“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.1 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 of the results of nuclear “war” (so miscalled). Above the earth there are only dead bodies; those who survive are entombed in caves and bunkers, at home neither among the living nor among the dead. Only recently have we realized the enormity of the reversal of the natural order which our Creons have been planning and stockpiling over the years. Once seen, the connection will not go away. Steiner shows again and again how Sophocles’ play incarnates issues and ideas too universal to become remote.

In urging the centrality of Greek tragedy and of Antigone, Steiner may well do less than justice to the potential of the New Testament and of Shakespeare for metamorphosis. Nonetheless he makes good his claim that “it has…been given to only one literary text to express all the principal constants of conflict in the condition of man…the confrontation of men and of women; of age and of youth; of society and of the individual; of the living and the dead; of men and of god(s).” Much of the third and last part of his book is devoted to showing how Antigone works out these universal themes with unrivaled economy and potency. This is more or less the conventional approach to the play taken by critics today; but Steiner’s astonishing breadth of reading and ability to connect make his argument unpredictable and bracing.

Steiner’s other approach to the puzzle, “Why still the Greeks?” which is scattered throughout the other two parts of his book, is more idiosyncratic, though it will be familiar to his readers. He regards “alienation” and “fall” as the obsessive preoccupations of Western man since the Romantic movement. We are isolated from true contact with others; separated from real existence; language is divorced from reality; direct communication is impossible. In Steiner’s world view, we long for the reunion of these schisms, we yearn to return from exile. His argument is that modern man has felt that with the ancient Greeks he is getting back to a prelapsarian world. All this is illustrated with an encyclopedia of heavyweight names, but it leans most of its weight on Martin Heidegger. For him early Greece still had one foot in Eden, still spoke and lived near to “Being.” Plato and Aristotle, in the century after Sophocles, “mark the irreparable fall of the western spirit from the numinous grace and immediacy of the word.”


Though he expresses doubts about Heidegger’s “Arcadian ontology and suppressed religiosity” (all that many people can see in him), Steiner builds on him toward an even more primordial union of language and Greek myth. He claims that those myths created and embody the very grammar and syntax of our language, that Greek made our “thought-grammar.” Thus Prometheus is somehow identified with the future tense, Narcissus with the first person singular, Oedipus and other incest myths with the nominative and other cases, and so forth. So far as comparative philology is concerned, this is presumably all very odd since Greek is reckoned to be only one relatively late and advanced branch of Indo-European. But the argument is also inflated and evasive in what is meant by “myth”—a word which, I propose, should be discarded until it has cooled down. “Myth” has about it the aura of being the collective creation of a whole people, of the folk. That is probably why Antigone herself is given no place in Steiner’s grand grammatological glottogony: he recognizes elsewhere in the book that Sophocles himself may well have invented her “myth.” On the other hand Narcissus is clearly central and primeval in his theory. But while for the early Greeks the narcissus was a flower associated with death, the young man Narcissus of the “myth” does not seem to have been well known before Ovid.

Most discussions of “myth” conceal a preconceived notion of the select band of tales that qualify for this title, and proceed to find distinctions that, sure enough, whittle the candidates down to the chosen few. Thus Steiner manages to disqualify Faust, Hamlet, and Don Quixote from being authentic myths without even considering Arthur or Tristan. He admits that his theory of “myths in language” is only in the early stages of being worked out; but he still lavishes much tumid language on it. For myself, I find it utterly unpersuasive and do not mind if it stays in its early stages.

In any case, while we are at it, why should “modernist movements in the West” be so obsessed with beginnings and origins? Perhaps I am archaic in failing to share this preoccupation. If beginnings were the be-all and end-all, we would be caught in an infinite regress. Why look any later than the big bang, or the first amphibian, or the Stone Age? On almost every gauge of measurement, the “ancient” Greeks are modern. They did not invent our “thought-world”; they articulated it, classified it, expressed it in poetry and art. They did not create the raw material of our culture, but they shaped that raw material superbly—and there lies their fascination.2

An aitch of great Germans forms a kind of perch from which Steiner takes stock of Western man. Hegel and Hölderlin form the nineteenth-century columns and they dominate the first third of his book; the pervasive twentieth-century crossbar is Heidegger.3 Hegel’s establishment of Creon’s claims to serious attention has been fundamental to all appreciation of Antigone ever since. In Hegel’s interpretation, right clashes with right in a dialectic collision that produces synthetic resolution. But Steiner shows how in his earlier studies Hegel presented a less abstract, more subtle version of his celebrated formulation. The family, especially the female prerogatives of presiding at births and funerals, belongs in the sphere of the divine; but the lives of the sons must be given over to the secular community. Their lives, not their bodies. So by claiming Polynices in death Antigone holds to an ultimate right, more right than Creon, more right, Hegel hints, than even Socrates and Christ.

Hölderlin is set by Steiner in interesting contrast with Goethe who found his translations of Sophocles unpleasant and even plain mad. Steiner sees this as epitomizing the antithesis between “a European classicism, a code of stylistic poise derived from the humanism of the Renaissance, and a new, self-consuming anarchy.” Hölderlin’s versions have only been rediscovered in the last sixty years, but they have won the highest praise from Karl Reinhardt and Wolfgang Schadewaldt, probably the two finest midcentury literary critics of ancient Greek. And this despite the demonstrable facts that Hölderlin used a bad edition, made many philological errors, and sometimes wrote a language that does not “make sense.” This leads to a paradox which particularly interests Steiner, and to which I shall return, the paradox of what might be called “creative error.”


Steiner constitutes a “school” all by himself; but he may also be seen as belonging to the “school of Heidegger.” The metaphysics of Being, the division of word from Being, man’s state of alienation from Being, such notions are often taken almost for granted in Antigones. Steiner’s gravitation toward the transcendental is evidently Heideggerian, also perhaps the hammering emphasis of his style—again and again things are cardinal, primary, sovereign, crucial, existential, ultimate, and essential. To one of a skeptical temperament, this is all so much heavy water off a duck’s back; but it might well be a mistake to wish Steiner rid of it. The unique scope and penetration of his books derive from a mixing together in his capacious mind of spiritual ingredients from Britain, Germany, France, and the Hebraic diaspora. Too much common sense would make the amalgam disintegrate.

Antigones triumphantly demonstrates that Antigone could fill several volumes of study without becoming tedious or exhausted. Much is covered here, but much else is no more than alluded to. I note three topics—two relatively minor, one major—that interest me and that Steiner, no doubt deliberately, does not explore.

Steiner makes a detailed study of Hölderlin, but not of any English translation. Why has Sophocles not inspired any major English translation, with the possible exception of Yeats, who took on Oedipus but not Antigone (some would add Pound’s Trachiniae)? There is nothing as interesting as the Agamemnons of Browning, MacNeice, Lattimore, and now Tony Harrison, or indeed as the Euripides translations by Gilbert Murray.4 Robert Fagles’s version of the Theban plays, published in 1982, has a serious claim to be the best in our century so far, though it is early to make a confident judgment.

The English Antigone that has almost certainly been the most read and most appreciated in the last hundred years is not that of a poet but of a professor of Greek at Cambridge, Richard Jebb (his Antigone was first published in 1888). This has probably never received serious critical attention because of its exaggerated archaism, extreme even by the standards of 1888 (in one volume the corrigenda include “for wast read wert“). Nonetheless Jebb was a sensitive man as well as a good scholar, and it is clear that he weighted every word of the English versions, which he boldly published face to face with his Greek text. The reader soon gets used to the hyper-archaism, and then the poetry begins to come through his careful prose. In the sentence, for example, “unwept, unfriended, without marriage-song, I am led forth in my sorrow on this journey that can be delayed no more,” there is a poignancy and tautness which Fagles has to relinquish in the interests of producing something nearer to the spoken language:

No one to weep for me, my friends,
no wedding-song—they take me away
in all my pain…the road lies open, waiting.

Secondly, there is modern performance history. Steiner alludes to many performances (and prints photographs of some), but he has not made use of them as pointers to those aspects of Antigone that their time and place found most worth emphasis. Much can be inferred from cuts, additions, scenery, music, etc. as well as from reviews and reports. There is probably a lot to be discovered about the production in Berlin at the end of 1841, with Mendelssohn’s new music. It inspired at least two further productions in 1845, one at Covent Garden, which impressed George Eliot but was travestied in Punch, the other in Edinburgh, which managed to arouse De Quincey to a stimulating essay. Mendelssohn’s music also accompanied the very first production of modern times in the Theatre of Herodes Atticus in Athens in 1867, and the staging by Stanislavsky in Moscow in 1899. Jebb could write “to most lovers of music Mendelssohn’s Antigone is too familiar to permit of any word of comment.” Why did it mean so much to the nineteenth century, and so little to us?

I also wonder what could be found out about the production of Hölderlin’s translation in the Burgtheater at Vienna in 1940.5 A mere photograph of a Polish production in 1946 can tell a tale: the chorus of Theban elders, dressed in quasi-Greek robes, raise their arms to Creon in a Nazi salute. Why were there at least four productions of Antigone in Poland during the years 1962-1965? There may, I suspect, have been as many productions in Eastern Europe as in the West during the last forty years.

But these are not omissions from Antigones: Steiner has had to make his choices among masses of possible material. It seems, on the other hand, to be a willful censorship to discuss the impact of Antigone today without serious reference to the “women’s movement.” Reading between the lines of the footnotes, I infer that, for all his voracious reading, Steiner has only dipped into modern feminist literature, and does not much like it. Yet this is surely why Antigone seems recently to have resupplanted Oedipus as the foremost Greek tragedy. A single defenseless woman defies authority and the military machine because she knows that her cause is more important. Today’s descendant of Antigone is to be found at Greenham Common, Seneca Falls, at Comiso, and wearing the forbidden slogan “swords into ploughshares” in East Germany.

Steiner himself writes, “Men and women use words very differently,” a thesis already expounded in After Babel (1975). He also writes that the great confrontation of Creon and Antigone is “a dialogue des sourds. No meaningful communication takes place.” Is this not one of the leading themes of the women who reject the contemporary world which men have molded? They refuse “masculine” language, the rhetoric of power, and they refuse the “male” logic which leads to the mad strategy of nuclear deterrence. Antigone is surely the model of the woman who sees right through the sterility and the destructive argumentation of male force. And Haemon might yet prove the model of the man who can speak the same language as Antigone.

It might be objected that any such feminist view of Antigone flies in the face of classical scholarship. We know that in fifth-century Athens women were extremely unemancipated, more so perhaps than at any other time or place in ancient Greece. Sophocles produced his play to be performed by men in front of an audience consisting largely if not entirely of men. Some scholars have insisted that the study of the sociology of Athens shows that Antigone must originally have been regarded as a dangerous, indeed monstrous, criminal—a view that can only be maintained by a steadfast refusal to read the play.

Even if the feminists were demonstrably wrong in philological terms, this would not necessarily condemn them on Steiner’s own terms. One of his most interesting themes is that of “productive error.” Misunderstandings of the original Antigone have been creative as well as distorting, and some have in the long run done far more good than harm. On the way to the most influential interpretation of our times, Hegel to some extent went against Sophocles in what Steiner calls the “paradox of fidelity to the source and autonomous counter-statement,” by which he seems to mean that Hegel’s various and self-contradictory interpretations of Antigone might all be faithful, in some fundamental sense, despite (or even because of) their distortions of Sophocles’ play. About Hölderlin’s blunders he waxes rhapsodic:

These technical failings, cumulative as they are, are not the compelling issue. What matters is Hölderlin’s agonistic grappling with what he took to be the ultimate principle and genius, the “revealed” character, of the original. What counts is the reading of Sophocles “against Sophocles” in the light of an imperative of transcendent fidelity.

The great achievements of the classical tradition have not always been philologically sound. “Knowing Greek” appears not to be the black-and-white matter that many scholars suppose.

This is all very well, but what are we to think of someone who knowingly misinterprets, well aware that he is, in the orthodox sense, mistranslating, getting it wrong? Hölderlin called his metamorphosis of Sophocles Verbesserung—“improvement” is one possible translation; but when the vintners of the Mosel adulterate their must with sugar, the wine is labeled verbessert. Deliberate error is presumptuous. There is a scatter of factual and philological errors through Antigones.6 They do not seriously diminish the value of the book, but would Steiner stand by them even when they have been pointed out? Presumably he would correct the errors, or he would defend them against the accusation. It may be fruitful for a genius to throw pedantic accuracy to the winds. The trouble is that no one qualifies as a genius while still alive: time and death have to adjudicate.

Steiner seems, then, to insist on a conflict between intellectual conscientiousness—the search for truth, the sense of objective history—and the fire of creativity, liberation from caution to attempt work that is daring and challenging. “Hence,” he writes, “the perennial, insoluble conflict between the qualified classicist and the literary critic or poet translator.” It is true that pedantic Casaubons can act Creon to the Antigone of Dorothea Brooke. But while the conflict is perennial, I for one am not prepared to give it up as insoluble.

Classical scholars have tended to be narrow-minded and patronizing in their accounts of the classical tradition. “Poor old Goethe” or “Matthew Arnold,” they smirk, “he merely re-created the Greeks in his own image.” We, it is implied, have pure and undistored access to the truth. Antigones, as well as enlightening and stimulating the general reader, may teach the professionals some humility. The partiality of our vision is something to recognize, and to accept, and to keep constantly under review. It is foolish to think that we can ever cast off our temporality. We should extend this understanding to others in the past, as we hope the future will extend it to us.

This Issue

December 6, 1984