Friday, June 8, 2012

Antigone: He was paraphrasing Hegel - On Anne Carson's Antigonick

A little bit about Anne Carson’s new adaptation of Sophocles, Antigonick.  The book as such is a pleasing physical object, although I do not claim to understand, or to have put much thought, into relating Bianca Stone’s illustrations to the text.  Please see here and also here at the New Directions blog to see what Antigonick looks like.  Now I will ignore the art book aspect and just poke at the text.

Antigonick is not exactly a translation of Antigone.  Here is how it begins – I will also ignore Carson’s handwriting, capital letters, punctuation, and spacing on the page (I especially regret the loss of the spacing):

[Enter Antigone and Ismeme]

Antigone:  We begin in the dark and birth is the death of us

Ismene:  Who said that

Antigone:  Hegel

Ismene:  Sounds more like Beckett

Antigone:  He was paraphrasing Hegel

Ismene:  I don’t think so

Antigone's reply is a compact version of lines actually written by Sophocles (I am consulting the Robert Fagles and Elizabeth Wyckoff translations).  This opening is sufficient information for most readers who happen upon Wuthering Expectations.  It does sound more like Beckett, and Ismene’s last line is hilarious.  Hegel recurs, too.

I wonder what readers who do not know the Sophocles play are doing with Carson’s book.  Carson’s version is quite short, for one thing, compressed to essentials, exposition not necessarily being one of them.   By compressed, I mean that where Wyckoff uses six lines and Fagles five for the lines of the Chorus that end the play, Carson has “Last word wisdom better get some even too late.”

Fagles actually keeps “wisdom” as the last word of his translation (“at long last \ those blows will teach us wisdom”), while Carson comments on the last word (her actual last word is “measuring”).   Antigonick is not just a re-telling of Antigone, but it is about the Sophocles play.  Meta, to lapse into Greek, as when the Chorus asks Antigone if she “Remember[s] how Brecht had you do the whole play with a door strapped to your back.”

My favorite moment of Antigonick, a sort of climax of the commentary theme, is Carson’s expansion of the role of Antigone’s mother Eurydike, who in Sophocles only has a few undistinguished lines asking a messenger to summarize the offstage action.  Perhaps the centuries have eroded a longer part.  Carson finds something to do with her:

[Enter Eurydike]

Eurydike:   This is Eurydike’s monologue it’s her only speech in the play.  You may not know who she is that’s ok.  Like poor Mrs. Ramsay who died in a bracket of To the Lighthouse she’s the wife of the man whose moods tensify the world of this story the world sundered by her I say sundered by her that girl with the undead strapped to her back…

We did everything we could for her, the mother laments – a bicycle, a therapist – but it was not enough.  Eurydike is in the denial stage of grief, though, and Carson eases the modern mother back into the Sophocles play:

Eurydike :  When the messenger comes I set him straight I tell him nobody’s missing we’re all here we’re all fine.  Why do messengers always exaggerate Exit Eurydike bleeding from all orifices

[Eurydike does not exit]

The messenger, although his report on the new round of deaths is, in both Sophocles and Carson, unusually grisly, is not exaggerating this time.

Messenger:  O my Queen I did not see death marry them at last oh so shyly.  But I did I did see it.  Exit Eurydike

Chorus:  Exit Eurydike

Eurydike:  Exit Eurydike

[Exit Eurydike]

Sophocles’s solution to a minor structural problem is transformed by Carson into a surprising and sublime moment of grief.


  1. Sophocles’s solution to a minor structural problem is transformed by Carson into a surprising and sublime moment of grief.

    Yes; I thought this was really powerful. And the opening segment you quote was probably my favorite part of the whole thing. Mostly for funniness/awesomeness. I mean, I think it's a fabulous set-up for what is to come.

    I'm sure plenty of people will find the "meta" here too much of something, or just not what they want to read about Antigone. But for me, as an often-mediocre reader of things as foreign as Greek tragedy, which only "make sense" if you take a long walk into a foreign philosophical and aesthetic world, I found this a much clearer and easier to understand—in the sense of actually sympathize with—story of Antigone's struggle between family/religion and state.

    Part of me is loath to suggest a need for something like a "contemporary update" of such things; is not the purpose of such "classics" that they do not need this? But the power here is much more direct for me. Antigone has a cerebral power, an intellectual interest; Antigonick makes it visceral.

  2. I would suggest that every time we read Antigone we give it a contemporary update.

    Perhaps some intrepid book blogger will follow the path from Carson to Sophocles and report back.

    I am afraid I have to invert your last sentence. For me, Carson is the scholar and poet cleverly playing around with her source, the intellectual one, while Antigone is more emotionally affecting. I do value cleverness quite highly, though.