Professor Goldhill’s suggestion that the plays of Sophocles are “the most canonical of works from the most canonical of genres” is a formulation that praises the tragedian even as it distances him. It seems to be a comment not so much about the plays as their author’s place on the literary stock exchange. How much simpler it would have been to declare, tout court, that the seven plays that remain (of the 120 or so Sophocles wrote) are splendid, endlessly fascinating treasures that should be known to every civilized person. But aren’t they? Not exactly. I have a translation, due out next year, of The Other Four Plays of Sophocles, and I am pained to report that more often than not, when I tell friends about this book, I have to name the plays for them—Ajax, Philoctetes, Electra, and The Women of Trachis.
One would suppose that after having read the Theban plays, usually because they were assigned, any person with a lively curiosity would be eager to look further. To encounter Oedipus Rex (even solus, without Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus) is a life-changing experience. When I was a young man, those few works that had this undeniable power were “the canon” which is rather different than having a place in a curriculum. To write a book that invites us into these great plays as it explains them is a fine idea. After all, Bernard Knox’s The Heroic Temper: Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy is almost fifty years old now and Cedric Whitman’s Sophocles is more than sixty. Surely, there must be new and relevant things to say about Sophocles’ work that engages us afresh every time we go back to it. How grand an undertaking it would be to take a new generation by the hand and demonstrate the dismaying ironies of Oedipus’ resolve to find out the truth; the ethical anguish of Neoptolemus as he cajoles Philoctetes; the guilt and horror of Deianeira as she realizes that what she thought was Nessus’ love philter was deadly poison; or the noble and fatal stubbornness of Antigone’s insistence on burying her brother whose body lies out on the battlefield. This is especially true now that Antigone is being trivialized and turned into a feminist tract in “gender studies” courses.
What Sophoclean tragedy tells us, among other things, is that there are severe limitations to our lives and that it can be our very aspirations to transcend them and behave well that often bring about our downfall. What we think we know can prove to be wrong and dangerous, and if we remember this, we may retain our humility and our caution in a complicated and often hostile world.
What we don’t need is praise like this, courtesy of Professor Goldhill:
When suffering becomes so charged a term, there is inevitably a great deal at stake in how pain or misery is narrativized (and valued), and thus policing the tragic becomes in turn far more than a philological nicety—especially in the troubled interrelations between German Idealism and Christianity, which lead through Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others to extended arguments about pessimism and promise.
This is not intended as parody: It is how academics talk and “think” these days. It is their way of winking to each other in recognition and of keeping out amateurs, whom they see as lesser beings. But how can one trust a critic with such a tin ear? Pure scholarship is one thing; scholarly criticism is quite another and requires a degree of taste and judgment. And Professor Goldhill descends to provocative tendentiousness when he waves irrelevant red flags, asserting “A recognition of ‘real pain’, ‘genuine suffering’ becomes a political self-justification, where all too often the claim to tragedy—the tragedy of the rape victim, the tragedy of illness, the tragedy of the Palestinian people—is an attempt to arrogate an unimpeachable status.”
These kinds of rhetorical and linguistic gestures strike me, finally, as uncivil. There must be a less hostile way of saying
that the repeated use of “flickering irony,” a doubtfully heard meaning which destabilizes the secure knowingness of the audience, combined with the precarious ironization of everyday words within a temporality of gradual and fragile recognition of the buried life of ordinary language, creates a peculiarly Sophoclean world of discomforted exchange, a world that contrasts both with the fierce, self-implicating metaphoricity of Aeschylus and with the pathetic interplay of cliché, reversal, and rhetorical self-awareness in Euripides. A more nuanced and more worrying Sophoclean irony, if you will.
The worst of it is that sometimes an actual thought lies buried in this “secure knowingness”: that words in Sophocles can be slippery and even dangerous in themselves. Goldhill’s explication of the many different uses of luein (to untie or free, or, with prefixes, release or analyze) is interesting enough for him to forget the posturing of his overbearing prose and just tell us, with examples that are clear and to the point, how Sophocles is toying with the word. That he does so in a play about fate, freedom, sin, and forgiveness is not surprising, but for those without any Greek or with just a smattering of it, he makes the case convincingly so that they can follow him from his demonstration of a series of puns and paronomasias to the idea of a whole vocabulary of ambiguity.
However inviting passages from Sophocles might seem, Goldhill’s impulse is always to make them more complicated and more demanding. The clear implication of his book is that we can only read or see these plays if we understand our “historical locatedness,” even while asking ourselves “to what degree are [we] authorized by it.” The rewards for this strenuous intellectual undertaking turn out to be dubious, as he admits: “Self-consciousness about one’s own place in the history of criticism is necessary to critical maturity, and yet . . . brings its own potentially crippling hesitation.” I cannot think of anything less appealing than a finger-wagging insistence that we read Sophocles through the mediation of Schlegel, Schelling, Kant, Hegel, and Hölderlin, directing our attention to “the essential patterning of Sittlichkeit, of ethical self-positioning, [which] depends on a sense of freedom and external necessity that is moulded by the revolutionary political thought that runs through German Idealism from the French Revolution through 1848 and beyond, and which is in constant tension with a principle of disinterestedness and contemplation of beauty.” This absurd mumbo-jumbo is effective perhaps in intimidating graduate students, but it is in no way endearing to grown-ups and hardly helpful in understanding Sophocles.