Faith in Ignorance

By Ollie Cowley

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy

Anne Carson, New Directions, 2020


Sitting opposite Paul Muldoon at a London Review of Books event in October, the poet Anne Carson seemed something of a wry, bespectacled oracle. When the familiar question of antiquity’s relevance to modernity arose, her response was distinct and unorthodox: ‘They [the classics] left all these beautiful things lying about…We mustn’t wrestle them into modernity…They aren’t like us, they’re strange.’

Such an admission of difference is striking. Historically, we have been eager to share common ground with antiquity. In medieval Britain, historians claimed ‘Brute of Troy’ as the nation’s eponymous founder. Renaissance Humanism, Neo-classicism and Hellenism all firmly braided the Greeks into Western culture and education. Throughout his career, Britain’s Prime Minister has propped himself up as a pseudo-Pericles, buttering his speeches with classical rhetoric and references as if ‘they were bread rolls at a Bullingdon club’, in the words of fellow Balliol classicist, Charlotte Higgins. In the case of religion, the Eleusinian Mysteries (the secret religious rites of ancient Greece) were revived in Washington in 1985 and, in modern day Greece, a priest of the ancient pantheon can legally officiate your wedding.

The ‘cradle of civilisation’, ancient Athens, has been just as much an authority as a nurse. Often, we have assumed antiquity to have the answers, as if it had kindly tucked them away between pages, where they are patiently waiting for us. This is not unfounded or unreasonable, however, as historic Greece, with all its consummate ‘nobility’, as Matthew Arnold praised it, has occasionally been a doctrine in our own script, an expedient mythology.

Anne Carson is a poet and classicist who has continually questioned our relationship and proximity to the ancient past, not least in her most recent work, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy. First performed in April 2019 at The Shed in New York, the ‘spoken and sung performance piece’ portrays an ambitious, young writer grappling with Euripides’ Helen of Troy. As the screenwriter (played by Ben Whishaw) dictates his version of the tragedy to his stenographer (played by award-winning opera singer, Renée Fleming), he grows increasingly enraptured by Helen’s similarity to another female eidolon, Marilyn Monroe. By the play’s end, an incantatory Whishaw strides the stage in Monroe’s iconic halter neck from The Seven Year Itch in a poetic fever. The text Whishaw dictates to Fleming has since been published by Oberon Books in a standalone edition, an enigmatic adaptation of Euripides’ tragedy.

Adaptation is perhaps an awkward term. Formally, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy is only distantly related to Euripides’ 412 BC tragedy. Carson’s performance piece is part exegesis, part soundscape, part lexicon and wholly transfiguration. Euripides’ Helen is usurped by Marilyn, the chorus by the spectre of Truman Capote who, with ‘a voice like a negligée’, informs us that the Trojan war was funded by the glossy gods of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, its action directed by Fritz Lang. The text consists of Marilyn (going by her birth name, Norma Jeane Baker) knitting as she muses on her life and several ancient Greek words such as δουλεία (‘slavery’), παλλακή (‘concubine’), and καιρός (‘opportunity’).

Despite its taxonomic appearance, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy does not intend to provide concrete definitions. Interspersed with divergences and poetic digressions, Carson’s lexicon foregrounds the complexities of catalogue. She has always been a writer more concerned with the questions the classics pose rather than the answers.

In 1978, Carson’s older brother Michael fled his native Canada to avoid jail and severed all direct contact with his family. For the next 22 years, Carson and her brother communicated in sporadic missives: a platitudinal postcard; a reticent telegram; the occasional gnomic letter. When Michael died in 2000 in Copenhagen, his widow only contacted Carson two weeks later. She could not find Carson’s telephone number among Michael’s papers.

To figure this loss, Carson turned to antiquity. In the year that followed, she compiled her foldout masterpiece, Nox. Carson’s relationship with her brother was her own Oxyrhynchus, made up of taciturn, time-worn fragments; Nox is an attempt at excavation. The book is made up of the tattered remnants of their correspondence, weathered childhood photos, excerpts from classical texts and Carson’s reaction to them. In a way, Nox resembles the mass memorials or epigraphs of ancient Athens; it is an attempt to amass the disintegrated and undesignated, to assemble the fragments of her brother.

In Nox, the poets, historians and scientists of the classical age do not concur on an essential, arbitrary truth. Carson does not have a panacea or answer to loss, nor does Catullus or Herodotus. History itself is lost:

History can be at once concrete and indecipherable. Historian can be a stray dog that roams around Asia Minor collecting bits of muteness like burrs in its hide […] In a cigarette-smoke-soaked Copenhagen, under a thin sorrowful sky, as swans drift down the water, I am looking a long time into the muteness of my brother [sic].

To Carson, the voices of the classical past do not offer resolution. They do, however, ask the right questions, pose the right problems. This is why she looks to them as a means of commemoration. Commemoration is rarely closure. It is, in a sense, a pursuit, a search for what we have lost; when we lose someone we love, we continue to look for them, to seek signs in the stars, patterns in the tea leaves, auspices in coincidence. In Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, Norma Jeane attempts to conjure her deceased daughter Hermione:

Hermione will meet us in New York at the pier, I say to myself. Hermione is not lying under a sheet in a beeping overlit emergency room […] I keep trying to focus on her running with her coat undone, as she always did, and me reaching to close it, as I always did, me doing up a button and her pulling away exasperated, undoing it.

Writing about Nox, Meghan O’Rourke describes Carson as a poet preoccupied with ‘restoring strangeness to language’. In Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, language is unwired, deboned. An analysis of the verb ἁρπάζειν (to take) grows gradually more unsettling:

If you pick a flower, if you snatch a handbag, if you possess a woman, if you plunder a storehouse, ravage a countryside or occupy a city, you are a taker. You are taking. In ancient Greek you use the verb ἁρπάζειν, which comes over into Latin as rapio, raper, raptus sum and gives us English rapture and rape- words stained with the very early blood of girls, with the very late blood of cities, with the hysteria of the end of the world. Sometimes I think language should cover its eyes when it speaks.

The relation of ‘rape’ to ‘rapture’ is deeply perturbing. Norma Jeane Baker of Troy reveals that language may be in a constant state of evolution, yet it carries our sins in its furls, collects them like an amphora might rain. A later discussion of the word ‘τις, τίς, someone, anyone, a person, a certain person, who?’ is characterised not by incongruence, but by uncertainty, comprising largely of questions and indefinites: ‘Does a certain injury to the man distort the face beyond recognition, he could be anyone? Could he be her? Who? Who are we deciding to kill now?’

Some have found Carson’s strangeness and instability difficult, a corruption or a fault. While The New Yorker lauded Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, The Telegraph found it ‘unloveable’, The Daily Beast ‘incomprehensible’. A 2009 review in The Guardian of Carson’s adaptation of The Bacchae, decried it as ‘lacking the austerity of Aeschylus […] too conversational, too deflating’.

And yet, why should a drama about a city gone mad, ecstasy bordering on orgasm and omophagia concern itself with ‘austerity’? What does ‘austerity’ mean exactly? And why is it a sensibility so often attached to the classics? Perhaps it is better suited to the stock classical figures of Addison or Voltaire (whom Virginia Woolf condemned as ‘the greatest bores and the most demoralising companions in the world’). Such a sensibility would surely take issue with the humour and dissonance of Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, Marilyn’s haphazard mixture of profundity and insouciance:

‘It took them ten years to walk to it.

A thousand bloody T-shirts left on the sand.

Oh I need a drink.

Or a big bowl of whipped cream. I’ve got to think.’

NORMA JEANE sits, takes out her knitting.

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy is not a translation, it is a transference. As a result, it is not the immovable, marble figures of the British Museum; it is joyously loose, comic and irreverent, a celebration of the strangeness and ciphers within the classical canon.

In her essay On Not Knowing Greek, Virginia Woolf questioned the extent to which we can truly harness or understand Greek literature. It is the ‘impersonal literature’, barred from the modern-day reader by time and tradition. Woolf puts forth a similar question to Carson: to what extent do we, or can we, know the classics?

Like Woolf, Carson does not attempt to forcibly bridge the gulfs between us and the classical past. Instead, she finds the lacuna refreshing. Her translation of the Greek lyric poet Sappho, If Not, Winter, achieved considerable commercial success. Carson’s kennings and compounds deftly convey the creative grace and fluidity of the Greek language. Crucially, Carson chose to keep the poem in fragments and include ‘variants and conjectures’ in her translation (of the nine books of lyrics Sappho is said to have composed, only one poem comes to us whole, the rest are all in fragments). She signals lost fragments with brackets, stating in her introduction:

Brackets are exciting. Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, that is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp - brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.

To Carson, translation is not so much an act of conversion as an act of inquisition. Rather than follow Nabokov’s ‘servile path’, Carson chooses an unchartered road, in her own words, an ‘imaginal adventure’.

A similar liberty characterises 2019’s winner of the Forward prize for best collection, Fiona Benson’s Vertigo & Ghost. Benson, who cites Alice Oswald and Carson as influences, wrote most of the first part of her collection in one sitting. Whilst part two is an intimate portrayal of family life, depression, and the English countryside, the first part is the ‘Zeus Poems’, which portray a psychopathic Zeus and the lives of his mythological victims. Vertigo & Ghost is not an invocation, but an accusation. Benson’s godhead is a serial rapist, Vertigo & Ghost a catalogue of his crimes.

The collection's plethora of voices, such as those of the assailed Semele, Ganymede, the remorseless Zeus or the sterile language of a legal court, and forms, ranging from blank verse to calligrams, are deeply captivating. The ‘Zeus Poems’ are simultaneously difficult to put down and highly rewarding upon a second read.

Critics have repeatedly termed Benson’s poetry ‘violent’. It is, indeed, unabashedly corporeal; however, rape is a subject that has never been alien to art. If we consider the western canon, we will find a good portion of it depicting scenes of assault; Titian’s The Rape of Europa, Bernini’s masterful Zeus and Proserpina or Apollo and Daphne. It is Benson’s gift to make us more than observers, to lay bare the structures which silence victims and keep Zeus untouchable up on Olympus. Benson’s collection is visceral without being stupefying. In ‘[transformation: Io]’ the malevolence of Zeus is accompanied by the love of the parent:

her daughter’s slackening face

as it mouths some blurred message

of violation some plea to come home

do not look for beauty

it is gone yet here’s her father

stroking her hair her mother

looking for a cure witnessing

insisting on the gentlest care

see how tenacious they are

how truly humans love

Benson holds antiquity accountable. This is perhaps how and why her reception provides such a provocative discussion of our own society. Both Carson and Benson approach antiquity in its entirety. They confront the wealth and significance of its mythology and symbolism, as well as the iniquities of its underbelly. In Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, we are reminded that the culture which gave us the Iliad and democracy was also economically reliant on slavery and commodified violence:

DISCUSSION TOPIC: Compare and Contrast catching a spear in the spleen with utter mental darkness. [and darkness fell over his eyes] Consider ancient vs modern experience. Consider whether any of these is what is meant in poetry by ‘a beautiful death’.

Carson and Benson approach the classics with a fresh, unpresumptuous eye, one which does not assume impunity or authority. In their work, the quandaries and contradictions of the classical tradition provide a metric by which to consider our own and to pose new questions. By doing so, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy and Vertigo & Ghost prove rather than assert antiquity’s relevance.

This model of classical reception foregrounds an often-overlooked facet of classical wisdom, that of ignorance, what might be termed ἀγνοια, agnoia. Another, more common Greek word for ignorance, ἀμάθεια, amatheia, implies a myopic culpability. The rash or hubristic man incurs the charge of amatheia. Agnoia, on the other hand, is an ignorance more akin to ‘not knowing’, ‘unawareness’. The tragedians with their fate knew that no man could know all there is to know, nor should he aspire to do so, that is the lot of the immortal Gods. Protagoras’ adage ‘man is the measure of all things’ is both accolade and admonishment. Since no man is truly able to look beyond his ‘measure’, agnoia becomes an inevitability rather than a failure.

In Plato’s Apology, the Delphic oracle declares Socrates the world’s wisest man. Socrates, bemused, decides to determine why. He confers with other wise men, and identifies only one distinction:

The fact is that neither of us knows anything beautiful and good, but he thinks he knows things he does not. I, on the other hand, do not know, and do not think that I do know; so I am wiser than him only by this trifle, that what I do not know, I do not think I know.

Socrates is wise in the conviction of his ignorance. He understands that no man is omniscient and that only when we recognise this can we truly begin to learn. However, when he proposes this to his fellow wise men, he finds he is ‘disliked, sorrowed and feared’. These men fear ignorance as an inadequacy and so, in turn, chastise its herald. (It is not Socrates who is punishing them, but they who are punishing him; the Apology was delivered to a jury who punished the thinker with his life.)

It is inevitable that when dealing with the classical past, gaps in knowledge and understanding will arise. Rather than fear or deny our agnoia, Carson and Benson, in the vein of Socrates, take it as an opportunity. Carson knows well that, in the words of Euripides, ‘το μη ειδέναι γαρ ηδονήν έχει τινά’, ‘there is a certain pleasure in not knowing’ (perhaps explaining her affinity with the tragedian). Her work celebrates the unknown, the precarious, and suggests that it is only once we admit our ignorance, that we might begin to ask the interesting questions.

A chasm exists between us and the classical past, one which the ‘vast tide of European chatter can never succeed in crossing’, in the words of Woolf. If we deny this fact and attempt to force its supplication to our own culture, to stuff the chasm – the ‘wrestling match’ Carson described to Muldoon – we risk losing these text’s boundless energy, their wonderful strangeness. We should continue to question them, to re-examine their relationship to our own world and to acknowledge their oddities, to approach them with the eye of the classicist Robert Graves in his poem ‘Broken Images’:

When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;

When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

He continues quick and dull in his clear images;

I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

He in a new confusion of his understanding;

I in a new understanding of my confusion.


OLLIE COWLEY reads Classics and English at St Anne's College. Her writing, like the cheese of her Alpine homeland, is immature and full of holes.


Artwork by Ollie Cowley




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