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SisterlinessJonathan Barnes
by George Steiner.
Oxford, 326 pp., £15, June 1984, 0 19 812665 4
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Who else would refer in the space of a hundred pages to a newly discovered papyrus of Stesichorus, a Zurich medical dissertation on the fear of being buried alive, and four 19th-century Danish followers of Hegel? George Steiner’s erudition is as exuberant as ever. The latest book, like its predecessors, teems with esoteric references, recondite allusions and jackdaw juxtapositions. It resounds with the clangour of dropping names.

The learning this time plays over Antigone. Steiner first claims for Antigone’s story, and for Sophocles’s Antigone, a peculiar and enduring hold over Western artistic and cultural sensibility. He documents the reactions which Antigone evoked from Hegel, from Goethe, from Kierkegaard, from Hölderlin. The second part of the book asks why Antigone and a handful of other mythical Greeks have so dominated our culture. Steiner offers a tentative answer which associates the Greek myths with certain structural features of language and thought. And he also catalogues the various ways in which the major characters and ideas of the Antigone have been interpreted. The final third of the book attempts, by means of a partial and discursive commentary, to deepen our understanding of Sophocles’s text.

Thus in Antigones a subtle, sensitive and uniquely learned mind applies itself to a splendid theme. The book has already won applause; it will surely be widely read; and it may well establish itself as a classic of literary criticism. Yet I confess that in reading it I was more often irked than thrilled.

It would be petty to insist on the occasional shortcomings in scholarship. There certainly are a few odd slips. Aristophanes of Byzantium was an Alexandrian critic and should not be described as a Byzantine scholiast. Anaxagoras was not a contemporary of Solon – nor was Protagoras with whom he is apparently confused. If ‘Homeric resonances give to the discourse of Greek tragic drama much of its monumental impetus,’ they do so despite and not in virtue of the metrical conventions of the two genres: for the Antigone is not written in dactylic hexameters.

Such errors are trifling. Not so the numerous minor misunderstandings of Sophocles’s text. Creon does not, at line 198, ‘address his fury to “that Polyneices” ’ in dehumanising syntax: he refers to Polyneices in a grammatically unexceptionable fashion. The choice of reading at the end of line 423 (pikras, pikros, pikra) is difficult: but it has no far-reaching effect on the overall sense of the sentence. In line 676 Creon does not instruct the assenting chorus in the first-person plural, ‘by which plural he manifestly designates ... all males in any given social organism’: he uses an impersonal passive. The Messenger does not assert at line 1173 that ‘to be “of the living” is to be the killer of the dead’: he says that the living are responsible for the death of the dead, i.e. that Creon is responsible for Haemon’s death. The ‘famous key-word’ metoikos (lines 852, 867, 890) never means ‘half-breed’ or ‘hybrid stranger’ (it carries no reference to breeding at all). Sometimes the word has the technical sense of ‘resident alien’ but in the Antigone, and often elsewhere, it simply means ‘sharing a dwelling with’. Each of these minor misreadings is made to bear critical weight in Steiner’s reflections on the play.

Next I complain about Steiner’s prose. The persistent solecisms – ‘infer’ meaning ‘imply’, ‘literally’ meaning ‘metaphorically’, ‘enormity’ meaning anything or nothing – and persistent frigidities are wearying. Sometimes Steiner’s language is leaden: ‘Such was the constant pressure of thought and of technical experiment which Hölderlin brought to bear on the problem of translation as a whole and on the relations, dramatic in translation, between an antique source and modern means of transformative comprehension, that different strategies of understanding of transference interpenetrate virtually throughout.’ More often he is seduced by the allures of rhetoric, and so inflates his sentences that they soar high above the firm ground of sense.

Consider first a trivial example. ‘Every man who had known the Terror or who was to witness the coming of the modern factory, every man who had marched from Corunna to Moscow and back, carried the burn of history in his or her humble bones.’ Let us not stop to ask how many men marched from Corunna to Moscow (nor how many marched back again), and let us ignore the suggestion that some of them suffered a change of sex en route. But what exactly were they up to ‘carrying the burn of history in ... their bones’? It is a pretty phrase, once we excise the intrusive words ‘in his or her humble’. An advanced pedant might conjecture ‘bur(de)n’ for ‘burn’, and the subtlest of critics might suppose the ‘burn of history’ to be a tributary of time’s ever-rolling stream. But no doubt Steiner intends us to understand that Napoleon’s humble troops were metaphorically singed, charred or even scorched by history. What does that mean? The context inclines me to guess that in Steiner’s opinion everyone alive in the decades about 1800 was aware that it was a time of immense political and social change. But if that is his opinion he might have stated it in less oracular terms; and had he done so he might have stopped to ask if there were any reason to think it true.

The burn of history is an aside. But an inflated rhetoric also infects the main themes. It encourages banalities. ‘Many, besides Kierkegaard, have observed that the play is death-crowded.’ No doubt the discerning Dane would also have observed that The Importance of Being Ernest is joke-crowded. (Or would he?) It licenses inconsistencies. On the one hand, the linguistic text of a Greek tragedy is only one aspect of a literary composite which also includes music, dancing and ‘complexly stylised elocution’. On the other hand, ‘the ideal of drama is that of speech in total action; it is that of a world totally spoken.’ On the one hand, ‘Antigone envisions herself as entering either upon black and inconceivable extinction ... or as seeking uncertain reunion with the clan of the self-destroyed and the fratricidal dead.’ On the other hand – or rather, on the next page – she anticipates Socrates and expects a clearer vision of the truth once she is housed in the underworld.

Again, the seductions of language lead to overblown interpretations. The first line of Sophocles’s play employs an idiom which has no counterpart in English: o koinon autadelphon Ismenes kara – ‘O common sibling head of Ismene’, anglice ‘Ismene, my sister’. According to Steiner, this invocation ‘compacts the final essence of identity, of human relation, into sisterliness’. What in the world does that mean? ‘The essence of identity’ is a phrase I do not comprehend, and ‘the final essence’ is surely gibberish. Perhaps Steiner means that the line states or implies or suggests that the most important of all human relationships is that of sisterhood. The absurdity of such a suggestion is patent once it is made without gewgaw rhetoric. I might add that the line says nothing whatever about ‘sisterliness’ as such: for the word autadelphon connotes siblinghood rather than sisterhood. This is not hair-splitting, given the stress which Steiner puts on the significance of sisterliness in the Antigone.

A little later, the appeal to ‘Ismene’s head’ is said to express ‘carnal immediacy’. The use of the adjective ‘carnal’ is surely tasteless, but it is not a tasteless jocularity. It returns: ‘In its imperious awkwardness, in its stylised carnality ... Antigone’s prolusion strives to compact, to “ingest”, Ismene into herself. She demands a “single-headed” unison.’ (But is the line awkward in Greek? Is it imperious? No doubt an actor could speak the words imperiously – but he could also speak them beseechingly or graciously or, come to that, winsomely.) Finally, cannibalism is replaced by incest: ‘we recognise in Antigone’s attempt to cradle, to interpenetrate with, “Ismene’s beloved head” ... an immensity of need.’ (The dots in the last sentence replace a characteristically Steinerian reference to Henry Moore’s drawings of bodies in the London air-raid shelters.) I do not know whether this gross exegesis is offensive or risible. I do know hat there was nothing further from Sophocles’s mind in the opening line of the Antigone than a little sisterly soixante-neuf.

Steiner’s thought and language are influenced by his esteem for that master of pompous vapouring, Martin Heidegger. Thus, in Steiner’s view, ‘Heidegger’s sentiment that the second choral ode ... in Sophocles’s Antigone, together with Hölderlin’s mature translation, could provide a sufficient basis for Western metaphysics, is plausible.’ Plausible? No, grotesque. Could anyone seriously think to derive from the ode (or, come to that, from the whole of Sophocles and the whole of Hölderlin) Plato’s theory of Forms or Aristotle’s doctrine of substance?

Or take these words, a quotation from Heidegger which Steiner appears to endorse: ‘polis is usually translated as city or city-state. This does not capture the full meaning. Polis means, rather, the place, the there, wherein and as which historical being-there is.’ What can be said of this sort of stuff? As a contribution to Greek lexicography it cannot be despised: for what is beyond intelligibility is beneath contempt. Can the phrase ‘the there, wherein and as which historical being-there is’ have been written by a rational two-footed animal?

Finally, consider two quasi-Heideggerian passages from Steiner’s ruminations on Sophocles. First, he suggests that ‘Antigone’s lament and farewell can best be understood as a desperate endeavour to come home to her own sole truth of being.’ The lament, which occupies lines 891-928, is controversial, not least because of the notorious verses which compare the difficulty of replacing dead brothers to the ease of replacing dead children. But can it be understood in Steiner’s way? I am not sure that it can, because I am not sure what Steiner’s way is. The crucial phrase ‘to come home to her own sole truth of being’ makes no obvious sense. I suppose Steiner means, at least, that Antigone is endeavouring to state some truth. But what truth? A truth ‘of being’. I imagine that this means a truth about being, about how things are – or perhaps, more specifically, a truth about her being, about how things are with her. Again, this truth is ‘her own sole’ truth. The syntax is ambiguous: a truth that she alone possesses, or the sole truth that she possesses? Either way, the notion is pretty bizarre, but perhaps the former construe is marginally less odd. Thus we arrive, tentatively, at the following paraphrase: ‘Antigone is trying to express an important truth about herself which she alone knows.’

Well, is Antigone trying to do this? I should think not. The lines are a lament. Antigone is sorry that she is going to die; she hopes that her family will welcome her in Hades; she wonders why she, a pious girl, must make such a premature descent to Dis. She is lamenting: she is not making statements, nor is she trying to convey to us some secret truth about herself or about the world. Lamentations, like epitaphs, do not aim at truth, they are expressive, not didactic or assertoric. But however that may be, if you want to understand the lament, you will gain more by reading Sophocles (with some learned commentary) than by racking your brains over Steiner’s sentence.

The second passage is this. In the debate between Creon and Antigone, ‘Creon’s idiom is that of temporality. Like no other speaker previous, perhaps, to the Fourth Gospel Antigone speaks, or, rather, endeavours to speak, out of eternity. And this attempt raises the question: can intelligible discourse be extrinsic to time?’ The passage is portentous: Antigone is doing something for the first time in recorded history, and she will have no successor until St John; and her effort raises a profound metaphysical question.

Then what is she trying to do, and what is the question? She is trying ‘to speak ... out of eternity’. The phrase is unusual. But the contrast with Creon’s ‘temporality’ hints at an interpretation. Creon, I think, is supposed to be concerned with what holds here and now – specifically, with the regulations which happen to be in force in Thebes at the time of the drama. Antigone, by contrast, appeals to eternally valid rules, to what holds everywhere and everywhen. Thus to speak ‘out of eternity’, I guess, is to say things which, if true, are always and everywhere true.

If that is right, then several comments become pertinent. First, it is far from obvious that the contrast between Creon and Antigone is correctly drawn. Is not Creon equally concerned to speak ‘out of eternity’? Does he not hold that obedience to the established law, wherever and whenever it is found, is an absolute and eternal duty? So, at least, it is often supposed – and only on such a supposition does the conflict between him and Antigone assume the Socratic guise under which it has presented itself to many readers.

Secondly, it is plain that there is nothing very recondite in speaking ‘out of eternity’. Mathematicians do it every day, for their truths hold always and everywhere: there are not different arithmetics in 450 BC and 450 AD – nor even in New York and Moscow. The grandiose phrase, ‘to speak out of eternity’, covers a very ordinary occupation. In consequence, Steiner’s portentous question is easily answered: yes, of course there is intelligible discourse extrinsic to time.

Thirdly, however, Antigone and Creon are speaking not of mathematics but of morals. Here, it might well be thought, there is a serious problem about speaking ‘out of eternity’. At all events, there are now – and there were in fifth-century Greece – subtle thinkers who profess a sort of moral relativism and pretend that moral pronouncements may hold here and now or there and then, but do not hold everywhere or always. (The exposure of infants was permissible in fifth-century Greece, impermissible in 19th-century England: there is no sense, it is said, in asking whether exposure is always and everywhere permissible or impermissible.) But moral relativism is relatively sophisticated. Moralists usually profess to speak out of eternity. Steiner’s suggestion that Antigone is here doing something unusual, even temerarious, is mistaken: she is moralising in the way most moralists moralise, and any ordinary Athenian would have spoken in the same way to his barber. ‘But you allow that Antigone’s mode of speaking does raise the profound question of moral relativism?’ Perhaps it does: but if it does, then virtually every moral pronouncement in the history of the world has done so.

I might have cited a hundred similar passages from a hundred similar pages. Where Steiner is in his pearl-strewing vein, style does not interfere with meaning. But in the critical and ‘hermeneutic’ sections of the book sense is often sacrificed. Having read Antigones, I am no more enlightened about Sophocles’s play or the Antigone myth than I was before I opened its covers.

The book begins with a double reference, to Plato’s Ion and to Montaigne: we are ‘only the interpreters of interpretations’. Neither Plato nor Montaigne intended the phrase in a complimentary spirit. Montaigne remarks caustically that ‘we do nothing but comment upon one another. Everything swarms with commentaries: of authors there is great scarcity.’ And a colleague has drawn my attention to another passage in Montaigne’s Essays: ‘the indiscreet scribblers of our times, who amongst their laborious nothings, insert whole sections, paragraphs, and pages, out of ancient authors, with a design by that means to illustrate their own writings, do quite the contrary; for this infinite dissimilitude of ornaments renders the complexions of their own compositions so pale, sallow, and deformed, that they lose much more than they get.’ In the end, it is Steiner’s love of laborious nothings that I find wearisome.

‘What an ill-tempered and unsympathetic review. The reviewer is clearly an old-fashioned Oxonian quibbler, a saucy pedantic wretch who treats profundity of thought as though it were obscurity of diction. What he cannot understand – or rather, what he cannot take the trouble to understand, he condemns as nonsense. But in condemning others he only condemns himself. Steiner’s Antigones is deep, lustrous, vivifying.’ Very well: if you like books of this sort you will like this book – and if you find it illuminating and enlarging, I salute you. Then let me end with a question. If you understand it, you will probably like to read Antigones. If you can answer it, you have probably written Antigones. The question is this: what are the three supremely monistic dramas after Sophocles?

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