Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The reader

From the beginning of the Antigone, Creon is fearful of a return of violence which turns into heightened suspicion of deviations from absolute adherence to his authority. His first address is orchestrated: He singles out a group of loyal followers because he suspects that some in the city are not in sympathy with his reign, or with his edict that the enemy dead, including Polyneices, lie unburied.

First he accuses the guards of collusion, then he suspects a secret cabal has bribed them. He must let go of those fantasies when he learns it was a young girl, acting alone, who disobeyed his order. When Haemon reminds him that other voices in the city did not harmonize with his, Creon is quick to find motivation for his son's error. Since even he can't credibly think Haemon has been bribed, his fertile imagination fabricates other reasons: Cherchez la femme, etc.:
Do not, my son, banish your good sense
through pleasure in a woman, since you know
that the embrace grows cold                                        {650}
when an evil woman shares your bed and home.
What greater wound can there be than a false friend? (philos kakos)
No. Spit on her, throw her out like an enemy,
this girl, to marry someone in Death's house.
I caught her openly in disobedience
alone out of all this city and I shall not make
myself a liar in the city's sight. No, I will kill her.
When Haemon spits (πτύσας), it won't be at Antigone.
the boy glared at him with savage eyes, spat in his face . . . {1231-32} 
τὸν δ᾽ ἀγρίοις ὄσσοισι παπτήνας  παῖςπτύσας προσώπῳ 
The last speaker to address Creon's judgment is Teiresias. If Antigone had a simple emotional conviction that it was wrong to leave her brother unburied, and Haemon could offer rational political and social reasons that any ruler would be wise to listen to, Teiresias doesn't begin with feeling or reason. He starts with signs (σημεῖα):


γνώσειτέχνης σημεῖα τῆς ἐμῆς κλύων
εἰς γὰρ παλαιὸν θᾶκον ὀρνιθοσκόπον 
1000ἵζωνἵν᾽ ἦν μοι παντὸς οἰωνοῦ λιμήν
ἀγνῶτ᾽ ἀκούω φθόγγον ὀρνίθωνκακῷ 
κλάζοντας οἴστρῳ καὶ βεβαρβαρωμένῳ
καὶ σπῶντας ἐν χηλαῖσιν ἀλλήλους φοναῖς 
ἔγνωνπτερῶν γὰρ ῥοῖβδος οὐκ ἄσημος ἦν
You will understand, when you hear the signs (σημεῖα) revealed by my art. As I took my place on my old seat of augury where all birds regularly gather for me, I heard an unintelligible voice among them: they were screaming in dire frenzy that made their language foreign to me. I realized that they were ripping each other with their talons, murderously—the rush of their wings did not lack meaning (οὐκ ἄσημος). [1005]
From long experience, the prophet knows what these birds ought to sound like. But instead of what he expects, he hears an "unintelligible voice" (ἀγνῶτ᾽ ἀκούω φθόγγον). He is brought to interpret this voice because it is, at first cry, unintelligible. The sting (οἴστρῳ) of their screams (κλάζοντας) turned them into barbarous babble: βεβαρβαρωμένῳ. The onomatopoeia carries both the "babble" and the sense that the birds have begun speaking in an incomprehensible, or foreign, tongue. The tearing of talons, the strange speech, and the whir of wings (the rush of their wings did not lack meaning (ἄσημος)) all become signs that the prophet begins to read:

He interprets, or translates these foreign signs. They are foreign by virtue of being other than clear, beautiful signs. They are shrill:
nor does any bird sound out clear signs (εὐσήμους) in its shrill cries, for they have tasted the fatness (λίπος) of a slain man's blood.
οὐδ᾽ ὄρνις εὐσήμους ἀπορροιβδεῖ βοάς ἀνδροφθόρου βεβρῶτες αἵματος λίπος
Reading begins with the unintelligible, the screech one would rather not have to listen to. Efforts to read closely at times fail to follow Tiresias's method. How often do we "read" by attending to what makes sense, and mute, or ignore, the parts of a text that don't immediately conform, or "fit"?

Teiresias' speech is his treatise on reading. He reinforces the point that he is blind, that he is led by a child who helps him "see" the signs before he can interpret them. The treachery of sight lies in how often it is misled by appearances, where truth, often, is not found:
And it is your heart that is the source of the sickness now afflicting the city
καὶ ταῦτα τῆς σῆς ἐκ φρενὸς νοσεῖ πόλις
It might be worthwhile at this point to briefly ponder Teiresias's lesson as we look at the relation of dialogue to ode in the play. One way to read Antigone is to remain within the logic of the dialogues, to consider the themes of justice and power solely as they are elucidated by the speeches and stichomythia. But then, the poetry of the odes gets relegated to a kind of filler, or window dressing, between the dialogues. 

Each of the odes is packed with images that relate to the themes, yet not always in some clearly logical, or intelligible way. (The hideous blindings of the last, very dark ode, for example -- if they don't fit a certain view we have of the play's overall theme, what are they there for? Merely a few unintelligible yawps?)

Let's consider the speech of Teiresias in relation to two moments where we've encountered birds before. In the first ode (the parodos), which evoked the fear and pathos of a city threatened on all sides by murderous generals, the chorus sings of an eagle: 
He set out against our land because of the strife-filled claims of Polyneices, and like a screaming eagle he flew over into our land, covered by his snow-white wing, with a mass of weapons and crested helmets. (110-116)
ὃς ἐφ᾽ ἡμετέρᾳ γᾷ Πολυνείκους 
ἀρθεὶς νεικέων ἐξ ἀμφιλόγων 
ὀξέα κλάζων 
ἀετὸς εἰς γᾶν ὣς ὑπερέπτα
λευκῆς χιόνος πτέρυγι στεγανός
115πολλῶν μεθ᾽ ὅπλων 
ξύν θ᾽ ἱπποκόμοις κορύθεσσιν.
The "he" here is, in fact, not any particular person, but the entire army personified as a "man." The man came against Thebes because of the strife (νεικέων)-filled claims of Polyneices (the name means "much strife"), and abruptly we hear the piercing cries (ὀξέα κλάζων) of a shrieking eagle poised to swoop down and devour the city.

The piercing (ὀξὺν) shriek of a bird is also heard when the guards discover Antigone by the body of Polyneices:
she wailed aloud with the sharp cry of a grieving bird, as when inside her empty [425] nest she sees the bed stripped of its nestlings
 παῖς ὁρᾶταικἀνακωκύει πικρᾶς ὄρνιθος ὀξὺν φθόγγον
In the logic of Creon's world, the tears of a sister weeping for her brother could never possess the power, the terminal violence, of Polyneices' white eagle. It would make no sense for the light dust spread by a girl to cause greater ruin than the united wrath of the Seven. Or for her grief to pull apart a dynasty. Yet it does. Creon's heart (φρενὸς) is sick. That which we do not readily understand could be a sign whose very absence of sense deserves a look. An enigma. It was a woman with eagle's wings and the power of a lion that brought Oedipus to himself.

What appears to say nothing, to be utterly "Greek to us," might in truth speak volumes about nothing but ourselves.

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