6c BCE

On drips


Detail from Lucas Cranach the Elder, Christus am Kreutz (c. 1520-1522),  CC-BY 2.0.

Leaks have been in the news lately (and it might be interesting to think about why “leaks” became a term in English for improper disclosures of information in the 1950s, or how “blowing the whistle on” an activity used to imply also bringing the activity to a sharp conclusion), but, whereas leaks imply loss and injury, drips are more ambiguous.

Stanley Lombardo translates one of Sappho’s fragments (#37 in Campbell’s standard collection, but #64 in Lombardo’s version) as “in my dripping pain.”  Just that.  That’s the entirety of the fragment (although there may be a related piece).  “In my dripping pain.”  What might Sappho have meant?  Where was this verse leading?  Whose pain was being given a voice here?

Anne Carson, with more typographical license, and perhaps more focus on textuality generally, adds parentheses: “in my dripping (pain)” (If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, 75).  In a wonderful endnote, she points to three significant contexts for thinking about what Sappho might be doing here.  The first is its provenance: we have the fragment because an ancient etymologist was discussing words for pain.  The second is a line from the chorus in Agamemnon, describing their anxieties in the night: “And it drips in sleep before my heart / the grief-remembering pain” (Qtd. 365).  The noun Sappho uses for dripping is, Carson notes, cognate with the verb for dripping Aeschylus uses here.

Richard Lattimore translates the full strophe from which this line was taken as follows:

Zeus, who guided men to think,

who has laid it down that wisdom

comes alone through suffering.

Still there drips in sleep against the heart

grief of memory; against

our will temperance comes.

From the gods who sit in grandeur

grace is somehow violent.

(Aeschylus II, ed. Mark Griffith and Glenn W. Most, 26-27)

And here is Peter Meineck’s version:

He set us mortals on the road to understanding,

and he has laid down his law:

“Man must learn by suffering!”

Not even sleep can relieve the painful memories

that fall upon the heart, drop by drop,

discretion comes even to the unwilling.

The grace is forced upon us

by sacred spirits who reign above.          (Oresteia, 9-10).

I can’t adjudicate the accuracy of any of the translations, but I can see that Meineck’s offers a much clearer line of interpretation than Lattimore’s.  The “road to understanding” is what is laid down in the quoted law.  Suffering is the path to understanding.  Painful experience engraves itself upon the heart in ways that sleep (and by implication even dreams) cannot stop.  In a wonderful inversion, grace is “forced upon us.” (Was Yeats thinking of these lines when he was writing “Leda and the Swan”?).  “Sacred spirits” is a bit distracting to my ignorant ear: even in the plural, it brings “grace” too close to later Christian meanings that any translator is already hard-pressed to avoid, or make strange.

Lattimore’s translation, by contrast, is harder to make sense of, but is much more rhythmically striking and — at least on a first reading — impressively undecided.  That is, it has the sound of the Chorus still thinking things through rather than presenting a report of their conclusions.  The exact relationship between “thinking” and “wisdom” and “suffering” is not at all clear, however tightly linked they become in the mesmerizing prosody of “alone through suffering.”  Whatever its accuracy as a translation of the Greek, beginning the next line with “still” is a masterstroke for performance.  It opens up the possibility that the Chorus is itself here doing what Zeus laid down: thinking, suffering, attempting to bring its concrete experience to painful consciousness.  Likewise, I’m struck by Lattimore’s registering the confused hesitation in the chorus’s realization that grace is violent “somehow,” and his having pain teach not “discretion,” but “temperance.”

The sense of a drip-dripping sequence of pains tempering a body, giving it a particular texture and character, returns us to Carson’s gloss on Sappho’s fragment.  The other significant context she offers for “dripping (pain)” comes from Hamm’s lines in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame:

There’s something dripping in my head.


A heart in my head.

In Aeschylus, a somatically engraved anxiety contorts dreams and brings before the heart — the seat of soul and mindedness for the ancient Greeks — “grief-remembered pain.”  There’s more than a hint in Hamm’s lines of this sense of long-weathered, ill-comprehended experience carving his destiny.

But, of course, in Hamm, any such sense of his own fate is bathetically shrunk.  His line has the sound of the comically literal.  Maybe that’s all consciousness is: something dripping in the head.  All the lyricism of existential confrontation seems to be leached out of Hamm’s statement: it seems to be a bare attempt to describe the phenomenological sensation.  Of course, he doesn’t say it feels as if something’s dripping in his head.  Nor does he declaim it in a way that might give “dripping” a melodramatic, lurid cast, i.e. having the actor leap up onto the battlements, etc.  (In fact, as ever, Beckett’s scenic imagination — including here Hamm’s blindness and restriction to his chair — seems designed to prevent or dismantle such earnest declamations.)  What would it mean to have a heart in your head — and does Hamm mean something like a yearning soul or something like a mere pumping muscle?


Sojourning settlers


E.M. Lilien, Hebron (1922), distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

After Sarah died, Abraham went before the Hittites to ask for permission to bury her, an important act not only for the grieving husband, but also for the identity of the nation and the people that the stories of Genesis were meant to bring together.  It isn’t only ancient cultures who believe that burying ancestors in a place gives heirs a sacred claim to it.  But what sort of a claim?  Today, we would want to make a distinction between legal or political claims and moral claims, of the sort that might entail visitation rights but not ownership.  This is a complex issue, and two translations of Genesis suggest how difficult it is for us to understand the underlying grammar (legal? moral? religious?) of the narrated actions.

Abraham begins his speech by declaring himself an immigrant.  In the translation of the Oxford Annotated Bible: “Abraham rose up from beside his dead, and said to the Hittites: I am a stranger and an alien residing among you; give me property among you for a burying place, so that I may bury my dead out of my sight” (23:3-4).  This translation gives Abraham’s claim the sound of a precise legal matter.  He is asserting residency status and requesting a grant of property.  (It’s also easy to read too much into “out of sight” which makes Abraham sound as if he’s making an appeal to the Hittites’ pragmatism or perhaps their disgust, hinting that this whole display of the bodies is somehow theatrical.  But other translations make this much less plausible, so we should probably ignore that aspect of Abraham’s voice here.)  So is this a legal claim?   According to Robert Alter, the “bureaucratic coloration” of the term “resident alien” (and, by extension, the sense of the Oxford translation) “misrepresents the stylistic decorum of the Hebrew” (Genesis: Translation and Commentary 129).

Alter devotes much more attention to the poetry of parataxis and diction.  For Alter, the seemingly excessive “ands” that attach one sentence to the next and one phrase to another are a significant part of the vision of the world underlying the writing of Genesis.  Likewise, subtle shifts in tense and register.  Attempting to catch these modulations of decorum, Alter distinguishes Abraham’s voice from the narrator’s, giving in his translation a much more resonant (and morally complex) beginning: “And Abraham rose from before his dead and he spoke to the Hittites, saying: ‘I am a sojourning settler with you.  Grant me a burial holding with you, and let me bury my dead now before me'” (23:3-4).  The subsequent dialogue with the Hittites, Alter suggests, actually presents an exciting and nuanced negotiation over the definition of Abraham’s status (is he “with” them or “among” them?) and over his claim to a “holding.”