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Tue, Sep. 9th, 2003, 12:34 pm

In the center isles of my workplace are shelves and shelves of books, divided from the rest of the book department, neglected in their organization, and most notably, very cheap. We call them hurts, but there is nothing wrong with them, spare the lack of promotion that caused them to be pulled from the shelves and labeled with a 3.99 sticker. These books, piles of them, the worthless to some very great classics, are only a dollar and a half for employees.

Ted Hughes' translation of Alcestis (hardcover, 20.00 list price) was one of my better finds in those monstrous piles.

Ted Hughes was a onetime poet laureate of England and husband of Sylvia Plath. (A brief biography) Toward the end of his life, he translated the works of Ovid, Euripides, and others.

Alcestis is the wife of Admetos, the king of Thessaly, who is fated to have a short life. If he were to die, his great kingdom would certainly go to pieces and his people would suffer. The God Apollo has become a servant in the kings house, and is sympathetic to the king. Apollo has recently lost his son, Aesculapius, who had the power to bring the dead back to life, thus, finding a way to stave off the death of the king would be an appropriate homage to his son.

The great god, the greatest of the gods,
The maker of the atom,
Is a jealous god.'

The dead must die forever.
That is what the thunder said. The dead
Are dead are dead are dead are dead
They return to the pool of atoms.

Apollo bargains with fate, and finds a way to save Admetos. If any member of his family will exchange their own life for his, he can live on. Apollo asks almost everyone, including Admetos' parents, who are already near death, but all refuse. The only person Apollo did not entreat was Alcestis, Admetos' young wife. However, she offers her life willingly, and death takes her.

Don't you know how paltry and precarious
Life is? I am not a god.
I am the magnet of the cosmos.
What you call death
Is simply my natural power,
The pull of my gravity. And life
Is a brief weightlessness-an aberration
From the status quo-which is me.
Their lives are the briefest concession,
My concession, a nod of permission.
As if I dozed off and dreamed a little.

As far as I'm concerned, their birth-cry
Is the first cry of the fatally injured.

Man is deluded and his ludicrous gods
Are his delusion. Death is death is death.

As Alcestis is walking outside to die, a chorus of Admetos' friends comment.

As usual, God is silent.
And lets it all happen.

We must pray.
God only seems to be silent
Because we are so deafened by our own babble.
The powers of the creation are the powers
Of every atom in it, and all these atoms
are slaves to laws of which we are ignorant.
Anything can happen.
We must pray.

We must pray for the spark.

And we must pray
That we shall recognize that spark
When it blazes up.

We must pray and stare into the darkness
for that spark.

Without hope.

Without expectation.

Only confident
That anything can happen.

This is a very modern perspective, and I wonder (since I have read no other translations) how much of its modernity is in the translation and how much is the genius of Euripides. This play and Albert Camus' The Plague strike at a very similar theme, only the final conclusions are different.

*SPOILER* In the end of the play, Alcestis is rescued from the grip of death by Heracles, a heroic guest in the grieving house of Admetos. The last line of the play is, "Let this give man hope."

The Plague, however, concludes on the note that the suffering of man is cyclic and the plagues ever-present, that man is unjustified in hope but must continue to struggle. This is the principle difference in perspective that makes taking meaning from Alcestis more difficult than it would have been for Ancients, who perhaps believed that such a miraculous return was possible.

How hideous
That we should be given the understanding
To know
Just how hideous it is.
Wouldn't it be better
To knot a rope round your neck
And hang yourself in the empty face of heaven?

We must sing
In defiance of this loathsome god
Who collects our bodies
With anger at our reluctance,
Like a debt collector.

If there were as much hope
As water clings to the point of a needle.

If there were as much hope
As a single spark whirling upwards into the night
From a pyre-

If there were hope.

Is one of the sacred mysteries.
Accept what gift God gives-
Even the gift with an ugly wrapping.
Accept whatever befalls-
Even when it falls at a bad moment
Accept it. Every accident
Is a gift, a test. Each misfortune
Bears an opportunity,
Cradles a benefit,
If it can be accepted, and favoured,
Generously, as a guest,
As a welcome, noble guest.

There is a mystery in it.
Something is always being delivered
Out of the unknown. Often
Out of the impossible-
The hour's every moment, like a spring source,
Divulges something new.
A thought out of the heart.
A strange hand knocking at the door.

Admentos' father, Pheres, who refused to give him his already spent life, now justifies his position.

PHERES (Admetos' father)
A man is born for himself,
Born alone, remember, to die alone.

The following dialogue between God and Prometheus is nestled in the drunken imagination of the hero, Heracles.

You think you freed him? You separated him
From the illumination of heaven,
From the wisdom and certainty of heaven.
You freed him
To grope his way into the mine shaft, into the dark vault
Of his own ego, his selfishness
And his pride.
To grope his way into the barrow
Of his fearful solitary confinement
With no moe illumination than a match.
You freed him
To grope his way into the dark maze of the atom
With no more illumination that a hope.

I freed him to be human.
I broke the chains
That made him the slave of your laws.

You cut the nerves
That connected him to his own soul.
When man has learned to live without his soul
I shall be redundant.

The chorus now sings another very modern acknowledgment of the endless tide of suffering and oblivion that color our existence.

You know about Fate.
You know about what we call
What must be will be.
Among all the gods that we name,
Among all the powers of the earth,
Nothing is omnipotent
Except this
Simple Necessity.

Cruel, blank, pitiless,
Its movement is only
What must be will be.

Your motion is both lightning
And too slow to detect.
Like the whole of creation
Revolving in time.

The greatest, the most gifted, all perish
Under the earth.
They have only one regret:
The days they wasted multiplying laments
Over what could not be helped.

The final exchange of the chorus identifies most clearly the hopeful ideals of Euripides.

Incessantly the gods
Manipulate the fortunes of mankind-
Bringing great events
To conclusions that were unexpected

Nothing is certain.
What had seemed inevitable
Comes to nothing.

And now
See how God has accomplished
What was beyond belief.

Let this give man hope.