On not Knowing Greek – Virginia Woolf

Between Greeks and us, there is not only a difference of race and tongue but a tremendous breach of tradition. However we should wish to know Greek, try to know Greek.

Greek literature is the impersonal literature. There is a chasm between Greeks and European, that can’t be crossed. Everyone has a house, family, life, letters, character, its happy or dismal (abominevole) catastrophe. But the Greeks remain in a fastness (rifugio) on their own. Fate has preserved them from vulgarity. We only know how Sappho, Euripides and Aeschylus died but no more, only their poetry.

Picking up any play of Sophocles, the mind begins to fashion itself surroundings, it makes some background for Sophocles. A village, in a remote part of the country as in the wilder parts of England. Here are all the elements for the perfect existence. Each man and woman has its work and works for the health or happiness of the others. In this little community they become part of the common stock (ceppo). Here life has cut the same grooves (incavi) for centuries.

The climate is impossible. There is no smoke and damp (umidità). There is the beauty of stone and earth, not of woods and greenery. With months of fine weather everything is debated in the streets, not in the sitting-room (soggiorno), it makes people voluble (loquace), the out-of-doors manners. it has nothing in common with the slow reserve (noioso riservo), the introspective melancholy of people living half of the year indoors. This is what first strikes us in English literature, the lighting-quick, sneering, out-of-doors manner. Queens and princesses in Sophocles stand at the doors speaking like village women, with a tendency to rejoice in language, to split phrases into slices. There is a cruelty in Greek tragedies. These queens and princesses were outdoors speaking to an enormous audience. The poet had to think of themes , not that could be read for hours by people in privacy, but something familiar, brief, showed to an audience of 17 thousand people, looking and hearing, that couldn’t sit too long. He would need music and dancing, and would choose one of those legends like Tristan and Iseult, so that emotions are already prepared but can be stressed in a new place by each new poet.

Sophocles would take the story of Electra but put his stamp upon it. To us remains visible his genius; that he chose a design (progetto) which if it failed would show his failure in gashes (ferite) and ruin and if successed would stamp each fingerprint in marble. His Electra can only move a little but each movement must tell to the utmost (estremo). Her words in crisis are bare; mere cries of despair, joy, hate but they give interest to the play. This is how Jane Austen shapes the novel with a thousand differences of degree. There comes a moment – I will dance with you says Emma – that has the whole weight of the book behind it.

What gives these cries of Electra their power to wound and excite?

They don’t impress us because we can analyse them into feelings, in Proust for example we can find more complicated and varied emotions. But in the Electra or in the Antigone we are impressed by something more impressive: by heroism itself, by fidelity itself. It is this that draws us back to the Greeks; the stable, the permanent, the original human being is to be found here. Antigone, Ajax and Electra behave in the way we should behave, the way in which everybody has always behaved. They are the originals, not varieties of the human beings.

These types of the original men and women who walk through the ages, are among the greates bores (persone noiose) and the most demoralizing companions in the world. But in Greek a fragment of their speech broken off would colour oceans of the respectable drama. Here we meet them before their emotions have been worn (portati) into uniformity. They are still bodies at play in the sunlight but not posed on granite plinths (piedistalli) in the pale corridors of the British museum.

Why is the word of Electra immortal? They remain something that must eternally endure.

This lapse (passaggio) from the particular to the general is very dangerous but must of necessity be. This is why the later plays of Shakespeare are better read than seen, better understood by leaving out the actual body. The restrictions of the drama could be loosened if a means could be found by which what was general and poetic, comment, not action could be expressed without interrupting the movement of the whole; this is the function of choruses; these voices don’t take active part in the drama. Novelists are always searching for the subistitute: Thackeray speaks in his own person, Fielding comes out and addresses the world. So to grasp the meaning of the play the chorus is of utmost importance. One must be able to pass easily into those statements to decide if they are relevant or irrelevant, and give them their relation to the play as a whole.

However we cannot pass easily. Sophocles uses them not to express something outside the action of the play but to praise something mentioned in it, what he wants to emphasise. His choruses grow naturally out of his situations and change not the point of view but the mood. In Euripides however, the situations give off an atmosphere of doubt, of questioning. We are confused rather than instructed. In the Bacchae  we are in the world of doubt, the familiar aspects appear new and questionable. The chorus can’t answer the questions. For this reason Euripides can be read privately in rooms, more than Sophocles and Aeschylus. He can be acted in the mind.

Aeschylus stretches every phrase to the utmost, using metaphors. Is not so necessary to understand Greek but knowing poetry. Words only by collecting in companies convey the meaning which one separately is too weak to express. We cannot know exactly what it means (mark of the highest poetry).

In the Agamennon the meaning is on the far side (lato remote) of the language, the meaning  we perceive in our minds without words. Words that people say have a mysterious force, a symbolic power. With the use of metaphor he will give us the reflection which taken into his mind, the thing has made.

None of these dramatists had the license of modelling their meaning with an infinity of touches which can only be applied by reading carefully. Every sentence had to strike (colpire) the ear.

When the darkness and extreme cold descended, there were places indoors revealed by Plato. When during a party some boy ventured a question, Socrates took it up and brought it and made the whole company to gaze with him at the truth.

No one can fail to know knowledge better. What matters is not so much the end we reach but our manner of reaching it.

But the truth is various, it comes to us in different disguised (camuffamenti); it is not with the intellect alone that we perceive it. Socrates despises (disprezza) all external possessions (beauty, wealth, glory). He esteems these things and us who honour them, as nothing, and lives among men, making all the objects of their admiration the object of his irony. But when he has been opened and is serious, the divine images which are within, are so beautiful and so divine that everything that Socrates commands ought to be obeyed like the voice of a God. Truth is various, it has to be pursued with all our faculties. Will truth be found by stopping our ears to music and drink no wine? We don’t have to turn to solitude but to well sunned nature, the men who practises the art of living to the best advantage, so that some things are permanently more valuable than others.

Plato has the dramatic genius. It is an art which conveys in a sentence or 2 the setting and the atmosphere, and insinuates in the argument without losing its liveliness and grace, and it soars (si eleva) in the higher air which is generally reached by the more extreme measures of poetry, it is this art which plays upon us in so many ways and brings us to an exultation of the mind only reached when all the powers are called to contribute their energy to the whole.

But we must pay attention. Socrates did not care for mere beauty, by which he meant perhaps beauty as ornament. People who judged as much as the Athenians did by ear (sitting out-of-door and listening) were far less apt to break sentences and appreciate them apart from the context. The writer had to think more of the whole and less of the detail. Living in the open, they were struck by the carriage (portamento) of the body, and the proportion of its parts, not by the lip or the eye. There is a bareness (semplicità) in their literature which grates (cigola) upon a taste accustomed (avvezzo) to the intricacy (complessità) and finish of the printed books. There is not the prettiness of detail or the emphasis of eloquence. Accustomed to look largely and directly rather than minutely, it was safe for them to step into the thick of emotions which blind and bewilder (disorienta) an age like our own. In the catastrophe of the European war, our emotions had to be broken up (distrutte), and put at an angle from us, before we could allow ourselves to feel them in poetry or fiction. The only poets who spoke to the purpose spoke in the satiric manner of Wilfrid Owen and Sigfried Sassoon. But the Greeks could say “Yet being dead they have not died”.

But are we reading Greek as it was written? When we read Sappho, Plato, the Agamennon, are we not reading it wrongly? Reading not what they have but what we lack? They admit us to a vision of the earth unravaged (non devastata), the sea unpolluted, the maturity, tried but unbroken of mankind. We are drawn to steep (metterci) ourselves in what is only an image of the reality, not the reality itself (a summer’s day imagined in the heart of northern winter). We can never hope to get the whole fling (slancio) of a sentence in Greek as we do in English. We cannot hear it. However it is the language the real problem. The compactness of the expression (Shelley translates in 21 words a sentence of 13 words).

Every ounce of fat has been pared off (ridotta), leaving the flesh firm. Than spare (esile) and bare as it is no language can move more quickly, dancing, shaking, all alive but controlled. Then there are the words which we have made expressive to us of our own emotions. It is useless to read Greek in translations. Translators can offer us a vague equivalent, their language is full of echoes and associations. Nor can the subtler stress, the flight and the fall of words be kept even by the most skilful of the scholars.

Further, where are we to laugh in reading Greek? There is a passage in the Odyssey where we would laugh, but if Homer was there watching on us would be better to control ourselves. To laugh instantly is almost necessary to laugh in English. The French, the Italians, the Americans, who derive physically from so different a stock (razza) pause to make sure that they are laughing in the right place and the pause is fatal. Thus humour is the first thing to perish in a foreign tongue. Seems like turning from Greek to English, that our great age were ushered (accompagnato) by a burst of laughter.

Even for the unlearned some certainties remain: Greek is the impersonal literature; it is also the literature of masterpieces. There are no schools, no forerunners, no heirs. There is always about Greek literature that air of vigour which permeates an “age”. One generation in that fortunate time is able to attain that unconsciousness which means that the consciousness is stimulated to the highest extent, to surpass the limits of small triumphs and tentative experiments.

In the Odyssey we have what remains the triumph of narrative, the clearest and the most romantic story of fortunes of men and women.  The Odyssey is a story of adventure. So we may begin it reading with the spirit of a child, but there is nothing immature, here there are full-grown people. Nor it is a little world; the islands are not thickly populated and people are not closely kept at work. They have had time to develop a very dignified society, with an ancient tradition of manners behind it, which makes every relation natural and full of reserve. Penelope, Telemachus, Nausicaa are beautiful without knowing it, in their little islands know all that is to be known. They are even more aware than we are of the ruthless (spietato) fate. There is a sadness at the back of life which they do not attempt to mitigate. Entirely aware of their standing in the shadow, and yet alive, there they endure and it is to the Greeks that we turn when we are sick of the vagueness, of the confusion, of the Christianity and its consolations, of our age.

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