It was uncanny returning to this choral ode after reading the whole play. You are right, I think, about its significance re: the rest of the play. The line that sticks out the most to me is 873: ὕβρις φυτεύει τύραννον (“Outrage produces kings”). Indeed, outrage (killing his father, marrying his mother) is what makes Oedipus a king. The chorus connects the general thoughts in the ode to Oedipus and his murdering Laius through imagery: ἔνθ᾽ οὐ ποδὶ χρησίμῳ (“where feet are useless,” l. 879) is an allusion to Oedipus’ name and condition and the mountain imagery of ll. 876-878 recalls Oedipus’ exposure on Mt. Cithaeron. 

The ode presents an interesting religious problem: if the prophecies are not true, why serve the gods? If people stop believing in prophecies, then the whole edifice of Greek paganism is in danger of collapsing. Oedipus is faced with a horrible choice: accepting the truth of the prophecies and realizing what he has done OR denying the gods. Both of these are unimaginably terrible. The former is rejecting everything he knows about himself and living with the worst shame; the latter is rejecting everything he knows about the cosmos.

The choral ode does not say any of this explicitly, but it’s all there implicitly. Sophocles manages to put so much in such a small number of lines.

St. Ignatius Brianchaninov on Prayer

Do not delight in visible nature; do not contemplate its beauty; do not waste precious time and your inner strength acquiring the knowledge given by human sciences. Use your strength and time to acquire prayer, serving God in the depths of your inner cell. There, inside yourself, prayer will reveal such a vista that will absorb all your attention; prayer will give you knowledge that the world itself will not be able to fit, the existence of which it does not even have the slightest idea.

The feelings that arise from prayer and repentance consist of a clean conscience, a calm soul, peace with all your near ones and contentment with the circumstances of life, mercy and cosuffering toward all men, abstinence from all passions, coldness toward the world, submission to God, and strength during the fight with sinful thoughts and inclinations. With such feelings, in which one can foretaste salvation, you should be content. Do not seek exalted spiritual states or prayerful ecstasy before their time. They are not as you imagine them to be—the activity of the Holy Spirit, who gives high states of prayer, is not comprehensible to a worldly mind.

Bring to God quiet and humble prayers, not fiery and passionate ones. When you will become a mystical priest serving at the altar of prayer, then you will be able to enter God’s sanctuary, and from there you will fill the censer of prayer with divine fire. Impure fire—the blind, fleshly warmth of the blood—is forbidden as an offering to the all-holy God.

Do not search for exalted experiences in prayer—they are not proper to a sinner. Even the desire of a sinner to feel exalted is already delusion.


Dear Rivkah,

It is not a coincidence that the revolutionary, the journalist, and the cop find themselves in the same places again and again. Each thinks the others parasitic, and he is half right. They all need each other. The riot is their consummate event.

If there is a heuristic of action for us, it has to be: go where the revolutionary, the journalist, and the cop do not go; read what they do not read; say what they do not say; pay attention to what they do not pay attention to. Alas, this negative heuristic ties us to them just as they are tied to each other. We have to habituate ourselves to arrive at the heuristic without thinking or noticing, as if by intuition or chance.

I’m thinking of translating Sophocles.




Dear Margaret,

When you inhabit the world as if it were a novel or a poem or a scripture or a song, you can entertain even the worst cruelty. Men and deeds become words; the earth, a field of characters. Thus Pound and his Confucian dreams. Thus Ruiz-Tagle and his poems in the sky.

Word was made flesh only once.

I’ve found the underground surrealists.



Man and woman: a dialogue

M: The danger in the election – if it makes sense to talk about danger in an election – was the national socialist from Vermont, not the victorious real estate developer. The Vermont senator had spokesmen for the Venezuelan regime speak at his rallies. I’m glad he didn’t win. The guy who did win has been interesting. He’s drawn the intelligence agencies into the open. Through incompetence, strategy, or foolhardiness, I’m not sure. Now spies are at the center of politics. It’s like a dramatic performance of Debord’s Comments: “The general conspiracy has become so dense that it is almost out in the open, each of its branches starts to hinder or trouble the others, because all these professional conspirators are spying on each other without exactly knowing why, or encounter each other by chance, yet without recognizing each other with certainty…”

W: It does not make sense to talk about danger in an election or to talk about an election at all. You get caught up in politics, and I worry that your critical detachment is not as detached as you make it out to be. You follow these things too closely. What a terrible trap, to be stuck in the present, especially at such a lonely time. You roll your eyes at me when I say this, but it was only yesterday that Alcibiades led the Sicilian expedition and Abraham walked Isaac up the mountain. Breton is right; we’re still living off the poetic ideas of the first men. What is an election? Not even a moment. I want to live as long as a stone – not forever, but for a very long time. I want to be a stone on Mt. Moriah. And here you worry yourself with the ‘danger’ in an election, in something less than a moment.

M: I don’t disagree with you, if what you’ve said can be agreed or disagreed with, but I can’t help myself. I can’t just think about rivers and stones and mountains and poems. What you call ‘less than a moment’ is inescapable, especially since the birth of my daughter. At her birth, the catchphrase ‘live in the moment’ was made flesh.

W: There was a Hasidic rebbe who told his followers to ‘live with the times’. They didn’t know what he meant. Did he want them to adopt a modern way of life? Change how they dressed? Stop praying so much? Surely not. Finally, they arrived at an interpretation. ‘Live with the times’ meant every day to keep in mind the Torah portion for that week. I understand ‘live in the moment’ in a similar way. Our moment stretches back at least to the 17th century.

M: I don’t know. There was a time when we competed for the most radical negation. I’m against work! So? I’m against friendship! Well, I’m against love! Then I’m against happiness! And I’m against time! I-I-I’m against language! I’m against thinking! Until finally we were against nothing because we opposed opposition itself (on simple grounds: opposition cleaves one to the opposed object). Negation did not negate enough. And at the end of that, I was left dissatisfied and lonely. Why did we go through it? What did we hope to achieve? Less than nothing? Now I want to affirm, to say yes, to accept, to embrace, to create, like those poetic first men…

W: But you cannot will yourself authentic creation any more than you can will a community into place.

M: I used to think that was true, but great works have always been self-conscious. Introspection is not a new problem in art. Virgil knew exactly what he was doing.

W: You think this because you see history as a single line, not a series of cycles. Virgil is like Joyce, greatness after the game is up. After that game is up. Then another cycle begins somewhere else.

M: What does that have to do with the stone and the moment?


Dear Eloise,

Peter Handke is praised, when he is praised, in aesthetic terms. His Serbian adventures are politely passed over in favor of his novels and plays, especially those that have nothing obviously to do with war in the Balkans. He’s reduced to an aesthete with an unfortunate political mistake. I think this is a grave mistake. Handke’s writing about Serbia are a heroic attempt to break out of the cycle of ‘humanitarian war’ and nationalism – and with a public poetic gesture, a real attempt at speaking and intervening against politics. As he says:

Finally, to be sure, I thought each time: but that’s not the point. My work is of a different sort. To record the evil facts, that’s good. But something else is needed for a peace, something not less important than the facts.

Is his Serbian adventure not also an attempt to retrace the path of Martin Heidegger? To find a clearing where Heidegger found only darkness?

His new novel, The Moravian Night, should put to rest any ideas about his having become a Serbian nationalist. Not that his reviewers noticed. They cannot read the book because they are still cheering on the NATO bombs from decades ago. The prospect of a poetic alternative to war-mongering (of the good or evil variety) is inconceivable to them.

All the better. That leaves Handke to us.

vale bene,