Aeschylus. New Translation by Joel Agee
After the Fire the Fire Still Burns
It is an ancient truism by now that we Westerners must forever return to the classics for spiritual replenishment and cultural rejuvenation. Indeed, such revisits may be the ‘eternal recurrence’ incarnate, the root of Nietzschean amor fati. Some of the classics seem more meet than others at any given time, but since the ‘80s I’ve found myself especially drawn to the phenomenological questions Heraclitus raises with his pre-Socratic fragments, which seem more relevant in our quantum questing age than ever. While we seem to have reached a hiatus with dialectical materialism, Heraclitus continues to reminds us it’s all samsara anyway. Likewise, I’ve been spending some time wondering why Socrates preferred his hemlock to Democracy in the end, with a return to Plato’s Apology paying significant dividends of insight into the inherent flaws and profound fragility of self-governance.
Thus it was with great anticipation that I began my read of Joel Agee’s new translation of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. Of course, thematically the story of Prometheus’ costly gift of fire to mortals has never left us, and, for sure, seems to be the gift that keeps on giving, from the Iron Age, all the way through to our Digital Age, which would not be possible without that original gift. And I’ll get to the obvious thematic significance of the book in a moment, but first a consideration of the production of the book is in order, since that is what Joel Agee is being published for: his new take on the old story.
Even relatively simple translations from one language to another can present significant obstacle and challenges for the writer, including idiomatic and contextual issues, and other assorted interpretive entanglements reading any text can conjure up. I’m no classicist, and speak no Greek, and, like most readers, depend on translations to get me in the ballpark of approximation, where, hopefully, imagination kicks in and interactivity occurs. But it turns out Agee is no Greek scholar either, and he depends on his translation of Prometheus Bound by his association conference with scholars. In a very real sense, then, this edition of the tragedy is a collaborative effort.
It’s evident rather quickly that what Agee is out to achieve is a rendition that eschews the forced accommodation one finds in many old blank verse attempts of the story, as well as the more literal and often less lyrical versions of the play one comes across more recently. In other words, Agee attempts to stage on the page the rhythms and musicality, rather than just a new expression of themes, including the insertion of diacritical marks to direct the reader’s performance of the lines. This reminded me again, and welcomely so, that these classic tragedies come to us from an oral tradition – and emphasize that most poetry and drama comes alive in the ear in a way that cannot be matched by the eye alone.
But Agee’s technique made me long to hear the original language of the text and to see it performed in a classical staging. Luckily, the Internet came through and I found a lovely and brief performance chock full of the original cadences, rhythms and music of the ancients. Nietzsche tells us that tragedy was born “out of the spirit of music,” and that is certainly evident in this staging. I even closed my eyes to avoid the English subtitles. Then I returned to Agee’s text and was reanimated by the performance on the page. I strongly recommend this procedure.
I mentioned that translated texts present interpretive challenges for the writer, which are often multiplied in reading by the ambiguity of common understanding. One good example will serve to highlight this issue, before moving on to the thematic chords of the work. Agee employs the term “tyranny” to describe the reign of Zeus in the time of Prometheus’ demise. But another contemporary translator of the play uses the term “sovereignty” instead. I’ll allow the reader to consider how the difference between these terms can affect an understanding of the overall contingencies of the play.
As Agee points out, ‘tyranny’ has more powerful resonances for a modern readership than ‘sovereignty’, and yet they are resolvable, and flow into each other, such as we know in the case of the Westphalia Treaty, for instance, which, in essence, stopped tyrants from fighting one another in Europe by granting each sovereignty for the first time over fixed borders, within which could do pretty much what they wanted. And you might say that such order and protocols governed the otherwise truculent and selfish gods’ conceits and claims.
To remind the reader, Prometheus helped Zeus overthrow the heavenly sovereignty of Kronos, and things were swell between them until Zeus, in reviewing his assets, decided he didn’t really care for the mortal human race and was prepared to replace it with something more suitable. However, Prometheus favored the mortals and bestowed upon them two gifts: one, was blind hope that essentially prevented humans from seeing their ultimate pitiable fate; second, he gave the gift of fire, which, as we know, has since prehistoric times has led to considerable civilizing processes and functions, and, ultimately made our present age possible. But Zeus is not happy with this treachery and has Prometheus bound to a desolate rock forever.
Throughout Western cultural history Prometheus is regarded by humans as savior/hero figure, and as Agee reminds us he has figured prominently in key moments. Beethoven wrote scores in celebration of Napoleon, for instance, who was popularly regarded as a new Prometheus (until he became Emperor anyway). And Mary Shelley’s now-dystopic-seeming novel about the consequences of playing god with new technology, Frankenstein, is, of course, sub-titled A Modern Prometheus.
It may seem we’ve passed the relevancy of the Prometheus theme. Some would point to Edward Snowden as Promethean figure, but I don’t like the fit. However, just yesterday I was watching the film Interstellar and it prompted the Promethean theme in a surprising way. The ‘hero’ of Interstellar leaves behind his daughter and a nearly-depleted Earth to pilot a NASA ship through a wormhole in search of other life-bearing habitats, and, in the process, unravels the mysteries of time and gravity, and in a sense steals the quantum fire from the gods and redistributes its wealth of meaning to a needy Earth.
But the real Prometheus has not yet arrived – a godlike figure among the technological elites of the near future, who, tired of the limitations of their fellow humans, decide through eugenics and the targetings of the disposition matrix to replace the lot with übermenschen, and this Prometheus balks, and passes the quantum bong among the hoi polloi and pays the ultimate price.
On the other hand, maybe it’s not the consequences of the gifts of Prometheus we should be worried about now, but instead whether our quest for quantum singularitus, the snow leopard of cosmology, is not rather is not another instance of Pandora’s Box.