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.
You,
           you,
                       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?

klytaimestra:

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

She has the right idea…

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One response to “I Know That Smell

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

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