and/utterance and thought as clear as complicated air . . . he/ taught himself
—Anne Carson, Antigonick
When in the presence of so protean a creative intelligence as Anne Carson’s, I try to drop all preconceptions and follow where she decides to go. From my explorations of The Autobiography of Red and Nox, among others, I’ve learned that the journey will be rich. So when I spotted Carson’s latest book, Antigonick, in a bookstore, I snapped it up.
Even the cover’s title, ANTIGO NICK (SOPHOKLES), signals a subversion of expectations. The book, ostensibly a translation of Sophocles’ Antigone, is illustrated with ink and watercolor drawings and hand-lettered (apparently in Carson’s own hand). Had Carson remade Antigone into something like a graphic novel? If so, why? I wondered briefly whether Carson hadn’t gone overboard, burying meaning in a pile of kitsch, but I set my doubts aside for a further look.
Right from her opening gambit, Carson catches us off-guard. The two other translations in my possession, by Robert Fagles and Seamus Heaney, both begin with direct references to the familial back story before moving on to the matter of the hour. Carson’s text, however, begins with this:
Almost no punctuation, no apparent line-breaks. Antigone and Ismene, like two snappish academics, debate sources that certainly weren’t ancient Greeks.
Carson even introduces a new character, Nick: “a mute part [always onstage, he measures things].” Her text continually complicates the air. In Fagles, the Chorus marks Creon’s first entrance with, “But look, the king of the realm is coming.” In Heaney, the words are “King Creon. All hail to Creon.” Carson’s Chorus proclaims, “HERE COMES KREON/ROWING HIS NEW POWERBOAT.”
The text creates one set of interpretive quandaries, Bianca Stone’s illustrations another. The illustrations, on translucent paper that allows the text to show through, offer a deft and appealing mix of whimsy and terror: a filament of thread vainly wrapping itself around utensils flying out of a pitcher; a horse lunging from its seat at a table strewn with plates of fish and a toppling bottle of wine. The subjects of the drawings shift, combine, and break apart. They tell a story of their own, and that’s part of the quandary: the stories in the images don’t seem to relate to the story in the text.
When Carson asked Stone to illustrate Antigonick, she encouraged Stone “to make drawings of some other world entirely, some other story.” This fit with Stone’s own predilections as an author of “poetry comics.” As Stone explained, “I’m interested in what it means to have a poem and an image together, and what that can do to further both, instead of taking away from either one.”
I thought back to Carson’s translation of fragments of Sappho, If Not, Winter, and how the fragments are depicted in the book. In her introduction to If Not, Winter, Carson wrote about the brackets:
Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, that is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp—brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.
In Antigonick, Carson also models that “free space of imaginal adventure” on the page.
On his first entrance, the Creon of Fagles’ translation delivers a stirring victory speech: “My countrymen,/the ship of state is safe,” he pronounces.
Of course you cannot know a man completely,
his character, his principles, sense of judgment,
not till he’s shown his colors, ruling the people,
making laws. Experience, that’s the test.
The words of Carson’s Kreon (the spelling Carson uses), visible behind Stone’s illustration of an unraveling spool of thread, are nothing but verbs and nouns, though the last “MINE” is a matter of dispute:
CHORUS: MINE ISN’T A NOUN KREON: IT IS IF YOU CAPITALIZE IT
The word “NICK” appears periodically, gathering in complexity and emotive power. When the guard delivers Antigone to him, Kreon says “HERE’S KREON, NICK OF TIME.” The meaning may seem straightforward here, but it keeps shifting. After Tiresias delivers his harrowing prophecy and Kreon is persuaded to free Antigone, the Chorus ends its ode with, “WE’RE STANDING/IN THE NICK OF TIME.”
Perhaps the most remarkable departure from conventional translation occurs on the entrance of Eurydice. In the play, Eurydice appears and delivers one brief speech to the messenger. From Heaney’s translation: “I am in dread . . . . Just say what happened.” She receives the news that her son and Antigone have killed themselves and exits.
In Carson’s text, Eurydike (in Carson’s spelling) begins her speech:
THIS IS EURYDIKE’S MONOLOGUE IT’S HER ONLY SPEECH IN THE PLAY. YOU MAY NOT KNOW WHO SHE IS THAT’S OK. LIKE POOR MRS. RAMSEY WHO DIED IN A BRACKET OF TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, SHE’S THE WIFE OF THE MAN WHOSE MOODS TENSIFY THE WORLD OF THIS STORY . . .
The experience of reading a translation, Carson shows us, must include more than reading the words rendered in our own language. We must also read with the knowledge that, in the end, there is no one final meaning to be had. As Carson wrote in Nox, her meditation on a Catullus poem and her own lost brother: “Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light. Human words have no main switch.”
In Antigonick, Carson gives us the experience of translating as she lives it: a perilous art that no amount of experience and knowledge can surmount, an art in which no perfection, no absolute meaning, can ever be obtained. As she said in Nox of her efforts to translate Catullus 101:
I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends.
Ancient words, like all words, slip away from the meanings we want to give them. Even meanings we settle on in a given moment shape-shift over time.
Carson offers no introduction to Antigonick. She gives us only the words she chooses, as she chooses to present them in the book. The illustrations, which might have aided us in a conventional way, instead further complicate by telling a story different from the story told in words.
Yet something about the whole dazzles as each stumbling search for meaning brings up a glinting shard. In Antigonick, Carson gives us perhaps a greater, and certainly a different, gift, from that of the next new translation: she lets us in on the “imaginal adventure” that is the art of translation itself. If we go where she takes us, we, too, can sense
those little kidnaps in the dark. And then the luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of them that hangs in your mind when you turn back to the page you were trying to translate.
O Graub! O Brautbett! (aria from Orff’s Antigonae)
Spotify listening lists include extracts from the operas of Carl Orff and Mikis Theodorakis here; Orff’s complete opera Antigonae (20th C) here; Theodorakis’ complete opera Antigone (20th C) here; and Tommaso Traetta’s complete opera Antigona (18th C) here. On Youtube, a performance of the complete Orff Antigonae can be found here, Love, Invincible in Battle, an aria from Theodorakis’ Antigone, can be found here, and ombra cara amorosa, an aria from Traetta’s Antigona, can be found here.
Postscript: Here is the text from Antigonick that includes the title of the post, followed by equivalent text from the other two translations:
UTTERANCE AND THOUGHT AS CLEAR AS COMPLICATED AIR
MOODS THAT MAKE A CITY MORAL THESE HE
And speech and thought, quick as the wind
and the mood and mind for law that rules the city—
all these he has taught himself
The wind is no more swift or mysterious
Than his mind and words; he has mastered thinking,
Roofed his house against hail and rain
And worked out laws for living together.
(The shelter/house exists in all three, but Heaney’s placement is embedded within the other concepts, hence its inclusion here.)
Credits: The quotations from Antigonick can be found here, from Robert Fagles’ translation of Antigone here, and from Seamus Heaney’s translation (The Burial at Thebes) here. The quotations relating to Bianca Stone can be found here. The quotations from Carson’s If Not, Winter and Nox (the closing quotation is from Nox) can be found here and here. As is true for all photographs on posts not otherwise credited, the photographs are my own.