George Steiner, unquestionably one of the most perceptive and linguistically sensitive of contemporary critics, offers in Antigones a major contribution to twentieth century literary criticism. In his earlier work After Babel (1975), which has already become a landmark study of language and translation, Steiner uses the biblical metaphor of the Tower of Babel in Genesis to underscore the complex layerings of meaning surrounding a text, the fluctuating historical and cultural connotations of words which make exact translation virtually impossible. Steiner’s perception of communication, which he views as a perpetual process of interpretation, is extraordinary. In all types of communication, either verbal or written, face-to-face or across centuries, meaning is affected and transformed by the recipient’s understanding and interpretation of the message. Meaning is never simple but multiple. Human polyglossia, the central theme of After Babel and of Steiner’s work in general, is both a barrier to communication and, at the same time, an exponential expansion of the possibilities of communication. While several layers of meaning are woven into the very linguistic texture of a work, translation entails the inevitable loss of some of this meaning from the original language and the gain of new meaning in the second.
In Antigones, Steiner turns his critical talents to a seminal text in Western literature, Sophocles’ Antigone. In order to analyze the key literary role of this fifth century b.c.e Greek tragedy, Steiner focuses simultaneously on Sophocles’ tragic confrontation between Antigone and Creon, on the mythic sources of this play, and on the innumerable readings and adaptations which this play has undergone since the fifth century b.c.e.. Applying his earlier theories on language, communication, and translation to the Sophoclean play and tracing the interpretations and influence of this work from its Greek origins through the present, Steiner views the history of Antigone as an ongoing process of interpretation and re-creation, in which the primary text sheds meaning implicit in its original context and develops new meanings and associations. Sophocles’ Antigone is presented in this book not simply as the play composed by Sophocles c. 442 b.c.e., but also as the sum total of readings—scholarly, poetic, and philosophical—which have been made between 442 b.c.e. and the present. For Steiner, literary criticism thus entails a transformation similar to that which occurs in the process of translation.
Antigones, an appropriate sequel to After Babel, stands as a major analysis of a text and its critical history. No mere introduction to Antigone and its history, this study assumes a high degree of erudition and literary sophistication and a more-than-elementary familiarity with Sophocles’ play. Quotations from German and French authors, accompanied by Steiner’s own translations, are extensive, and these bilingual passages are constant reminders of the language barrier which is ever the focus of Steiner’s attention. Indeed, Steiner is probably at his best in Antigones when he is discussing the multiple semantic layers of Sophocles’ play or its more recent offspring.
Steiner’s study is not simply a textual exegesis or history of criticism of Antigone; it is also a brilliant study of the evolution of a literary text and its cultural permutations through history: Steiner treats Sophocles’ play not as a literary remnant of a dead civilization but as a living, ever-changing fabric of human expression. Why has modern man been so attracted to the story of Antigone? Steiner answers this question by looking both within Antigone and out to its modern reexpressions. The sudden literary and critical predominance of Sophocles’ play in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is traced by Steiner to three events: the publication of the influential Le Voyage du jeune Anacharsis (1788) by the Abbé Jean-Jacques Barthelemy; the presence of three intellectual giants, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin, and August Wilhelm von Schlegel, at a German seminary between 1789 and 1793; and Johann Friedrich Rochlitz’s triumphal staging of the Sophoclean play in 1841. Steiner argues that the attention which Antigone gained from such events is attributable to basic themes of the play that appealed to the Romantic mind. All of these themes, including the conflict of the...
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