Girl, interrupted: Antigone’s unfinished revolution

UnknownThe title of this blog is derived from a movie that I have never seen and that may or may not have some resonance with Antigone. The film — “Girl, Interrupted” — centres around an 18 year old who is committed to a residential psychiatric facility after an apparent suicide attempt, and on the most cursory examination of an admitting physician. To what extent does this interruption parallel the situation of Antigone? Sophocles’ character is of an undetermined age but obviously young and abut to be married so, following the cultural norms of Athens in the 5th century BCE, likely somewhere between 15 and 18. She also appears to have a fondness for the idea of death and does eventually commit suicide, albeit after being entombed alive. And she is also declared more or less mad by other characters in the play, though mostly by the equally volatile Creon. Overall, the parallels are tenuous, but I like the title and chose it for an Arts One lecture before Bonnie Honig, a political theorist from Northwestern University, published her book Antigone Interrupted (2013).

 Antigone and Repetition Compulsion

Speaking of Honig’s book, it is one of the most powerful and original re-readings in what has been a long history of repeated translations, interpretations, and adaptations of Antigone. Honig even suggests that Antigone is the most commented upon play in the history of philosophy and political theory. In fact, the propensity to repeat Antigone has become as much an object of scholarly interest as the play itself. As George Steiner’s Antigones (1984) reveals, the story spans a wide spectrum of discourses, from politics to philosophy to psychoanalysis, critical studies, and various forms of feminism. The play continues to be performed all over the world and some of the most intriguing productions include: Ernest McIntyre’s Irangani, an exploration of the Sinhala youth uprising of 1980s Sri Lanka in which the title character’s brother has been killed, and the state prohibits the family from performing funeral ceremonies; Polly Findlay’s Antigone, where Thebes has become the hub of global power, and security experts gather round a screen in a situation room to watch and applaud the capture of a noted enemy of state and the defeated Polyneices constitutes a terrorist threat to be met with the inflexible authority of the modern security state, with the unbending Creon at its head; and Roy Williams’s adaptation where Creon become “Creo,” a modern British ganglord and his Antigone (“Tig”) plays up issues of generational defiance over traditional state-based models of authority.

In keeping with Shakespeare’s notion that the boundary between the “real world” and theatre can be paper thin — “all the world’s a stage” — Antigone can also help to frame several issues currently in the news. For example, in response to the reality that one of the perpetrators in the recent and horrific video-taped beheadings of hostages in ISIS controlled Iraq and Syria has an English accent, British Prime Minister David Cameron is scrambling to introduce legislation to ban British-born “jihadists” from returning to the UK. And an issue more directly germane to Antigone has arisen in the aftermath of the latest and worst outbreak of the Ebola virus in west Africa, where World Health Organization officials warn that traditional burial practices are among the greatest obstacles to controlling the calamity. In many of the countries most affected, the handling, washing, and even kissing of the body of a loved one is a core cultural value. While not a state with the power of Creon, the WTO is a major and powerful political actor that has sought to limit traditional burial rites, particularly in light of the revelation that the moment of death for an Ebola victim is the moment at which the disease is most infectious, and the viral load at its peak. The most powerful example of this Polyneices-effect occurred very recently in Guinea with the abduction and killing of 8 health workers, apparently in revenge for their “improper” treatment of Ebola victims.

In a world where the relevance of the general humanities is increasingly questioned, it’s heartening to witness the enduring power of a play written almost 2,500 years ago. It’s also important to try to understand why it speaks to us so directly across millennia, cultures, and disciplinary boundaries. The answer resides partly in the play’s second choral ode, where we are told “…no greatness creeps down into the life destined to death without bringing disaster” (p. 46, line 748). At its most general level, then, the play is about the human condition, and more particularly the well known dilemma that the higher we climb the harder we fall. The chorus would not be caught off guard by the crumbling of the tower of Babel, the sinking of the RMS Titanic, the collapse of a superpower, or the violent destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. To aspire to greatness, whether in the realm of architecture or politics, is to court disaster, a timeless enough insight to ensure the lasting relevance of what Matthew Arnold calls Sophocles’ “eternal note of sadness” (“Dover Beach, 1851).

But the play also poses a more specific and, if anything, increasingly relevant, question: what duties do citizens owe to the state and what duties do citizens owe to their own personal and/or family values? As a general rule, the chorus is not much use in trying to understand this central issue. But, in fairness, this is not a dilemma that Sophocles seems prepared to resolve. On the contrary, it arises from the general human condition he articulates through the chorus, and the play’s failure to decide the above question cements its enduring power. As G. W. F. Hegel observes, Creon and Antigone can be viewed as equally right, forever preserving the tragic inevitability of the conflict, and denying recourse to any final resolution. So, if you find yourself siding alternately with Antigone and Creon, or unable to decide where to finally place your sympathy, that is testament to the play’s ability to dramatize an important and perpetually relevant issue. To clearly resolve the conflict in favour of either party would ruin the story. It is a tribute to Sophocles that Antigone looks different in different contexts, and continues to thrive both in theatres around the world, and university course reading lists.

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