Back to Tragedy

By Ruden, Sarah | New Criterion, January 2015 | Go to article overview

Back to Tragedy


Ruden, Sarah, New Criterion


There are moments when a reviewer becomes so fed up with the American academy that she must take care, lest in the manner of Oedipus she strike out at someone who is more or less herself. We're all in this together, and (oh, just for example) any translator and popularizer who begins to imagine that she isn't interwoven had better take a deep breath and look at her Documents folder and recent schedule.

Still, it's deplorable, and should be called deplorable, that scholarly publication is an "arms race" (not my terminology, but that of a senior professor tasked with reviewing promotion and tenure applications). Making my living through writing stuff and publishing it in these tough times, I have more reason than most to hate the paper and electronic stockpiles and the pure competitive displays of nit-picking and jargon-spewing power.

In parts of some fields, scholarly publication does combat ignorance--a word as crude but also as necessary here as "terror" or "World War III" is in the strategic realm. In contrast to new reflections on, say, gendered geography, we need new English versions of Greek and Roman literature, versions improving on the kind that once drove a student to Bob Strassler with the question, "I understand who the Spartans are in Thucydides, but who are these Lacedaemonians?"--and so helped to inspire the Landmark Series of Ancient Historians.

Greek tragedy translation is perhaps the most promising but also the most tragic of the humanities industries. Reading the Oedipus Rex or the Racchae in an accessible form takes a single evening; it ought to be done, and it's not going to get in the way of anybody's training in marketing or IT or chemistry. And that thin volume hardly enslaves the translator or publisher for years. In fact, the work on both sides may look easy--land of a scam, really.

Making a place for these ancient popular entertainments in our world has for a long time not looked challenging and serious enough: hence the big role tragedy has played on the grim and self-important stage of literary theory. The Oxbridge student--who already knew the history and could read Greek, and so on his own might have enjoyed tragedy and shared it with the unlettered-sweated out essays and examinations about the text as a set of abstractions. German philosophers forged the gold of tragedy into a barrel, rolled the barrel down a hill, and recorded the echoes from the empty interior as if they were thunderous communications from Zeus himself.

This doesn't mean that a return to simplicity' can be straightforward--far from it: the cliche about the mastery required to make a performance look easy applies with a vengeance to the translation and the general presentation of Greek tragedy. I have, however, a basic suggestion to start out: cut the front matter in the books way down. Long prefaces and introductions oppress the dutiful and discourage the indifferent from sampling the play at all. And what could be more at odds with the way the play's were originally experienced than all this explication, including plot summaries that spoil the endings?

Daniel Mendelsohn, a master popularizer, wrote the preface for Robin Robertson's new translation of Euripides' Bacchae. (1) Mendelsohn's ten pages are nearly informative and commonsensically thematic and don't need, as a supplement, the eighteen pages the translator himself wrote, including an introduction that checks off some of Mendelsohn's basic topics. The translation of the play is only seventy-eight pages long, with very generous spacing.

Robertson even cites Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy in connection with the Bacchae, in which the censorious human ruler Pentheus foolishly opposes the new god of wine, Dionysus, and his ecstatic celebration. But the rationalist "Apollonian" and the primal "Dionysian" impulses have looked to a lot of people like a mere projection of Nietzsche's own preoccupations backward to ancient Athens and forward to a new balance to be achieved by listening to Wagner. …

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