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After the Fire the Fire Still Burns

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It is an ancient truism by now that we Westerners must forever return to the classics for spiritual replenishment and cultural rejuvenation. Indeed, such revisits may be the 'eternal recurrence' incarnate, the root of Nietzschean amor fati. Some of the classics seem more meet than others at any given time, but since the '80s I've found myself especially drawn to the phenomenological questions Heraclitus raises with his pre-Socratic fragments, which seem more relevant in our quantum-questing age than ever. While we seem to have reached a hiatus with dialectical materialism, Heraclitus continues to remind us it's all samsara anyway. Likewise, I've been spending some time wondering why Socrates preferred his hemlock to Democracy in the end, with a return to Plato's Apology paying significant dividends of insight into the inherent flaws and profound fragility of self-governance.

Thus it was with great anticipation that I began my read of Joel Agee's newish translation of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound. Of course, thematically the story of Prometheus' costly gift of fire to mortals has never left us, and, for sure, seems to be the gift that keeps on giving, from the Iron Age, all the way through to our Digital Age, which would not be possible without that original gift. And I'll get to the obvious thematic significance of the book in a moment, but first a consideration of the production of the book is in order, since that is what Joel Agee is being published for: his new take on the old story.

Even relatively simple translations from one language to another can present significant obstacle and challenges for the writer, including idiomatic and contextual issues, and other assorted interpretive entanglements reading any text can conjure up. I'm no classicist, and speak no Greek, and, like most readers, depend on translations to get me in the ballpark of approximation, where, hopefully, imagination kicks in and interactivity occurs. But it turns out Agee is no Greek scholar either, and he depends on his translation of Prometheus Bound by his association conference with scholars. In a very real sense, then, this edition of the tragedy is a collaborative effort.

It's evident rather quickly that what Agee is out to achieve is a rendition that eschews the forced accommodation one finds in many old blank-verse attempts of the story, as well as the more literal and often less lyrical versions of the play one comes across more recently. In other words, Agee attempts to stage on the page the rhythms and musicality, rather than just a new expression of themes, including the insertion of diacritical marks to direct the reader's performance of the lines. This reminded me again, and welcomely so, that these classic tragedies come to us from an oral tradition - and emphasize that most poetry and drama comes alive in the ear in a way that cannot be matched by the eye alone.

I hear with transfixation and subtle sublimity, IO coming upon the chained and wretched God, Prometheus, both cursed by tyrants, the two exchanging tales of their miseries. Says IO:

Oh tell me where on earth
I have been driven
Ah! Ah! Eh! Eh!
The gadfly, it stings me,
the ghost of earthborn Argos,
it stings me again!
Keep him away!
I am afraid of seeing his ten thousand eyes!

Prometheus is impressed by IO's headstrong resistance to the man with 10.000 eyes, and we moderns can relate to rejecting such non-consensual I/O intercourse with Big Brother and his all-male gaze.

Argo Panoptes
(Image by YouTube, Channel: Walter Bombelli)
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And, later, when Hermes, Zeus' enforcer, comes along to extract knowledge (spoiler alert: irony) that Prometheus has about the Big Cheese's inescapable fateful fall, Prometheus says,

No torture, promise, or device
will ever move me to tell Zeus
the things I know, until he sets me free
from this outrageous bondage. So let him throw
his firebolts, let him terrify the world
with the white wings of blizzards and the growl
and roar of earthquakes. I won't bend.

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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