Jonathan Barnes

  • Antigones by George Steiner
    Oxford, 326 pp, £15.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 19 812665 4

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in