Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Epistolary Review (Part III): Antigonick & the new ancient (cont.)

My dear R.,


A fragile, smoky morning in the city. I am sorry it's taken me so long to write. My excuse is not extraordinary. I have not been eaten been dingoes (A strange plural!), hélas, a good indication we're not in a Leigh Stein poem. Nonetheless, it is mythic everyday. Ben Kopel might approve (or not). Forgive. I said tomorrow. I didn't say which one. 


Of late, I am time-haunted, which is why I was doubly delighted when you applied, in your last, the phrase "new ancient" to describe "a poetics in which everything & nothing is mythic, in which it’s okay to write about Facebook & Philomena with equal reverence . . . a sentimentality that collapses boundaries and divisions in much the same way prior rejections of sentimentality claimed to, and sometimes did." (You do have a way with aesthetic categories, do you know? You throw them off like a lathe throws sparks, tossing off little coruscants on your way to making something real in four dimensions.)  Why Antigone?, you ask, rightly, I think, in reference to Carson's new translation. I'm going to set aside that question just for the moment to mark a few coincidences that may matter later on. 


On Sunday afternoon, I went to see (for the second time) Christian Marclay's The Clock , a twenty-four hour film montage composed of found clips of clocks & people talking about time. It's synchronized to the official time of whatever location it happens to be showing in so that for the minute of, say, 11:19 in real time, the clocks in the film show 11:19. This time I stayed from 12:45 p.m. to 4:22 p.m., excruciatingly aware of the time but intermittently surprised at how quickly the hours had gone by. This, I gather, is the intent. 


The work is a feat of editing, sonically & visually, musical cues bleeding into one another, an actor in a black-and-white film startled, suddenly, by the entrance of one from a world of color. A remix par excellence. Each hour is its own act, like a chapter in a high modernist novel. It is sublime in the mathematical sense, which may be reason enough to distrust it. Many of the films from which Marclay quotes you recognize. More are obscure to you. The actors begin to drink in the afternoon. Late lunches are toyed with. Afternoon teas are spread on the celluloid tables, afternoon delights on the beds. (I note I have slipped into the passive voice.) Audrey Hepburn hefts her cello case & Maggie Cheung arranges an intimate dinner for her boss & his mistress. Matt Damon gives a weary television interview in one bit & shows up sometime later looking like his own son, sullenly slouched in an armchair. Incidental clocks in bedrooms & train stations are somehow more affecting than plot-pregnant stopwatches & ticking time bombs. The work inspires this kind of declarative recounting. You take what little you can before you emerge wincing into the light. You don't have to ask what time it is.


Afterwards, you will see them everywhere, clocks in the wild. They will scratch--gently, persistently--at some heretofore callused site debrided by The Clock: some occluded faculty, suddenly cleared of congestion. Call it the time-piece, maybe. 


It was the twenty-ninth of July the day I saw The Clock, also the day, as I learned this morning, of filmmaker Chris Marker's death--& (fearful symmetry) his birth ninety-one years before. His films have meant a lot to me. They are obsessed with time, time & memory. I remember thinking, as I walked out of The Clock, how much it might owe to Marker's film essays & (though bloated to lugubrious proportions) the poetics of his most famous work, the brilliant-cut time-travel montage La Jetée. I read somewhere that Marclay makes a sort of cameo in his prodigy by way of a found footage pocket-watch monogramed with the initials C.M. I don't know whether any samples of Chris Marker's work appear in The Clock but I do know that my impulse is to pluck that watch from the frame & give it to someone else. I am a little sad just now.     


You gave me a pocket-watch once. I confess it keeps imperfect time & that is one reason I like it so much.


Time, if I may return to that other question, might be a reasonable address both to why Antigone? & to the new ancient. As I pointed out in my first letter, to the dramatis personae of Antigonick, Anne Carson adds the role of Nick "a mute part [always onstage, he measures things]." It's part of a larger strategy of anachronism, which is, itself, a witty commentary on the ways we track--& fail to track--time. ("WE'RE STANDING IN THE NICK OF TIME," she writes.) Antigone, like most Greek tragedies, is often referred to as "timeless" or "universal," by which people mean that it's relevant in all times or to all people or something like that, essentially meaningless truisms &, more importantly, some of the least interesting things you can say about it. Carson's translation works against that interpretation by making us aware of how alien this text really is, how particular to a distant cultural moment, how much work it takes to drag a wisp of language across the millennia & weave it over in a new tongue, like tuning your fancy new condenser mic to the echo of a signal that died a few thousand years ago. So a stiff dose of anachronism is inevitable, one way or another--anachronism may be at the heart of what you mean by "new ancient"--& Antigonick is ruthless in its accession to this demand. 


I've writ a little bit already about how Bianca Stone's illustrations to the text might inform the material experience of reading Antigonick. They make it a little like (though not exactly like) reading things that explicitly categorize themselves as comics. That's already a different way of conceptualizing the "fate" of a dramatic translation, formally speaking, to link it to the very particular ways in which the physical images in the codex interact with the words they obscure & reveal by turns (Recall that the illustrations are printed on semi-transclucent paper & that Carson handwrites the text.). It's a play that need not be acted out to be performed (though, of course, readings can be & have been staged). The text in itself "performs." It performs its thingness. It performs the contemporaneity of its materials.


Add to this the translation's opening lines: 
[ENTER ANTIGONE AND ISMENE] ANTIGONE: WE BEGIN IN THE DARK AND BIRTH IS THE DEATH OF US ISMENE: WHO SAID THAT ANTIGONE: HEGEL ISMENE: SOUNDS MORE LIKE BECKETT ANTIGONE: HE WAS PARAPHRASING HEGEL ISMENE: I DON'T THINK SO 
Carson's theoretical heritage is on ostentatious display here but it's not just purposeless anachronism (or erudition), I think. She's drawing our attention to the ways in which her encounter with the text of Antigone---& ours--already requires a number of temporal disjunctions. The twentieth century (Beckett) & the eighteenth century (Hegel) are past to various degrees & in various ways & their inclusion here makes us aware of how. Better, I think, to read this as a series of fine historical delineations rather than as undifferentiated temporal quagmire. We are being reminded of how words & sentiments come to us: the longer they are repeated & passed on, the more they become encrusted with historically specific provisos & addenda. It is perfectly logical, in Carson' twenty-first century Antigone, that Sophocles--as well as Ismene & her sister--can't get past all the Beckett & Hegel they've read because neither can we. 

Carson's strategy of anachronism, her "new ancient," is similarly at work in the way she shifts registers of dialogue, from high metrical speech to slangy colloquialisms, sometimes (tra-gic-com-ic-al-ly) within the space of the same speech. Here's the entrance of the blind prophet Teiresias. It's always a party when he shows up:


[ENTER TEIRESIAS LED BY A BOY]
TEIRESIAS [TO THE CHORUS]: HAIL YOU KINGS OF THEBES I BEGIN BY ADDRESSING THE WRONG PERSON BECAUSE I AM BLIND IS THAT WHAT YOU THINK, BECAUSE I'M BLIND KREON: WHAT'S UP TEREISIAS: [TO KREON] YOU'RE STANDING ON A RAZOR. I HEAR THE BIRDS THEY'RE BEBARBARIZMENIZED THEY'RE MAKING MONSTER SOUNDS THE FIRES WON'T LIGHT THE RITES GO WRONG YOU KNOW MY TECHNOLOGIES YOU KNOW THE FAILING OF THE SIGN IS IN ITSELF A SIGN. FROM YOU A SICKNESS FROM YOU A SUPPURATION FROM YOU A SURFEIT COMES OUT UPON THE CITY. THIS PILE OF ROT THAT WAS THE SON OF OIDIPOUS.
                                                      THIS BOY IS DEAD STOP KILLING HIM

 & this is why Antigone, at least a little of it, time, I mean, how it just won't stop, & the dead boy & how he keeps dying. It's the story of a moody teenaged girl defying the world. No, it's about the law of the gods & the laws of the state. Or no again, it's about conflicting ethical imperatives or how you react in the face of extreme temperaments or how to rule & what we owe the dead & who we bury & who we mourn & who is living & who is not & who is left & who has disappeared half-way through the antistrophe without even a proper goodbye. It will mean some of these things to you or all of them or none, depending on what you come from, on who you are & when[EXEUNT OMNES EXCEPT NICK WHO CONTINUES  














                                                                                                                                         MEASURING]


It's not a solution, it's just a few semes to mark the time. So delighted, always, to meet you letter for letter, though never




measure for measure,


(r)