Tragedy and Translation: Tom McCall’s “Case of the Missing Body”

Printer-friendly version

Tragedy and Translation: Tom McCall’s “Case of the Missing Body”

Cathy Caruth
Cornell University

1.         The centrality of Greek tragedy, and in particular Sophocles’ Antigone, as a conceptual object for German Idealism and Romanticism remains a vital source of contemporary reflection concerning the conceptual, political, and ethical sources of our own theoretical thought. Tom McCall’s 1988 essay, “The Case of the Missing Body,” provides an important contribution to these issues through an original reading of Friedrich Hölderlin’s translation of Antigone and his enigmatic notes on this work. [1]  McCall’s title signals a particular enigma concerning the problem of burial at the heart of Sophocles’ play, which centers on the struggle between Antigone and Thebes’ king Creon over the corpse of her brother Polyneices. In McCall’s reading, Hölderlin’s translation foregrounds the strange appearing and disappearing of the corpse in its various attempted and failed burials, a drama that ultimately concerns the possibility for this corpse—and consequently those around it—to achieve contact with the divine and, more largely, to be inscribed in a world of meaning. More importantly, McCall argues, the case of the missing body is not only the story of the corpse in the play, but also the story of what happens to the corpse in the movement between Sophocles’ Greek version and Hölderlin’s German version, a linguistic drama of translation in which the corpse literally appears and disappears. Sophocles’ play, in Hölderlin’s German, thus becomes, in McCall’s reading, an “allegory of translation” in which the failure to bury Polyneices’ body dramatizes the destiny of the play as it is translated by the modern Germans (“Hesperians”), whose destiny is itself defined by the very necessity of translating Greek texts. The questions that begin and end Sophocles’ play, as McCall suggests—“what to do with the unsightly corpse, whether to bury it or not”—thus become equally demanding questions about the way in which we understand the significance of translation as a model for reading and for meaning-making in Hölderlin’s work. And the question of the body is also the site of a fatal enigma that is carried over, translated—or not translated—in our own theoretical confrontations with Romantic texts and in our own attempt to respond to all texts, though particularly, perhaps, those in which we encounter what remains of the dead.

2.         What is at stake in these questions is hinted at in the other meaning of McCall’s title, “the case of the missing body,” which alludes to Hölderlin’s analysis of the loss of vision or destiny in the moderns, who put their corpses—both actual and textual—in cases. Hölderlin writes:

For this is the tragic for us: that, packed up very still in some sort of container, we depart the realm of the living, not that—consumed in flames—we expiate the flames which we could not tame. [2] 
Whereas the Greeks practiced burial rites that enabled and displayed the contact with the divine at the site of the dead body, the moderns, as McCall glosses this passage, “hide from their eyes the sight of actual, visible translation between the two realms” (62). This turning away from the site of contact, McCall suggests, refers not only to the actual burial practices of the moderns, but also to the texts of the translated Greek “tragedies” that serve the moderns as central sites of meaning-making. Modern tragedy—which, McCall says, can only occur for Hölderlin at this moment within the institution of translated Greek tragedy—also confronts the moderns with the problem of contact between worlds, between ancient Greek visionary culture and modern experience, between Greek text and German meaning. Turning away from the site of contact, the moderns thus, in McCall’s words, “cannot [. . .] bear to witness the passage itself, but must resort to the strongboxes, ‘containers,’ and protective coffin-concepts of modern culture” (par. 16). Protected by the coffin-concepts in which they encase the texts of Greek tragedy, the moderns shelter themselves from the problem of translation, from what happens if “the object of translation—the body, the dead, which for Hölderlin were represented by ‘the Greeks’ and their original scripts—disintegrates and pollutes the holy, or drives spirit out of its fragile embodiments.” For McCall, then, Hölderlin’s translation of Antigone raises the question of what it means to face—to translate, and to read—the drama of the corpse and the drama of language staged around it without simply slipping it back inside its coffin. For what Hölderlin achieves as translator, McCall writes, is to act “as an undertaker who opens a crypt in the dramatic process of ‘translating’ the relics [. . .] to holier ground” (64). What does it mean, then, for a translation to open a crypt? And how do we read, without simply entombing, the corpse at the heart of Ἀντιγόνη’s, and Antigonä’s, drama of translation?

I Contact

3.         At the heart of this question is the problem of contact, or the manner in which Greek tragedy, for Hölderlin, stages the means by which “the Spirit of Time and Nature” confronts the sensory object of its interest:

The boldest moment in the course of a day or in a work of art is where the spirit of the age and nature, when the heavenly which takes hold of man, and the object in which he is interested, come to oppose one another most ferociously; because the sensuous object only extends half of the way while the spirit awakens most powerfully where the second half sets in. [3] 
As McCall interprets these lines, the artwork at its boldest moment is to “exhibit ‘Spirit’ (or the spirit-in-man) and the material object of its ‘interest’ as they are in themselves, each without its other half that completes it” (par. 12). Tragedy is indeed, for Hölderlin, concerned with “that space, gap, vacuum, ‘stage,’ or moment of passage that separated immaterial powers and those material vehicles of their potential empowerment [. . .] Tragedy is about this space [. . .] or stage of potential contact [. . .] and transport [. . .] of sense and meaning” (par. 11). But for McCall, strikingly, the “sensory object” in Antigone is not simply any object or body, but rather, he says, “none other than the exposed body of Polyneices” (par. 12). By interposing the corpse as the exemplary “object” to which spirit—or meaning—must attach, McCall thus makes less certain, less dialectically smooth, the meeting between what he goes on to interpret as the “philosophical drama” of attempted inspiration or contact between ‘the spiritual (Concept, idea, Meaning [. . .]) and the material (the visible body of Polyneices [. . .] the letter)” (par. 12). Rather than two forces or movements, we thus have in tragedy, then, a focus on an uncertain space or gap between the “immaterial powers and those material vehicles of their potential empowerment,” a site “where Spirit hinges—or doesn’t hinge—onto word (or art-work)” (par. 11). Indeed, it is only of a corpse that McCall can write of this scene, elegantly, that “the object (or body) makes absolutely no effort to reach out and touch Spirit, but ‘reaches only half-way’—not unlike Michaelangelo’s Adam who languidly awaits the inspiriting touch of God” (par. 12).

4.         The Greek tragedy—or at least this Greek tragedy, as I would elaborate on McCall’s argument, must then be (re)read as staging a question about its own possibility, as text, to perform the rites, to enable the contact between spirit and body, letter and meaning. For, as McCall points out, Hölderlin does not say that Spirit actually makes contact with the body, but only that it “‘wakes up quite forcefully’ [. . .] where its space, the ‘second-half,’ begins” (par. 12). Does the spirit “flare into wakefulness where the body ends (or ends up),” McCall asks, “or [. . .] simply [. . .] at the boundary of its own territory, which may still be separated, by an unbridgeable lacuna, from the corporeal domain of things?” (par. 12). The deadness of the corpse, its possible inaccessibility to the spirit, or meaning, thus hinders the certainty of a philosophical solution (so often provided by the Germans for Greek tragedy and for Antigone in particular) and indeed of any definite interpretation that could appropriate this corpse to spirit—and this Greek corpus to modern sense. By showing that Antigone “exposes [human character] to the dangers of that possible lacuna of non-relation that separates Spirit and object” (par. 13), Hölderlin’s translation, McCall suggests, reveals an urgent question at the heart of the tragedy: “Is there contact between the two, or isn’t there?” (par. 13).

II Schicksallos (Fateless)

5.         It is this question that, as I read McCall, makes Antigone not only a central play for the Greeks—an exemplary Greek tragedy—but also an exemplary tragedy for the moderns, who now must, as Hölderlin suggests in a letter to his friend Böhlendorff, reread and estrange the inherited Greek corpus in order to confront the radical difference, the problem of translation or contact, between the texts of the ancients and those of the moderns who are determined by this very past. Just as the Greeks have distanced themselves from their own “nature” in order to become who they are, Hölderlin famously writes Böhlendorff in 1801, so too must the moderns distance themselves from the Greeks (or rather the received forms in which they have inherited them), as their own “nature,” in order escape their current predicament, which Hölderlin calls “das Schicksallose, dysmoron”: fatelessness, or the dwelling in mere “positivity,” in McCall’s words, the repetition of received and unappropriated clichés with no relation to one’s historical situation. At stake, as McCall argues in his essay “Ödipus Translator,” is thus the achievement of an “authentic temporal destiny,” a destiny made possible only by confronting or exposing oneself to the contact—or non-contact—between the two radically different languages and texts that constitute the Germans and their cultural origins, an exposure that must take place through translation, and more specifically the translation of tragedy. [4]  Antigone, in staging the struggle over the exposed body, also stages the struggle for any translation to confront—to have contact with—the spirit of the Greek tragedy itself, in its courageous exposure of the dangers of decay, of a decomposition that takes place at the site of passage, of the possibility of fragmentation of the material “object.” The problem of “contact” is ultimately, then, a problem of the material dimensions of languages in relation to each other, of a relation to linguistic foreignness—which is already staged in the Greek tragic text—that may disable the translation of languages as a translation of concepts.

6.         Hölderlin’s translation, moreover, in exposing or de-crypting Antigone, produces something strange, a surprise that goes far beyond the question of what constitutes the “Greek” or even a different, new and estranged foreignness that could be re-appropriated by the Germans. For Antigone, as McCall points out, “is not about cremation at all, but about burial and its containers.” The difficulty of burial does not only concern the exposure of Polyneices, but also the entombment of Antigone. The tragedy thus exemplifies the modern problem of contact, the problem of its own translation as it passes into the moderns through their protective coffin-concepts:

[McCall writes t]hat “unterirdische Behausung” [underground dwelling] and “gegrabene Kluft” [dug-out chasm] in which Antigone is banished are hypberbolic figures for the “modern” tragedy of excessive containment which may put bodies out of reach of spirit. This play, then, has something to do with “modern tragedy” (“das Tragische bei uns”), and so qualifies as an (ancient) tragedy about modern modes of representation and translation which violate their spirits and bodies either by ‘grounding’ them too much, or not enough. ("Case" par. 17)
Antigone, in McCall’s reading of Hölderlin’s translation, is a play that stages itself as its own future, a destiny that also takes the form of its entombment in the coffin-concepts of the moderns. The play thus raises the possibility that it is indeed impossible to translate, because the enigma of this corpse and its translation refuses residence even within its original language. But the conflict and drama of the play are precisely about the necessity of translating, of honoring the dead and making contact with spirit, and of doing so properly. Hölderlin’s task and McCall’s reading of it, as I would argue, suggests, then, that translation is most called for just where it is least possible. The corpse is the place in which contact, the touching of two absolutely separate worlds, is most urgently demanded, even as the gods turn away from humans, even as the dead body refuses the touch of our own search for meaning. How translate, then, how give this text, and this lifeless body, meaning, how find contact at this site? What does Hölderlin do, McCall implicitly asks, with Polyneices’—and the text’s—corpse?

II Undenklich

7.         Something unthinkable happens, McCall tells us, between Sophocles’ and Hölderlin’s texts. This occurs in the first burial scene of Polyneices, the first attempted burial that takes place after King Creon has mandated no burial for the attacker of his city, and which we find out about from a guard who rushes to tell Creon the mysterious news:

Guard: Well, here it is. The corpse—someone has just given it burial and disappeared after sprinkling thirsty dust on the flesh and performing the other rights that piety demands.
Creon: What are you saying? What man dared do this?
Guard: I do not know. For there was no scar of a pickax to be seen there, no earth thrown up by a mattock. The ground was hard and dry, unbroken, not rolled over by wheels. The doer was someone who left no trace[. . .]. The dead man was veiled from us [had been made invisible]—not shut within a tomb, but a light cover of dust was on him [. . .] And no sign was visible that any beast of prey or any dog had approached or torn him. [5] 

8.        In the Greek text, the guard begins his speech by saying that he “doesn’t know” the burier of the body because the body has been buried by someone who leaves no signs. For the guard, this is remarkable, as is the fact that the mere sprinkling of dust—not a true burial beneath the ground—has actually made the body disappear: “the dead man was veiled [had been made invisible].” The disappearance of the body—and the disappearance of the act of making it disappear—are staged in the Greek, McCall suggests, as the very signature of the gods—not of Antigone, as is most often assumed—and may be precisely the model of successful translation par excellence: a semi-divine act in which no sign remains behind to decay or pollute. In the first burial scene, then, Antigone at least briefly stages what might have been the proper fate of the body, had it been allowed to rest properly for the remainder of the play.

9.         But in Hölderlin’s text the “not knowing” of the guard is transformed into something darker and more philosophical: “I do not know” becomes “Undenklich,” “Unthinkable.” What is unthinkable is, in German, precisely the signlessness of the the one(s) who buried the body, a line that, in translation, acquires the visionary tone of Hölderlin’s later work: “Zeichenlos war der Meister [Signless was the Master].” In its oracular tone and echoes of his later lyrics, this line, McCall suggests, recalls Hölderlin’s frequent use of the term in his late poetry to describe divinized poets. Another story is now inscribed in the play of Sophocles:

The translation (“Zeichenlos war der Meister”), then, appears to be telling its own tragedy within the original tragedy: while telling Sophocles’ story about Gods who (seem to) intervene in human affairs in order to cover over the “outrageous sight” of death, the line also tells Hölderlin’s story about the Deus absconditus of the Hesperians, which may be that “God” who can only presence himself “in the form of death,” in, that is, figures of spirit absented from itself. But that absence of signs, which in the Greek burial are the signs of a divine superintendency over mortal affairs becomes in translation a more tragic sort of absence, since those signs (we don’t see) left behind by the hand of Greek deity are no longer—in German—assignable to the “Master” (God or vatic poet), who are “Zeichenlos” (“Case” 17).
The unthinkable that the play tells about itself may be understood, then, as its translation out of the world of successful translation; that is, the Greek tragedy’s destiny as it attempts to pass over, and yet does not, into the language of the modern Germans. In this way Hölderlin translates the Greek texts as telling a double story (or non-story) of untranslatability: not a movement from translation to non-translation, but a non-movement, or a juxtaposition, of a Greek text already allegorizing its own impossible translation, and a German text unable to grasp even this message, unable to face the history of an untranslatable language from which it, itself, emerges.

10.         From a certain perspective, Hölderlin’s translation might thus be read, following McCall’s interpretation, through the notion of Blanchot’s “double infidelity” of gods and men that holds the two together, faithful, as they turn away from each other: here, the language of Greek and the language of German parting ways from each other just where translation should, but cannot take place, telling a story of vigilance in the dark night of the gods’ absence. McCall offers some implicit support for this story in another part of the passage, precisely where the guard says that Polyneices’ body “had been made invisible (ho men gar ephanito).” Hölderlin writes simply, “Nichts Feierlichs” (“there was nothing ceremonious/nothing to give burial rights to,” line 255). Feiern, a word used by Hölderlin throughout his work as a word of celebration, had also been used earlier in the Sophocles passage to describe the rites of burial that the body, according, to the guard, indeed had been given (line 247). But by writing “Nichts Feierlichs” here, Hölderlin replaces the body that had been given burial rites by the gods (and thus made invisible) with the absence of anything at all to which to give rites. The words following “Nichts feierliches”—es war kein grabmal nicht [no grave-monument]—further abolish the Greek burial, McCall suggests. “No grave and no burial! What has happened to the body?” McCall asks. “Far from being “made invisible,” it has literally got lost in translation.” In shifting from an invisible body to no body at all, Hölderlin appears again to have inscribed in the translation a certain destiny of loss: “It would appear, then, that the translation employs the mysterious burial of a corpse as a means to announce the death of modern poetry, now no longer capable of celeberating [. . .] the congruence of poetic signs and divine intentions and to preserve bodies in translation” (par. 30). If we note the fact that, according to McCall, the Greek text was already seen as allegorizing its own untranslatability, then the relation between Greek text and German translation might be understood as a kind of radical structure of belatedness, an absolute untouchability or lack of contact: a Greek text that is only readable as a future in which it can no longer be translated, and a German text that repeats this anticipatory language in the form of a traumatic loss of meaningful signs.

III Nichts Feierliches.

Ich bin [. . .] voll Abschieds.” [I am full of parting.]


11.         Yet Tom McCall offers another reading as well, something that does not allow us to “close the case” of the missing body in even this radicalized elegiac mode. At the very point of absolute loss, of infinite loss one might say—between a body already lost and a body only to return as the torn-up pieces of an unreadable text—McCall begins to speculate, to turn to yet another text, a third text that interposes itself in McCall’s own intrepretive process. Hölderlin had, apparently, been working with the corrupt “Juntina” edition of Sophocles of 1555. The phrase Hölderlin translates as “Nichts Feierlichs” (“Nothing to celebrate”)—which in the corrected Greek version is ho men gar ephanito (“the dead man had been made invisible “)—is given by the Juntina edition as ouden gar ehanisto (“Nothing had been made invisible”), that is, the opposite of what the correct Greek text actually says. Is it possible, McCall asks, that Hölderlin might simply have been making a mistake, supposing that ephanito (“had been made invisible”) was a form of the verb aphagnidzo (“to render funeral rites to”), which had come up 8 lines earlier (in the word kaphgisteusas) and translated by Höldelrin as “gefeirt” (given funeral rites)? “The translator,” McCall writes, “Might simply have failed to notice the small difference between a nu (v) and a gamma (y) and thus confused “celebrate with due burial” with “make invisible.”

12.         “Nichts Feierlichs” (nothing to celebrate) might just be a simple mistake then. But McCall reminds us that Hölderlin’s translations do tend to translate by commenting on themselves, to face up to their own belatedness. Rather, he suggests,

“Nichts Feierlichs,’ then, might just be a phrase marking the translator’s real bafflement when faced with the Greek phrase: ouden gar ephanisto (“Nothing had been made invisible”). “Nichts Feierlichs” might well be a critical statement about the unreadability of the original: “There is nothing (here) that is the (possible) object of (my) translation/celebration.” At the moment when something goes wrong in the original (“for how could there not be a celebration”—Hölderlin might have thought—“when this was asserted 8 lines before?”), there does the translator bring in his own “originals,” whose emblematic adjective is “Feierlich”, to celebrate, into the text of translation, but he introduces them in the form of a negation: “Nichts Feierlichs.”
Hölderlin, McCall suggests, when faced with something unreadable in his text, something undenklich, unthinkable, imposes his own emblematic word just at the site of unreadability. The task of the translator—the task of the poet—is achieved, or “given up” in this juxtaposition of Nichts (nothing) and Feierlich (celebratable): “nothing for which to give burial rights,” and behind it, the giving of burial rights, the dead body to be given its proper respect. Two letters coming together, making contact, McCall thus suggests—or not making contact: nu (v) and gamma (y): so similar and yet so different, touching and yet not touching in Hölderlin’s text. Touching because they are confused with one another, not touching because that confusion of letters, based on the unreadability of their difference, makes the text a blank, a spot of unreadability for Hölderlin—right at the spot of the dead body. Yet this is the place that Hölderlin also, McCall asserts, posits a new poetic figure: feiern, to give burial rights to, to celebrate.

13.         speculative reading, I would suggest, must also be read as an allegory, as we attempt to know, or read, in this text before us, what will allow us to have contact with its writer, and how to give proper respect to what is undenklich, unthinkable, at the heart of his essay. McCall allegorizes for us, first of all, the work of the later moderns—we who look back upon the Romantics as our past—a past important less for its content, Paul de Man will say in an essay on Wordsworth and Hölderlin, than for the fact that we have experienced it “only in its passing away.” [7]  But McCall also tells us something, in advance of himself, about the site of a hoped-for contact, an untranslatable text, for which, it seems “there is nothing to celebrate.” Touching and not touching us, readable and unreadable, humorous and playful, and rigorously attuned to the materiality and randomness of language—Tom’s work tells us, in the face of our own desire either to struggle for contact or to turn away from his death, to put him in his coffin, what Paul de Man once also warned: “True mourning is less deluded. The most it can do is to allow for non-comprehension and enumerate non-anthropomorphic, non-elegiac, non-celebratory, non-lyrical, non-poetic, that is to say, prosaic, or better, historical modes of language power.” [8]  Nichts Feierlichs. Undenklich.

Works Cited

de Man, Paul. “Anthroporphism and Trope in the Lyric.” The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984: 239-262. Print.

---. “Wordsworth and Hölderlin.” In The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984: 47-66. Print.

McCall, Tom. “The Case of the Missing Body.” Le pauvre Holterling. Blätter zur Frankfurter Hölderlin-Ausgabe, Nr. 8. Stroemfeld/Roter Stern, Frankfurt am Main/Basel, (1988): 53-71. Print.

---. “Ödipus Translator.” In Fremdheit als Problem und Programm: Die Literarische Übersetzung zwischen Tradition und Moderne. Ed. Willi Huntemann and Lutz Rühling. Göttinger Beiträge zur internationaelen Übersetzungsforscung 14. Berlin: Erich Schmidt, 1997: 193-205. Print.

Sophocles. Antigone. Ed. Sir Richard Jeb. URL. . The translation is emended (in brackets) with McCalls words, “had been made invisible.”


[1] See Tom McCall, “The Case of the Missing Body,” reprinted in this issue. Permission to reprint generously granted by BACK

[2] See Hölderlin’s December 4, 1801 Letter to Böhlendorff in Pfau, Friedrich Hölderlin, 150. I have modified Pfau’s translation to accord with McCall’s translatin in his essay. BACK

[3] Hölderlin, “Remarks on ‘Antigone,’” in Pfau, 110. BACK

[4] McCall, “Ödipus Translator,” 150. Permission to reprint generously granted by BACK

[5] Sophocles, Antigone, ed. Sir Richard Jebb. BACK

[6] Friedrich Hölderlin, Letter to Böhlendorff December 4, 1801, in Friedrich Hölderlin, Werke und Briefe, edited by Friedrich Beissner and Jochen Schidt (Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1969), Volume II, 942. BACK

[7] de Man, “Wordsworth and Hölderlin,” 50. BACK

[8] de Man, Paul. “Anthropomorphism and Trope in the Lyric,” 262. BACK


Published @ RC

October 2014