by John Tipton
A review by Emily Wilson
Human civilization is premised on the idea that human beings should not
kill one another. But in war, killing other people must somehow become
acceptable -- morally, legally and psychologically. One way to achieve
this is to imagine the enemy in nonhuman terms. "They," our opponents,
must be as unlike us as possible: we can kill them if we see them as
demons, foreigners, heretics, dots on the radar screen -- or, most common,
But by denying the opposition any humanity, and therefore making them
killable, we risk making ourselves something less than human. The Chorus
in John Tipton's haunting new version of Sophocles' Ajax comments
on the hero's crazed attempt to massacre his own comrades in arms:
"now it closes hoods the head/theft of feet that can move/to thrash
for an oar/dropped from a quick ship." The images of hooded
prisoners from Abu Ghraib told us more than we wanted to know about how
hard it is to look an enemy in the eye. In medieval and early modern
Europe, the executioners and torturers were the ones who wore hoods; in
Abu Ghraib, young American soldiers were trussing their victims up to
look like the aggressors. But is some kind of blinding -- of the enemy, or
of oneself -- necessary to enable one to kill with a clear conscience? And
how do you remove the blindfold when the war is over? The hooding of the
head is associated, in Tipton's rendition of the play, with the madness
of Ajax, which consists of a failure to tell the difference between
animal and human, killer and victim, enemy and friend.
Ajax was composed by Sophocles probably sometime in the 440s
BC -- the decade before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. In this
period, Athens was consolidating its military and economic power in the
Greek world, forming new allegiances and breaking old ones. The city was
also undergoing cultural and intellectual changes: the sophists
("wisdom-teachers") were introducing new ideas about science, society,
religion and morality into the public and private spheres, which seemed
to some citizens to threaten their traditional values and way of life.
Sophocles' tragedy tells of Ajax -- a great hero of the Trojan War, but
never the greatest, a warrior associated with old-fashioned valor and
physical courage. After the Greek victory over the Trojans, the Greek
generals held a contest to decide who should inherit the magical armor
of Achilles, which his divine mother, Thetis, had given him. Ajax's
archenemy, Odysseus, wins the competition. In Sophocles' play, as in
Homer's Iliad, Odysseus seems -- at least at first -- like the exact
opposite of Ajax: he represents brains over brawn; trickery over
courage; the new sophistic values of flexibility, cleverness and
rhetoric over the old ideal of death before dishonor.
As the play opens, Athena, goddess of wisdom, finds Odysseus, her
favorite hero, prowling round Ajax's tent, like -- in Tipton's
translation -- a "bloodhound -- snout to the ground!" The image introduces
the central idea that killing may erase the difference between human and
animal. The goddess explains that Ajax, overwhelmed by rage at not
getting the prize, tried to kill all the Greek leaders in the night. But
the goddess deluded him, and instead, he killed the Greek's captive
animals. The scary, Damien Hirst-like illustration on the cover of
Tipton's translation (a color photo of nearly two dozen bloody heads of
decapitated horned sheep) seems to hint that killing animals might be
just as brutal as killing people. But Sophocles' play is not a call for
animal rights. It is ironic, in the classic Sophoclean fashion: Ajax's
killing of animals is a mark of insanity -- whereas massacring people
would have been, supposedly, sane. Throughout the play, Sophocles' focus
is not on animals but on people, and on how little control we have over
the consequences of our actions.
The most puzzling and memorable part of the play is the central episode
(sometimes referred to as the Renunciation Speech), in which Ajax, who
is known for his staunch inflexibility, suddenly speaks in a new and
moving key. The defensiveness is gone, and he seems willing to submit to
time and the gods:
All of everything -- it never ends.
Secrets emerge and facts are buried.
Eventually nothing should surprise.
Our promises and our strong will.
His intention now is to carry away the sword he took from his old enemy,
I'll go to a trackless place
and I'll cover this ugly weapon,
bury it where no one sees.
Night and hell can have it.
The climax of the speech is a series of beautiful, ambiguous
the stretch of worst night ends
in the white dazzle of day;
there are winds that can calm
any groaning ocean; and even sleep
in time must release its prisoners.
What else could we reasonably think?
Tipton captures something distinctively Sophoclean in his combination of
the clear, almost cliched gnomic utterance with flashes of
surprising, alien imagery (such as "the white dazzle of day"): "the
truth has teeth you know," as the Chorus comments later.
The "trackless place" in which Ajax will hide the sword turns out, of
course, to be his own body. Ajax has changed only so much: he retains
his "strong will" for honor, even when he declares that it is lost.
Critics argue about whether honest Ajax really means to deceive his wife
and friends here -- an action surely more worthy of Odysseus. But
deception is too crude a term. This Ajax is both different and the same
as he ever was, and the speech is precisely intended to show that
mutability and permanence are not opposites but are mutually
reinforcing. There is even a kind of bleak comfort in knowing that
nothing is always the same:
No one stays by you forever.
Companions will give you false shelter.
In the end it works out.
You might think that the play ought to end as soon as Ajax's companions
discover his dead body. But it doesn't. The suicide of Ajax comes just
past the play's midway point, and Sophocles lets things drag on into a
squabble between the remaining Greek generals about whether to give a
proper burial to Ajax's corpse. The tone and even the language, as
Tipton notes, "degenerates into petty insults and seemingly pointless
bickering." The pointlessness is the point. The end of Ajax shows
us a world where there are no real heroes left -- or, rather, where
heroism and courage have to be reinvented as mental qualities rather
than physical ones. In this play, the biggest reversals happen not on
the battlefield but in the minds of men. Ajax tries to take on the most
dangerous of enemies -- Agamemnon and Odysseus -- but ends up killing the
weakest of creatures: a herd of sheep. Hector's sword kills Ajax even
when Hector is dead. The lesson, as Odysseus learns it, is that any one
of our actions may have unforeseen results. If you begin a war, or fight
in one, you never know who will die. It could be them; it could be us.
In such a world, the willingness to change with the times is a virtue.
The old code of paying back evil with evil may keep people stuck in a
cycle of killing, even when the war is supposedly over.
Menelaus (whose "problem launched 1,000 ships," as Tipton's
Chorus comments) and his brother, Agamemnon, insist that the Greeks
ought not to bury Ajax, who wanted to kill them all. Menelaus argues
that leaving Ajax unburied is the only way to discipline him for his
insubordination and restore discipline in the ranks: "But what goes
around comes around./He burned hot -- now I do." The final reversal
of the play is that Odysseus, Ajax's old enemy, is the one who argues
that he must be given a funeral. Agamemnon asks, "So should I permit
this funeral?" and Odysseus answers, "Yes. I'll need one myself
Tipton, who is highly conscious of the resonances of Sophocles' play
with the current conflict in Iraq, includes a number of anachronisms,
which anchor the play firmly in the present. For instance, his Ajax
kills himself with Hector's gun, not his sword (a distracting mistake is
that this Ajax also claims to be killed with "my own weapon," rather
than simply "self-killed"); the Chorus compares Ajax to "a fast
aircraft" and meditates on "the statistics of missiles."
There are more obscenities than the conventions of Greek tragedy would
have allowed: when Ajax realizes that he has "murdered farm
animals" instead of soldiers, he shouts "Fuck. FUCK!" These details make
it clear that we are to see these soldiers as modern combatants,
struggling with the physical realities of modern warfare.
Tipton's language is spare yet dense, colloquial yet somehow foreign.
His rendering of Sophocles is often very loose, perhaps not always
deliberately (for instance, I could see no particular purpose in Ajax's
woman, Tecmessa, saying, "You took my father from me," when the Greek
means, "You deprived me of my father-land" -- patris, not pater). Yet Tipton's play is intended to be not a crib but a
re-imagination of Sophocles for our age. It corresponds line for line to
the original and uses a strange metrical form, what Tipton calls "a
counted line," one which uses one English word for every metrical foot
in the Greek. Except for the choral passages and lyric interludes, every
line in the play has six words. One might think this system would not
sound or scan like poetry in English, but it is surprisingly effective
and works as an equivalent for Greek meter (which is based on syllable
At his best, Tipton is able to break down the Greek text and rewrite it
as if from scratch -- digging up and reconstructing the force behind
abstractions and alien idioms. His renderings of the Greek term
tuche -- a very common word meaning "fate," "luck" or "chance" -- are
a case in point. Tipton never uses the heavily archaic English word
"fate." Instead, he unpacks the thought behind the line. When Tecmessa
appeals to Ajax to accept what has happened, a pedestrian version of the
Greek would go something like this: "O Ajax, my master, there is no
greater evil for human beings than necessary fate." In Tipton, this
Ajax, there's nothing you can do.
There's never anything anyone can do.
Tipton's Greeks inhabit a world where the gods are almost entirely
absent, and where there are no powers or abstract forces that explain
the course of events. When somebody asks, "Why did this have to happen?"
Tipton's Chorus replies, "it just did."
Sometimes, conversely, Tipton creates abstractions where there are none
in the Greek. Odysseus pities Ajax in his madness and generalizes about
his vision of human beings: "I see that we -- all the people who are
alive -- are nothing but images or an empty shadow." In Tipton, the object
of the verb in the first phrase is not "we" but "life":
If you stare hard at life
you see we're nothing but shadows.
Tipton's version has a chilling power that derives partly from its
infidelity to Sophocles. His Odysseus creates a strange, alienating
distance between the observer (not himself, but that impersonal "you")
and the observed -- shadowy human life. Similarly, Tipton's choral odes
are deliberately "disembodied" -- as he explains in the afterword, he
eliminated all uses of the first person in order to turn the Chorus into
the "disturbed unconscious to the play itself." The words of Tipton's
Chorus bear almost no relation to the literal meaning of the Greek, but
they contain some of his most arresting passages. Tipton picks up
Sophocles' images and entirely ignores his syntax, producing a
Surrealist, dreamlike effect:
the night now shot
dawn astounds from tomorrow
while crazy horses wander
the meadows kill Greeks
root and branch
The technique is similar to Ezra Pound's mistranslations in "Homage to
Sextus Propertius." Pound's poem includes a number of apparent
philological errors (such as translating "canes," which comes from the
verb cano, "to sing," as if it came from canis, "dog").
One early reader of Pound commented, "If Mr. Pound were a professor of
Latin, there would be nothing left for him but suicide." But Pound was a
poet, not a professor, and he rejoined that "there was never any
question of translation, let alone literal translation. My job was to
bring a dead man to life, to present a living figure." Tipton, too, is a
poet, and he succeeds brilliantly at creating a living, contemporary
Sophocles. His version is a chilling mirror.
Even outside the choral passages, Tipton makes his characters far more
alienated from one another than they are in Sophocles, and far more
directly aggressive. Tipton does not capture much of Sophocles' tragic
irony, which often depends on a frustrated desire for communication and
an idea that language says more than we can hear. For instance, when
Athena asks Ajax about what he thinks he has done, when he is still
under the delusion that the victims he has killed were his human
companions, she says, in the Greek, tethnasin andres? (The men
are dead?). Ajax thinks that Athena is emphasizing the first word -- "they
are dead" -- and answers, thanontes (dead). But of course, the
audience realizes that the goddess is also asking whether Ajax still
believes that those dead were men. In Tipton, the goddess's question
becomes merely sarcastic, not ironic: "So I gather you killed them?"
This goddess obviously knows better than dumb, crazy Ajax and has no
time to drop oracular hints.
The human characters in Tipton's version yell accusations and
imperatives at each other but almost never ask for help. Tecmessa,
Ajax's concubine and baby-mother, becomes much ruder and more assertive
than she is in Sophocles. An expression of pity becomes "You're
pathetic," and when Tecmessa pleads for advice -- oimoi, ti
draso, teknon? (Alas, child, what shall I do?) -- Tipton
eliminates the hint of vulnerability: "No, I won't just sit here," she
asserts. Tipton also gets rid of the complexity of Tecmessa's
relationship with her master by presenting her as a wife, not a slave:
when she says, simply and directly, "Now I am a slave," he translates,
"Now you hold title to me." Sophocles' evocation of shifting allegiances
and dependencies, friendships and enmities and complex social networks,
is turned into a more brutal, simpler vision: it's a dog-eat-dog world.
But these characters' resistance to gentleness and frailty still honors
something of the shock value in Sophocles' play. It allows, above all,
for a riveting, goose-bumps-inducing presentation of Ajax -- as the
ultra-tough guy, the Marine, who tells Tecmessa, "Here, quick, take this
kid away./Seal up the house. No crying./Stop being so damn sentimental,
woman." We are reminded that the notion of death before dishonor is
hardly confined to the ancient world. With such an attitude, after any
kind of humiliating mistake, how can you ever act like Odysseus: give
up, bury the dead and let the troops go home?
Emily Wilson is an associate professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her most recent book is The Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint (Harvard).
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