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.

Bernstein’s Stein and mine

My May 16 post about the cliché language of Charles Bernstein’s claim that he is “setting the record straight” about Gertrude Stein’s survival in Vichy France made the deconstructive point that if a record is a record, it can’t be set straight. It’s a point that Bernstein’s own poetry has always made, of course. The crookedness of the record is basis of the great ironic joke that is Language poetry. So when he picks up his crooked pen to write clichés like “setting the record straight” or “by hook or by crook” or “when push comes to shove” (in a text that bears unspoken reference to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, the bicycle racetrack where Parisian Jews destined for the death camps were confined without food or water) Bernstein is writing out the joke once again, and this time with a punchline so funny that it achieves self-deconstruction.

That was all I said on May 16. My post was about Bernstein, not Stein. But on the University of Buffalo’s e-mail list about poetics it drew a couple of responses about Stein and the record, so here’s the part of my reply where I do talk about Stein.

“As to my own biographical take on Stein, I hardly have one. She was hardly the only American author of German Jewish descent to feel embarrassed or distressed or even pained by her genealogy. The ironist Nathanael West had that problem and dealt with it interestingly, by donning a mask and proceeding to wear it until it killed him. (Nobody expects a man named Nathan Weinstein to be a reckless driver, so when Nathan Weinstein changed his name he also started driving so recklessly that his friends refused to get into his car. Not long afterward, as these things go, he drove through a stop sign, and that was that for Nathanael West. He was 37.) By contrast, Walter Lippmann, the highly serious father of modern media punditry, was merely uninteresting. He attempted to pass like Anatole Broyard, and to even hint to him that you knew he was Jewish was to break off all communication with him, forever. Considered as a Jew with a biography, Stein may have been personally either interesting or uninteresting, but of course her language is always interesting. That is (among other things), it helps us understand the difficulty of attaching the word “problem” to any human being.

“Which is to say that Gertrude Stein was a great poet. But surely (this is a modest enough idea, isn’t it?) none of us is going to claim that being a good (i.e., competent) artist is the same as being a good (i.e., virtuous) person.

“And surely the example of Bernstein’s language means that we aren’t warranted in reading Bernstein or Barbara Will or Stein or anybody else as if they were journalists, uttering clichés but asking us (because — what’s the cliché? — their hearts are in the right place) not to pay attention to them. If only the sign that Nathanael West drove through had said not ‘Stop’ but ‘Aporia.'”


Push and shove, hook and crook, Bernstein

When push comes to shove, as it has, I read Stein’s war years as a survivor’s tale. Jewish, female, homosexual, elderly (Stein was 66 in 1940), living in occupied France, Stein and Alice Toklas successfully escaped extermination. That is something for which we can be grateful. And I’m also glad that, by hook or by crook, Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis. In the end, Stein was able to go on to write her great feminist opera, The Mother of Us All, a celebration of American democracy.

— Charles Bernstein, “Gertrude Stein’s War Years: Setting the Record Straight.”

Text 1: “When push comes to shove, as it has.”  Writing in defense of Gertrude Stein’s politics of survival in Vichy France, Charles Bernstein opens with a cliché (“setting the record straight”), then doubles down. “When push comes to shove” is another cliché, and a bad one: a dead metaphor, one that won’t bear being brought back to life in the same body language as Vichy words like “Drancy” or “Vélodrome d’Hiver.” But Bernstein’s giggly postscript “as it has” deconstructs the corpse. “Of course I know better,” says that little verbal tag. “Notice how wittily detached I am from any simple-minded idea that words can have a non-verbal reference. Of course I know that if the record is a record, it can’t be set straight.”

As a career move, that has been a winner for Bernstein. Romping through fields of crumpled newsprint, Bernstein texts like “Of Time and the Line” or the sublime “this poem intentionally left blank” (which I have now quoted in its entirety) bestow on their readers the great gift of knowing laughter. There’s no guilty “but” to follow that happiness, either. Bernstein’s poems are language in its pure animal function, eating and sleeping and reproducing and then lying down to die in unafraid unconsciousness. Bernstein’s is a poetry with its own “The End” built in.

Text 2: “By hook or by crook.”  Art is inseparable from art collecting, and art collecting is inseparable from crookery. That’s how the Elgin Marbles got to England. At smaller scales, of course, the crookery can get uncomfortable. It may even involve pushing and shoving. Some of Gertrude Stein’s coreligionists discovered that when they returned home after the war and tried to move back into their looted houses.

Kielce, Poland, July 1946

Text 3: “Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis.” Some kinds of looting, some kinds of pushing and shoving, are preferable to others. Lots of women had to suffer for Pablo Picasso’s art. Lots of men had to die for Andrew Carnegie’s libraries. Presumably the suffering and dying wound up with a market value after all. The cliché under the surface of Bernstein’s sentence is something like “On ne fait pas d’omelette sans casser des oeufs.”

Punchline: “How am I? Oi, don’t ask.” Specifically, don’t ask why the collection wasn’t looted, because the answer will only be another cliché. This one will just lie there on the page, too: unmeaning because unconscious. It has been spoken by many thousands of people over the years, sometimes in complete sincerity, and yet not one of those thousands could think through to a definition of any of its terms. In that sense, it is dead language — that is, language which was born unmeaning, language which therefore can never be a poem.

But since you have asked, reader: Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis because it was under the protection of a powerful Nazi crook named Bernard Faÿ. Together, Faÿ and Stein collaborated in their own special translation, from one dead language into another, of the text “Some of my best friends are Jews.”