Every couple of months, we ask an Australian author to read a book of their choice and reflect on it. Here’s their response.
Dear [ ]
I really hope this isn’t too gauche, or see-through. Odysseus took a goat, sliced its neck and pooled it in a water trough. The shades come. This form seems inherently disingenuous. A performance of private anguish, self-aware enough. Look at me. I understand you can’t answer back, but pretend otherwise. The brief alchemy is gone. Will I see you in the underworld, waiting for the ferry?
I found out a little into second lockdown. I thought I hadn’t heard from you— studying in Berlin, possibly— in a hot while, typed your name into Facebook. Read. Typed your name into Google. A link to the Herald Sun. I am 26, a year older than you are. I understand, but I pretend not to. The shades of Agamemnon, Achilles, those myths that transported others down to the house of death, told Odysseus how to get home, finally, blessedly. There is a course, you might observe, reading the Aubrey de Sélincourt translation of the Odyssey, unspooling like goat’s blood in a water trough. A resolution is laid out, like a table. You could take the ritual slaughter of Odysseus’ disloyal slaves— or those coerced into the bidding of the suitors, eating a respectable man out of heath and household— and sink your teeth into it. You might think it were inevitable. Were these people real, I remember asking your opinion, the second to last time we met? Were they once real, and mutated into beings beyond grief? Is there any echo of them that survives, really?
There once was a man named Euripides. That wasn’t his name. He did exist— people wrote about him. 2000 years ago he is still alive, with a name he would have answered to. From a cosmic perspective, it might have been a second ago. You wouldn’t recognise him if you saw him. He speaks a language that calls the sea “wine-dark”, not blue. The sea itself is intoxicating, like grief. He scandalises the society of Athens, putting the words “I would rather stand three times with a shield in battle than give birth once” into the mouth of a woman who will kill her two children and escapes in a chariot pulled by dragons. Like Socrates, he is parodied in Athenian comedy as a galaxy-brained edgy boy. The classicist Bernard Knox says of him: “he was born never to live in peace with himself, and to prevent the rest of mankind from doing so”. In response to the metamorphosis of Greek heroes— into symbols, demi-gods— he drags them back into the world, into grief. I remember telling you I wanted to read Grief Lessons, a book of Eurpides’ plays— as we name them— translated by Anne Carson. This was the last time we spoke. I had other books to finish, first.
So why did I read Grief Lessons, now, when I can’t speak with you about it? Outside the griefs of the year— including you— why did I want to read a poet translate this man, dead so long he might as well have never been born? The easy answer is I wanted to find you there, in some form, or my own grief, see it face to face. Isn’t that what catharsis is? But that’s not it. Why did I think Grief Lessons had something for me, now, outside of you?
Joseph Brodsky wrote about the ancient world: “While antiquity exists for us, we— for antiquity— do not…. the most definitive feature of antiquity is absence. The more available its debris, and the longer you stare at it, the more you are denied entry”. The Athenians could never— and didn’t— conceive of barbarians like us. So many books on ancient Greece— a name they wouldn’t recognise; the Romans invented it before colonising them— presume it has something to offer us. That there is a value there, for us to possess and appreciate. You never have to present that value though. It’s absent, with the rest of antiquity. Whatever animated the body is dispersed, like an underground river into a delta. I remember you joking, outside House of Cards coffee: you would be on a guided tour of Hissarlik, the site of Troy, listening to a guide rattling off archaeological minutia, nod vaguely hmmming before you pounce, into a clump of dirt, pulling a rotted shield from the ground. There! you would say, as we sat on a bench, next to the school of linguistics. The cure for grief. I found it.
“All human desire is poised on an axis of paradox, absence and presence its poles… Who ever desires what is not gone? No one. The Greeks were clear on this.” Anne Carson writes in Eros the Bittersweet, her treatise on Greek lyric poetry. We talked about it, I think. I can’t remember, and soon I’ll forget entirely. Grief is a kind of translation, I could say if I wanted. What is absent—past— is present again, briefly, deceptively. Translation seems key to antiquity, more than translations today. You’re not translating a text, but a world, its absence, your absence. The gods are absent, or so removed that their signifiers have no analogue in language. We end up reading entrails. Tragedy— Anne Carson suggests— occurs when these spheres overlap, when the human is briefly translated into the divine, and disappears. Grief is the journey, the translation back into now.
for sofie westcombe
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