of the characters' names (simply in order to avoid confusion and make reference easier for readers). Carson herself uses a set of updated transliterations that are technically more correct.
Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar in classics at Wesleyan University, where she has been translating the Oresteia of Aeschylus for the Modern Library series with funding from the Guggenheim Foundation. Her book Paul Among the People was recently released in paperback, and her translation of The Golden Ass, by Apuleius, was published earlier this year by Yale University Press.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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