by George Steiner
Oxford University Press, 316 pp., $29.95
“Now obviously it has been successive experiences of immediacy, successive compulsions of identification between ancient and modern, that make up the afterlife of Hellas,” writes George Steiner in his urgent, assertive style. Yet it was not obvious to Louis MacNeice, university teacher of Greek:
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.
In recent times classical scholars, often invoking anthropology, have stressed the differences, the alienness of ancient Greece; but Steiner is surely right that “the unique, unmatched compulsion which Greek myths and persons exercise on the roots of our being” is even more strange and interesting. Greece has come closer as Rome has receded. Why for the last two hundred years and more has Western culture turned persistently to the Greeks of over two thousand years ago for its models and points of reference? And why especially the tragic drama of fifth-century Athens, and more particularly the Antigone and Oedipus the King of Sophocles? Why—in view of its archaic taint of savagery and slavery, its associations of elitist education, and its incrustations of pedantry—why has the modern world not jettisoned the baggage of Hellas? Such questions underlie George Steiner’s Antigones. His answers are characteristically a mixture of damp squibs and breathtaking rockets, heavy clouds of smoke interlaced with sparkling insights.
According to Steiner, Antigone was the preeminent Greek play between 1790 and 1905, and since then has been supplanted by Oedipus. But he himself supplies plentiful illustration of Antigone’s persistence in our century; and I would guess that she rather than her father will haunt its remainder. The Antigone plays of Anouilh and Brecht are conspicuous among the literary debris of World War II. More recently, in 1968, Conor Cruise O’Brien made the play the focus of an important discussion of the problems of Ireland, though his conclusion that “without Antigone, we could attain a quieter, more realistic world” seems unrealistic. The Island in Athol Fugard’s play of 1974 is Robben Island, the concentration camp in South Africa. Two prisoners rehearse Antigone for the Christmas entertainment; and we, the audience, turn out to be the audience on Robben Island, the cronies and minions of Creon. Antigone comes alive again in Heinrich Böll’s play Der Herbst in Deutschland: in 1978-1979 the German authorities refused to return to their families the bodies of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof who had committed suicide in their living tombs.
I am especially grateful to Steiner for illuminating one aspect of Antigone that has only emerged clearly since 1979. In the last five years I have noticed more and more the lines in which the prophet Tiresias sums up what Creon has done wrong:
You have thrust down below
one who belongs above, perversely housing
a living spirit in the tomb; and you
have kept up here one due to the gods below,
a deprived, untended and unholy corpse.
Almost at the end of his book Steiner points out that Tiresias’ picture is that …