18 May, 2009Issue 9.4LiteraturePoetry

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A Cosmic Concern for Justice

Joshua Billings

oresteiaAnne Carson
An Oresteia
Faber & Faber, 2009
272 pages
£18.00
ISBN 978-0865479029

Aeschylus’s Oresteia begins in a world full of madness and ignorance, and ends in the enlightened Athenian democracy. Performed on a single day at the festival of Dionysus in 458 BC, its three plays form the only extant trilogy of Greek drama (Sophocles’s three Theban plays were written separately). The Oresteia chronicles the cursed House of Atreus through a succession of bloody actions and reactions, concluded finally by divine intervention. Its three plays teach the lesson, spoken by the chorus of elders in the Agamemnon, that “by suffering we learn;” amidst some of the most profound darkness ever staged, Aeschylus shows us the light of justice.

Anne Carson is not interested in justice. An Oresteia brings together plays of three Greek dramatists—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—to create an alternative trilogy to the Aeschylean one. Where Aeschylus (or as Carson spells the name, Aiskhylos) uses the trilogy form to trace a path from guilt to redemption, Carson uses it to pile wrong upon wrong. In place of Aeschylus’s concern for civic morality, Carson concentrates on individual psychology and the mind in extreme states. This very modern take on ancient tragedy leads her to push every element of language to its breaking point: the diction of her renderings, her frequent and apparently unmotivated line breaks, even her spellings of ancient Greek names all seem calculated to make the texts strange, abyssal, even schizophrenic.

She begins with the Agamemnon, the first and darkest play of Aeschylus’s trilogy, depicting the return of the titular king from the Trojan War and his subsequent murder by his wife and the lover she has taken in his absence. The next play, the Elektra of Sophocles, treats the same subject as Aeschylus’s Libation Bearers. Orestes, the son of the house, returns from exile, reunites with his sister Elektra, and takes revenge for their father’s murder. But Sophocles’s play is written in a far bleaker tone than Aeschylus’s. Elektra’s Elektra does not suffer decorously. Powerless in a house of murderers, “there is only one thing she can do”, Carson writes, “make noise.”

Most discomforting is the third play, Euripides’s Orestes, a late work of the last great Athenian playwright. Like the Eumenides, the final play of Aeschylus’s trilogy, it considers the consequences of Orestes’s and Elektra’s revenge. In Euripides’s text, though, they are judged, not in Aeschylus’s divinely sanctioned courtroom, but by a hostile, self-interested assembly. Orestes and Elektra, condemned to death and on the brink of madness, turn murderous themselves, and are only held back from senseless slaughter by a deus ex machina that, improbably, resolves the play’s tensions. The unexpected reconciliation only makes the work more incomprehensible—pushing it, Carson suggests, toward comedy. “I wonder”, she muses, “if Euripides saw the very texture of reality as ironic.” There may be irony, but there is no justice at the end of An Oresteia.

Carson’s biographical note tells us, somewhat disingenuously, that “she teaches Ancient Greek for a living.” Though this is true (she is appointed in the classics, comparative literature, and English departments at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), she is better known as a poet and translator, one of today’s most powerful voices for the classics. In addition to numerous volumes of poems and essays, many on classical themes, she has already brought out a collection of Euripides entitled Grief Lessons (2006), as well as a highly regarded translation of Sappho fragments, If Not, Winter (2002). Carson is attracted to the borderline between sense and nonsense—her Sappho translations feature extensive empty spaces and brackets representing lost lines—and each of the plays making up An Oresteia offers characters who seem to live in that space.

Thrust into situations awful beyond enduring, Elektra and Orestes cannot but become monsters. Euripides’s Orestes, Carson writes, “is a peculiar customer–not exactly insane but strange and unknowable”, and her translation portrays his stormy emotions and crazed hallucinations with harrowing intensity. Likewise, Carson’s translation of the role of Elektra in Sophocles’s play brings out the vehement language of her despair, transliterating her many cries directly from the Greek. Here, she responds to false news of Orestes’s death, a sadistic trick played by brother on sister (beginning with a cry that would normally be translated “oh, I am wretched”):

OI’GO TALAINA
My death begins now.

The transliterated Greek effectively breaks down any sense that we are reading (or, better, watching) a conventional character experiencing a conventional grief. For Carson, tragedy is about the individual’s confrontation with an incomprehensible chaos. All we can do, faced with such a world, is make noise.

The test of Carson’s Oresteia, though, must be the Agamemnon. First, because it is the only one of these translations that has not appeared previously (Elektra and Orestes were commissioned years apart, and for unrelated occasions), and thus should be the book’s raison d’être; and second, because Aeschylus’s profound exploration of right and wrong seems the least congenial to Carson’s psychological approach. The play demands that she treat themes outside of her comfort zone, enlarging her canvas from the individual to society as a whole.

Unsurprisingly, Carson’s sympathy lies with the Trojan captive Kassandra, brought by Agamemnon as his consort and murdered alongside him. Kassandra’s gift is the ability to see the future; her curse, never to be believed. In an extraordinary interchange with the chorus, she foretells, in broken Greek, the slaughter about to take place. “Aiskhylos”, Carson writes, “sets her in the middle of his play as a difference you cannot grasp, a glass that does not give back the image placed before it.” Carson successfully conveys the vividness and foreignness of Kassandra’s words, mingling screams, nonsense cries, and untranslated Greek in a syntax that borders on the incomprehensible:

But yes think oh think of the clear nightingale―
gods put round her a wing
a life with no sting
but for me waits
schismos
of the double-edged sword: schismos means
a cleaving a cutting a slipping a chopping in two

Carson’s translation is jarringly alien, itself a kind of “difference you cannot grasp”. Why does she not translate and then translate schismos? What is going on with her line breaks and spacing? She is effective at conveying the idiosyncrasies of Aeschylus’s language, his unusual compound words (“dreamvisible”) and inscrutable turns of phrase (“ox on my tongue”).

Yet Carson’s de-familiarizing translation practice means that her range of tones is quite limited where Aeschylus’s is astonishingly wide, extending from the bored watchman of the prologue to the riddling chorus of the opening odes to the brutal strength of Klytaimestra in the final scene. To stay with Kassandra, though, Carson fails to do justice to the universal force of the character’s parting words, as distilled a statement of the essence of tragedy as ever was written:

But you,
O humans,
O human things―
when a man is happy, a shadow could overturn it.
When life goes wrong, a wet sponge erases the whole picture.
You,
you,
I pity.

This passage deserves better: “things” is far vaguer than the Greek “pragmata” (affairs, deeds); “when a man is happy” and “when life goes wrong” are clunky and bland; and to what does “it” refer (grammatically and logically, the happy man is the object)? Most importantly, Carson insists on the speech being addressed to “you”, where Aeschylus’s apostrophe is more general (the lines, and Kassandra’s pity, are addressed to the “human affairs”). This makes the speech sound vindictive, as if Kassandra were excluding herself from the pity. But the point is precisely the opposite: Kassandra faces her death and we must face our own; we share the same fate.

Carson seeks psychological complexity at the expense of philosophical clarity, giving short shrift to Aeschylus’s search for order in chaos. Her translation of the chorus’s high-flown rhetoric is notably flat; she has little use for talk of divine justice. Yet Aeschylus’s cosmic concern distinguishes him from the other tragedians and makes the Agamemnon so powerful and thought provoking. In An Oresteia, Carson fashions Aeschylus in her own image: psychological, skeptical, willfully estranging. But this does not give us Aeschylus at his best, or Carson at hers.

Joshua Billings is reading for the DPhil in Classics at Merton College, Oxford. He is a senior editor of the Oxonian Review.