Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Cranky Book Review: The Complete Greek Tragedies, Sophocles II

I tend to pick up volumes of these Grene and Lattimore series of edited Greek Tragedies because they show up so often at garage sales. I'm assuming that they are, or were for a while, the standard text used for teaching these plays. The translations are from the 1950s and 60s, and I've somehow reached a point with this one, where it feels old-fashioned.

I've gone through Aeschylus' Oresteia, which I loved, and some of the Euripedes, which were mainly translated by Richard Lattimore. David Grene, while strongly expressing his love for Sophocles in the introductions, just doesn't have the same touch. Or perhaps it really is just the different voice in the source material.

(As an aside, all these books suffer from the odd editorial decision to render Greek wailing as "oh." C'mon, give us some ululation, some expression. One might as well have Elektra walking around saying "meh.")

Which leads to the double-edged problem of reading the "classics." Keeping up with the newer translations for (hopefully) better accuracy and new research, but also, bothering to read them at all if the key concepts don't translate to our world anymore.

And the key concept here is Honor. These four plays are pretty much four dialectics about preserving honor as it applies to various situations. There's no questioning that the situations of revenge or service may be wrong in themselves.

For out of our three tragedians, Sophocles appears to be the most conservative. Aeschylus celebrated the triumph of law over the old ideals of vengeance, while Euripides was a bit of a parodist. Sophocles seems to gravitate towards a romantic ideal of the heroic warrior, especially as contrasted against the newer breed of politician. Really, a formative version of the noble savage.

And this is why I can't really recommend these plays for anyone, outside of a need for context or curiosity. Honor is only necessary in a barbaric society that doesn't protect it's citizens with law. Pop culture criminals and corrupt politicians both revel in it, because they live outside the legal system. And when you apply it to modern problems, you end up getting mired in Vietnam or Iraq, because words and ideals become more important than people.

Perhaps if I run across a newer translation, I'll give them another try, but not before I read something else first that's a bit more civilized.

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