In memory of a word

Toward the end of 2014, the United States Senate released the partial text of a report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s treatment of prisoners held in the aftermath of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. This report showed that torture was a part of the Agency’s repertoire of practices.

In the media, CIA spokesmen defended the agency’s conduct, using for the purpose a vocabulary as chastened in its purity as Racine’s. If anything, in fact, it was purer. Classic French tragedy speaks into existence a life freed of reference to any of the multitudinous comic functions that keep us merely human, but the CIA spokesmen concentrated almost all of their liberating effort on a single word: “torture.” They had two reasons for doing so: one having to do with liability (under the United States Code, torture is unlawful if it’s called torture) and the other having to do with politics (see Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”).

To the extent that the reasons were obvious, they were uninteresting. Nevertheless, words in themselves, if they’re read one by one, have the power to compel our attention. As soon as they escape their contexts, they force us not to retreat into contexts of our own. In the realm of language as such, we cannot be evaded. There, at last, we become like Stevens’s Man on the Dump: errants in search of the definite article.

                                                    Is it peace,
Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds
On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.

In memory of the the, then, this memento: first by way of words, then on its wordless own.

And see: the term that came to your mind wasn’t the CIA’s euphemism, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Whether you wanted to or not, you thought of something merely human. The the compelled you to know.

Source: Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

That eternity promised by our ever-living poet, part 2

During the summer break that’s about to end for me next week, an ancient classic that I put on the syllabus for the sophomore poetry-and-drama course changed itself in advance. That kind of change is one of the defining characteristics of the classic, of course. The classic is always younger than we are, always growing faster. That’s why every new encounter with it is a different joy. But this fall I’m afraid the joy is going to radiate so intensely from one particular classic, Antigone, that it will blast one of the subtexts my class and I will be reading in its vicinity. The history of events may wind up forcing us to read a modern text in an unanticipatedly ancient way — and at that, a way that isn’t Greek but Jewish.

When I ordered Antigone for the course several months ago, I was interested in trying what for me was a new idea: to teach it in versions from three epochs. The first version of the ancient but ever new myth would be Sophocles’s original, and the third would be a near-contemporary adaptation from 1987, A. R. Gurney’s Another Antigone. In between would come a version I’ve never taught before: Jean Anouilh’s darkly cynical adaptation, written and performed during World War II in occupied France, in which the Creon is a conscientious administrator (like, as Anouilh may have tried to hint between the lines, Pétain or Laval or Anouilh himself) doing his bitter best in an impossible situation.

Another Antigone I have taught several times in the past, and each time it has been popular with the students. For them, Gurney domesticates the myth by resetting Thebes as a contemporary American college where the conflict between Antigone and Creon plays out as a disagreement between a student in a literature course and her professor — a disagreement about the ritual to be performed over the corpus of Antigone. For the student, the classic has done its perennial work once again, and she is now so inspired that she decides to write a play of her own for the professor instead of the required paper. The professor, however, is unimpressed. Because he has lived with Antigone all his professional life, he has seen the inspiration before, and read the undergraduate attempts at dramas written in homage. “Another Antigone,” he sighs — and then he orders the student to go back and fulfill the assignment as written, with the paper specified on the syllabus. In the course of the catastrophe that follows (the Creon-professor launched on his lonely way to forced retirement; the Antigone-student launched on her lonely way to craziness) the professor delivers a lecture about tragedy which provides, per classical model, both instruction and delight. Before Gurney was a playwright he was a professor of classics, and my students who encounter Sophocles at the University of Hawaii have always been grateful for his guidance.

But they’ve also needed a little preliminary orientation. The world of Gurney’s dramas is upper- and upper-middle-class USA, northeastern and (so far as I’m aware) 100% white, and when I’ve taught Another Antigone to my mostly Asian-American students in Honolulu I’ve accordingly had to explain the connotations of terms like Andover and Martha’s Vineyard. More consequentially, most students at the University of Hawaii have never met a Jew and have no idea what a Jew is, and in Another Antigone the Antigone is Jewish and the Creon’s tragic flaw is unrecognized antisemitism. So I’ve explained that too. Until now, at least, that part of the pedagogy was just as easy as the rest. It was only another technical detail.

The play, too, helps with the explanation. Early, in an effort to forestall the catastrophe, the Chorus (a sympathetic woman dean) spells out the plot’s exposition phase this way for the professor’s benefit and ours:

“Henry: this is a free country. And academic life is even more so. You may write four-letter words all over the blackboard. You may denounce the government, blaspheme God, take off your clothes . . . You may do all of these things in here, and most of them out there. But there is one thing, here and there, you may not do. You may not be insensitive about the Jews. That is taboo. The twentieth century is still with us, Henry. We live in the shadow of the Holocaust. Remember that, please. And be warned.” (20-21)

. . .

Well, Another Antigone dates from the twentieth century. One of its topical details is already an anachronism: the binder of printouts (as of 1987 they would have been on large, green-barred sheets of paper) that the dean consults when she discusses enrollment. Another anachronism is a passing reference to the word processor as something new.

A third is a reference to the Modern Language Association’s annual convention as a scene of genteel passion between professors in hotel rooms. Oh yes, the twentieth century was a long time ago. In this year of the twenty-first century, between the time I placed my book order and now, some posts on the members-only website hosted by the MLA for discussing a proposal to boycott Israel were antisemitic in the crudest racist way. This year, too, in the second-largest newspaper in Spain, a distinguished playwright has published feuilletons laced with traditional Catholic Jew-hatred; in Italy, a distinguished Marxist philosopher has endorsed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; and in the United States one synod of the Presbyterian Church has informed the Jews that it will decide where, and whether, they are to live. This semester with A. R. Gurney is going to be interesting accordingly.

But here’s one contribution to the idea of a happy ending: it probably won’t hurt A. R. Gurney’s feelings if I file this blog as evidence that he isn’t as good a playwright as Sophocles. Another Antigone has gone old now and I can’t imagine its story will be sympathetically imaginable for much longer, but Antigone (I’ve just opened the book again and checked) remains evergreen.


Source: A. R. Gurney, Another Antigone. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1988.

Invisible reading


Beware, says the United States Department of State. If you’re an American on a street in Ukraine, you risk being read adversely.

Street crime remains a serious problem in Ukraine. The country continues to undergo significant economic, political, and social transformation, and income differences have grown accordingly. As a result, you and other foreign visitors may be perceived as wealthy and as easy targets for criminals. United States citizens often stand out in Ukraine, and are therefore more likely to be targeted than in Western European countries, where incomes are higher and U.S. citizens may blend in better. The police are poorly paid, motivated, trained, and equipped, and also are considered to be one of the most corrupt organizations in Ukraine.

“Ukraine: Country Specific Information.”


This morning the statistics counter for the blog you’re reading showed this. Click it to enlarge.

The page view marked with an American flag was mine. Everything else on the page — all those hits flying in from an ever-changing array of internet protocol addresses and then touching down, exactly seventeen seconds apart, on every single tag for every single one of my blogposts — came from a spambot in Ukraine. The term “page view” implies that some human being is looking at language in a language-enabled way, but the bot that generated this arrival log is the agent of a different purpose. What that purpose might be, however, isn’t clearly discernible.


Indiscernibility has a literary value in its own right, of course. Anne Carson’s adaptation of Sophocles, Antigonick (New Directions, 2012), comes to us as a printed text with interspersed pictures. Some of these images are illustrations obviously related to the text; others seem to be primarily mood pieces. All of them are printed on translucent paper.

Which means (so to speak) that you can’t fully see the pictures because the text makes itself seen under them, and you can’t fully read the text because the pictures make themselves seen over it. The text itself, studied with the aid of a blank sheet of paper, is a facsimile of Anne Carson’s not particularly legible handwriting. It begins with Antigone and Ismene talking about Beckett and Hegel, but its presiding theoretical genius is clearly Brecht, he of the alienation effect. Don’t even try to read me, says this book. Or, if you must, if you’re an Antigone and not an Ismene, then read me in spite of myself.

But when Brecht thought of Verfremdung he had a textual consequence in mind: to get his readers out of their plush seats and march them on down to the nearest Revolution Books.

Drum links, zwei, drei! Drum links, zwei, drei!
Wo dein Platz, Genosse, ist!
Reih dich ein in die Arbeitereinheitsfront
Weil du auch ein Arbeiter bist.

So hup 2 3! So hup 2 3!
Comrade, this here’s the place for you!
Enlist your ass right now in the Workersunityfront
Cuz you know, like, you’re a worker too.


Beckett preferred to sing his songs to Anne Carson less scrutably.


The Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny,” beloved craft of the barnstormers who rode the skies of America in the years just after the Great War, was notoriously underpowered. The fat man in this picture probably wouldn’t have qualified to leave the ground in this airplane on that sunny day at the end of winter. But for his contemporaries in 1922, the great year of Ulysses and Babbitt, The Waste Land and Reader’s Digest, the fat man loaded an argosy with a vernal freight of literature.


“The city” in the caption is Washington, but the exact words of the fat man’s literature don’t seem to be mappably deducible from there. But that’s all right. After all, the Klan called itself the Invisible Empire. Here’s another view of the invisible men and their vessel, with insigne.


Ninety years after this picture, literature is still afloat in the aether, not yet aground on meaning. It’s indecipherable where it is, but haven’t conditions always been undecipherable up there? What could be the meaning of a page view staked out with a flag, or of a packet of literature being stowed for a bomb run, or of a painted symbol to which history hasn’t yet affixed words? The missing words mean that significance hasn’t yet completed its descent to us. For now, as one of its captions warns us at the outset of reading, we can only wrongly say.

Photographs of the Klan airplane by Herbert A. French. National Photo Company collection, Library of Congress. URLs:

Translation of the French caption about the Lafayette Escadrille, a unit of the French air force during World War I which was made up of American volunteers: “An airplane of the Lafayette Escadrille. It has wrongly been said that the Indian head [visible on the fuselage aft of the swastika] was the insigne of the Lafayette Escadrille. This designation was chosen by a pilot of the unit for his airplane.”

As of July 3, 2012, the Wikipedia article “Lafayette Escadrille” is illustrated with two images of the Indian-head insigne. One, on a banner in the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, shows the headdress decorated with a swastika. The other, perhaps a post-1945 recension, shows the headdress decorated with a cross.