I Know That Smell

But you,
                O Humans,
                                   O Human things-
when a man is happy, a shadow could
    overturn it.
When life goes wrong, a wet sponge erases
   the whole picture.
                       I pity.         –Kassandra speaking in Agamemon by Aiskhylos

The truth is, I don’t like Agamemon, the man, very much. I started to read Richmond Lattimore’s translation and was ready to put it aside- should I squander my time reading about a macho king? Wasting lives: a war of ten years! And for what, pride? Yes, yes, he laments, it was all Helen’s fault, nary a word about Paris- that rankles. And, I have always liked Hector. I’m still quite upset about his death. Just as I had resolved to skip it however, a friend insisted that I would enjoy Klytaimestra – Oh wait for Klytaimestra, he said.

I decided that something would have to go however, and that something was Lattimore. I sat on the floor in between the colossal library shelves and let myself be guided by aesthetics. An Oresteia translated by Anne Carson is a very pretty book. Hardcover, clean, elegant.
The words inside the book are hardcore, clean and elegant:

  By suffering we learn.
Yet there drips in sleep before my heart
a griefremembering pain.
Good sense comes the hard way.
And the grace of the gods
(I’m pretty sure)
is the grace that comes by violence.

I’m pretty sure too. I sympathized with Klytaimestra’s cool reasoning yet was utterly repelled by her bloody violence. I understand Kassandra’s methodology far better. She uses silence as her weapon of mass destruction feigning mute ignorance; it is her divinations that are in fact muted by closed ears. When no one will listen, it’s one’s only defense and weapon.  I read a massive novel of the story of Troy told from the perspective of Cassandra on my honeymoon many, many moons ago: I must now allow that it is perhaps, a faulty methodology. Didn’t turn out too well for Cassandra either.

messenger: Would that I could lie!

chorus: Would the truth were happy!

The manner in which this play is translated is so intense and compelling that when I finished it, I was drawn to the introduction. Carson explains her impetus and inspiration in forming the quality of her tone and language choices: using the words of Francis Bacon she quotes, “work first upon sensation then slowly leak back into fact,”  Upon reading the last lines of the play, all sensation reverberated:  “I know that smell. Evils.” The stupidity, reasoning, recriminations, futile vengeance, pitilessness- who will make it end?


Ignore their yelpings.
You and I, as masters of this house, will
   dispose all things as they should be.

She has the right idea…


One response to “I Know That Smell

  1. Pingback: It’s Not Too Late | so very very

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