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.’

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