Violent Grace: Anne Carson's An Oresteia
Sophocles and Euripides were consciously responding to Aeschylus, and there are often verbal and metaphorical echoes of the earlier plays in the later ones. Carson doesn't hear a few of these reverberations. For instance, it is a pity that she does not pick up on the quotation of the Argive Chorus's wail of despair in the Agamemnon by the campy Phrygian house slave in the Orestes: "ailinon ailinon," they both cry, though the house slave claims that his phrase is taken from his own, barbarian language. In Carson, the first mourning cry is taken seriously: "Sing sorrow, sorrow, but let the good prevail." The second is played entirely for laughs: "Where I come from people say bad shit happening/ when they mean death." Carson thus misses an important irony: to the characters in Euripides' Orestes, Aeschylus' Agamemnon seems itself like a foreign tongue.
But Carson includes enough resonances between the three plays to allow readers or audiences to feel the shocks of analogy and contrast. For instance, Euripides' murderers seem deliberately to present their decision to threaten Hermione with death as parallel to that of Agamemnon when he killed his daughter Iphigeneia. The Agamemnon Chorus had said, in Carson's version, "Then he put on the yoke of Necessity./His mind veered toward unholiness,/his nerve turned cold." Euripides' Electra tells Hermione there is no point in begging for mercy, even though she is her cousin: "It is fixed. We stand in the yoke of necessity." What had in Aeschylus been presented as a conflict of incommensurable values--loyalty to the fleet, or loyalty to family--becomes in Euripides merely the self-interested clash of different special-interest groups.
Nor can the city-state solve the problem of revenge: rather, the city at war is the root of the problem. Orestes claims, with comic disingenuousness, that matricide is an act of public service: "Picture this: wanton women throughout the land/murdering husbands, running to sons for refuge,/hunting pity with bared breasts--/they'd be killing their men at the slightest pretext./I put a stop to this. You call me unjust?" An extra layer of irony is added by the fact that Euripides' work was often seen--as was Aristophanes' Frogs, produced three years after the Orestes--as encouraging the antics of wanton women. The Orestes offers a dizzying lack of centralized perspective from which to make appropriate moral judgments. Apollo's arbitrary final decision is hardly a solution, but it is as good an ending as any. The play invites us to look back with new eyes at the trial of the Eumenides, which now seems equally rigged: Apollo comforts Orestes by saying, "Go to Athens and stand trial for matricide./Trust me, you'll win."
Carson is acutely conscious of the differences, in mood, worldview and style, among the three tragedians she translates. It is, then, a disappointment that she does not entirely succeed in making them sound properly distinct from one another. In Greek, Aeschylus is a far denser, more difficult writer than either of the others, fond of strange syntax and puzzling neologisms. Carson tends to eliminate a lot of the difficulties. For instance, when Agamemnon decides to kill Iphigeneia, he frames his decision in oblique, confusing language that perhaps speaks to his unwillingness to face up to what he is doing. A literal translation might go, "For hyper-enragedly desiring in angry lust for a wind-stopping sacrifice and girlish blood is right. May it indeed go well." Carson gives a version of these lines whose only fault is clarity: "Their desperation cries out for a sacrifice to change the winds,/a girl must die./It is their right./May the good prevail!"
Carson suggests that "violence is intrinsic" to Aeschylus' work, just as it is to that of the painter Francis Bacon, because both reinvent realism, trying to "trap the living fact alive" through "symbolic overabundance." But her instincts as a writer seem to tend much more toward paring down, dissecting one body rather than piling up a heap. In contrast to all three Greek tragedians (who adhered to strict metrical forms), Carson's language is prosaic: it isn't quite like ordinary speech, but it isn't verse, either. She includes a few experiments with rhyme (which was not, of course, an element in any ancient poetry); but these serve, if anything, to bring the tone down rather than to elevate it. Electra's exchange with the Chorus over her mad brother's condition, in Euripides' Orestes, sounds like a weird bit of preschool-level doggerel: "CHORUS: Where does the end of his suffering lie?/ELEKTRA: Of course he'll die." Carson's lines are usually much shorter than those of the original, and there are fewer of them. She gives a speed-reading version of Greek tragedy, almost worryingly thin but still, in outline, beautiful.
The Cassandra scene in the Agamemnon is particularly revealing of a translator's method because it is itself preoccupied with issues of translation. Carson says she has spent years trying to grasp it. Agamemnon's Trojan concubine is an inspired prophetess who knows the future but suffers the curse, inflicted by Apollo, that her prophecies will never be believed. When she first appears onstage in Aeschylus' play, the audience may well believe that she is a nonspeaking character; Clytemnestra expresses doubt about whether she will be able to speak Greek. But Cassandra does speak, and she gives an extraordinary series of broken lyric utterances that hint at her knowledge of her own death; her language is Greek but seems like a bad translation, not from the Trojan but from the divine.
Carson's Cassandra sounds strange partly because Carson--as she does with Electra--includes some of the Greek cries in her English version. Cassandra screams, "OTOTOI POPOI DA!/Apollo!/O!pollo!/Woepollo!/O!" The wordplay does not correspond to anything in the lines translated, but it seems entirely in keeping with Aeschylus' method. Somewhat less successful, to my ear, are the moments when Carson's Cassandra breaks into a professorial disquisition and provides helpful glosses on key words in her prophetic screams: "I with my thermonous/thermonous means hot soul, burning mind,/brain on fire." It seems jarring to make Cassandra into her own interpreter. Carson's Agamemnon does too much of the work for us and doesn't leave alone enough of what Carson has described, in a recent essay, as "the deliberately untranslatable." Her approach is more supple in the most powerful play in her trilogy, Euripides' Orestes, whose strange provocations owe little to linguistic difficulties but much to the slipperiness of its tone. Carson gamely invites some contemporary resonances: for instance, Pylades asks of Helen, "Where is she, that weapon of mass destruction?" Helen is a WMD not only because she has been the cause of thousands of deaths but also because she is, by the end of the play, not there at all.
It is hard to imagine President Obama citing Carson's Oresteia in a speech any time soon. But the movement of Carson's trilogy, away from the clear ideology of Aeschylus' Oresteia toward the much more complex, ambiguous world of Euripides' Orestes, seems pertinent to the current political climate. The characters are saved only by divine intervention, and Euripides mocks the notion that law or politics, or any pre-existing system, could prevent catastrophe. Clytemnestra's father, Tyndareus, protests that there was, of course, already a system of law in place that ought to have prevented his daughter's death: Orestes could quite easily have thrown her out of the house without resorting to murder. "All this killing, it's like animals," he complains. "How can civilization survive?" Civilization seems to survive only by the skin of its teeth, and only on those rare occasions when people are able to choose not to behave like animals. Politics, laws, even divine bailouts can't help us if we insist on behaving badly.