BMCR 2008.08.44


, , Ajax. Chicago: Flood Editions, 2008. xv, 112 pages ; 20 cm. ISBN 9780978746759 $13.95 (pb).

Sophocles’ Ajax is a study in isolation—the kind felt in the presence of others and the kind experienced when one is truly alone. The play is built around the solitary Ajax, an eminent hero in a bad situation. Whether crazed, suicidal or dead, Ajax remains inside an impenetrable circle of his own consciousness and of others’ conflicting demands and desires. The staging of the play expresses this position: Ajax is surrounded by bloodied animals early in the play and at the end, bloodied himself, is surrounded by enemies and friends who argue out the fate of his corpse. At all points, every eye—onstage and off—is turned towards Ajax; he can no more be ignored than absorbed by society.

A new translation of Ajax by John Tipton offers a fresh take on Ajax as the center that cannot hold. Things fall apart in Tipton’s play and fall apart quickly. His Greek camp is a violent world without even the scant comforts that Sophocles offered: the chorus here is not a collective of invested players but, as Tipton puts it, a “sinister, nagging voice that punctuates the action” (109). His characters speak in stark six-worded lines that often carry the resonance of a swift smack: Tecmessa : God, calm down.
Ajax : Don’t be stupid (43).

The couple’s Tennessee-Williamsesque hostility fits the bill: whereas Sophocles’ Ajax had merely sacked Tecmessa’s homeland, allowing other evils to kill off her parents, Tipton’s Ajax himself performed the patricidal honors (“you took my father from me” (36)). Violence is the norm in this Ajax, as the book’s cover proclaims: images of rams’ heads, spattering and spattered with blood, hang upon a white wall. Those gory heads bring to mind the precipitating act of the play—Ajax’ maddened massacre of livestock. As Stanley Lombardo points out in his graceful foreword to Tipton’s play, “Sophocles could count on considerable shock value in opening his play with this hero slaughtering and torturing pigs…” (xiii). Tipton’s Ajax revels in this slaughter without offering the recompenses of Sophocles’ poetry or humanity. As brutal as Sophocles’ world was, Tipton’s is one step more hastily ferocious.

In an useful afterword (which he calls “an accounting”), Tipton theorizes that the play “argue[s] for energetic pacing” (106), hence his choice of six words, and no more, to each line of Greek. He does not explain his use of the “counted line” rather than a metered one, but readers of his poetry will be familiar with his predilection for this form (his previous book, called Surfaces, was published in 2004). Louis Zukofsky is the great modern master of the counted line and an acknowledged influence on Tipton. Zukofsky turned the counted line into a conduit of absurd revelation: his 1978 book, called 80 Flowers, contains a series of eight-line poems with five words to each line, but these are lines that push their limits, as in the poem “Raspberry”: rose-flower’d mated with other brambles
seeded-pulp dewberry plethoric blackberry drunk-red
boysenberry loganberries phenomenal such-of-you tastier

Zukofsky’s counted lines are never not open questions about the definitions and differences of sounds and words, words and thoughts. And who’s to deny that “such-of-you” is a word, if Zukofsky wants it to be? The counted line is not as vibrant a poetic instrument in Tipton’s translation of Ajax. Lacking Zukofsky’s reach to the ridiculous, a six-worded line can be a bare thing that also lacks what the metered line gives Greek tragedy: the legacy of song, the imprint on the inner ear. What takes its place in Tipton is a sort of punchy, winking appeal. Indeed, his best writing is edged with sardonic and breezy wit, as when a messenger reports on Ajax’ lousy history of divine faux pas : He had the gall to say,
“Queen, go help some other Greeks.
I’ve got things under control here.”
Gods hate that kind of thing (53).

The most daring move made in Tipton’s Ajax is his take on the chorus. Choruses are frequently sites of difficultly and/or creativity for modern rewriters of tragedy; what was a familiar lyrical voice in Athenian tragedy is these days viewed as an oddly intervening collective. Tipton strips his down. In contrast to the supportive, if self-pitying, array of soldiers that Sophocles placed under Ajax’ command, Tipton’s chorus is sleekly depersonalized. He explains his method as follows: “First, I eliminated any use of the first person in the chorus to disembody it. And second, I exaggerated the psychological elements and distressed syntax into a slightly disjointed raving” (109). All this eliminating and exaggerating adds to the icy isolation of the world Tipton creates. Inasmuch as this chorus does not fully represent men (let alone Ajax’ men), a primary layer of societal connection is gone from the play. Inasmuch as their language is transformed into a sometimes incomprehensible version of avant-garde nihilism, a large portion of performable meaning is also excised. The chorus’ first words in the play serve as an example. A fairly literal translation of these lines by H. Golder and R. Pevear (Oxford 1999) goes like this: Son of Telamon, holder of power
on deep-anchored, sea-ringed Salamis,
when you do well I rejoice (33).

Here is Tipton’s version of the same lines: a child
the ocean
Salamis silt sea bed
(12. The italics are Tipton’s, as used for all choral passages.)

Tipton quite deliberately shucks language of meaning. The blank spaces between words (in place of the connections of syntax) match the emptiness and meaningless of his world (in place of the connections between men). Tipton has little interest in the fraught complexity of human or linguistic relations. This chorus does not love Ajax and does not long for Athens any more than it, like Sophocles’ chorus, imagines itself as the trembling eye of a dove (lines 139-40).

Ajax spends the first scene of the play speaking to Athena, who has driven him mad and caused him to slaughter livestock instead of the other generals of the Greek army (whom he’d have much rather slain). As a result of his madness, Ajax cannot see that his adversary Odysseus is also present, watching him. When Ajax exits the stage, Odysseus is asked by Athena for his reaction to the downfall of his foe. Instead of vengeful triumph—the reaction the bloodthirsty goddess had expected—Odysseus’ response articulates, simply, the desolated state of mortality: “For I see that all we who live are nothing more than phantoms or an insubstantial shadow” (A. F. Garvie, Ajax, Warminster 1998, 35). Tipton renders those same lines in the following way: “If you stare hard at life/ you see we’re nothing but shadows” (11). Tipton’s version of these lines is fast, faster than the original Greek and faster than most translations thereof. This speed is an advantage of his translation; it keeps ancient tragedy from reading as the stuff of academic dullards. But speed has its disadvantages too—Tipton’s lines always beg the question of what has been left out. For better or worse, Tipton’s not an academic work. There are no graphics of the Greek theater and no footnotes. It seeks to be poetry more than to be translation, and indeed Tipton dubs himself an “interpreter” rather than translator (110).

Garvie’s very literal translation allows the reader to perceive Sophocles’ intentions more clearly: Odysseus starts by categorizing mortals as “phantoms” ( eidôla) a word that is sometimes translated as images, and which devolved from the notion of “forms” to connoting merely a “fancy” of things. Odysseus quickly replaces this first assessment with a second: “or an insubstantial shadow.” “Insubstantial” is kouphên in Greek, which also can mean nimble, light, airy or just as likely to float away. Thus Sophocles ironically employs terms from the family of lighthearted flip to render a terrible pronouncement on humanity. The grim image has precedence in Greek poetry: Pindar, the incomparable lyricist, called man “a dream of a shadow” (Pyth. 8, 95-6), but even he does not bring in the haunting synaesthetic effect that Sophocles’ Odysseus manages: the nothingness of weight, the nothingness of darkness are combined into one gloomily effervescent turn of phrase on the life not worth living, or human life. Tipton’s “nothing but shadows” is in the same ballpark as Sophocles’ statement but lacks in bleak complexity what it gains in sadistic velocity. This trade-off is at the core of Tipton’s Ajax.

If Tipton’s world has a touch of the post-apocalyptic, it is perhaps because it combines the most terrifying elements of the mythical and modern. There are not only vengeful gods and naysaying prophets in Tipton’s Ajax but also loaded guns and atomic bombs: when Ajax kills himself, it is not with Hector’s sword, as in Sophocles’ version, but with his firearm (“The killer is cocked and ready—” (57)). Where Sophocles’ chorus of soldiers curse a mythical bringer of Ares to Greece, Tipton’s choral voice worries over ” the toll the statistics of missiles” and blames the ” the Los Alamos boys” (86) for the proliferation of war. Tipton’s world implicitly includes not only Troy, but Iraq, not only the Greek generals but the present administration. He writes:

this play has a particularly urgent message for those of us today in Britain and the United States who find ourselves victorious but powerless after our own misguided adventure into the Near East. Ajax demands our attention, not only for its clear-eyed account of the bitter aftermath of victory but also for its treatment of unscrupulous politics (109).

I agree that Ajax ought to “demand our attention”, but not necessarily for the reasons Tipton states. After all, the play is not actually set in the “bitter aftermath of victory,” but rather during the final stage of the Trojan War, when the outcome is still unknown. A bit of hope is always at play in Sophocles’ tragedy. It is revealed in the bonds between Ajax and Tecmessa, between Ajax and his chorus, in Ajax’ own occasionally transcendent language and, ultimately, in the cultic implications of proper burial. These are not elements of Tipton’s work, but his stark interpretation will prove satisfying for audiences wary of consolation, false and true.