Bernard Knox
The Life of a Legend

From Essays Ancient & Modern, Ed. The John’s Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1990. Originally appeared in the New Republic, November 19, 1984.

The slightly jarring title of George Steiner's book —Antigones— a plural form which is not Greek and does not really sound like English either, was chosen, I suspect, with monitory intent: let no one assume that the author proposes a stroll down such familiar academic lanes as the influence of Antigone, some versions of Antigone, or the Antigone theme, where he would be following in the footsteps of scholars who, as he points out in his preface, have published articles dealing with this subject as recently as 1974 and 1977. He is dealing not with imitations or reflections of the great original, but with Antigones that stand solid in their own right, with "some of the most radically transformative interpretations and 'reexperiencings' ever elicited by a literary text."

These "reexperiencings" are not the contribution of classical schol-ars, whose concerns are the establishment and elucidation of the Greek text in the light of what knowledge they can attain of the play's historical background, its intellectual and religious context, and its relation to the work of predecessors and contemporaries. They impose "constraints," as Steiner puts it, on interpretation; they seek, that is, "to determine the limits of possibility within which an Attic mentality of the Periclean Age may reasonably be supposed to have operated." While admitting the validity of such constraints in matters of ascertainable fact ("actual objects and practices"), Steiner points out those major poets are innovators in language and sensibility, and that the drama has been time and again the "testing-ground of lost or future potentials of human utterance and behavior." In fact, as he justly asserts, the reading of a classical text can "press on us a claim of seeming immediacy"; it can "foreshadow, ... symbolize, ... speak nakedly to our present condition." The "afterlife of Hellas" consisted of "successive compulsions of identification between ancient and modern"; he cites Ciceronian Atticism, the neoclassicism of the ancien régime, the "Sparta" of the French Revolution, Victorian Hellenism, and "Matthew Arnold's observation that Marathon and Salamis were more actual to the governing culture of nineteenth-century England than was the Battle of Hastings."

Such "foreshortenings and claims to relevance" have "taken on peculiar force" in modern times. Philosophy, anthropology, and psychoanalysis have turned back to Greek sources to "make of the archaic the raw material and substance of the continuities of the human psyche," and the relevance of Euripides' Trojan Women and Bacchae for the turbulence of our times needs no emphasis. In all these foreshortenings the classical scholar is conscious of exaggeration, misunderstanding, and even deliberate distortion of the original text. For the literary critic, however, justification lies in Walter Benjamin's "hermeneutic conceit" that "there is that in an ancient text which awaits our discovery, that vital texts perform a millennial pilgrimage towards recognition and interpretation yet to come." The original, says Steiner, is not injured in such a process of discovery: "the integral authority of the classic is such that it can absorb without loss of identity the millennial incursions upon it, the accretions to it, of commentary, of translation, of enacted variation. Ulysses reinforces Homer; Broch's Death of Virgil enriches the Aeneid, Sophocles' Antigone will not suffer from Lacan."

That Sophocles' Antigone will not suffer from Lacan is something about which I have no doubt whatever—for the simple reason that Lacan is unreadable even now and will be forgotten tomorrow. But the other two cases are impressive examples of works which have "tested the strength of their being" against that of their source. They are among the very few which have survived to "become that enig-matic but undeniable phenomenon, an echo that has life." It is with such echoes that Steiner's book is concerned.

Though adaptations of Sophocles' plot or characters abound in European literature after the first printing of the Greek text (Venice, 1502), it was in the years from 1790 to about 1905 (when "under pressure of Freudian reference, critical interpretative focus ... shifted to the Oedipus Tyrannus") that poets, philosophers, and scholars came to regard the Antigone not only as the finest Greek tragedy but also as "a work of art nearer to perfection than any other produced by the human spirit."

Steiner's first chapter is devoted to the Antigones of Hegel, Goethe, Kierkegaard, and Hölderlin. Hegel's reading of the Antigone is of course a familiar landmark in the critical literature; Steiner can even speak, justly, of its "notoriety." Both Antigone and Creon are one-sided; both have justice on their side, both act unjustly. "Familial love, the holy, the inward, belonging to inner feeling and therefore known also as the law of the nether gods, collides with the right of the state." It follows that Creon "is not a tyrant, but actually an ethi-cal power. Creon is not in the wrong." Steiner points out that though this passage from the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion may have been Hegel's last word on the subject, it was not his first.

In the unpublished early writings and in the Phenomenology, Steiner finds the elements of a different interpretation, a "profoundly original, delicate exegesis. Its focus is Antigone, not Creon, and she is cited as an example of those immaculate, celestial types or presences who preserve within their differences and divisions of self the never-deconsecrated innocence and integrity of their being. ... Such men and women simply are." Hegel is not a lucid writer; his prose, as Steiner himself says, "does offer difficulties of a peculiar sort." His own exploration of the philosopher's appropriation of Antigone is not easy reading either, but it is brilliantly successful in its attempt "to follow the life of a major text within a major text and the metamorphic exchanges of meaning which this internality brings about."

The Antigone of Kierkegaard is just as complicated, for the "Antig-one excursus" in the first part of his Either!Or is not only an evocation of the "inmost guises of his being," it is also "embedded in ... the ironic-reflexive dialectic of hypothetical proposals and self-negations which is Kierkegaard's chosen mode of communication." In any case, Kierkegaard breaks precedent by his radical reshaping of the Sophoclean play; this is not, in form at least, an interpretation of Antigone but, to use Steiner's term, a "fantastication," an appropriation of the Sophoclean character for the exploration of Kierkegaard's own tortured conscience. "Some of us," wrote Shelley, "have in a prior existence been in love with an Antigone," but Kierkegaard claimed even closer intimacy. "She is my creation, her thoughts are my thoughts, and yet it is as if I had rested with her in a night of love, as if she had entrusted me with her deep secret."

In Kierkegaard's scenario Antigone alone knows that Oedipus was Jocasta's son, and now that he is dead her resolve to keep that secret forever alienates her from the world and even from the man she loves, from whom, as the keeper of the secret, she would be with-holding "the very essence of her spirit." Steiner's brilliant analysis of this Romantic fable exposes its connections not only to Kierkegaard's own anxieties and problems—the secret of his father's guilt, his own abandonment of the woman he loved—but also to a wider concern of nineteenth-century intellectual man: fear of loss of individuality, of "that singular presentness without which there can be no integrity" before the inroads of a "clamorous mass culture." One defense might be "the custody of a secret, a secret grave and spacious enough to guard the soul against dispersal."

Of the four cardinal Antigones of the nineteenth century only one, Hölderlin's, was a translation of the Sophoclean play, but it was in some ways the strangest of them all. To Goethe and Schiller, Höl-derlin's versions of Oedipus and Antigone were "palpable evidence of mental collapse"; it was not until the twentieth century that their real worth was recognized, not only by Heidegger but also by Hellenists as eminent as Reinhardt and Schadewalt. Steiner points out the importance of Hölderlin's Antigone in the literary theory of Walter Benjamin (whose "indispensable essay of 1923 on the nature and limits of all translation is an excursus on Hölderlin's Pindar and Sophocles") and the "exemplary function" assigned to it by those students of poetics and of language most in sympathy with Lacan and Derrida. He speaks with authority here; the author of After Babel has, as he puts it in his prefatory remarks to the discussion of the Greek text in his third chapter, directed most of his "work and personal life to the study and exposition of the history, of the poetics, of the philosophic-linguistic aspects of translation."

Hölderlin's early translations reflect the ideal of Schiller—to pro-duce versions that are faithful to the Greek but also free, phrased, that is, "in idiom, cadence, and rhetorical conventions ... natural to the native tongue." In his Antigone, however, a different approach is visible—"an intransigent literalism," which results in an "Atticization" of German, a "dislocation of sentence structures, clause dependencies, participial agreements." (Schadewaldt, comparing a typical passage with five other versions, remarks on the paradoxical fact that the result of the "new, audacious demands he makes on the arrangement of German words and clauses, is—a much greater clarity of expression.") But the really revolutionary feature of the work is Hölderlin's conviction, developed by Steiner from cryptic formulations in an 1803 letter from Hölderlin to his publisher, that "latent in the original text are certain truths ... which are unrealized when it appears in its original embodiment." It is the "translator's" sacred task to call into life "these in-dwelling but hitherto unfulfilled latencies, to 'surpass' the original text in the exact spirit of the text."

Paradoxically, however, what the translator strives to elicit from the text is not those meanings which have over the passage of centuries become apparent with the changes brought about by time, but older layers of thought and feeling that lay behind Sophocles' conscious-ness—"the Apollonian-passion foundations" constrained within "the Junonian-sober... self control."These almost mantic formulas, from Hölderlin's letter to Böhlendorff dated December 1803, are interpreted by Steiner as a program for a return to the "occult source," to "those fonts of tragic meaning and of tragic gesture which Sophocles' continence, Sophocles' Periclean addiction to temperance, had, to some degree, stifled." As Steiner says, "Nietzsche's "famous dichotomy of Dionysian and Apollonian" has its origin here; clearly recognizable also is the twentieth century's return to the "occult source," the search for the roots of fifth-century Athenian civilization in tribal cult and ritual. The opposing forces, Apollonian and Junonian, passion and self-control, are embodied in Antigone and Creon. Both are "radically religious," but their relation to God or gods is different, for Antigone is the antitheos, one who, in Steiner's translation of Hölderlin's words, "comports himself as if against God in a godly sense." She is a "holy fool," the "holy sinner" of Dostoevsky. But the conflict is not confined to the religious sphere. "The letter of the law (Creon) is challenged by the primal spirit and nascent future of the law (Antigone)." Hegel's antitheses are transformed.

This first chapter, which reaches its high point in the exposition of Hölderlin's "esoteric doctrine," is only one third of this dense and at times difficult book. The second chapter provides a variation of pace: the concentration on four immensely influential nineteenth-century figures is followed by a wide-ranging analysis of Antigones from Robert Garnier's in 1580 to Athol Fugard's The Island, staged in 1973, as Steiner considers what subsequent poets and dramatists have made of the Sophoclean prototypes. The focus is no longer steadily on Antigone; Ismene, Haemon, the chorus and, last and at most length, Creon are seen through the eyes of such well-known writers on the theme as Racine, Gide, Brecht, Heidegger, and Anouilh as well as many less familiar (and some surprising) figures such as Maurras Döblin (in November 1918), Conor Cruise O'Brien (in a lecture at Belfast), Ghéon, and, of all people, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who wrote an opera libretto Der Tod der Antigone.

Rich as the material is, it is still "only a small sample." No record of "the matter of Antigone," as Steiner says, can hope to be complete. But it is vast enough to justify the question Steiner raises at the beginning of the chapter: "Why is it that Antigone—together with a handful of other figures—Orpheus, Prometheus, Heracles, Agamemnon and his pack, Oedipus, Odysseus, Medea—should constitute the essential code of canonic reference for intellect and sensibility across Western civilization? Why a hundred Antigones' after Sophocles?" The primacy of Greek myth in the Western imagination, and the dominance of Greek philosophical concepts in Western thought, are partly explicable, of course, in historical terms—the preservation of the classical heritage through Latin in the Middle Ages, its renewal with the discovery of Greek in the Renaissance. Steiner works forward from Heidegger's eloquent celebration of the Western consciousness as formed by “he successive 'experiencings' and interpretations by philosophers, poets, and translators of the Greek verb 'to be.’” From Heidegger's claim that “it is, to a more or less conscious degree, from Greek grammar and from the vocabulary of Greek philosophic and lyric expression that we continue to derive the marks of our communal and personal identity in the West,” Steiner moves toward his own highly metaphysical, almost mystical vision of the “‘initial’ and determinant” Greek myths as "myths in and of language.”

“We are all Greeks,” said Shelley. “Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts, have their roots in Greece.” But Steiner cites Shel-ley's first four words in a "fundamental sense." The basic operations of our thought and speech are Greek; “to articulate experience grammatically, to relate discourse and meaning as we do, is to ‘be Greek,’” for our very conceptions of grammar, of the possibilities inherent in speech, are “organized along Greek lines. ... So are the syntax of deduction and of inference, of proof and negation, which are the alphabet of rational thought.” Steiner goes on to connect the basic work of language at the deepest level with the development of "certain key myths." There is a sense in which "Greek grammar and rhetoric internalize, formalize, certain mythical configurations." Thus primary myths which dramatize uncertainties of kinship can be associated with “the evolution of the grammar of cases; vestiges of this interaction can be made out in the very designation of the 'nominative'— consider the dramatic grammar of uncertain identity in the Oedipus theme, in Odysseus's syntactical ruse in the cave of the Cyclops.” The “linguistic leap into unconstrained futurity” may have had its "informing counterpart in the Prometheus motif.” Steiner reads in Narcissus "the long history of the first person singular" and in the related myth of Echo "can make out the archaic experiencing of the suggestive sterility of the synonymous."

Whatever else may be said of this theory (which, it should be borne in mind, is offered "in a preliminary, tentative form"), it lacks neither imagination nor originality. We are promised elaboration to come, and must reserve judgment for the appearance of the fully deployed argument. But it is proposed here as an explanation of the, firm hold certain Greek myths still retain on the mind of the West and in particular as an answer to the question: "Why a hundred ‘Antigones’ after Sophocles?" And in the third chapter of his book, where Steiner turns to the Greek text of Sophocles' play, a very different answer to that question begins to take shape in the reader's mind.

There is much in this chapter to engage the attention of classical scholars. As Steiner reads back into the Sophoclean text some of the insights of later poets and thinkers, he is consistently stimulating and sometimes disturbing. One long passage, his discussion of the scenes of confrontation between Antigone and Creon, shows him at his best and also, it seems to me, bears on the problem he raised. These scenes he singles out as "the one literary text" that expresses "all the principal constants of conflict in the condition of man." They are: "the confrontation of men and of women; of age and of youth; of society and of the individual; of the living and the dead; of men and of god(s)." These are not negotiable conflicts; they are permanent in human life. And, in Sophocles' play, "they are made manifest with a perfect economy and natural logic." Steiner's incisive analysis of the scenes along these lines more than justifies his description of them. But this surely is enough to explain the permanence of Antigone in our civilization, her relevance to Belfast and Capetown, to Paris and Berlin, as well as to explain why, to quote the last sentence of Steiner's challenging book, "new 'Antigones' are being imagined, thought, lived now; and will be tomorrow." This permanence has nothing to do with "myth." As Steiner himself has so forcefully demonstrated in his 45-page exegesis of these 140 lines of verse, the thematic richness which gives Antigone such a grip on our minds and emotions is the product of a "literary text." We are obsessed not by the myth of Antigone (whatever that may have been) but by the Antigone of Sophocles. And the same distinction must be made for the other mythical figures of his list. If the Aeschylean Prometheus Bound had been lost, as its sequel was, the world would know Prometheus only as the trickster god of Hesiod, the Loki of the Olympians. What would Agamemnon mean to us without the Iliad and Oresteia? Oedipus without the two Sophoclean plays? Medea if we had only Pindar's fourth Pythian and Apollonius Rhodius's Argonautica? And how much does the spell Orpheus has cast on poets and musicians ever since antiquity owe to seventy-five lines of the Fourth Georgic, perhaps the most beautiful lines Virgil ever wrote? Steiner himself speaks of a "homecoming" to these myths "made compelling and endurable by the formality, by the narrative coherence, by the lyric and plastic comeliness with which the Greek spirit invested the uncanny and daemonic." But those qualities were the creation not of "the Greek spirit" but of the individual poets who made the canonical versions.

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