Saturday, May 31, 2014

Navigating Fate

But dreadful is the strength of fate—no escaping it by wealth or by war, by towered city, or dark, sea-beaten ships. (Ant. 951-953)

From Encyclopedia Mythica:
The Symplegades are the "Clashing Rocks" through which the Argo had to pass in order to enter the Hellespont. They moved randomly about in the sea, crashing together and crushing ships between them. No humans had ever passed safely through them. Acting on the advice of the seer Phineus, Jason let a dove fly through the rocks to see if the passage was safe; the dove passed through, losing only its tail feathers as the rocks crashed together behind it. Jason and his Argonauts then rowed mightily through the passage, and the Argo made the hazardous trip safely, losing only a piece of her stern ornament. After the Argo's successful journey, the Symplegades stopped moving and became firmly rooted in the sea. 

Sophocles links three myths together with the image of the Clashing Rocks in the next to last choral ode (944 ff), which comes after the final speech and exit of Antigone: Danae, the mother of Perseus, whose father tried to prevent a prophecy from being fulfilled by locking her in a bronze underground prison; Lycurgus, whose hatred of Dionysus led to a variety of horrid deeds and to madness; and the sons of Phineus and Cleopatra, who were blinded by their stepmother, Eidothea, sister of Cadmus.

Once again we are led to ponder the relationships of the ode's wide range of mythic elements to the characters, themes and main action of the play. And perhaps to ponder the relation of these stories of inescapable Fate to the Clashing Rocks. Is it relevant that Jason was able to successfully negotiate the Rocks only with the help of the blind seer Phineus?
the two Cyanæan1 islands, by some called the Symplegades2, . . . stated in fabulous story to have run the one against the other; the reason being the circumstance that they are separated by so short an interval, that while to those who enter the Euxine opposite to them they appear to be two distinct islands, but if viewed in a somewhat oblique direction they have the appearance of becoming gradually united into one. Pliny.

Calais and Zetes help Phineus against the Harpies

"To read well, that is to say, to read slowly . . ."

Laudator Emporis Acti has two delightful posts on slow reading. One involves the famous classics scholar Eduard Fraenkel:
He lectured effectively on Catullus, Virgil, and Horace; but he exerted special influence through his famous seminars on Aeschylus's Agamemnon, in which he went through the play in almost as much time as it took Agamemnon to capture Troy.

The other cites E. A. Poe, and this from Nietzsche:
It is not for nothing that I have been a philologist, perhaps I am a philologist still, that is to say, a teacher of slow reading....For philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow—it is a goldsmith's art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today, by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of 'work', that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to 'get everything done' at once, including every old or new book:—this art does not so easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers.

We are not alone! 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Philoctetes as a woman

A new production of Sophocles's Philoctetes apparently places a woman in the lead role, with clear reference to the wars in Iran and Afghanistan. The production will be visiting Florida at some point, according to NPR.

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.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Dark wedding: Allusion in Antigone

It was a mere 2,455 years ago (or more) that Antigone had its premier. It's a testament to the formidable problem Sophocles has posed that the other day we consumed nearly our entire time in a lively discussion centering on the question of the political wisdom of Creon.

What's especially curious is that the question of state authority came up as we happened to be reading this famous, strange exchange between Antigone and the chorus that begins with the daughter of Oedipus comparing herself to Niobe:
[823] I have heard with my own ears how our Phrygian guest, the daughter of Tantalus, perished [825] in so much suffering on steep Sipylus—how, like clinging ivy, the sprouting stone subdued her. And the rains, as men tell, do not leave her melting form, nor does the snow, [830] but beneath her weeping brow she dampens her collar. Most like hers is the god-sent fate that leads me to my rest.
The chorus offers the consolation of fame:
[834] Yet she [Niobe] was a goddess, as you know, and the offspring of gods, [835] while we are mortals and mortal-born. Still it is a great thing for a woman who has died to have it said of her that she shared the lot of the godlike in her life, and afterwards, in death.
This provokes Antigone:
[839] Ah, you mock me! In the name of our fathers' gods, [840] why do you not wait to abuse me until after I have gone, and not to my face, O my city, and you, her wealthy citizens? Ah, spring of Dirce, and you holy ground of Thebes whose chariots are many, [845] you, at least, will bear me witness how unwept by loved ones, and by what laws I go to the rock-closed prison of my unheard-of tomb! Ah, misery! [850] I have no home among men or with the shades, no home with the living or with the dead.
The passage has left commentators scratching their heads, and there isn't time now to examine it in detail. Let's note that this is a rare case of a character in tragedy making a literary allusion. Usually the great names of myth are found in the choral odes, where one expects a certain elevated speech. It's not often that a character likens herself to a mythic being.

What's more, the allusion falls on deaf ears. The chorus dwells on the unlikeness, on the fact that Niobe was a demigod, the daughter of Tantalus, then offers Antigone the promise of fame. Antigone, however, apparently sees an utterly different point of congruence between herself and Niobe -- the homelessness of their fates.

Ovid's memorable tale of Niobe depicts a fecund woman who ends orphaning herself, living on as one who is neither dead nor alive, neither tomb nor entombed, an anomaly outside of the binaries of death/life, external/internal.

In Niobe, myth captures an extraordinary fate. The bearer of the seed of Oedipus likens her fate to Niobe's, and apparently the chorus misunderstands the ground of likeness. Of course the very notion of "seed" is a vexed matter in Thebes. Creon himself is a descendant of the original spartoi.

What's clear is that Antigone was destined to be the bearer of the seed of the royal house, but instead, her marriage to the son of Creon turns into a tomb.

At stake, in part, is the weight of this allusion, and perhaps of all allusions in Sophocles. How are they to be read? Antigone calls herself the new Niobe, but what happens is extraordinary: her marriage bed reverses nature. The embrace of bride and groom yields no children, but strangely gives birth to an altered Creon - bereft of children, and therefore of hope of grandchildren, he is rejected by his last son, abandoned to life by Eurydice, and ends in a petrified state that can truly be characterized as a living tomb.

If the chorus fails to "read" Antigone's allusion correctly, it's worth asking how well we manage to read allusions to other myths woven into the odes. The next choral ode will bring three dark tales to light, posing interpretive questions that have bothered commentators for 2455 years.

Sophocles' language seems basic, yet it works at the dark foundations of order, where terror is found, and a profound apprehension that conjoins simplicity and enormity. At this crucial moment in the play, the chorus's inability to read Antigone is foregrounded, and our reading must grapple with doubts as to the capacity of their witness.

No wonder our discussions are lively.