Greek myths have had an unbroken authority over the imagination of the West, and among them the Antigone legend is paramount in both shaping and expressing the moral constitution of Western humanity.

Antigones, by George Steiner (Clarendon Press, 1984; Oxford Paperback, 1986; 328 pages)

Anyone who has reread the Antigone about as often as is profitable for the time being might consider turning to this book. The curious plural of its title is glossed on the cover of the paperback: “How the Antigone legend has endured in Western literature and thought.” While conceding absolute primacy to the Antigone of Sophocles’ play, Steiner brings to prominence the power of Antigone’s story in its apparently inexhaustible versions. Greek myths, he says, have had an “unbroken authority… over the imagination of the West,” and among them the Antigone legend is paramount in both shaping and expressing the moral constitution of Western humanity.

Steiner’s thesis is not innocuous. Its explicit consequence is the elevation of Tragedy over Scripture and of Sophocles over Shakespeare. With respect to the Bible, Steiner asserts, for example, that for German literature the polla ta deina chorus (“Many awesome things walk the earth, but nothing more awesome than man,” 333 ff.) forms the heart of the “house of being” (a Heideggerian phrase) much more than does any chapter from the Luther bible. It is hard to tell how far Steiner means to generalize this thesis. In Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, to cite a counter-example, the liberal humanism of the classical scholar Zeitblom pales before the devout deviltry of the Lutheran musician Leverkühn. But even if it were only a literary phenomemon, to me it seems sinister if it is true—as if something appalling were excessively savored. At any rate, whatever may be the case for the European continent, for the Anglo-Saxon countries the notion that Greek myths matter more than the Bible is laughable. But Steiner is an enthusiast, and his passion is productive enough to make his Hellenic bias forgivable.

He argues his subordination of Shakespeare to Sophocles more specifically, by citing Wittgenstein’s subversive question: “Was [Shakespeare] perhaps rather a creator of language than a poet?” The question is meant to intimate that Shakespeare invented a new species of language but failed to bring transcendent presence to earth. The index of this lack, which Steiner connects with Shakespeare’s “pluralism and liberality, his tragi-comic bias,” is his intuitive avoidance of myth.

Now it is another of Steiner’s theses that “Greek myths are imprinted in the evolution of our language, and of our grammar in particular,” that “the ‘initial’ and determinant Greek myths are myths in and of language, and in which, in turn, Greek grammar and rhetoric internalize, formalize, certain mythical configurations.” “Myths speak themselves in men.” For example, Steiner reads in Narcissus “the long history of the demarcation of the first person singular, together with the solicitations and menace of solipsism, of the withering of our utterance to monologue, as these are latent in the grammar of our ego.”

There are two language-mysticisms current that I find—not very profitably—unsettling because I can’t make out what they mean when taken at their word and because I can’t determine whether they are deep or merely sophisticated. One is the claim that our humanity is linguistic, is not only enmeshed in, but exhausted by, language—that there is nothing beyond speech for speech to be about, so that all speech is about speech and speech is all there is: We are speech. The other is that language speaks, not the speaker—we may utter sound, but the saying is accomplished by language. To these paradoxes Steiner appears to be adding a third: that legends articulate language. To me it seems that to speak responsibly I must believe that it is who speaks, and to speak substantively I must think that I speak about something, and to speak consideringly I must suppose that the tale is separable from the telling. However, to return to the point: It is in the light of Steiner’s linguistic theory that the demotion of Shakespeare from poet—the speaker of myth-shaped language—to language-creator—an autonomous maker rather than a conductor of truthful transcendent presence—is to be understood. Steiner thinks of Sophocles too as a humanist, but as one who possesses a pietas, a “haunted humanism.” Sophocles’ relation to the gods stands median, between Aeschylus’ sense of neighborhood and Euripides’ sophistic uncertainties: For Sophocles, the primal intimacies of god and men have receded, but certain human deeds are darkly reminiscent of the scandals attendant on their aboriginal commerce. Clearly Steiner accords more gravity to Sophocles’ archaic, primordial “scenes” than to Shakespeare’s current human condition. Why, really, I ask myself.

If I have seemed critical of Steiner’s thesis so far, let me engage here in a belated captatio benevolentiae for him. Steiner has acquired a sort of antipublic—readers who expect from him pretentious verbiage and trendy interests. Antigones is not like that. The language is often apt and sometimes poignant. At worst there are arresting usages that fail to click and hyperbolic metaphors that discredit their sentence: Oedipus’s attempt at self-perception is called “an incest more radical than that of blood.” That’s verbiage too juicy for credibility.

However, I think I understand the cause of the urge to use strong language. The reason is that people in their capacity as writers of books about books—or reviews of books about books—are naturally unsuited to the invocation of elemental and mighty forces, not being themselves elemental and mighty, and so they are tempted to reach for language that is a little beyond their format. In fact, I can’t help reiterating here my misgivings about the business of cultivating a taste for tragedy: I think our respectable mission in life is to convert tragedy into comedy, to find happy compromises and innocuous resolutions where we can, and then to give unconvertible tragedy the serious empathy that is its due—short of savoring it. It must be said in Steiner’s favor that he has a high respect for drier readings of the text than he himself engages in. Above all, his own understanding of Antigone appreciates that very element in her: the “lucid dryness” of her ethical solitude, which “seems to prefigure the stringencies of Kant.” In fact, Steiner’s portrait of Antigone is one of the most admirable features of Antigones. He dwells on the fact of her youth: She is a young woman, a girl really, whose pure unseasoned will to extremity, whose gallant, immature resistance to compromise and resolution, give her at first a desolate satisfaction that turns finally to doubt and despair. This description brings home the difference (which readers are apt to forget) between being a tragic heroine and watching one: What looks like demonic grandeur from the outside is lonely misery from within.

While Steiner’s interests in this book are not trendy, they are contemporary: Antigones is a splendid hermeneutic exercise. Hermeneutics was once the fairly humble art of interpreting texts, particularly the Bible. When, in half-conscious rivalry with the scientists, who often spoke of reading the book of nature, the human world began to be construed as a text, hermeneutics ceased to be mere philology and became philosophy. An influential work in this philosophical hermeneutics is Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method (1960). It establishes a study called “effective-history” [Wirkungsgeschichte]. Effective-history, or, perhaps better, actual-history, traces the effect a text has had through time (what might be called its longitudinal influence). The hypothesis is that the historical conduit is an actual constituent of our present readings; we live in a world shaped by previous interpretations; and a properly self-aware approach to the texts of our tradition requires the recovery of their earlier receptions—one might say that books bear the patina of their previous readings.

The Antigones is such a recovery: It traces at once the versions of the Antigone legend and the fate of Sophocles’ play—in fact, the two are inseparable. Antigone appears to be the most rewarding subject imaginable for an effective-history. Steiner begins his book by showing that between c. 1790 and c. 1905 Sophocles’ Antigone was regarded in Europe as the work of art nearest to perfection. Hence it inspired not only interpretative commentary but a vast number of translations, adaptations, retellings, reversifications, and libretti. In sum, it underwent every sort of attempt at faithful recovery and originative recapture.

Let me say here that the account of these mutant Antigones, to which much of Steiner’s work is devoted, is absorbing throughout, though two items might be of special interest to us. First, Steiner gives a long account of Hegel’s passionate preoccupation with Antigone, not only in the Phenomenology but in works not read in the program of St. John’s College. Second, he gives an extended analysis of Hölderlin’s notorious translation of the Sophoclean text, a poetic tour deforce, extreme and deep, which would surely have been a center-piece of the St. John’s language tutorial had we chosen to do German rather than French.

To return to Steiner’s hermeneutic thesis: As he assumes in particular that our cultural tap-root is in Athens rather than in Jerusalem, so he posits in general, explicitly and often, that we have this history effectively in our cultural sap. It seems to me a dubious assumption. I do think that we absorb opinions from our surroundings, and that the roots of many of those opinions are to be found articulated in the texts of the program—that is, after all, a chief reason for a “great books” education. But I doubt that the sort of “cultural literacy” that Gadamer’s and Steiner’s thesis implies can be atmospherically acquired. It is rather the result of a deliberate classical education of the sort that Steiner tells us he received at the French Lycee in Manhattan and that I could still piece together at Brooklyn College. This is a pedagogic order that has been disrupted. Present-day students, by and large, come to Greek texts with a pristine nescience that brings them—in some respects, I imagine—close to the state of mind that the barbarians of the ancient world were in when they attended their first performance of a Hellenic drama. Their cultural history has become as effectively ineffective for them as it would be if they had none. Consequently, they face the textual tradition without tradition. In the St. John’s seminar, which is a proving-ground (or rather a disproving-ground) of hermeneutic hypotheses, the millenia between us and Sophocles are canceled not by a laborious longitudinal recovery, but by a simple severance of the last links in the conduit of time. On the whole, this seems to me to work very well. I have more faith in the episodic recollections that mark a renaissance than in the unbroken memory of history.

At any rate, even with its hermeneutic intuition neutralized, Antigones is full of interest. I would like to conclude with two of Steiner’s own reflections, the first his try at an explanation of the unbroken preeminence of Sophocles’ Antigone, the second his own interpretation of the play’s “subterranean” message.

The Antigone, he says, is preeminent because it is the one and only literary text to express “all the [five] principal constants of conflict in the condition of man: “the confrontation of men and women, of age and youth, of society and individual, of the living and the dead, and of men and gods. The play presents each of these as “an equilibrium of fatalities.” It is inexhaustible because it is encompassing in its antitheses and evenly poised in its resolutions. That seems to me a persuasive formulation.

The subterranean significance of Sophocles’ play, he suggests, is a judgment on tragedy itself. “Drama,” which means literally, “deed,” has a built-in preference for the act over the word, a preference that is a kind of enactment of the opposition so prominent in Greek speech: logoi men… ergoi de—”in talk one thing, in actuality another.” Steiner suggests that Sophocles is issuing an implied warning against the domination of accomplished facts over probing words, against the tragic elevation of Antigone’s drastic deed. I do not know whether Steiner is right in this particular case, but his suggestion points to a paradox that is the saving grace of tragedy in general: the constitutional inability of even the most artful work to leave intact the mute uniqueness of the tragic deed.

This essay was originally published here in February 2016, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. It originally appeared in the St. John’s Review (Volume 39, Number 3, 1989-1990) and is republished here with gracious permission of the author.

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The featured image is “Oedipus and Antigone” by Antoni Brodowski, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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