Saturday, October 04, 2014

Rage, grief

Colm Tóibín on the literature of grief (I am eager to read his new novel):
A few years later, in her introduction to her translation of Sophocles' Elektra, one of the great plays about grief, Carson's tone seemed less certain as she wrote about the scene in which Orestes returns and hands his sister an urn with ashes which he says are of her dead brother Orestes. Orestes listens to Elektra mourn at some length before he announces that he was just fooling and that he has, in fact, been alive all the time and is now in front of her. Carson quotes the actor Fiona Shaw saying that she found the "deception/recognition scene between Elektra and Orestes 'unspeakably impossible to play'."

"Critics and scholars (and translators)," Carson goes on, "agree, this scene is a hard nut to crack. Why does Orestes decide to trick his sister into thinking he is dead? Why does he give it up in the middle? What does Sophocles want to achieve here? The alternation of lies and truth, high emotions and low, is bewildering and cruel, the tug of war over an empty urn almost bizarre." So, too, Philip Vellacott, who translated Euripides's version of the play, wonders about this scene and identifies the point "where Orestes should reveal himself … He does not reveal himself. Why?"

Surely the solution is simple. Surely Orestes' trickery is the very currency of grief. Orestes, having lost his father, is unable to come clean. The issues of life and death have entered his spirit and poisoned him so that his approach to re-meeting his sister will be all gnarled. He cannot deal simply with emotion. As Carson writes about Euripides's version of him: "All in all, Orestes is a peculiar customer – not exactly insane but strange and unknowable. His consciousness is entirely his own." Thus his response will be filled with doublespeak and trickery about the very things – the difference between being dead and being alive – that he cannot manage to come to terms with. Becoming "bewildering and cruel", as Carson puts it, and "bizarre", are what has happened to his personality under pressure. While his sister has been doing all the shouting, Orestes has let the pain seep silently into the very core of his being so that nothing he does will ever be easy to explain. While people are busy avoiding his sister because of what she says, they have been perhaps even busier avoiding Orestes because of his silence.

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