Saturday, March 01, 2014

Antigone 127-140: Big noisy tongues

[127] For Zeus hates exceedingly the boasts of a big tongue. And when he saw them advancing in a swollen flood, presumptuous in the clang of gold, he hurled down with brandished fire one already starting the victory cry upon our highest battlements. 
[134] Staggered, he fell to the earth with a crash, torch in hand, a man inspired by the Bacchic frenzy [βακχεύωνof the mad attack, who just now was raging against us with the blasts of his tempestuous hate. But his threats did not fare as he had hoped, and to the other enemies mighty Ares dispensed each their own dooms with hard blows, Ares, our mighty ally at the turning-point.
Ζεὺς γὰρ μεγάλης γλώσσης κόμπους 
ὑπερεχθαίρεικαὶ σφας ἐσιδὼν 
πολλῷ ῥεύματι προσνισσομένους 
130χρυσοῦ καναχῆς ὑπεροπλίαις
παλτῷ ῥιπτεῖ πυρὶ βαλβίδων 
ἐπ᾽ ἄκρων ἤδη 
νίκην ὁρμῶντ᾽ ἀλαλάξαι.

ἀντιτύπᾳ δ᾽ ἐπὶ γᾷ πέσε τανταλωθεὶς 
135πυρφόροςὃς τότε μαινομένᾳ ξὺν ὁρμᾷ 
βακχεύων ἐπέπνει 
ῥιπαῖς ἐχθίστων ἀνέμων
εἶχε δ᾽ ἄλλᾳ τὰ μέν
ἄλλα δ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἄλλοις ἐπενώμα στυφελίζων μέγας Ἄρης 

Capaneus is singled out for specific attention in the first choral ode of the Antigone. He also stands out in Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes. In that play, the Messenger describes him:
Capaneus is stationed at the Electran gates, another giant of a man, greater than the one described before. [425] But his boast is too proud for a mere human, and he makes terrifying threats against our battlements—which, I hope, chance (τύχη) will not fulfill! 
For he says he will utterly destroy the city with god's will or without it, and that not even conflict with Zeus, though it should fall before him in the plain, will stand in his way. The god's lightning and thunderbolts he compares to midday heat. 
For his sign (σῆμα) he has a man without armor (γυμνὸν - naked) bearing fire, and the torch, his weapon, blazes in his hands; in gold are letters that speak: “I will burn the city.” 
Καπανεὺς δ᾽ ἐπ᾽ Ἠλέκτραισιν εἴληχεν πύλαις
γίγας ὅδ᾽ ἄλλος τοῦ πάρος λελεγμένου 
425μείζων κόμπος δ᾽ οὐ κατ᾽ ἄνθρωπον φρονεῖ
πύργοις δ᾽ ἀπειλεῖ δείν᾽ μὴ κραίνοι τύχη
θεοῦ τε γὰρ θέλοντος ἐκπέρσειν πόλιν 
καὶ μὴ θέλοντός φησινοὐδὲ τὴν Διὸς 
ἔριν πέδοι σκήψασαν ἐμποδὼν σχεθεῖν
430τὰς δ᾽ ἀστραπάς τε καὶ κεραυνίους βολὰς 
μεσημβρινοῖσι θάλπεσιν προσῄκασεν
ἔχει δὲ σῆμα γυμνὸν ἄνδρα πυρφόρον
φλέγει δὲ λαμπὰς διὰ χερῶν ὡπλισμένη
χρυσοῖς δὲ φωνεῖ γράμμασιν ‘πρήσω πόλιν.’ 

There is much in the language of these passages - both Sophocles' and Aeschylus' - that could keep us busy for quite some time. For example, Sophocles' elders describe the real Capaneus as having a torch in hand - in Aeschylus, the torch is part of the image on his shield. And the golden letters on the shield speak a loud prediction, a promise and intention, which some translators are tempted to turn into actual armaments:
  • With presumptuous in the clang of gold, Jebb leaves open the unspecified cause of the clang. 
  • Wyckoff, similarly: insolent clangor of gold.
  • Grene materializes it: insolent in the clang of golden armor.
  • Fitts-Fitzgerald in keeping with their freer approach introduce head covering: Their swagger of golden helms (108). 
If we ask whether the clang is from the armor, or from the hubris a reader hears in the meaning of the letters, our translators offer different accounts. There is a hypothetical material source of a sound in battle, and the immaterial sense of an inscription. Which "in fact" is resonant? Hard to say.

It's in Aeschylus that we learn what the golden letters insolently say. Writing, gold, presumption and weaponry come together in:
χρυσοῖς δὲ φωνεῖ γράμμασιν ‘πρήσω πόλιν.’  
in gold are letters that speak: “I will burn the city.” 
One more curious materialization too tempting to ignore: in Aeschylus, the conflict with Zeus -- that the Messenger poses as a possible, contingent event that could befall Capaneus -- is expressed as a literal falling to the ground:
 though it should fall before him in the plain
The idea is that Capaneus, whose sign is an unarmed (naked) man, has no fear -- even if the Eris of a struggle with Zeus were to fall to the ground at his feet. A fall is of course precisely what happens, not to Eris, however, but to Capaneus, struck by a bolt, swinging as if balanced (τανταλωθεὶς) in space, in the act of stepping from the top of his ladder to the city's tantalizingly near battlement, before crashing in flames to earth. ἀντιτύπᾳ, Sophocles' elders say, "counter-struck."

As noted earlier, the poetics of the odes - both Sophocles' and Aeschylus' - involve a complex play of grammatical number and of rhetorical figure: of γλῶσσα as material tongue and as language, of signs and meanings, sound and sense, logos and matter.

What mustn't get lost in the interstices of close reading is a larger point, made at the beginning of the Ode: Zeus really hates big noisy tongues. Now the city of Thebes, spared from doom, is about to be addressed by Creon, who is going to decree, backed by the full power and authority of his office, a distinction between two brothers, sons of Oedipus and Jocasta, siblings of Ismene and Antigone.

In Creon's mind, there is an absolute difference between Eteocles and Polyneices. Antigone's heart feels none. The Antigone turns on this difference about difference: whether in reality these are two, or one.

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