Never have we had so much direct access to grief. Photographs, television, and the Internet all promise to bridge the unbridgeable gap—to give us, our isolated egos, a means of ingress into the walled city of another’s suffering. What they deliver is an endless series of images like the one of the girl in the green dress that recently won a Pulitzer Prize. The photographer, Massoud Hossaini, captured the aftermath of a vicious bomb blast in Kabul, and in his picture the now-famous “girl in green,” who is eleven years old, stands amid the mangled bodies of the dead, stands crying out, in her utter anguish, as if from the bottom of a well, beyond our power to console. She screams noiselessly in the silence of the photograph, forever.
It’s easy to see why this picture won prizes. One can hardly fail to be moved by it. But at the same time that we are bombarded with compelling photographs and video footage that seem to give us access to emotions not our own, these images remain intrinsically mediated, revealing only surfaces, and our sympathy pains too often serve no utility.
Along with our hunger for grief comes impatience with emotional restraint. From the tearful confrontations of Intervention to the acting out of The Bad Girls Club, in our popular entertainments—period dramas like Downton Abbey being the rare exception—there’s nary a stiff upper lip in sight. Our age doesn’t do restraint, full stop. Emotions are expressed to their fullest, and these expressions are broadcast for consumption. Understated expressions of grief have largely vanished from society. We no longer dress for mourning except at hasty funerals, and even there the custom survives only in cheap black suits no less shabby than the rented tuxedos that now make our weddings feel forced. When did you last see a man wearing a black armband in remembrance of a fallen friend?
So Anne Carson’s blunt Antigonick has arrived at the right cultural moment, if not for poetry than for grief. A reinterpretation of Sophocles’s Antigone, the text is hand-lettered in thick black capitals by Carson herself. The script is uneven, idiosyncratic as all handwriting is, and jagged. The bones of drama jut in Antigonick. The language is breathtakingly direct. Carson has taken a free hand here, inserting references to Woolf and other anachronisms and dispensing with most punctuation and stage directions. In so doing she has given to the text, or revealed from within it, an incantatory force that calls to mind at times the savage grandeur of Cormac McCarthy: “Eteokles he has laid in the ground in accordance with justice and law Polyneikes is to lie unwept and unburied sweet sorrymeat for the little lusts of birds.”
The story of Antigone, of her impossible choice between natural law and positive law, is well-known. The daughter of King Oedipus by way of incest with his mother, Antigone, at the play’s opening, has just absorbed the news of the death of her brothers, Eteokles and Polyneikes, who have both died in a battle while fighting on opposite sides. Eteokles, who fought for Thebes, has been buried with military honors in accordance with the lawful rites, but the body of Polyneikes, who fought for the enemy, lies where it fell. Antigone’s uncle, King Kreon, has issued an edict forbidding anyone to bury this traitorous son of Thebes. The plot of the drama concerns Antigone’s decision to bury him regardless, and the fallout of this choice.
Carson diverges heavily from the most popular modern translation of Antigone (Robert Fagles’s. Penguin Classics paperback) but the two can be instructively read side-by-side. When, at the beginning of the play, Antigone exhorts her sister, Ismene, to take part in burying their brother, Fagles renders her speech simply: “He is my brother and—deny it as you will— / your brother too.” In Carson, this becomes: “Dear sister my dead are mine and yours as well as mine.” Where Fagles emphasizes life, the familial bond, calling the corpse “brother,” Carson chooses death, the reality of Polyneikes’s cadaver. In Antigonick, death is something not only to weep at but also to claim, to be jealous of, to lust after.
Although this speech comes on page two, it is the play’s white-hot center. It is the key to Antigone’s later actions: possessive, defiant, and principled, it’s an explanation, taking the form of a tautology, for all that she will say and do, and a statement of kinship and offer of alliance. That her sister rejects the alliance while trying to affirm the kinship is incomprehensible to Antigone. Later she will tell Ismene, who tries, after the fact, to claim joint responsibility for the illegal burial before a wrathful Kreon, “You did nothing you shared nothing leave my death alone.”
To a modern reader, one of the strangenesses of Sophocles’ tragedy is Kreon’s merciless reaction against his own niece. Is it her defiance itself that angers him, or is he threatened by the nature of her action, by her handling of a forbidden object, her brother’s corpse? Is it that by treating her brothers equally, who in life became enemies, she transgresses some existential boundary? Julia Kristeva reminds us that “cadaver” derives from the Latin cadere, “to fall,” and that life itself is a process of sloughing off, of expelling bodily fluids as waste so that one’s body in toto might “extricate itself, as being alive, from that border” between life and death. “Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit,” Kristeva writes. When Antigone declares “how sweet to lie upon my brother’s body thigh to thigh” she not only conjures up disturbing echoes of her family’s legacy of incest, but also, in saying she’d like to be buried in a common grave, proleptically counts herself already among the dead, and so breaches the border between this world and the next. She violates more than Kreon’s decree.
“The corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything,” Kristeva writes. Certainly it encroaches upon Kreon’s dominion, renders precarious his hold on Thebes. Queen Eurydike speaks of Antigone’s crime in apocalyptic terms: “the world sundered by her I say sundered by her that girl with the undead strapped to her back.” The breaking of one law, a king’s capricious edict, upsets the order of things because, as Kristeva notes, “an unshakable adherence to Prohibition and Law is necessary if that perverse interspace of abjection is to be hemmed in and thrust aside.”
Though family is a supreme value for Antigone, family in Antigonick can only help you suffer, as Ismene implies. Eteokles and Polyneikes die fighting against each other on the battlefield, Kreon causes Haimon’s death as well as Antigone’s, Eurydike commits suicide while cursing Kreon. Death begets death. A polluted lineage bears its dreadful fruit. A language of defilement pervades Antigonick: “O my brother you have despoiled me,” says Antigone, while Kreon, bewailing the murder of his own son, cries, “O filth of death who can clean you out.” In Kristeva’s phrasing, “The corpse . . . is death infecting life.” When Antigone commits suicide, preempting a slow death in the cave where she has been buried alive, and Haimon follows suit, a messenger tells Eurydike that death has married them at last. Again we encounter the corpse as something that “fascinates desire,” that “beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.” In Fagles’s translation, Antigone tells her sister, “I gave myself to death, / long ago, so I might serve the dead.” Carson situates her at the very border: “I’m a strange new kind of inbetween thing aren’t I, not at home with the dead nor with the living.”
Though Carson, unlike Fagles and other translators, declines to parse the play’s ancient Greek into lines of English verse, a compact poetic violence nevertheless detonates in speech after speech. At the expense of stageability, she drives toward maximal intensity of expression. “Eurydike cursed you Eurydike cursed you,” a messenger tells Kreon, “assassin of your own child she said and undid her eyes to the dark.” Carson gets cute from time to time in her revisions—making the two daughters of Oedipus banter about Hegel and Beckett, breaking the fourth wall in Eurydike’s speech. But few dramatic works are as explosive as this one. Emotions burn like napalm. This is Antigone after Sarah Kane.
Antigonick is illustrated by Bianca Stone, a Brooklyn-based artist of whom I know nothing. She has contributed landscapes and kitchen scenes, a ladder, strange faceless figures with attenuated limbs. I’m given to understand that these illustrations, many of which seem at best distantly related to the text, even to Carson’s free translation, will be printed on translucent vellum pages that will overlay the handwritten words. Perhaps because I read an advance copy printed on ordinary paper, which allowed me to see Stone’s images only in isolation, the art did little to enhance my reading experience. And for their fullness, I still prefer the more faithful translations of Fagles and David Grene. But Carson’s version has an uncanny force. Readers unfamiliar with the plot and characters will find Antigonick opaque, an open mouth screaming noiselessly on the page.
What a small difference all our science and technology have made to the felt reality of our inner lives. Else how could a 2500-year-old play still wound us as this one does? These black waters remain our baptismal font. Carson, whose interleaf bio tells us with magnificent economy that she was born in Canada and teaches ancient Greek for a living, dunks us anew—for all her quoting of Hegel and Beckett—in primal springs.