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Rebecca Bates: Anne Carson’s Collapse of History

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July 13, 2012

The author's Antigonick is an affecting interpretation of Sophocles' classic.

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Image from Flickr via Arian Zwegers

By Rebecca Bates

Anne Carson’s Antigonick opens with a sweeping declaration: “We begin in the dark and birth is the death of us.” It’s the sort of thing we might expect from a traditional interpretation of Sophocles’ Antigone—somber lines, death and destruction from the start. But, of course, this is Carson, and any sense of doom comes with a healthy dose of trickery. The poet/essayist/Classicist/translator-of-ancient-works immediately undercuts the mood with banter:
 
Antigone:  We begin in the dark and birth is the death of us

Ismene:  Who said that

Antigone:  Hegel

Ismene:  Sounds more like Beckett

Antigone:  He was paraphrasing Hegel

Perhaps, we think, this Antigone has something new to say.
 
Carson’s Antigonick is an art object unto itself, with the token handcraftsmanship readers will remember from Nox. Carson penned the whole work by hand in an all-capped scrawl with black ink, peppered throughout with fragments written in red. Loosely taking the form of a graphic novel, Antigonick features drawings on translucent vellum paper by Bianca Stone. Yet, rather than serving merely as a sideshow to the text, Stone’s illustrations are devastating in their own right and are essential to completing the world of disarray in which Carson’s nightmare interpretation of Antigone takes place.
 

The horror is not simply that we allow the same atrocities to occur time and time again, but that we have resigned ourselves to this cycle and acknowledge our resignation half-heartedly.

Much of the drawings’ magic comes from the complete anonymity of the figures depicted. While Stone portrays members of the Chorus with human bodies, their heads are replaced with cinder blocks. They are literal blockheads, robbed of agency, incapable of doing little more than offer observations as the destruction of the play unfolds. Elsewhere, human forms become amorphous: a lone figure sits at the end of an empty dining room table, two androgynous bodies scowl at each other at the end of a bed. Essentially faceless, these figures are unrecognizable as anyone from the text. Is that Antigone and Ismene holding hands in the second plate? Which character stands in solitude at the center of a ravine?
 
The images’ anonymity is central to Carson’s text as well. Antigonick documents a collapse of history, where narratives are no longer strictly linear, but repeat endlessly. The Chorus laments Antigone’s death only insofar as she is a statistic: “Antigone Buried alive Friday afternoon / Compare case histories 7, 17 and 49 / Now I could dig up those case histories… / It wouldn’t help you / It didn’t help me / It’s Friday afternoon / There goes Antigone to be buried alive.” The horror is not simply that we allow the same atrocities to occur time and time again, but that we have resigned ourselves to this cycle and acknowledge our resignation half-heartedly.

The residue of our English teachers’ Antigone is there, but Carson and Stone have crafted something of an entirely new spirit.

 
It may be tempting to dismiss the illustrations as merely quirky—one of the Chorus bears the Star Trek insignia on its chest, while elsewhere a figure wears a football helmet. But these touches serve to heighten the absurdity and dark humor of the senseless world Carson has created. Take, for example, the dictator of Thebes and arguably the true tragic character of the work. Forever refusing to heed the wisdom of others, Kreon relents at the last, only to find his family dead and his city in despair. However, Kreon’s is a tyranny beyond political power. He first enters the play with a decree: “Here are Kreon’s verbs for today: ADJUDICATE  LEGISLATE / SCANDALIZE / CAPITALIZE” and, “Here are Kreon’s nouns: MEN / REASON / TREASON/ DEATH/ SHIP OF STATE / MINE.” Kreon is an autocrat of language; his words are his people’s words, because he declares it so. Indeed, when the Chorus reminds the despot that “mine isn’t a noun,” he replies simply, “It is if you capitalize it.”

This is what a Carson-infused lyricism looks like. The residue of our English teachers’ Antigone is there, but Carson and Stone have crafted something of an entirely new spirit. While the poet and her illustrator stray from the expected narrative, the tragedy of the work isn’t lost on anyone. The Chorus utters what is perhaps the most terrifying line, isolated on its own page: “Your soul is blowing apart.” It’s hard not to shudder.

Rebecca Bates was born and raised in Houston, Texas and currently resides in Brooklyn. She received her MA from Fordham University where she studied creative writing, and is a contributing editor to the Guernica Daily. Her poems have appeared in Wag’s Revue. She tweets.

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One comment for Rebecca Bates: Anne Carson’s Collapse of History

  1. Comment by Janet on July 14, 2012 at 7:31 am

    In so many words, the book’s on my shopping list. The collaboration between centuries and mediums is an impressive one. Carson’s career in translation has always emphasized that the past is present: who better to say this than Antigone? Wonderful review.

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