Tragedy and Translation: Tom McCall’s “Case of the Missing Body”
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.  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:
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:
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.  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:
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. 
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:
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.
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,
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.”  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.”  Nichts Feierlichs. Undenklich.
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. http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0011.tlg002.perseus-eng1:1 . The translation is emended (in brackets) with McCalls words, “had been made invisible.”
 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