… Eurydike cursed you Eurydike cursed you assassin of your own child she said and she undid her eyes to the dark
‘Be careful, sir, you are speaking of the woman I love!’ – so, apparently, ran the response of a classics professor to a colleague impugning Antigone’s political clear-mindedness and tragic dignity. Apocryphal or not, it neatly encapsulates how deeply Sophocles’ play has penetrated western culture: it is hard not to be dazzled by Antigone. Her conviction sears the page.
If you don’t know the story of the play, it runs like this: Antigone’s brother, Polyneikes, is dead, having led an assault on the city of Thebes. Kreon, her uncle, King of Thebes, decrees that his body will not be buried, but left to rot in the open air, outside the walls of the city. Antigone defies him, citing the unwritten law, or divine law, against the precepts of the city, and is caught covering her brother’s body. She remains defiant, and Kreon, ignoring omens and dissent (not least from his son, Haimon, betrothed to Antigone) has her walled up in a tomb in the desert; finally, panicking, he attempts to undo his deed, but finds her already dead, and his son and wife both commit suicide, leaving Kreon alone.
That is, at least, one way to put the story. There are others: Antigone and her sister are the only surviving children of Oedipus and Jocasta, and the curse on their house hovers inexorably over the play. When does the play really begin? Even before Oedipus, with Laius’ rape of Chrysippus. The looming shapes of necessity and destiny can be glimpsed through the lattice of the story. The play moves, depending on how you read it: is it a story about incommensurability between the ethics of kinship and the political demands of the state? About Antigone as parrhesiast, singular and maybe even terrifying, inhuman, in her complete identification with truth? About Kreon, a weak and precarious ruler, sliding unawares into tyranny? It is not a play of easy moral certainties. Where does it end? Does Antigone’s piety – a harsh piety – serve to finally expiate the curse, and what does that expiation mean when all she’s left is wreckage?
Anne Carson and Bianca Stone’s collaborative version of Antigone – Antigonick – is far from a conventional rendering of Sophocles’ play. Carson plucks the flesh off the play, leaving polished bone, her hand-lettered version full of gaps and unsettling critical juxtapositions. Stone’s gnomic illustrations are leaved throughout on tracing paper: Carson’s words bleed through them, half-obscured. Stone’s illustrations are not direct commentaries on the play, but work as tangents to the text – a looming line of breeze-block headed figures a little chorus-like, two figures turning away from each other but hand-in-hand floating above Antigone and Ismene’s opening argument, a wild horse unsettling the civil dinner table – visual figurations of the disturbing power of a two and half thousand year old tragedy.
Antigone has a powerful political history. Hegel’s approbation of its sublimity is based partly on its figuring of political-ethical conflict; Judith Butler’s rereading of the play through Lacan and Hegel focuses on the displacing power of Antigone’s claim. But its history of performance is no less political: while its ancient audience were inclined to quote Kreon’s words on good government (e.g., Demosthenes), modern workings of the play centre implacably on Antigone herself: Theodorakis’ ballet was banned in Greece under the junta, Brecht saw in Antigone a longed-for and powerful political conviction that could rouse action, Jean Anouilh’s version, staged in occupied France, managed to rouse applause from ‘pragmatist’ collaborators and idealist sympathisers of the resistance alike. Implacability is a good word for Antigone; one might wonder if it is an untarnished virtue.
Both Nicholas Mirzoeff and Brian Patrick Eha at TNI have produced politically astute reviews of Carson’s book. Eha’s sensitivity to the ‘uncanny force’ of Carson’s language is especially on the mark: her version removes much of the decorum surrounding the violence and grief of the play. Carson’s latest work has given much attention to formal experiment, and much like Nox, the book as object matters, as does her interweaving of critical awareness about the play into its dialogue: this is an Antigone who remembers how Brecht made her perform. Her writing here is closer to the burnt-out sentences and bleak ironies of her earlier work than her more stageable translations of Euripides. It is a play about extremes and an extremist, but one aware of her extremity. Eha sees in Carson’s heroine a woman immersed in grief, fixated by death, her brother’s corpse burnt into her retinas. This is a just reading of Antigone, but I want to explore the two most politically pungent moments of Carson’s book, which have something to do with truth-telling and its foundations, and something to do with time and timing.
Audiences love Antigone. This has certainly been true since the Romantics, as she embodies many of the qualities one might look for in a zealous, stridently individual political heroine: the blurb for Heaney’s translation, in an unironically excavated cliché, bills the play as one in which ‘language speaks truth to power’. But what truth? Antigone’s defiance and rebellion are seductive, especially for an age in which the politically conscious frequently see themselves as solitary, enlightened individuals confronting despotic governments. Antigone both acts and refuses to disclaim her act when confronted, but her reasons for doing so are twofold, and unsettling. Here is Antigone responding to Kreon’s accusation that she has broken the law:
WELL IF YOU CALL THAT LAW
KREON: I DO ANTIGONE: ZEUS DOES NOT JUSTICE DOES
NOT THE DEAD DO NOT. WHAT THEY CALL LAW DID
NOT BEGIN TODAY OR YESTERDAY WHEN THEY SAY LAW
THEY DO NOT MEAN A STATUTE OF TODAY OR
YESTERDAY THEY MEAN THE UNWRITTEN UNFAILING
ETERNAL ORDINANCES OF THE GODS THAT NO HUMAN
BEING CAN EVER OUTRUN. OF COURSE I WILL DIE KREON
OR NO KREON AND DEATH IS FINE THIS HAS NO PAIN
TO LEAVE A MOTHER’S SON LYING OUT THERE UNBURIED
THAT WOULD BE PAIN
This is often taken to be Antigone’s assertion of the primacy of ties of kinship over the laws of the city, and a claim that the immutable laws of the dead precede any statute forbidding the correct funeral rites. This is certainly one of the truths that Antigone is telling. One of the ways she provokes outrage is not simply by saying this, but being a woman while she does so: Kreon calls her a bringer of anarchy because she upsets all order, political and natural, upending statute and male superiority. But there is another truth Antigone is telling, one repeated by Haimon later as he argues with his father. It comes so quickly you might miss it if you weren’t paying attention, as a response to Kreon’s accusation that she is the only person in Thebes who sees the situation thus:
KREON: YOU’RE AUTONOMOUS AUTARCHIC AUTODIDACTIC
ANTIGONE: ACTUALLY NO THEY ALL THINK LIKE ME
BUT YOU’VE NAILED THEIR TONGUES TO THE FLOOR
This argument of Antigone’s – that Kreon has become wilfully deaf to the people he governs – would likely have had more purchase on the play’s original Athenian audience than her fanatical contempt for social norms: the fear of tyranny would have been looming strongly over all of Kreon’s decisions. This is why some scholars have suggested that Kreon fits far more easily into the traditional Aristotelian definition of a tragic hero than Antigone, his essentially noble and virtuous intentions for government undone by an unyielding flaw. Antigone is anomalous, hard to square into any particular theory of tragedy.
Antigone’s aberrance is part of what Carson is bringing out in Kreon’s speech above, and he has a point: Antigone’s insistence on her own need to act, her own ability to unerringly judge injustice by some transcendent criterion, removes her entirely from series of social and political relationships that constitute human being. She discards her relationship with her sister, scarcely speaks to her fiancé (who nonetheless kills himself), even cares little for her own life. In her argument with Kreon, two responses jostle uncomfortably side-by-side, one political, the other anti-political. To claim government is sliding into tyranny is to make a political argument; to claim that there is some extra-political value that can overturn the law at any time is to threaten the city itself. This is why Antigone disturbs audiences.
‘Autobeguiled’: Kreon’s word hangs in the air. Antigone’s claim is unsettling because she is utterly convinced of its rightness; nothing could deter her from it. It carries with it the possibility that she is fatally deluded. That possibility remains latent in the play: the gods do not stay her hand as she hangs herself in the tomb to which she’s condemned; were she simply discharging duties to the dead, divine intervention might be expected to seal the validity of her claim. But Zeus is nowhere to be found (but then, gods are fickle.) Where does Antigone’s conviction come from? And is it really truth she’s speaking?
This hesitancy about Antigone could account for her absence from contemporary discussion of parrhesia, the ethic of truth-telling. Foucault prefers to cite Plato, but one can make a strong case for Antigone’s public speech as bearing many of the hallmarks of parrhesia. So why the hesitancy? There’s something excessive about Antigone (she buries her brother not once, but twice), something uncalmed; there is also something obscure about her. What is obscure is this: what does Antigone believe? What is the truth on which she ferociously sets her sights?
Before her final exit, Antigone makes a speech that has disturbed many eminent editors to the point that they insisted on excising it from the text; it threw the whole integrity of the drama into an unwelcome light. It is about truth and motive. Here is Carson’s rendering:
TOMB O BRIDAL CHAMBER O HOUSE IN THE GROUND
FOREVER I WAS AN ORGANIZED PERSON AND THIS IS
MY REWARD I ORGANIZED YOUR DEATHS DEAR ONES ALL
OF YOU FATHER MOTHER BROTHER WHEN YOU DIED
YOU ASK WOULD I HAVE DONE IT FOR A HUSBAND OR A
CHILD MY ANSWER IS NO I WOULD NOT. A HUSBAND
OR A CHILD CAN BE REPLACED BUT WHO CAN GROW ME
A NEW BROTHER. IS THIS A WEIRD ARGUMENT, KREON
THOUGHT SO BUT I DON’T KNOW, THE WORDS GO WRONG
THEY CALL MY PIETY IMPIETY, I’M ALONE ON MY INSIDES
I DIED LONG AGO. WHO SUFFERS MORE I WONDER… WHO
This version strips Antigone to the bone; with nothing but the tomb in front of her, we start to glimpse the chaos underlying the conviction. The chorus responds: ‘Your soul is blowing / apart.’ The bridal chamber and the tomb are the same place. But more important, perhaps, is Antigone’s ‘weird argument’ – it is nothing to do with governance and tyranny, nor even to do with the proper service due the dead. Antigone would not have done this for a husband or a child, but only a brother, who is irreplaceable. The queasy air of incest hovers over the speech – she is the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, after all – and for all her solitary misery, it’s hard not to see some implacable curse working itself through her here. But there’s something more scandalous about Antigone’s motive here: it’s not that all the dead demand honouring, or even that all one’s kin exercise a special claim, but that this specific individual demands more than can possibly be given under Kreon’s ordinance.
Antigone’s motives are not pure, not noble, they have a tang of corruption about them. But if parrhesia demands an interior ascesis – that is, if truth-telling demands a clear and exacting relationship to one’s interior – then Antigone’s speech here qualifies in an unsettling way. It suggests that Antigone’s truth is not just about political righteousness, nor the laws of the dead, but has its roots in something unequal, excessive, maybe even squalid. Where is truth in this? Is Antigone wrong? She is right that Kreon has become tyrannous; she is right that the dead demand decency, but are her motives pure? Do her motives matter?
It is impossible for Kreon to meet Antigone’s demand; in its fury and excess, it is a demand for the revaluation of all the civic virtues with which Kreon took the stage. It demands more than the restitution of proper government. This is why Gillian Rose choose Phocion’s wife rather than Antigone to talk about the same story (the return of a loved one’s remains to the city for a just burial): hers is an act of ‘finite political justice’, during a temporary tyrannous aberration in government; Antigone’s is not politically recuperable, blasts away all politics before it.
‘Truth is often, in some degree, economic.’ Carson wrote this line when talking about Phaidra, in the concluding essay to her translations of Euripides. There are economic questions in play in Antigone too: as the ‘last one left in a line of kings’, Antigone is an epikleros, and her betrothal to Haimon is as much about politics, wealth and sovereignty as anything else. This diminished status of women in Greek culture is one of the reasons Kreon is outraged at her insurrection against the order of things. There is also a tension at play throughout between what can be substituted and what can’t: Haimon is told by his father that there are plenty of other women who can be substituted for his betrothed; Antigone’s insistence that nothing can substitute for her brother cuts through her motivation.
There is another economy at work in the play, one Carson brings to the fore by adding to the play ‘Nick’, a mute character who remains on stage at all times, measuring things – the economy of time. The end of Antigone is all about time – the nick of time – and how it escapes Kreon. He is continually too late to turn back the chain of events he has set into motion. When he cries out for his death, the chorus replies: ‘That’s the future this is the present / You deal with the present … You don’t get to run this.’ Kreon is a ruler come up against something immutable.
One of the unsettling pleasures of tragedy is to see the ineluctable consequences of action work themselves out on stage. Real life is rarely so neat. Antigone contains a famous crux about theatrical timing, about when Eurydike exits the stage to her suicide. Eurydike is not a character you notice much: she spends most of the play inside the house, exiting only to hear news of her son’s suicide, and then wanders back inside to kill herself, cursing her husband. I say ‘wander’, because it is not clear in the original quite when she exits the stage. There is theatrical potential here: she can drag herself, heavy with fate, back into the oikos, while conversation continues around her silent form. Carson transforms her short, unexceptional ten lines into a jagged meditation on the whole play – it is an exceptional piece of writing, one of the moments in the text that Carson’s critical and poetic faculties are seamlessly blended:
EURYDIKE: THIS IS EURYDIKE’S MONOLOGUE IT’S HER
ONLY SPEECH IN THE PLAY. YOU MAY NOT KNOW WHO
SHE IS THAT’S OK. LIKE POOR MRS. RAMSAY WHO DIED
IN A BRACKET OF TO THE LIGHTHOUSE SHE’S THE WIFE
OF THE MAN WHOSE MOODS TENSIFY THE WORLD OF
THIS STORY THE WORLD SUNDERED BY HER I SAY
BY HER THAT GIRL WITH THE UNDEAD STRAPPED TO
HER BACK. A STATE OF EXCEPTION MARKS THE
LIMIT OF LAW THIS VIOLENT THING THIS FRAGILE THING
TRY TO UNCLENCH WE SAID TO HER SHE NEVER DID. WE
GOT HER THE BIKE WE GOT HER A THERAPIST THAT POOR
SAD MAN WITH HIS ODD IDEAS, SOME DAYS HE MADE
US SIT ON THE STAIRCASE ALL ON DIFFERENT STEPS
OR VIDEOTAPED US BUT WHEN WE WATCHED
IT WAS NOTHING BUT SHADOWS. FINALLY WE EXPELLED HER
WE HAD TO. USING THE LOGIC OF FRIEND AND FOE THAT
SHE DENIES BUT HOW CAN SHE DENY
EXCEPTION IS SHE
AUTOIMMUNE NO SHE IS NOT. HAVE YOU HEARD
THIS EXPRESSION THE NICK OF TIME WHAT IS A NICK
I ASKED MY SON WHAT
I ASKED MY SON
WHEN THE MESSENGER COMES I SET HIM STRAIGHT I
TELL HIM NOBODY’S MISSING WE’RE ALL HERE WE’RE
ALL FINE. WHY DO MESSENGERS ALWAYS EXAGGERATE
EXIT EURYDIKE BLEEDING FROM ALL ORIFICES
[EURYDIKE DOES NOT EXIT]
Carson’s version here is far from the speech in the original, retaining only Eurydike’s relationship to the messenger, and foregrounding the figure of the messenger as the bearer of off-stage (literally ‘obscene’) horror to those we see. There is much to unpack: the reference to Woolf and marginal women, or the grammatical pun on Kreon’s moods tensifying the play – Kreon has been throwing around verbs which come back to haunt him in different moods. The reference to autoimmunity and the obscure shadows of private and familial relations picks up both the inscrutable, riven motivations of Antigone herself and Kreon’s accusation, her willing severance of social obligations. Her horror of what she’s about to hear is all too obvious – so much that she scrabbles for the unreliability of the messenger rather than face the truth.
But time and law dance around each other in Eurydike’s speech. Eurydike, for all her marginality, is the only figure who understands what Antigone is, and her relationship to law and the city: she is its product and its negation. As such, the only thing the polis could do would be to expel her. She is irrecuperable. What is the nick of time? The nick of time is something that does not exist for Eurydike, nor anyone else in the play. The nick of time is that swerve which averts disaster for all on stage, something done at just the last moment which resets all the assumptions and trajectories of the play. The nick of time is the essence of comedy; in tragedy it does not exist.
The moment where the course of tragedy can be averted is far in the past: it was already gone when Teiresias reveals to Kreon that he has gone fatally wrong. Perhaps it was even gone long before the action of the play. The chorus says: ‘nothing vast can enter the lives of mortals without ruin.’ Tragic time is all about that vastness working itself in front of us. Can tragedy teach us lessons? Maybe. Tragic time is not like ordinary time: it is distant, far-off (even for its original audience), obeys its own rules; it was performed at festivals, where things are not as they normally are. Only when the normal laws of the city are abrogated can something like Antigone be countenanced.
The political anxiety latent in Sophocles’ play, and which the Carson/Stone version makes relentlessly clear, is to do with something vast and unalterable working us to our own destruction, with the scarcely-glimpsable recesses of human motivation brought out into the light. It is a superb version, certainly, and I have scarcely touched on its wit and force here. The questions it leaves us make Brecht’s admiration for Antigone’s conviction (‘…the light step / of one whose mind is fully made up.’) less easy to echo; it unsettles, and gives no easy answers. We are not in tragic time, the real world works less obviously, and there are no gods left to intervene: but the private motives looming outside apparent clarity of conviction cannot fail to haunt us. Its last lines are merciless:
CHORUS: LAST WORD WISDOM BETTER GET SOME
EVEN TOO LATE