My Pythian Interview with Anne Carson

The ancient Greek god Apollo, in addition to being associated with the sun, healing, and music, communicated Zeus’s will through a series of arcane messages at his prophetic shrine in Delphi. Between the seventh and fifth centuries b.c.e., a Greek could visit the Temple of Apollo and participate in the elaborate process involved to pose a personal, religious, or political question or problem to the Pythia, commonly known as the Oracle at Delphi, the priestess of Apollo who delivered the God’s cryptic messages. Her ambiguous responses, written down by the temple priests, were open to interpretation, and often had multiple and even opposing meanings.

As I was interviewing the classicist, poet, and author Anne Carson in June, 2017 via e-mail about her new translation of Bakkhai, the question-and-answer process felt like a consultation with the ancient Pythia. Much like an ancient Greek attempting to get an answer from the priestess of Apollo, I had to go through a few layers—book publicist and agent—and the answers I received back can best be described as intriguing and esoteric; they varied in length from a few words to a paragraph to no response at all. Every reply was also written in all lower case, including the first-person singular “i,” an idiosyncrasy that seemed almost playful, and is something I usually see in the prose or text messages of a student or a younger person. Like a Greek hearing those ambiguous missives given by the Pythia, I was repeatedly surprised by the puzzling, thought-provoking answers I received: Continue reading my full interview in the 50th Issue of The Quarterly Conversation.

Thanks so much to Scott Esposito for publishing this interview along with my review of the Bakkhai. 

John Collier. The Priestess of Delphi. Oil on Canvas. 1891.

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Rage is Born of Grief: Anne Carson’s new Translation of Euripides’s Bakkhai

Bakkhai continues to be one of Euripides’s (c. 484-406 b.c.e.) most popular plays to stage, translate, and interpret, even though it was never performed in its author’s lifetime. The ancient Greek playwright and Athenian wrote Bakkhai in the last few years of his life in Macedonia, where he had fled after becoming disillusioned with his native city-state. The play was found among his papers after his death and produced posthumously by either his nephew or his son at the Dionysia, the festival held annually for the eponymous god in Athens. The drama presents the god Dionysos arriving in Thebes disguised as a mortal to establish his cult in that city and exact a brutal punishment on his cousin, King Pentheus, who denies the existence of the god. Anne Carson’s unconventional new translation of Bakkhai is a fitting interpretation of what is arguably Euripides’s most enigmatic tragedy.

Dionysos is the first character to appear on stage in the play, and he tells us that he is harboring anger for his maternal family who have denied his immortality. Dionysos is the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Semele, daughter of the king of Thebes. When Semele is pregnant with Dionysos, she is tricked by Hera into viewing Zeus, undisguised, in all his glory as the mighty god of sky and lightning. At the sight of him she is instantly incinerated and Zeus puts the fetus in his thigh to finish gestating, from which appendage of his father Dionysus is eventually born. In her typical precipitous, staccato phrases that are familiar from her previous translations and original poetry, Caron’s rendition of Bakkhai gives us a succinct version of the myth:  Continue reading my essay in the 50th issue of The Quarterly Conversation

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Pain and Pleasure: Some thoughts on And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger

Time and Space are the focus of Berger’s brief yet lovely writings in this impossible-to-classify book.  Part one, entitled “Once” is an attempt to capture  the enigmatic, human experience of time while part two, entitled “Here” explores the concept of space especially in relation to sight and distance.  The text feels like a series of snapshots into Berger’s mind as he uses art, photography, philosophy, poetry and personal anecdotes to grapple with time and space; Hegel, Marx, Dante, Camus, Caravaggio are just a few of the artists and thinkers that are given fleeting attention in his text.

At times Berger addresses his narrative to an unnamed “you” that is his lover.  Time and space have, perhaps, the greatest impact on love, sex, and desire: “The sexual thrust to reproduce and to fill the future is a thrust against the current of time which is flowing ceaselessly towards the past.  The genetic information which assures reproduction works against dissipation.”  And, “Love is a reconstitution in the heart of that holding which is Being.”  Berger’s thoughts to his beloved highlight a painful distance that separates them.  He is writing to her about going to a post office to send her a package or a letter, or he is reminding her of stolen moments spent together or a conversation about art while in bed.  Thoughts on vision and light are mixed with those on distance: “The visible brings the world to us.  But at the same time reminds us ceaselessly that it is a world in which we risk to be lost.  The visible with its space also takes the world away from us. Nothing is more two-faced.”

Berger’s thoughts on the close association between pain and pleasure as they relate to time and space and love were the most interesting for me in this book as it brought to mind other authors who have also delved into this complicated association.  Berger writes, “Pleasure and pain need to be considered together, they are inseparable. Yet the space filled by each is perhaps different.”  And:

It has never been easy to relieve pain.  The productive recourses have usually been lacking—food, adequate medicines, clothing, shelter.  But it has never been difficult to locate the causes of pain: hunger, illness, cold, deprivation…It has always been, in principle, simpler to relieve pain than to give pleasure or make happy.  An area of pain is more easily located.

With one enormous exception—the emotional pain of loss, the pain that has broken a heart.  Such pain fills the space of an entire life.  It may have begun with a single event but the event has produced a surplus of pain.  The sufferer becomes inconsolable.  Yet, what is this pain, if it is not the recognition that what was once given as pleasure or happiness has been irrevocably taken away?

It is no wonder that the Epicureans attempted to follow a philosophy that was constructed around the close experiences of pleasure and pain.  I’ve tried to embrace Epicureanism in particular during this past year, jettisoning things and relationships that bring more pain than pleasure.  It is not an easy philosophy to follow, to say the least, but I have seen some value in it.

Berger brings into his discussion of pain and pleasure the paintings of Caravaggio and the facial expressions he captures in his art.  Berger writes, “I have not seen a dissimilar expression on the face of animals—before mating and before a kill.”  Jean Luc Nancy, who also explores the association between pain and pleasure in his book Coming, uses Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene on the cover of his text.  Nancy argues that pain and pleasure have an intensity in common and in the moments before orgasm the tension that one experiences can be painful: “Sartre says, ‘There is no pleasure that does not know itself as pleasure.’ We could say the same thing the other way around: There is no pain that does not know itself as pain.  Pleasure is a state that seeks out its own perpetuation, while pain seeks out its own cessation, but it’s exactly the same thing in each sense.”  Pain is always present in jouissance, Nancy argues, because its extreme intensity becomes unbearable—it pushes us to our limits.

This connection between pain and pleasure is expressed by Quignard as a constant tension manifested as desire that never achieves jouissanceIn Sex and Terror, a book whose style of prose mixed with poetry and thoughts on art is similar to Berger,  writes:

Something that belonged to happiness is lost in the lovers’ embrace.  There is in the most complete love, in happiness itself, a desire that everything should suddenly tip over into death.  What overflows with violence in sexual climax is overtaken by a sadness that is not psychological.  By a frightening languor.  There are absolute tears that mingle.  In sensual delight, there is something that gives way.

And finally, Berger’s text brought to mind what I think is perhaps one of the greatest poetic renditions of the deep connection between pain and pleasure.  Ovid, in Book IV of the Metamorphoses, describes the death of Pyramus who, because of time and space, is not able to be with his lover.  Ovid’s description of Pyramus’s tragic death becomes infused with the erotic pleasure that he should have experienced with Thisbe (translation is my own):

He draws his own sword and plunges the iron into his guts,
and as he lays dying, without delay, he withdraws the sword
from the hot wound.  And as he lays prone on the earth, blood
spews high in the air, similar to when a pipe is split
because of a weak part in the lead and ejaculates a great
amount of water from its  thin, hissing stream and ruptures
the air with its blows.

The thrusting and withdrawal of the sword (ilia in Latin can mean “guts”, “intestines” as I translated it here but it is also the word for “groin”) and the ejaculating (eiaculator in the Latin) could just as easily have been words used to describe Pyramus’s consummation of his relationship with Thisbe. I will end with a fitting quote from John Berger from And Our Faces, which applies, I think, to Ovid’s description of pain and pleasure: “Poetry makes language care because it renders everything intimate. This intimacy is the result of the poem’s labor. The result of the bringing-together-into-intimacy of every act and noun and event and perspective to which the poem refers. There is often nothing more substantial to place against the cruelty and indifference of the world than this caring.”

Pierre Gautherot. Pyramus and Thisbe. 1799.

 

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You Can’t Go Home Again: Map Drawn by a Spy by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

The following is an introduction to a review that I have contributed to the latest edition of The Scofield.  The theme of this issue is Kobo Abe & Home; the link to the issue that includes my full review is below:

In the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s death, the publication of Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Map Drawn by a Spy is a timely reminder of the complicated history of the author’s island homeland. While serving as a cultural attaché in the Cuban embassy in Belgium in 1965, the author’s mother dies and Cabrera Infante flies back to Cuba for her funeral services. He is only supposed to be in Cuba for a week; however, when prohibited by authorities from boarding his plane back to Belgium, he is forced to confront a native country he no longer recognizes. Map Drawn by a Spy, Cabrera Infante’s autobiographical account of this forced stay before final exile, candidly reveals a decaying of the old, prosperous Cuba and its way of life, as well as the people’s growing disillusionment with the Revolution of 1959.

Cabrera Infante was born in Gibara, Cuba in 1929 and moved with his impoverished family to the capital city of Havana in 1941. In addition to being a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and journalist, he was also a film critic who wrote under the pseudonym of G. Caín. In 1952, when he published a short story containing English-language profanities, he was arrested and fined by the Batista regime. His parents were two of the original members of the Cuban Communist party and, along with his family, he supported the revolution that launched Fidel Castro into power. But he soon became disillusioned with the new socialist government that shut down Lunes de Revolución, the weekly literary magazine which he founded and edited. His position as a diplomat in the Cuban embassy was an attempt by the authorities to send him into exile. Published in 1965, his novel Three Trapped Tigers, favorably compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses, earned him international attention. It has been speculated that both his political stance against the government, as well as his literary success, caused him to fall out of favor with the Cuban authorities. In 1965 he fled from Cuba to Madrid and later settled permanently in London, where he died in 2005. Cabrera Infante never returned to his home in Havana, but he remained a stanch and outspoken critic of Fidel Castro until his death.

Map Drawn by a Spy was found among the author’s papers after his death in 2005, so this version of his story was never subjected to Infante’s edits or corrections. Indeed, the accounts of his meandering daily activities within confinement often feel as if they are written spontaneously, without any literary premeditation.

Continue reading my review and see the rest of this issue here:   http://thescofield.com/

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Io Saturnalia: My Translation of Catullus Poem 14a

John Reinhard Weguelin. The Roman Saturnalia. 1884.

The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia held on December 17th in the Julian calendar involved decorating, partying, eating, gift giving and general conviviality.   This special day, gradually expanded to a full week, was dedicated to the agricultural deity Saturn whose temple in the Forum was the center of sacrifices for the holiday.  A general spirit of frivolity was felt throughout the city as Romans of all classes participated in the merrymaking.  Catullus, the 1st century B.C. poet, calls Saturnalia the “best of days.” In his Carmen 14a, Catullus describes his great annoyance when his friend, Calvus, gives him a joke gift—a book of bad poetry!—for Saturnalia.  Catullus then plots the sweet revenge he will inflict upon Calvus (Translation is my own):

Oh Calvus, if I didn’t love you more than my own eyes
I would hate you as much as I hate that guy Vatinianus.
What could I have possibly said or done to make you
destroy me with so much bad poetry?  May the gods
do very bad things to that client of yours who originally
sent you this wicked gift.  Because if, as I suspect, Sulla
the elementary school teacher gave this new and well-chosen
gift to you then this situation has not turned out so badly
for me, and, in fact, it is good and fortuitous, and your
efforts are not in vain. Oh great gods, what a horrible
and accursed little book! That very book which I am
convinced you sent to your friend Catullus on this best
of days, Saturnalia, so that I might die again and again
on this day!  I will not, absolutely not, let this go,
you trickster.  As soon as it is light out, I am running
to the bookshop and collecting all the poisonous poetry I can
find for you—Suffenus and Caesius and Aquinus.  I will
pay you back with these punishments!  And as for you,
bad poets, goodbye! Go away!  Go back to that place where
you got your bad feet, the troubles of our generation,
you absolute worst of all poets!

We know from his other poems that Calvus is one of Catullus’s most dear and well-respected friends.  In addition to being a poet, Calvus is also a lawyer and Vatinianus who is mentioned in the first few lines in the poem is an odious man that Calvus once prosecuted.  Catullus considers Calvus an excellent poet and the two close friends would have contests and challenge each other to poetry duels.  A book of lousy poetry seems a fitting joke gift between these men.  What makes Calvus’s gift especially bad (and funny) is that he regifted it!  Catullus calls Calvus out in the poem for his regifting—Calvus received the book as payment from one of his clients, named Sulla, and Calvus then passes the book off to Catullus.  Catullus also calls Sulla, the original giver of the books,  an elementary school teacher, which in ancient Rome is an insult to Sulla’s intelligence.  The part of the poem that has always amazed me is that Catullus threatens to get Calvus back by emptying the bookshop of every bad piece of poetry he can find, and he names names!  Of the three he mentions, Suffenus is the poet whose writing we know the most about; in Carmen 22, Catullus describes Suffenus’s verse as akin to lines composed by a goat herder or ditch digger.  Oh to have seen the look on Calvus’s face when he reads that book of poetry.  Nice burn, Catullus!

To all of my fellow readers: Io Saturnalia, Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays.  May you receive lots of excellent books of poetry during your Saturnalia celebrations!

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