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.

My latest photochapbook, free to view and download,

is available at The title is Trophies, the contents are something like a meditation piece about the photography of history, they are consists mostly pictorial, and if you want the keepsake edition on paper the link will also get you to Peecho, a print-on-demand publisher.

Tell your friends, please!

Mississippi River Bank: art as its own certificate of value

Source: “Show boat landing.” Milton McFarland Painter, Sr., collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, call number PI/1988.0006, Photoshopped.

Prow; tongue

Wearing the hat that makes a frieze of her face, she turns slightly away from what she is about to do to the wrinkled body above her, raises the bottle, and . . .

Source: “Miss Elizabeth Owens christens Sikorsky plane, 5/8/25.” National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

Captions and unreading

What am I reading here? Some history. I can place the document in that genre because it explains and is explained by its date of composition: April 1942. Off the page, history has already taught me that April 1942 has something to do with the United States’ entry into World War II in December 1941, and I accordingly think I understand what the words on the page mean when they say: “Los Angeles, California. The evacuation of the Japanese-Americans from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency order. Japanese-American children waiting for a train to take them and their parents to Owens Valley.”

That timestamped and circumstantial text isn’t only a history, of course. It’s also a literature. Shaped by narrative convention, it belongs to the literary genre of the caption — specifically, the caption to this photograph by Russell Lee in the Library of Congress’s Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information archive at

Because a caption has an explanatory power over its attached image, its words make the image in some sort verbal. They make it tell a story. From this historical era, for example, there exist similar photographs taken in other theaters of World War II, and our reaction to any of them will be, so to speak, captional. If the caption tells us of a Japanese baby being evacuated from Los Angeles, we’ll react one way; if the caption tells us of a Chinese baby being evacuated from Nanking, we’ll react another. Likewise, as of August 2014 I think most of my academic colleagues would react with sympathy if a caption told them that the image were of a Palestinian baby, but with exasperation if an editor then corrected the caption’s adjective “Palestinian” to read “Israeli.”

It’s been a long time since a news photo could be thought of as intelligible on its own terms, of course.  A century ago, not long after Freud taught us how hard it is in principle to know what we’re seeing, Lev Kuleshov demonstrated that in practice we can’t even see the difference between a dead baby and a bowl of soup. In Kuleshov’s experiment, a movie clip — one clip, only — showed an actor going through the physical correlates of emotion. A montage of that clip with some ostensible stimuli of emotion then made clear that any imputed sense of emotion, of emotion about an ostensible stimulus,  was demonstrably nothing but an artifact of the montage effect. Juxtaposed with the image of the baby, the actor’s mobile features and heaving chest seemed to mean one thing; juxtaposed with the image of the soup, they seemed to mean something else. We might have thought they expressed feeling, but In themselves they were nothing but mobility and heaving. Whatever emotion we derived from them was an illusion.  We were misled by our expectation of a caption to read. But from the belated realization that Kuleshov’s tiny silent movie is captionless there follows a happy ending. To learn that one is free from captions is to learn to be free from other things as well.

Alternate link:

Therefore, face to face with an image that has been captioned, I find myself wondering whether I can do something in the captional space above the border where the caption’s words begin. Wondering, I open Photoshop and set about trying to change the non-verbal part of this historical record. Timidly, at the start, I may tell myself and you that I’m only restoring the captioned image, only using modern narrative technique to put an illustrated story — a children’s book, a picture book! — back together.  But of course what Photoshop and I are doing to this ensemble of words and non-verbal forms isn’t merely a historiographic revision. Photoshop and I aren’t doing history now; we have subordinated ourselves to a corpus of aesthetic principles that have nothing to do with Los Angeles or trains or 1942. Our project has been taken over by art. So:

And you see: I have not merely restored the record or corrected it. I have (as editors used to say in the days of Thomas Bowdler, he of the verb bowdlerize) improved it. See how much more tragic than Russell Lee’s original my little girl is, hear how much more clearly we can say “Little does she know” about her! How satisfyingly pretty I have made this children’s story!

Because it’s open to the possibility of an aesthetic judgment like that one, my version of Russell Lee’s photograph is no longer quite a historical document. It can now be read without its caption, as if it were in the process of growing distant from the history of events. It’s no longer merely captional. If it isn’t yet art, it may at least be art history. Because the space around the little girl has now been filled with art, her mother has now been barred forever from entering the image frame to reroll her daughter’s cuff. Because art always has a completion function, the caption below this image has now been translated into a dead language and made emotionally unreadable on any terms but art’s.  The little girl’s picture can now say only the one thing art ever can say about itself: The End. Waiting for a train which can now never arrive to transport her out of the image, holding the doll which she now will never outgrow, the little girl has become an unravished bride of quietness.

The progress of thought from botany to geometry

“Mathematics is a form of poetry which transcends poetry in that it proclaims a truth; a form of reasoning which transcends reasoning in that it wants to bring about the truth it proclaims; a form of action, of ritual behavior, which does not find fulfillment in the act but must proclaim and elaborate a poetic form of truth.”

— Solomon Bochner, The Role of Mathematics in the Rise of Science (Princeton University Press, 1966) 14.