Archive for October 2011
This is definitely going to be all over the place, because I’m writing it as much to sort out my thoughts as anything. Buckle up.
I’ve mentioned before that I consider Antigone to be an important part of my mess of an ideological system, and I’d like to try to explain why. In case you’re unfamiliar with the text and can’t be bothered to skim the wiki article: it’s a play by the Greek tragedian Sophocles, written sometime in the fifth century BCE. Antigone is the sister of Polyneices, pretender to the throne of Thebes, slain in a civil war. Creon, the new ruler of Thebes, declares that Polyneices is to be denied the honour of a traditional burial. Antigone declares this decree unjust and contrary to divine law, and buries the body herself; Creon, in turn, sentences her to death. He later reverses the verdict, spooked by the prophecy of Tiresias, the blind soothsayer. Rather than wait for the sentence to be carried out, however, Antigone has already managed to hang herself. Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s betrothed, commits suicide upon discovering her body. Eurydice, his mother, kills herself when news of her son’s death reaches her. Creon repents and despairs, but the damage is done. Curtains.
The full text (trans. R. C. Jebb) is available here. It’s not the most exciting read, but it’s short, and worth your time just for the scene of Antigone’s trial.In Poetics, Aristotle defines tragedy as a story about “the sort of man who is not pre-eminently virtuous and just, and yet it is through no badness or villainy of his own that he falls into the fortune, but rather through some flaw [ἁμαρτία] in him, he being one of those who are in high station and good fortune.” You’ve probably already noticed what I might find interesting about Sophocles’ play in the light of this definition: the title isn’t Creon. The story of the king of Thebes mirrors the one of Oedipus, the one that Aristotle had in mind when delineating the prototypical tragedy, but… it’s not his story, really, is it? It’s not just the title; Antigone is clearly one of the two central characters in the text, or perhaps the central one. (This is actually extremely important, but it’ll take me a while to get to that.)
So that’s the first thing: Antigone is vaguely pleasing to a feminist sensibility. Don’t confuse that for my saying it’s an overtly feminist text or anything, but it welcomes and encourages a reading of Antigone as the main tragic character, rather than Creon, in stark contrast with Aristotle’s Poetics and most of our received and unexamined wisdom about the history of European literature (and in doing so, encourages the reader to question and review that wisdom). That’s gotta count for something.
The second thing, the one that inevitably comes up when discussing this text, is the matter of kinship and citizenship. I think there’s a whole lot more at stake here than just some legalistic quibble, though. The issue, as it’s usually presented, would seem to be a conflict of jurisdiction: who has authority to decide what to do with the corpse of Polyneices? The established law and traditions of the land? His family? The current ruler? The will of the people? Zeus?
My favourite line of the text, which Jebb kind of wrecked, is “Tis not my nature to join in hating, but in loving.” I’m convinced it should rather go “I’m called to share in loving, not to join in hate.” Then again, I don’t know Greek at all. I just think it sounds better.
This line describes and frames the central conflict. It’s not about whether kinship trumps royal decree, not at all. Rather, as a liberation theologian might put it, the conflict over the body stands for the conflict between Love and Power. And the thing about Love is, it’s not just some neurological phenomenon, but an ethical stance, an ideology and a goddamn force of nature. In fact, a Christian reader would have a field day with the text’s invocation of “divine law”, and its alignment with Love. The best I can do is note the poignancy of the metaphor.
There is a peculiarly American expression for a peculiarly American mode of discourse: “speaking truth to power.” As far as I can tell, it’s actually a recent invention; the Quaker origin story seems plausible. This is the mode of expression typically ascribed to people like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Hicks. It’s considered unequivocally positive: it withholds nothing, it exposes the buffoonery and villainy of the mighty, it puts them in their place.It’s also absolutely worthless. What does Power care for truth? It’s got plenty of that already, and can manufacture more as needed. The whole point of Power is that its naked material might is cloaked in pervasive epistemic control. The bloodthirsty feudal warlord rules by divine right; the international philantropist and predatory financial speculator pulled himself up by his bootstraps; the abusive husband is just subject to the tempestuous whims of male biology, which require a gentle and submissive handmaiden. Those who make a career of gently mocking the order of Things Believed to be True realize this; they stop just short of unsettling conclusions, “unreasonable” claims and, yes, disturbing truths. Truth to power? You may as well go fart into a hurricane.
This is the third thing, and the most important. Antigone doesn’t “speak truth to power.” Antigone calls Power to account. Actually, it’s even more than that; everything she says to Creon, the agent of Power, can be distilled down to just one word: no. She is wronged by Creon, and she disobeys. Feel free to posit that Creon transgresses against the primal and ultimate reality of Love; it’s a nice sentiment, but not one I can share in good faith. I think all the reasons she gives: love, tradition, the divine order, begin to coalesce and “make sense” only after the no, which is itself a response to Creon’s exercise of perfectly legal and eminently reasonable state violence.
I’ve mentioned “human nature” before, because I think that this aspect of Antigone is extremely productive for a possible emancipatory narrative of human nature. (It helps that it’s an ancient Greek text, too; that gives it that good old air of Eurocentric philosophical legitimacy.) My suggestion goes something like this:
The experience of being human is tragic, but not in the Aristotelian sense. We are caught between overwhelming forces: social, economic, historical, biological. Even imagining for a second that Utopia has dawned and all injustice has been banished, we are still left with good old sickness, death, grief, unrequited love, unfulfilled desire, disappointment, failure, betrayal. Our inescapable tragic flaw is that to all these merciless, uncaring forces, we are compelled again and again and again to answer: no.
Is this account of the human condition true? No, not in any meaningful sense I can think of. But it makes for a damn good story.
So, going back to that question I suggested way back at the beginning: why is Antigone not called Creon?
Both of the main characters are trapped in a tragic situation, but only one of them is “properly” tragic, according to my formulation. Creon acts the way Power demands of him, because that’s what a “strong” king does. He safeguards the legitimacy of the established social structure and avenges all perceived slights. He cannot show leniency to the defeated usurper; in doing so, he would be admitting the usurpation at the very core of royalty. In doing so, he is not “flawed”. He says yes. Yes, death to Antigone. It must be so.
So that’s one reason: Antigone is the more human character, the more relatable one. Her no makes fundamental sense to us; we feel in the gut that, for whatever reason, she’s doing the right thing.
But there’s also something else.
Why then dost thou delay? In thy discourse there is nought that pleases me,-never may there be!-and so my words must needs be unpleasing to thee. And yet, for glory-whence could I have won a nobler, than by giving burial to mine own brother? All here would own that they thought it well, were not their lips sealed by fear. But royalty, blest in so much besides, hath the power to do and say what it will.
Thou differest from all these Thebans in that view.
These also share it; but they curb their tongues for thee.
I don’t think it’s all that vanguardist to point out that Antigone, in fact, speaks for the people.
It’s good to cultivate a healthy mistrust of anyone who claims to do that, of course. But here? When the same grim Power that looms over the lives of all Thebans has taken a direct and personal blow at her?
Yeah, I’ll take her at her word.
The banner says “The Melchior Wańkowicz Journalism College, Warsaw”; those people up there on the balcony are presumably journalism students, possibly lecturers.
What they’re looking down on, in what appears to be mild bemusement, is a bunch of folks marching, waving flags and chanting in support of tenants’ rights.
The situation, especially in Warsaw, is dire. The general consensus in housing policy appears to be “throw it all to the
wolvesprivate sector.” City-owned buildings are routinely being handed over to people with the flimsiest claims to pre-WWII ownership or inheritance. Virtually the only new apartment blocks being built are monstrous suburban fortresses for the “middle class.” Meanwhile, people entitled to housing assistance, which local and municipal governments are under obligation to provide, get put on a waiting list and told to come back in, oh, about seven years. And the rent is too damn high.
It’s business as usual: the legislative, judicial and executive apparatus of the State protects property owners while tenants get bled dry.
Look at these journalists: look how they’re dressed, check out their body language — comfortable, smirking, dominant. The crowd of at least a few dozen people, somewhere under a hundred, is invisible, and if they don’t bother writing about it, it will damn well stay that way. And if they do bother, it will become whatever they want it to be.
Or so they’d like to think, anyway. That picture? It’s an amazingly immediate, fascinatingly obvious manifestation of hegemony. But this one?
This is resistance.