October 2008

Elizabeth Bachner

features

Euripides Uncut: 7 Reasons to Read Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides, Translated by Anne Carson

“So may my finish-line match my start.”-Hippolytos

1. Because you want to travel across time and space. There’s a word in Greek: akuratos. It means uncut, unharvested, untouched, inviolate, pure, perfect. If translation in any form is a beautiful, treacherous and radical art -- a bit like alchemy, or shape-shifting, or dancing, or dying, or writing poems -- then translating the classics is more beautiful, and more treacherous, and more radical. It’s a kind of epistemological time travel. You have to convey, wholly and purely, the writer’s way of expressing and understanding the world. You are thrust into a vortex of inexact equations and surreal paradoxes. In transforming someone’s words, you risk destroying them, turning them into a pile of babble or ashes or dust. I say this as someone who writes in only one language -- in the translation world, I am a limbless girl watching the ballet. It makes me weep. I can feel how to pirouette with my phantom limbs.

There’s no right way to translate a masterpiece, but there seem to be millions of wrong ways. Through translation alone, you can mutilate and dismember a work, all without actually censoring a thing. (The Victorians liked to do this with Greek sex -- see David Halperin’s delightful One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love.) You can distort the author’s complicated meanings, leaving readers confused and misinformed, as happened when a Smith biology professor with a cursory knowledge of French translated Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex for quick publication in the United States. You can make a brilliant work bad, and (possibly), a mediocre work great. You have a strange power, like an editor or literary executor, only more acrobatic.

Anne Carson is one of those rare MacArthur Fellows who deserves to be called a genius. Read her, and you might actually be reading Euripides, unless, to paraphrase Borges, the original is unfaithful to the translation.   

2.  Because you are alive after (before, during, in spite of) Auschwitz, after (before, during, in spite of) the fact that the Janjaweed militia has raped, killed and tortured hundreds of thousands of civilians, after My Lai, after Abu Ghraib, after your own sweet loved one has hanged himself on an ordinary, sunny day, after she has been beaten to death by soldiers with their rifle butts, and they are laughing at her. As T.W. Adorno wrote, “The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.” And, later, “"Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream.” Imre Keretz wrote, “There is, after Auschwitz, nothing that refutes Auschwitz.” And, Maurice Blanchot (who Carson quotes along with Levinas, Bataille and Beckett in order to write about Euripides -- he is that kind of playwright) wrote, “The disaster destroys everything, all the while leaving everything intact.” At every moment of atrocity, the world is irrevocably transformed, and (horribly, irrevocably) unchanged. Here we are. The gods can’t die, so they can never partake in tragedy. They are trapped in comedy. They are jealous of us.  

3. Because you want to unravel the question of free will and determinism, once and for all. (“Euripides,” writes Carson, “seems inclined to lead us into the middle of this question and leave us there. It makes me think of a hard-boiled egg. Cut it open, you see an exquisite design -- the yellow circle perfectly suspended within the white oval. The two shapes are disjunct and dissimilar yet construct one form. They do not contradict or cancel out, they interexist. Can you say one is prior? Circle as distorted oval? Oval as imperfect circle? Rather they each follow the other in a perfect system called egg.”)

4. Because you have insomnia. Because you have nausea. Because you are confused. Because you are full of rage. Because you are full of grief. That’s five or more reasons, masked as one. Euripides would appreciate that. Anne Carson describes him as “unpleasant… he has a gift for withholding or spoiling elements of the play that we as audience want to be there or to be perfect… Three such elements are 1) a basic organization of the action, 2) a recognizable hero or heroine, 3) a clear moral issue.” In her introductory notes on Alkestis, Carson quotes Georges Bataille’s Hegel, Death and Sacrifice: “In the sacrifice the sacrificer identifies with the animal receiving the blow. Thus he dies while seeing himself die, and even by his own will, at one with the sacrificial arm. But it’s a comedy!” Euripides has a habit of beginning at the ending, leveling on new layers of irony, and avoiding closure. He often reminds Carson of Beckett, “a playwright who felt he was living after the end of his own art form, indeed after the end of language.” According to Carson, “Grief and rage -- you need to contain that, to put a frame around it, where it can play itself out without you or your kin having to die.” What are actors for?  “They act for you. You sacrifice them to action. And this sacrifice is a mode of deepest intimacy of you with your own life. The actor, by reiterating you, sacrifices a moment of his own life in order to give you a story of yours.”

5. Because you are irritated by academic theories, especially the ones by social scientists who write badly. Even the most cursory reading of any one play in Grief Lessons shows up the theorists for what they are. Those theorists, frantically inventing problems and periodizing things and proclaiming the deaths of this and that, are like podgy, pale middle management heart attack survivors pumping away frenetically on Stairmasters in Middle American gyms. Real poets and philosophers are like Ethiopian Olympian Kenenisa Bekele, running for pleasure through a New Zealand national park.    

6. Because words aren’t for pleasure… or so Phaidra says. Then again, she’s been starving herself for three days, wailing and planning her suicide, because she has the hots for her prudish and virginal stepson Hippolytos. She wants to have steamy, taboo-addled sex with him in her marital bed while her husband, Theseus, is out of town. She’s being tortured by Aphrodite, who’s furious that Hippolytos prefers the anti-sex huntress Artemis to her. (“Different men like different gods,” Hippolytos argues, quite reasonably. But try telling that to Aphrodite.) Phaidra burns “with love for someone impossible” and is “pierced with stings of desire.” Aphrodite has no sympathy:

And Phaidra? She’ll save her honor but die all the same,
Her suffering has no weight
against
my right to punish
enemies.

Maybe Phaidra is wrong that “words too beautifully said” ruin “cities and houses of men.” Maybe it’s her nurse, who accidentally sells her out, who has it right. “Oh stop moralizing,” says the Nurse.

7. Because as of this fall, it’s out in paperback.