Let’s Cut to the Wail

Michael Wood

  • An Oresteia translated by Anne Carson
    Faber, 255 pp, $27.00, March 2009, ISBN 978 0 86547 902 9

Some time ago the scholar Jean-Pierre Vernant reminded us that Greek gods are not persons but forces; and in Anne Carson’s Oresteia, her sharp, sceptical, often laconic version of three plays about the legacy of Atreus, one each by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, as well as in her translations of four other plays by Euripides,[*] I kept hearing an invitation to extend and refine the thought. These gods are the names of forces humans cannot otherwise name and must still name somehow.

Do you belong to a group of persons like the old men left behind in Argos during the Trojan War, eager to believe in some sort of universal justice, however often it lies in abeyance?

Do you think the gods ignore a man who
steps on holy things?

Of course they don’t; or at least they shouldn’t: Zeus is the god who punishes excess and impiety. Are you anxious, as those same old men are, to assume that suffering brings wisdom? Then you will call on Zeus again, although perhaps not with all the confidence you would like.

Zeus! whoever Zeus is –
if he likes this name I’ll use it –
measuring everything that exists I can
compare with Zeus nothing
except Zeus.
May he take this weight from my heart …

Zeus put mortals on the road to wisdom
when he laid down this law:
By suffering we learn …

‘Whoever Zeus is’; ‘I can/compare with Zeus nothing/except Zeus.’ Elsewhere the same chorus says, ‘Zeus acts as Zeus ordains,’ and these tautologies and open-ended provisions suggest that even for pious persons Zeus is the name for what order would look like if there was an order. Hugh Lloyd-Jones, in the notes to his translation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, says it is important for ancient Greek worshippers to get the name of the god right, ‘otherwise he may not hear or may not listen.’ And Lloyd-Jones’s phrasing – ‘if this name is pleasing to him’ – clearly strikes a less sceptical or less breezy note than Carson’s ‘if he likes this name I’ll use it.’ But Lloyd-Jones does recall in this context Heraclitus’ wonderfully cryptic ‘One thing, the only truly wise, does not and does consent to be called by the name of Zeus.’

These old men – they appear in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon – think of justice as some sort of ultimate moral balance. But when other characters in the same play speak of justice they generally mean vengeance or retaliation or the satisfaction of old grudges. Klytaimestra (I’m going to follow Carson’s spelling) explicitly associates the term with what she calls her two other gods, Ruin and Revenge. No aspiration to order there. In her introduction Carson finely says: ‘Almost everyone in the play claims to know what justice is and to have it on their side … The many meanings of the word justice have shaped the history of the house of Atreus into a gigantic double bind.’ She even goes so far as to doubt whether Aeschylus ‘wants to clarify the concept of justice in any final way’. He may of course want to clarify the sheer difficulty of the notion.

If we turn to the other plays in the volume, we find that characters in Sophocles’ Elektra pray to Apollo as if he were the name of whatever there might be in the universe that could help them get their way; and in Euripides’ Orestes they wax openly sarcastic about the same god’s moral interests. ‘There ought to be a law against a mother like that,’ Elektra says of Klytaimestra. ‘Turns out there is: Apollo.’ When Apollo himself appears at the end of the play to sort everything out, the effect is frankly burlesque. Carson writes of ‘moments … where exasperation verges on farce’, and in Grief Lessons sees Euripides more generally as caught ‘between resignation and satire’. In her translation, Apollo and Orestes talk to each other as if they were a couple of good old boys rearranging the collateral damage from a wild night on the town. ‘I’ll fix up Orestes’ relations with Argos,’ Apollo says. ‘It was me made him murder his mother.’ Orestes is grateful but curiously unsurprised. ‘Apollo of oracles!’ he says. ‘So you were no false prophet!/But I admit I was getting nervous.’ ‘Getting nervous’: this is a man who in other plays is driven mad by the Furies, and even in this play has said: ‘My mind is gone.’

Of the goddess who dominates Euripides’ Hippolytos (one of the plays in Grief Lessons), Carson says: ‘Aphrodite is the name for all that Hippolytos wants to edit out of his view of reality.’ Edit out or edit in: there is always some sort of editorial action in relation to the gods. They are figures for what humans want or don’t want, and also of what is beyond their reach or control; images of agency scrawled on the face of chance. I don’t mean to blur the distinctions among the three dramatists, as if all three (and all Greeks) had the same view of the gods, and I don’t want to turn them all into atheists. I want only to suggest that there is plenty of room for scepticism even in the loftiest of these writers, and that the distance between those who believe there must be a divine order (because there absolutely must be) and those who believe there can’t be (because they see no evidence of one) is not as large as it may at first look, since it rests on a shared absence of hard knowledge and on a range of estimations of desire. Carson says Euripides was interested in ‘what it’s like to be a human being in a family, in a fantasy, in a longing, in a mistake’. The terms are a little casual for the grandeur of the situations in Aeschylus and Sophocles but they are not inaccurate. It’s true that characters in Aeschylus inhabit their mistakes with tremendous horror or relish, while those in Euripides mainly contemplate the mess they have made or inherited. In Sophocles they cultivate their difficult obsessions and seek scraps of moral dignity in a context that hardly seems to have heard of the idea.

This is familiar ground, though, and Carson’s book suggests we go on to think about something rather different: the immense familiarity of the ancient Greek stories themselves, the sense of déjà vu haunting even the first performance of any of these great plays. Déjà vu and not quite déjà vu. Every story was known before its first telling – or if not literally before its first telling, before any particular recorded telling – and every telling was slightly different. It’s not just that all interpretations of a myth are instances of the myth, as Lévi-Strauss said (Freud and Sophocles are both dramatists of the tale of Oedipus): it’s that all instances of the myth are interpretations of it, as if they were played from a musical score that everyone knows but no one possesses. It is in this sense that there can be such a thing as what Carson calls ‘an’ Oresteia.

The Oresteia, of course, is Aeschylus’ trilogy: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides. But once Carson has replaced, so to speak, the second play with Sophocles’ Elektra and the third with Euripides’ Orestes, we can dream of four other plays in two other trilogies and, more immediately, we can see what happens when different musicians play the same score. In any version, of course, certain things will happen. Before the play opens, in a previous generation, Atreus will have cooked and served his brother Thyestes’ children to him, sliced them into soup, as Carson has a character say in Orestes, although the reference in Agamemnon suggests something more like a stew. As if to generalise this story, or to make sure it never leaves our minds, other cooked children keep coming up in the allusions characters make in the plays: to Tantalos, who offered his son as a meal to the gods; to the nightingale who used to be Prokne before she fed her son to her rapist husband. Agamemnon will have sacrificed his and Klytaimestra’s daughter in return for a favourable wind on the way to Troy.

The Trojan War will have been fought. Then, within the performed sequence, Agamemnon will return from Troy, bringing with him Kassandra as his princess-slave. Klytaimestra will kill him, with or without the assistance of Aigisthos, Thyestes’ remaining son. Elektra, the child of Klytaimestra and Agamemnon, will mourn her father and keen for vengeance. Her brother Orestes will return to Argos and pretend to be dead. Then he will kill his mother and her lover. He will go mad after the event, and be pursued by the Furies, who in Aeschylus, with some reluctance, after Orestes’ acquittal by a divinely constituted human court in Athens, finally become the Eumenides, the Kindly Ones. In Euripides, as we shall see, something else happens, although Orestes is still absolved.

Even in this bald and compressed form the story can be seen as offering an extraordinary combination of hereditary curse and multiple motivation. Could anyone survive unharmed in a domain where all-out war seems to be the natural climate of both family and marriage? Does Klytaimestra kill Agamemnon as an act of long-planned revenge for his sacrifice of their daughter to his war aims? Or because she has taken her husband’s family enemy as her lover? Is this affair part of her revenge or just a sideline? Can Orestes not avenge the death of his father? Should he kill his mother? If he asks the advice of a god, what moral status does that advice have? When he is acquitted in Aeschylus, it is because Apollo pleads for him and Athene decides the case, casting the deciding vote when the jury stalls at six voices for acquittal and six for condemnation. Zeus doesn’t appear, and Athene, curiously, makes her tie-breaking move before she knows there is a tie – that is, before the votes are counted. It’s true that any goddess, and many a human, can tell when a hung jury is in the offing, but the procedure is curious all the same. The ancient curse seems inescapable, but doesn’t relieve anyone from blame – or from the feeling or accusation of blame.

In this framework the variants on the story become inordinately interesting. They can’t change any major event or moral dilemma, but they can move events around, add or subtract them, and shift whole swathes of atmosphere. And since Carson starts with Aeschylus, whose other plays we have, we can watch the roads diverge. In The Libation Bearers, Orestes returns, meets up with Elektra, and the two spend a good portion of the play invoking the help of the powers of darkness in the killing they have to do. ‘Two murderous children,’ Carson says, ‘are (arguably) redeemed by mutual love’; and certainly their need of so much prayer makes them anything but unreflective killers. ‘You lords of the underworld,’ Orestes says (in Ted Hughes’s translation),

You crowned and enthroned curses,
Look at us.
The last shreds of the house of Atreus –
Bereft of all but bare life,
Benighted in this darkest pit of our fate –
Lead us. Guide us.

And a little later Elektra prays:

Persephone, Queen of the Underworld,
Direct our steps.

Then Orestes, having prayed for good measure to Hermes, ‘God of the dark pathways’, pretends to be a foreigner arriving with the news of Orestes’ death.

In Sophocles’ Elektra, Orestes’ pretence of death starts earlier, and is inflicted on Elektra too. Why does he do this? And why does he wait so long to relieve her of her pain? It is indeed ‘deeply odd’, as Carson says, ‘that Elektra’s profoundest emotional outpouring … should be evoked by a fake object’. She speaks one of the world’s great laments to an urn that does not contain the ashes of her brother. She asks to hold the object – ‘I have tears to keep,’ she says, ‘I have ashes to weep’ – and Orestes, still pretending to be a stranger, brutally says to his friend Pylades, who is carrying the thing: ‘Bring it here, give it to her, whoever she is.’ She says:

If this were all you were, Orestes,
how could your memory
fill my memory …
Look!
You are nothing at all.
Just a crack where the light slipped through …
Now our enemies rock with laughter.
And she runs mad for joy –
that creature
in the shape of your mother –
how often you said you would come
one secret evening and cut her throat!
But our luck cancelled that,
whatever luck is.
And instead my beloved,
luck sent you back to me
colder than ashes,
later than shadow.

This fake death is so real that it’s not at all clear Orestes can get over it, whatever he does. Earlier in the play, considering his stratagem (technically just a scheme to come close to Klytaimestra and Aigisthos without causing any suspicion), he says: ‘What harm can it do/to die in words?’ Presumably everyone who has ever watched or read this work has groaned at this moment, even without knowing how long he will keep up the act or with what results. There can scarcely have been a rhetorical question that was less rhetorical. The play ends as it has to, with corpses offstage, and a chorus (of local women) speaking blindly of freedom for the ‘seed of Atreus’.

David Kovacs, another recent translator of Euripides’ Orestes, tells us the play was ‘immensely popular in antiquity’, but this fact only increases his puzzlement, which he shares with Carson. ‘This most baffling play,’ Kovacs says, ‘has a plot that seems to be the poet’s free invention.’ An invention within the narrative limits I’ve sketched above, of course, but we scarcely feel any restriction as we read, and Carson wonders whether we can detect any purpose. The play ‘seems to unfold’, she says, ‘like a bolt of cloth falling down stairs, spilling itself, random’. She goes on to wonder whether randomness is not perhaps the play’s point, but her version of the text suggests the idea may take one more twist.

Here Orestes has not gone off to Delphi to throw himself on the mercy of the god whose advice he took: he is still in Argos, asleep, delirious, and then rather suddenly scheming again. He and Elektra are about to be condemned by the people of Argos to death by stoning. Helen is here to grieve for her sister Klytaimestra, and so are her prevaricating husband Menelaos, and her angry father Tyndareus: quite a gathering. Orestes hopes Menelaos will support him in the assembly, but there is no chance of that – it’s quite possible that Menelaos has a cautious eye on the throne and certainly knows there is no political mileage in supporting a matricide. Orestes and Elektra are about to give up the fight and accept their sentence – they will be allowed to kill themselves, it turns out, rather than have to submit to stoning – when Pylades has an idea: they could murder Helen; that would be popular. They set out to do this, kidnapping Helen’s daughter Hermione on the way, but Apollo (or Euripides) has finally had enough. The god descends, whisks Helen away into some sort of transubstantiation (‘She will sit in the folds of the sky beside Kastor and Pollux’), marries Elektra to Pylades, tells Orestes to go to Athens and stand trial – to rejoin the plot of The Eumenides, in other words – and after that he can marry Hermione. Orestes accepts the deal, as Menelaos superfluously reminds him he must, and wryly says: ‘I make my peace with circumstances, Menelaos,/and also with your oracles, Apollo.’ Apollo says Peace is the ‘most beautiful of gods’, and they all live happily ever after.

We seem to have shifted into Shakespearean romance or even Hollywood screwball comedy. And in one sense we have. Carson reminds us that Aristotle thought that Euripides, ‘whatever the ineptitudes of his stagecraft’, was ‘the most tragic’ of the tragic poets. Here, I think, is where her idea that there is ‘something terrible in randomness’ is trumped by the dramatist himself. There is something even more terrible in the blatant, cynical, impossible taming of randomness, in the assertion of an order which even its architect does not believe in, and there are many milder works, including some fairy tales, where the happy ending can only be a desperate irony, precisely what’s available only in words, as Orestes might say.

I’m basing these suggestions on Anne Carson’s words rather than those of Euripides, which I can’t read – to be precise, I can read a few famous words, but not sentences or tone. And it’s important to understand what her consistent and at times apparently frivolous modernising (or Americanising) of idiom is doing. ‘So you got good news?’ people say. ‘You’re optimistic?’ And ‘I’ll be okay,’ and ‘Oh come on, relax your principles.’ They say ‘No kidding’ and ‘Let’s cut to the wail.’ Helen, the woman who in other translations is said to have killed off so many of the Achaeans, is called ‘that weapon of mass destruction’. At the end of Klytaimestra’s grand false welcome home speech, Agamemnon says (in Hughes’s translation), ‘Your eulogies are like my absence:/Too long, too much,’ and (in Lloyd-Jones’s version): ‘Your speech matches my absence;/for you have drawn it out at length.’ Carson has him say: ‘You have made a speech to match my absence –/ long.’ There is no great difference in meaning, but Agamemnon begins to sound like a comedian, and we haven’t even got to Euripides yet. However, Carson’s strategy is not, as it may seem, to bring these old Greeks up to date, to make them our contemporaries. It is to remind us that we are their contemporaries, that we have not left the violent domain they so fiercely drew for us. She makes us at home in their language so that we can more thoroughly understand their vision of how not at home in the world we are.

[*] Grief Lessons (NYRB, 312 pp., £7.99, February 2006, 978 1 590 17180 6).