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.

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Hélène Glykantzi-Ahrweiler
European Community as an Idea: The Historical Dimension

From “The idea of European Community in History”, ed. National and Capodistrian University of Athens, Greek Ministry of education and religious affairs, Athens 2003

BEFORE EVERY APPROACH to our subject, it is incumbent upon us to ask an initial question (which will certainly remain unanswered): Who is creator of Europe? (Of course, always within the boundaries of the continent that we today call Europe and which some wanted to call Iapetia, after the Titan Iapetos.) Is it the states and those who govern them? Is it the peoples and their leaders? Is it certain visionaries? Is it the geography or is it perhaps the history, thanks to the ideas and values, as well as the interests, it serves and substantiates?

It is patently obvious that all these factors played and play a role, each in its own time and its own way, in parallel with or in opposition to others. It is patently obvious that, virtually to this day, Europe, either as a myth or a dream or an idea, has always been a paramount issue.

From the Father of the Gods, Zeus, to the intellectuals, and from the intellectuals and philosophers to the political visionaries, Europe as a political unity or as an expression of a single civilization, has at various times concerned the upper echelons of European societies, to the exclusion of the peoples, by and large indifferent, and of so-called public opinion, invariably hostile, which readily aligned only with the geographical conception of the continent. And this with significant fluctuations and oscillations, depending on the period, relating to the eastern frontiers of Europe (which was considered the continuation of Asia). I should say characteristically, and somewhat schematically, that this situation prevails more or less to this day, even though historical circumstances and advances in political science dictate other approaches, both with regard to the easternmost reaches of Europe and the public opinion that voices the conceptions of the popular classes.

What I mean is, and as I believe is generally accepted today, that Europe is a cultural manifestation which expresses a way of government (democracy) and a way of life (liberty), things that differentiate it from the other continents: from despotic Asia during Antiquity, from threatening Islam during the Middle Ages, from Ottoman expansionism during more recent times, and from its egoistically hegemonic daughter — America — in the present era.

Certainly the peoples, or let us say better, the populations of Europe, were conscious of their cultural propinquity, verging on kinship, when faced by hostile external adversaries. It is thus characteristic that the term Europe (which then meant Hellas) appears in Herodotus on account of the Trojan War, and that in school textbooks the victories against the Persians in the battles of Marathon and Salamis are considered as signifying the beginning of the European cultural experience. I remind you, as an aside, that when British schoolchildren in Victorian times were asked to name the most important victories of the British army, they unabashedly started with Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis. And I add further that when the Byzantines, in Palaeologan times, were defending their European territories from the marauding incursions of the Turks, they named the then invaders 'Persians' and 'Achaemenids' (even though the Ottomans and other Turkomans had no affinity whatsoever to the Persian dynasty). I mention this only to underline the fact that these Byzantines were defending Europe from the Asian threat and cultural alienation, just as their distant ancestors had done centuries before them. And the British schoolchildren, in appropriating the ancient Greek feats as their own heritage, were faithful to the maxim of their national poet Shelley: We are all Greeks, as our laws, manners and institutions show.

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