Poetry News

Judith Butler on Anne Carson's Time of the Time of Tragedy

By Harriet Staff

Get this one: Judith Butler has reviewed Anne Carson's Antigonick (New Directions 2012). She writes for Public Books that, rather than a "rewrite" of Antigone, "[Carson's] text becomes the verbal and visual scanning of a prolonged scream or cry."

“Antigonick” is a coinage that adds the problem of time to the character of Antigone but also produces another figure, Nick, in the wake of Antigone’s death. The last line is a “bracket,” not unlike the one in which Mrs. Ramsay dies in Woolf’s novel:



The nick is the time of the line itself, the scan of poetic meter, but not as something that stays regular or predictable. It stops and starts, alters its pace and spatial form, breaks open white space unexpectedly, and registers a loss it can neither forestall nor redeem. We are left with the question, What kind of time is the time of tragedy? It is the time of the metrical and not so metrical line, to be sure, but also some graphic trace left from the time of life, something nicked away by some brute force, or perhaps the bracket within which life vanishes. The tone of the play does not become exactly wistful or reflective at such moments. The emphatic handwritten lines in all capital letters continue until the end, suggesting that something urgent and awful has taken place, is still taking place. In tragedy, Carson tells us in Grief Lessons, “through violence we are intimate with some characters onstage in an exorbitant way for a brief time”; what happened then keeps happening: these repetitions mark the continuing life of unconscious rage, explicit sorrow, unpredictable and winning humor, and new aesthetic forms that traverse the temporal distance between then and now.

So tragedy is neither very far away nor very foreign. It seems to be with us in the present, leaving its traces in the midst of popular discourse. In the preface to Grief Lessons, Carson makes clear that to understand tragedy, one need not come equipped with erudition (even though she clearly does). She answers the question “Why does tragedy exist?” by directly addressing her reader, as she had Eurydike do:

Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief. Ask a headhunter why he cuts off human heads. He’ll say that rage impels him and rage is born of grief. The act of severing and tossing away the victim’s head enables him to throw away all of his bereavements.… Perhaps you think this does not apply to you. Yet you recall the day your wife, driving you to your mother’s funeral, turned left instead of right at the intersection and you had to scream at her so loud other drivers turned to look. When you tore off her head and threw it out the window they nodded, changed gears, drove away.

Antigone rages forth from grief, causing new destruction, and so, too, does Kreon; they mirror each other in the midst of their opposition. So, too, do you, apparently, and everyone else as well, nodding and driving off, unless we catch ourselves in time. The reader is implicated in this recurrent alteration of grief and rage, subject to the destruction she or he is capable of inflicting, if there is no timely intervention.

Apparently “you” already know why tragedy exists. What Carson writes of Paul Celan’s direct address to the “you” offers us a formulation that may well apply to her Antigonick. . . .

Originally Published: November 16th, 2012