Can’t Stop Screaming

Judith Butler

Every line of Antigonick is printed in boldface handwriting, emphatic, as if something urgent and excessive has to be loudly said. The title and the format suggest that this is a translation of Sophocles’s Antigone with illustrations. From the start, however, contemporary elements intervene: stage directions are inserted within brackets, characters cite contemporary critics, and the scenes are referred to as “episodes,” reminding us how even the contemporary television series has a precedent in ancient Greece. This translation is not wrestling with every word or phrase, trying to find felicitous English for the classical Greek, but skipping lines, adding some from contemporary discourse, distilling and dispersing the textual effects of this play for our time. In place of a loyal translation, a different kind of transposition and search for equivalence takes place here. Carson evokes something similar when, in 1999’s Economy of the Unlost, she indirectly cites Mallarmé in describing thought’s “best moments” as “vibrating” with the disappearance of the object of thought. Something is passing by, in the process of vanishing, and yet, for a moment—or through an unexpected concatenation of moments—it is caught by language and in the nick of time.

Carson does not “rewrite” Antigone. Her text becomes the verbal and visual scanning of a prolonged scream or cry. Emphatic, elliptical, Antigonick is more transference than translation, a relay of tragedy into a contemporary vernacular that mixes with archaic phrasing, sometimes lacking commas and periods, a halting and then a rushing of words structured by the syntax of grief and rage, spanning centuries. The lines often stand alone, as if broken off from the original text, stricken monuments. Stanzas comprising twenty or thirty lines in the original are distilled into single words and staccato exclamations.

At other moments, the text becomes downright discursive. For instance, the sisters Antigone and Ismene self-consciously incorporate bits of Hegel, Beckett, and Freud into their famous standoff, knitting the reception of Antigone into the play itself, letting us know that our only access to this play is through this present time, and yet showing that this time is still bound to that classical one.

Ismene and Antigone conduct a terse conversation about what Hegel might have meant when he said that Antigone had no “ethical consciousness” and that she acts from purely unconscious motivations. Antigone speaks up to refute his interpretation of the play: “Hegel says I’m wrong.” Ismene responds, “But right to be wrong”; at which point Antigone makes a set of Freudian jokes: “Can a person be so completely conscious of being unconscious that she is guilty of her own repression, is that // what I’m guilty of?”


Separating “that” and “what I’m guilty of” is a page break and inserted there is one of Bianca Stone’s stunning drawings, this one of a room with an empty chair, flowered carpet, window opening out onto oneiric stuff (maybe clouds or mountains or natural landscapes lacking clear contours), a radiator, a small china cabinet perhaps from New England and from some decades ago. What appears comes from some more modern time, but one that is already vacated, as if some living character had departed the scene not long ago. Who lived there? It would probably be less right to say that this image interrupts the text as the unconscious does, or that it is the unconscious in some symbolic sense. Rather, as the scene switches between the textual and the graphic, a temporal shift takes place between the past and the present: something is gone, and something is caught, and vibrates still. The image is the nick of time.

Ismene is, of course, sullen and rejected as Antigone decides to go it alone in defying Kreon and burying Polyneikes against her uncle’s orders. Ismene pleads: “I want to row the boat with you”; “I’ll be so lonely.” After Stone’s image cuts Antigone’s sentence in two, the second part resumes on the left side of the next page along with Ismene’s rejoinder. When Ismene speaks, nearly every word takes up its own line; the wide spacing that separates them opens up blank space time and again. The word is sometimes at the beginning of the empty line, sometimes at the end:


The “girl” is followed by the announcement of Antigone’s speech, but it is unclear what separates the locution of Ismene from the staging of Antigone’s speech. Is she calling her, or is Antigone designated as the one whose speech follows her name? Do the two happen at once?

Sorrow, loss, and futility punctuate this page and many others, as if breathing has become difficult and the words of the sentence could only emerge from Ismene’s mouth at stretched intervals. What we already know is that Antigone refuses whatever Ismene says, refuses her solidarity. Antigone’s rejection settles into Ismene’s speech, punctuating the latter’s utterances with wide, empty space. Sometimes that emptiness is figured in Stone’s spare and bold drawings; sometimes it structures the spatial organization of the page as in the case above. This emptiness is not an abstraction or philosophical trope. It is more like a sudden vanishing on the page that marks the prospective or retrospective vanishing of a life caused by unchecked rage, the distortions of grief.

When Kreon arrives to accuse, arrest, and condemn Antigone, he ushers himself on stage with “Here’s Kreon, nick of time.” Although Kreon seems to be saying that he is arriving in the nick of time, his syntax suggests that he himself is a nick of time, or that he is about to nick away at the time of Antigone’s life. After Kreon listens to Teiresias and recognizes his mad error in banishing Antigone to a cave to die, he rushes out of his abode and toward the cave in a race against time. The chorus then starts a list of ways to describe the sudden and urgent interval of time in which one life is endangered by someone in a rage, how reprieve can arrive just in time, or too late:

 

ANOTHER

AN HOUR

AN HOUR AND A HALF

A YEAR

A SPLIT SECOND

A DECADE

THIS INSTANT

A SECOND

A SPLIT SECOND

A NOW

A NICK

A NECK

KREON RUSHES OUT

ALL THE GUARDS RUSH OUT

 

The time in which life might be saved is surely a nick of time, but so we might say that a nick of classical Greek time becomes lodged in our own time, re-opening the question of rage, grief, and loss within another idiom, often in short phrases from popular discourse. In Carson’s free translation, the classical Greek terms transmute into contemporary and popular language even as some of the awkward, moving, and humorous archaisms are left there on the page (as always, in all capital letters): “The love in which to delete your own darling / The darling you dust / The dust you disperse.” When Kreon learns that someone has buried Polyneikes against his will, he storms around, demanding that the guard find out who has done this deed. In Carson’s rendition, the chorus then intervenes, “Many terribly quiet customers exist but none more / Terribly quiet than man / His footsteps pass so perilously soft across the sea / In marble winter.” A moment in which the chorus interrupts the action to reflect on the nature of man (the famous “Ode to man”) becomes somewhat ironic, if not hilarious, as the cosmos is figured as an awe-inspiring enterprise and this Anthropos, or human being, as a “quiet customer” of the divine, even “terribly quiet.” This section relies on lines 332–364 of the original, where the human being is described as to deinotaton, or the most strange, wondrous, or terrible of beings. The Hugh-Lloyd Jones translation canonized in the Loeb Classical Library edition of Antigone brings the lines into English this way:

 

Many things are formidable [polla ta deina], and none more formidable than man [deinoteron]! He crosses the gray sea beneath the winter wind, passing beneath surges that surround him; and he wears away the highest of the gods. Earth, immortal and unwearying, as his ploughs go back and forth from year to year, turning the soil with the aid of the breed of horses. (my additions)


In the conventional translations, all that seafaring clearly references ships importing grain into classical Athens, creating new markets and amassing wealth for some Athenians. It refers as well to those more traditional forms of farming and plowing the land that take place to one side of that burgeoning harbor economy. In Carson’s rendition, the divine takes form as an awesome business, and the human is described less as “formidable” than as “terribly quiet,” suggesting an ominous obedience that belongs to the paying (or indebted) customer.

On yet other occasions, the associations move quickly among genres, decades, centuries, and media. For instance, Eurydike (mother of Haimon, wife of Kreon) introduces her own monologue in the third person, incorporating the didactic voice of someone who might be teaching the play or making comparisons between her and literary characters from the twentieth century. She has learned that her son, in love with Antigone and desperate about her fate, has died by his own hand:

 

THIS IS EURYDIKE’S MONOLOGUE IT’S HER ONLY SPEECH IN THE PLAY. YOU MAY NOT KNOW WHO SHE IS THAT’S OK. LIKE POOR MRS. RAMSAY WHO DIED //

 

Before the next page comes an image of a staircase ascending from mountainous terrain into sky, at the top of which is a large human figure on his back with only his bare legs showing. Then, on the following page, the sentence continues:

 

IN A BRACKET OF TO THE LIGHTHOUSE SHE’S THE WIFE OF THE MAN WHOSE MOODS TENSIFY THE WORLD OF THIS STORY

 

The “girl,” Antigone, like Mrs. Ramsay, is described as having “the undead strapped to her back,” after which the text breaks out into hilarious associations in contemporary vernacular:

 

WE GOT HER THE BIKE WE GOT HER A THERAPIST THAT POOR SAD MAN WITH HIS ODD IDEAS, SOME DAYS HE MADE US SIT ON THE STAIRCASE ALL ON DIFFERENT STEPS OR VIDEOTAPED US BUT WHEN WE WATCHED IT WAS NOTHING BUT SHADOWS.

 

Even Agamben and Derrida make brief and implicit appearances in the discourse that comes next—musings on friends and enemies, the exception and the law—and though the humor is incontestable, so too is the pathos.

It is this polyvocal Eurydike who conducts the self-conscious reverie on “the nick of time” toward the end of the play, asking first whether “you” have heard this expression, and forthrightly asking, “What is a nick?” This is the question she has asked her son, Haimon, who is now dead. What follows is less an answer than a graphic reformulation of the question—another image is then provided by Stone, a landscape of vast and shadowy mountains with diminutive and formless human figures, quiet customers, and two empty chairs in the foreground where the children, now lost, might have sat. Once Eurydike takes her own life (“she undid her eyes to the dark”), Kreon is left to consider that he is “too late.” He did not arrive in any nick of time and could not save any of those lives—Antigone, Haimon, Eurydike—and so Kreon cries out, “I want Kreon’s death,” mixing first and third person in a way that continues to narrate the story it enacts. After all, it is a story, it has all happened before, and yet, it is happening now. Stone’s image intervenes: a barely discernible figure passes through a shadowy cavern, and we learn in a final line that only “nick” survives. Was that “nick” vanishing into that cavern? Who is nick?


“Antigonick” is a coinage that adds the problem of time to the character of Antigone but also produces another figure, Nick, in the wake of Antigone’s death. The last line is a “bracket,” not unlike the one in which Mrs. Ramsay dies in Woolf’s novel:


[EXEUNT OMNES EXCEPT NICK WHO CONTINUES

















                                                                                   MEASURING]


The nick is the time of the line itself, the scan of poetic meter, but not as something that stays regular or predictable. It stops and starts, alters its pace and spatial form, breaks open white space unexpectedly, and registers a loss it can neither forestall nor redeem. We are left with the question, What kind of time is the time of tragedy? It is the time of the metrical and not so metrical line, to be sure, but also some graphic trace left from the time of life, something nicked away by some brute force, or perhaps the bracket within which life vanishes. The tone of the play does not become exactly wistful or reflective at such moments. The emphatic handwritten lines in all capital letters continue until the end, suggesting that something urgent and awful has taken place, is still taking place. In tragedy, Carson tells us in Grief Lessons, “through violence we are intimate with some characters onstage in an exorbitant way for a brief time”; what happened then keeps happening: these repetitions mark the continuing life of unconscious rage, explicit sorrow, unpredictable and winning humor, and new aesthetic forms that traverse the temporal distance between then and now.

So tragedy is neither very far away nor very foreign. It seems to be with us in the present, leaving its traces in the midst of popular discourse. In the preface to Grief Lessons, Carson makes clear that to understand tragedy, one need not come equipped with erudition (even though she clearly does). She answers the question “Why does tragedy exist?” by directly addressing her reader, as she had Eurydike do:

 

Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief. Ask a headhunter why he cuts off human heads. He’ll say that rage impels him and rage is born of grief. The act of severing and tossing away the victim’s head enables him to throw away all of his bereavements.… Perhaps you think this does not apply to you. Yet you recall the day your wife, driving you to your mother’s funeral, turned left instead of right at the intersection and you had to scream at her so loud other drivers turned to look. When you tore off her head and threw it out the window they nodded, changed gears, drove away.

 

Antigone rages forth from grief, causing new destruction, and so, too, does Kreon; they mirror each other in the midst of their opposition. So, too, do you, apparently, and everyone else as well, nodding and driving off, unless we catch ourselves in time. The reader is implicated in this recurrent alteration of grief and rage, subject to the destruction she or he is capable of inflicting, if there is no timely intervention.

Apparently “you” already know why tragedy exists. What Carson writes of Paul Celan’s direct address to the “you” offers us a formulation that may well apply to her Antigonick: “But you, by the time we reach you, are just folding yourself away into a place we cannot go: sleep. Blank spaces instead of words fill out the verses around you as if to suggest your gradual recession down and away from our grasp. What could your hands teach us if you had not vanished?” It is a cry of grief posed in question form, emphatic, handwritten, excessive and abbreviated and, in this sense, a measured scream that gives us some sense of who or what lives on when it is all too late.