Where There Is No Escape from Brutality

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Anne Carson is a literary scholar, an original and striking poet, and the author of several previous imitations of ancient Greek poets, including a recent translation of Sappho, “If not, Winter.” Her latest work, “Grief Lessons” (New York Review Books, 312 pages, $19.95), is a version of four plays by Euripides, “Alkestis,” “Hekabe,” “Herakles,” and “Hippolytos” — an eclectic selection that provides an excellent introduction to Euripides’s range.

Ms. Carson’s Euripides is bleak, moving, and provocative, offering a painful reminder of the resonance of these ancient plays with our own times. Aristotle called Euripides the “most tragic”of the three great Athenian tragedians — more so than Aeschylus or Sophocles. For Aristotle, as for most subsequent readers, Euripides was the tragedian who had the most immediate and devastating impact. You cannot read these works without intense emotion, although what you feel may be a strange and confusing mixture, which includes not only pity and fear, but also horror, titillation, and even amusement.

Euripides was also the most controversial of the three great Athenian tragedians in his own time. Aeschylus presented the Trojan War as the scene for grand, elemental, necessary conflicts between opposing systems of value. Euripides offers sympathetic portraits of characters who have come off poorly in earlier versions of Greek myths (such as Helen), while showing many of the respected heroes (Agamemnon, Achilles, Herakles) as either cynical opportunists or weaklings. Euripidean characters often find it impossible to be sure of keeping hold of dignity, sanity, or a sense of self. They are conscious of their own inability to live up to earlier tragic models.

In the “Hekabe,” there seems to be no escape from brutality, except through death. Polyxena, one of the Queen’s many children, is chosen to be a human sacrifice on the tomb of Achilles. She is chillingly eager to die, in the knowledge that only death can save her from rape, slavery, and further degradation. But as Ms. Carson points out, one of the most horrible things in this horrible play is that Polyxena’s death seems to have no consequences, and no meaning. “It forces us to no moral conclusion at all except that such sacrifice is irrelevant to the world in which it is staged.” By contrast, her mother Hekabe survives the deaths of almost all her children, and the destruction of her city. Provoked by overwhelming grief, rage, and the longing for vengeance, this wretched old woman becomes terrifyingly aggressive. She traps and blinds one of her Greek enemies, Polymestor, and kills his children in return for the death of her own youngest son. The line between victims and victors proves hard to draw.

The stark horror of these events is presented not as a moral dilemma, but as a shocking, single truth. As Ms. Carson notes, “the world after a world war becomes a simple place. It is divided simply into the dead, who are the majority, and those who have somehow managed not to die, whom we call the living.” In such a world, everybody will, sooner or later, turn into an animal —as Hekabe is doomed to turn into a dog. Ms. Carson’s starkness is effective in bringing out the shock value of these plays, what she calls “the unpleasantness of Euripides.” Here is her version of a brutal exchange between Hekabe and her enemy, Polymestor:

POLYMESTOR: OIMOI [cry] I wail for my children, I wail for my eyes.

HEKABE: You are in pain, so what? What about my pain, my boy?

The sprinklings of transliterated words from the Greek original — such as “OIMOI” — do not work well on the page, but might be good in production. But Ms. Carson successfully captures the direct, colloquial language in which Euripides shows people at their most horrible or most vulnerable.

Ms. Carson begins “Grief Lessons” with an age-old question: “Why does tragedy exist?” Her answer is striking both in its syntax and in its emphasis on the interdependence of anger and sorrow. “Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.” This vision of tragedy applies particularly well to Euripides — although Ms. Carson does not develop it as much as she might have done.The anger expressed by his characters often goes far beyond their own personal grievances. The injustice of the world itself makes them angry. Medea, betrayed by her husband, makes us see her position as an instance of the way men always seem to have a better deal than women: “I would rather fight in battle three times than have to give birth once.” She kills her own children out of rage. Why are you full of grief? Because somebody else was full of rage. And so it goes on.

Ms. Carson’s title suggests that Euripides’s own angry grief might have something to teach us. Ancient Athenians often thought of poets as moral teachers and guides. Aristophanes’s comedy, “The Frogs,” imagines an underworld contest between Euripides and Aeschylus to determine which of them can save a city that was, at the end of the fifth century BC, finally losing a long and devastating war with Sparta. Euripides engages directly with the cultural debates of his time. It is quite possible to read, say, the “Hekabe” as offering a specific political lesson to his fellow citizens: Stop the ongoing war, or at least to think harder about the effects of war on women, children, and other civilians.

Ms. Carson, however, argues that Euripides was a precursor to Samuel Beckett — whose characters get stuck in barren, incomprehensible worlds — not as an Athenian Bertold Brecht, whose social drama was directed towards political change. Ms. Carson implies that for Euripides, “poetry makes nothing happen.” The “lessons” he offers us are thus fundamentally useless ones. Life is often unpleasant and deeply unjust, and injustice cannot be undone without creating still greater injustice.As the Nurse in the “Hippolytos” comments, in Ms. Carson’s version: “Every joy disappoints, / What’s here doesn’t please you, / what’s far off you crave. … We humans seem disastrously in love with this thing / (whatever it is) that glitters on the earth — / we call it life. We know no other.” The sentiment might not seem wildly out of place in the work of Beckett — except that Beckett would have eliminated the metaphor (“glitters”).

Euripides’s characters are often — like those of Beckett — dressed as beggars or tramps. But on a stylistic level, the Beckett comparison is less useful. Beckett deliberately pared down his language, cultivating a kind of linguistic poverty: He commented, “My characters have nothing.” Although Euripides is interested in creating the sensation of claustrophobia, his language is not consistently impoverished. Ms. Carson’s greatest gift as a translator and as a writer is her capacity to be brief, but she can economize without scrimping. Some of the lushness of the Choruses is captured well in this version. As in earlier work, Ms. Carson coins new compound adjectives to echo the Greek language. I was moved by this Chorus from the “Hippolytos”:

I long for the secret sunwalked places, and a god to take me up high amid high birds flying, to rise and soar over seacoasts and rivers where sad girls pitying Phaethon drop into the deepblue wave their amber tears, their brilliant tears.

Here is the beginning of the same passage in Richard Lattimore’s reliable, wordy, unpoetic translation:

Would that I were under the cliffs, in the secret hiding-places of the rocks, that Zeus might change me to a winged bird and set me among the feathered flocks. I would rise and fly to where the sea washes the Adriatic coast, and to the waters of Eridanus.

Ms. Carson cuts out all place names, and even the name of the god, and substitutes her own poetic twiddles, which do not correspond directly to the original (such as the repeated words,”high,” and “tears,” and that beautiful coinage, “sunwalked”). But in doing so, she is faithful to something in Euripides: the swooping beauty of fantasy, the longing for elsewhere, and the deep pathos.

“Grief Lessons” should not be your only guide to these plays. As you can see from this example, Ms. Carson leaves out a lot of what Euripides put in. Moreover, the book has no bibliography, and the non-specialist reader may not realize how heavily Ms. Carson borrows from other scholars. For instance, her reading of the “Hippolytos” owes a large and entirely unacknowledged debt to Charles Segal. Ms. Carson herself always tends to flutter away from her insights, rather than pursue them; this can be inspiring or frustrating, depending on your mood. Moreover, the tone of the adaptations is inconsistent, and I was distracted and irritated by some ill-judged language: Hekabe’s grief is not well-rendered by, “S—! / No mortal exists who is free.”

But Ms. Carson’s interest in her own language, and her ability to hear the rhythms in contemporary English speech, allows her to create versions that have, at their best, the clarity of classical architecture. She is highly conscious of Euripides’s cruelty, but she knows that his work is not unpleasant through and through. It is clever and cynical, but also lyrical, sentimental, precise, magical, and sometimes very funny. As Beckett’s Nell remarks in “Endgame,” “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that. Yes, yes, it’s the most comical thing in the world.”

Ms. Wilson teaches classics at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of “Mocked with Death: Tragic Overliving from Sophocles to Milton,” available from Johns Hopkins University Press. Her next book is about the death of Socrates in Western culture.

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