Tragic Confluences: Anne Carson’s Translation of Euripides’ Bakkhai by Will Harrison

Re-imagining antiquity and complicating gender binaries for the modern reader.

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Anne Carson Dionysos

Marble bust of Antinous as the reborn god Dionysos, c. 130-138 A.D.

For Euripides—whom Aristotle labeled tragikotatos, or “the most tragic” of the Greek poets—unpleasantness was a mindset, an aesthetic, “a matter of technique,” in the words of Anne Carson. A sophist and an atheist, Euripides was the mirror of his age, and his age was bleak. In 431 B.C., almost as soon as he began staging his plays, his hometown of Athens—at that point the undisputed capital of the Greek world—was invaded by its rival Sparta. Two and a half decades later, at the time of his death, the Peloponnesian War was still raging and Athens was on the verge of being reduced to total subjugation.

With his chilly outlook, Euripides implied that just as Athens’ reign of dominance was ending, so was that of traditional tragedy itself. Carson, whose translation of the Bakkhai has just been released by New Directions, has written about how Euripides chafed against the confines of his given medium, needing to say something new but having no vehicle with which to say it. The Bakkhai, his final play—which Carson imagines as “the beginning before the beginning” in an introductory poem—was also his darkest, and took thematic risks that make it Greek tragedy’s greatest link to the present-day.

In addition to withholding any obvious hero figure (a characteristic that feels almost modern), the Bakkhai explores sexual repression, intrafamily violence, the horrors of despotic leadership, and the draconian constraints of gender. Indeed, it is in danger of becoming almost too relevant. That is, if we were in the hands of a translator less capable than Anne Carson. In her classical translations, as well as her poetry, Carson has pursued what T.S. Eliot called “a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity,” daring her audiences to recognize how similar their lives, needs, and foibles are to figures of bygone eras. Her early poem “TV Men” envisions the Trojan hero Hektor on a film set in Death Valley; in her landmark “verse novel” Autobiography of Red, the mythic monster Geryon—murdered by Herakles as he goes about his twelve labors—is vividly re-imagined as a lovesick teen. 

Bakkhai

As a translator, Carson is well aware that her work must issue from the ever-changing afterlife of the original, an approach that requires cultural and textual fluidity. In short, Carson, like Euripedes, is unafraid to take risks. In her rendering of the Bakkhai this involves focusing on character development and linguistic innovation more than “the big ideas” of the excessively theoretical, excessively male classical tradition.

One of Carson’s greatest achievements is her portrayal of the psychological destruction that occurs when the world of humans collides with the world of the gods. The play’s principal human is Pentheus, the adolescent king of Thebes; its principal god is Dionysos, a fellow beardless youth and the son of Semele, a Theban woman impregnated by Zeus and later killed by a jealous Hera. After her death, Semele’s sisters, including Agave, Pentheus’ mother, accused her of lying about the child’s father and proceeded to deny Dionysos’ godly stature. In retaliation, he has returned to Thebes and driven all of its women mad with a bakkhic spell. Pentheus, the hotheaded disbeliever, will be his next project.

These young men—cousins no less—have been taken to represent the conflict between reason and irrationality, but Carson emphasizes how they could also be seen as near duplicates in their parallel struggles with rites of passage. While Dionysos must prove himself to be the godly son of Zeus, Pentheus is shaped by the absence of his own father, Echion. And whereas Dionysos has gone without any maternal presence, Pentheus has perhaps been smothered by the love of his mother and aunts. Early on it becomes apparent that the dueling yet analogous insecurities of these power-hungry teenagers will provide the germ of Carson’s character-driven interpretation.

Faced with Dionysos’ paradoxical ability to embody multiple extremes at once—whether they pertain to emotion, gender, or sexuality—Pentheus dons self-assertion like a costume. This kneejerk belligerence has often been viewed as overcompensation for undeveloped masculinity, but Carson hints at something larger. Her Pentheus expresses an untrammeled jealousy for the “girl-faced stranger” with “long hair” and “bedroom eyes” who “mingles with the young girls night and day.” But is Pentheus envious of his deviant cousin’s cult-leader status, or of his effortless fluidity?

Like Euripides, Carson often explores the “unbearable,” and this disposition has frequently dovetailed with her career-long obsession with human desire. Pentheus—practically drowning in unbearable, undefined longing—has clearly captured Carson’s imagination, and her conception of him stems from Euripedes’ own concern for the desperation of mortals. Shame frequently acts as a veil, but in the world of Euripides it is at least momentarily permeable—for instance, when Pentheus admits that Dionysos is “not bad-looking” before immediately backpedaling. Carson’s own inclination is to strip away the veil in its entirety. As Pentheus hears more about the carefree ways of the Theban bakkhants—whose liberation is wide-ranging, allowing for maternal languor as well as feverish assertiveness—the nature of his yearning is further exposed.

When Pentheus’ curiosity reaches its peak, Dionysos convinces him to gaze upon the Theban women; the only catch is that he must dress like one of them. As Carson translates:

Pentheus: Dress me as a woman? I’m too embarrassed!
Dionsysos: Lost your appetite? No more spying on maenads?
P: What kind of women’s dress did you have in mind?
D: Well, first I’ll give you long flowing hair.
P: Then what? Jewellery?

While the youthful king’s voyeuristic urge is most commonly explained as a nascent attraction to women, Carson makes it seem just as plausible that he would rather be a woman, or least be freed from a gender binary as tyrannical as he is.  By establishing Pentheus’ self-consciousness from the start, Carson is able to push his character well beyond the cantankerous tyrant we have come to expect and imbue this scene with an entirely new layer of tragedy.

Because of this psychological sensitivity, we pity Pentheus not only for his gruesome end, but for his perpetually receding self-assurance. Carson, as a rare female translator of the play, has peeled back his discomfort in a way that feels both novel and eternal. “How do I look? Is this the way Ino stands? Or Agave my mother?” the confused king asks the obstinate god; in Carson’s ethos, this moment is nearly as tragic as Agave’s later realization that she has slaughtered her son.

Unlike the tempestuous bakkhants, the play’s female chorus possesses a breezy confidence that Pentheus will never achieve or even be able to openly admire. “When shall I set my white foot in the allnight dances, when shall I lift my throat to the dewy air, like a fawn skylarking in the green joy of the meadow,” they chant as the Theban king slips on his “girl-guise” offstage. They might as well be speaking from his subconscious. 

Will Harrison writes about literature and visual arts. His work has appeared in Guernica, The BafflerSouthwest Review, and elsewhere.

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