Running into a Professor on the Internet feels Weird: On Sophocles’ Antigone, 334-375, the “Ode to Man”

Karl Maurer is a professor of mine, so it is with an especial pride I present to you these lines. I ran into him accidentally on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Brainstorm” blog, and the passage he cited by Nietzsche there is well worth your time. The comment below was left on the blog by me, and is very off-the-cuff and rough. The divinity/rationality comment at the end assumes Sophocles is in agreement with Homer on that issue. I could, quite obviously, be very wrong about that assessment:

Antigone (lines 334-375)
Sophocles (tr. Karl Maurer)

Strange, many things; none stranger than the human.
It crosses foaming sea in winter storm
beneath the sucking
round-roaring swells.
The oldest of the gods, unwithering
and never-resting Earth, man puts to labor
as to and fro year after year the ploughs
pulled by his mules upturn her.

The breeds of the light-headed birds, the tribes
of wild beasts or the ocean’s briny brood he leads
to his nets’ spirals,
far-cunning man.
By cunning he controls the Outdoor Sleepers,
wild beasts that haunt the crags, the shaggy-maned
horse bridled with a yoke strapped to its neck,
the wild ox of the hills.

Language, thought quick as wind, the temperament
for towns he learned, and how to shun the shafts
of frost shot from the sky and darts of rain:
All-solver goes solutionless to nothing,
except to Hades’ house. No flight from that!
Yet from a fatal germ he finds refuges.

Inventive craftsman, unexpected, subtle,
he now embraces evil, now the noble;
honors Earth’s laws and justice sworn to gods,
strong-citied; citiless, picks the ignoble
for love of daring! Such a man may never
be either my hearth-mate or my confidant.

Comment:

1. “It crosses foaming sea in winter storm
beneath the sucking
round-roaring swells.”

Why the image of the sky blowing against the ocean? It’s very strange because the preposition “beneath” seems to confuse the ocean and the sky; despite the “sucking,” the turbulence of the ocean is what man seems to barely notice while cutting through.

2. “The oldest of the gods, unwithering
and never-resting Earth, man puts to labor
as to and fro year after year the ploughs
pulled by his mules upturn her.”

Man seems to accost the Earth as the sky accosted the ocean. When we consider that “crosses foaming sea” may be some sort of allusion to Hesiod’s “Theogeny” and the creation of Aphrodite, one wonders what the real source of turbulence is. We don’t work the Earth because we hate.

3. “The breeds of the light-headed birds, the tribes
of wild beasts or the ocean’s briny brood he leads
to his nets’ spirals,
far-cunning man.”

The real spiral here is a descent – we move from what is higher to what is bestial to what may be primordial. Proteus, the shape-shifting god, transforms into all things because of the primordial character of the ocean.

Why is man’s cunning described in a list that lists easy targets last? The nature of cunning is a base one, since control only is the object. The birds are closest to the divine properly speaking, and they are literally above man. Cunning contrasts with piety, esp. as man uses beasts to tame the oldest god, i.e:

4. “By cunning he controls the Outdoor Sleepers,
wild beasts that haunt the crags, the shaggy-maned
horse bridled with a yoke strapped to its neck,
the wild ox of the hills.”

This list is a narrowing, I assume (I don’t know what Outdoor Sleepers are). The beasts haunting crags are not domesticated at all; horses are somewhat domesticated; the ox is used entirely for the conquest of Earth (the significance of “wild,” I’m conjecturing, is entirely ironic). Again, is this pious? Hesiod and Homer to a degree might say yes, that virtues can stem from the shaping of Earth.

We have an indication that man is alienated from the Earth, that his influence on it is like the turbulent reaction from the ocean to the sky. We yearn for control, whether we have it or not is another story. An ox is domesticated only because a portion of land is controlled in the first place. There’s a lot more out there.

5. “Language, thought quick as wind, the temperament
for towns he learned, and how to shun the shafts
of frost shot from the sky and darts of rain:
All-solver goes solutionless to nothing,
except to Hades’ house. No flight from that!
Yet from a fatal germ he finds refuges.”

“All-solver goes solutionless to nothing” – this is also ironic – man gets solutions only for the problems he can conceive. In a deep way, man has never properly conceived of death (see the Phaedo for the ultimate irony of where this logic goes). Language, thought, mores – these are necessary in order to get solutions, but they stem from something a lot baser, merely getting shelter from the sky.

The “fatal germ” makes me wonder: I think it is the Earth, which we ultimately return to in the darkest sense (we die) but also in our works and days.

We’ve got one more stanza left. How is all this adding up? We started with “ocean” in the first stanza, moved to property/control over beasts, then in this stanza have talked about the sky. Man moves in the first stanza, is at rest in the second, is seeking rest in the third.

The point is, despite the very complicated and beautiful structure, it doesn’t add up. Something is amiss here – the sky governs all in too deep a way, the divine truly is above the human. That’s why the fundamental confusion between sky and ocean to begin with; that’s why Aristophanes considers Sophocles to equal Aeschylus (cf. The Frogs).

6. “Inventive craftsman, unexpected, subtle,
he now embraces evil, now the noble;
honors Earth’s laws and justice sworn to gods,
strong-citied; citiless, picks the ignoble
for love of daring! Such a man may never
be either my hearth-mate or my confidant.”

Politics generally is afflicted by the very strangeness and terror of divinity. Man is untrustworthy because this world is difficult to make sense out of. Is this nihilism? No – the divine can be trusted, must be trusted. It is because of divinity/rationality we were able to make something out of an imperfect beginning. But.

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