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Let me go back for a minute to Sophocles’s Antigone, a play about a sister who buries her brother when the King (her uncle) has forbidden that burial. 

That sounds a little dry, put that way, but the play itself isn’t dry.  Over the years it has not only had many productions, but many modern versions, sort of like Romeo and Juliet.  There is in this play something that commends it to modern writers, and especially to modern writers concerned with the Fascism, the Second World War, and, later, Vietnam.

I first read this play in a college course, which is an interest fact in and of itself, at least to me.  I read almost no literature for the first time in a college course, because I was one of those people who read obsessively from a very early age.  I discovered Hemingway and the Lost Generation in junior high school, and I’d gone through most of the Greek dramatists at least once by the time I was fifteen.

But although I’d read Oedipus Tyrannus during the long run up to finally getting the hell out of the house and out of that town to what I hoped was real life, I’d never read Antigone.  That means I’ve never been able to read it without an official interpretation already in my head.

I don’t know if I’d have had the problems I’ve had with it if that hadn’t been the case.

The interpretation I was given in that college course matches the interpretations I have run into since over the years:  that the play is a dramatization of the clash of individual conscience and state authority. 

The plot goes, more or less, like this:  Oedipus is forced to leave town and give up his throne when the world (and he himself) learns that he has murdered his father and married his mother.

His two sons by that marriage fight over the throne left vacant, and the fight is won by the younger son, Eteocles.  The older son, Polyneices, refuses to accept this, and mounts an armed rebellion against Thebes.  The two brothers then kill each other on the battlefield, and their bodies lie out in the open air until some member of their family is willing to bury them.

Okay, actually, all that happens off stage and before the play starts.  The play actually starts with Creon–Oedipus’s brother in law, I think–taking over the throne and commanding that Eteocles’s body will be buried, but Polyneices’s body will not, and must be left outside to rot, becaue Polyneices had waged war against a legitimate king.

Antigone, the sister of the two dead brothers, takes offense at this, because proper burial was enormously important to Greek society, and to leave a body unburied was to dishonor not only the man but the family from which he came.

Okay, let me interject here.  One of the things that always bothered me about this play is the fact that worrying about unburied bodies in a family whose children were the result of mother-son incest is…ah…possibly disproportionate.

Anyway, Creon decrees that anybody caught even trying to bury Polyneices’s body will be put to death by being walled up alive.  Antigone goes off and does it anyway, and in due course in the play, she admits to her act (boasts of it, finally) and is in fact walled up.

After this, it gets a little complicated–complicated in a way that Sophocles likes to make things complicated.  Creon is told by Tiresias–the same blind seer who brought Oedipus to justice in the end–that the gods want Polyneices buried, and if he is not then Creons own son will die in punishment of Creons acts.  Creon then buries Polyneices again himself and goes to rescue Antigone, but Antigone turns out to have hanged herself in her prison, and the whole thing ends in tragedy.

If that last part seems a little confused and meandering, it always seemed much the same to me.  And I think it goes a long way in explaining why so many interpretations of the play have assumed that the issue here is Tyranny, in the person of  Creon, and the right of the individual conscience to resist it.

That was certainly the interpretation  Jean Annouilh used for his 1960s version of the play, in modern dress, that was later made into a television production with,  I think, Genevieve Bujold as  Antigone.  Creon was played as if he were Mussolini.

This is not surprising, really, because the right of individual conscience to resist and oppose tyranny was Annouilh’s constant subject.  It’s the foundation of his Becket, which is interesting.  The real Jean Annouilh would almost certainly have taken the other side in that debate if it had recurred in twentieth century France, but Becket’s resistance to state power was so important that Annouilh doesn’t seem to have bothered to examine the issue at hand.

For me, the odd thing about Annouilh’s Antigone is that I finished watching it firm in my conviction that it was Creon, not Antigone, who was right.  I’m as touchy about the uses of state power as anybody could be, but in Annouilh’s version I thought  Antigone’s position had very little to commend itself, and that she was acting like an adolescent.

There is, of course, no real way to see Creon as in the right in that play, in either version, if you assume that the play is about the individual conscience’s right and duty to resist the power of the state.

What MacIntyre did was to show me a possible alternative interpretation.   We think the play is about the right of individual conscience against the power of the state, he says, because we assume that somebody must be right and somebody must be wrong, that virtue requires clear and unambiguous and unconflicting rules for human behavior.

For Sophocles, however, the great tragedy of human life is precisely that the rules do conflict.  Each of us is “good” by virtue of whether or not we properly fulfill the roles assigned to us by birth and fortune, and if we all do that, we will inevitably clash.

Antigone is right to do what she does, and Creon is also right to do what he does.  Antigone is upholding piety.  Creon is upholding justice.  In this particular place at this particular time, these two virtues are in conflict–and there is no possible resolution.

When Creon finds that the gods want Polyneices’s buried, it isn’t because the gods think Antigone is right to do what she does and Creon is wrong, but simply because the god prefer it.  They come in to end the argument on Antigone’s side, but they do not thereby resolve the argument on Antigone’s side.

There is no resolution to the argument. 

I’ve been looking around to see if I can find any of my copies of this thing, or even a textbook which has it, because I’d like to reread it and see.  Without such a chance to recheck, though, this interpretation makes a lot more sense to me, given the content of the play itself and the narrative arc as it works itself out, than the interpretations I’d been given in college classrooms and that I have myself sometimes given as a teacher in those classrooms. 

In Greek society, MacIntyre says, human life is a struggle that always ends in defeat.  Sophocles’s interest in that struggle is to illuminate it and its conflicting demands on us, and finally to make us aware of that defeat.

The first thing to occur to me here is–no wonder Christianity went through Greece like wildfire.  

Whatever.  My thing on Antigone.  I’ll get to the social sciences later.

P.S.  Up on Arts and Letters Daily today was this article by Theodore Dalrymple on comments that go up on the Internet


And I’ll have to admit, the funniest thing about it is the fact that you can leave comments.  But its an interesting issue, too, and does not hold true for the comments to this blog, for which I’m grateful.

P.P.S.  I find myself a little bemused by the comments on Band of Brothers.  I’m grateful for the input on things like the historical accuracy of the battles and the uniforms, but what I was really wondering was whether or not you guys thought the portrayal of the officers and enlisted men was good, bad, indifferent, accurate, inaccurate, whatever.

This may have something to do with the fact that I had just read the Sowell, which includes two chapters on “intellectuals and war,” and one of his big points had to do with the portrayal of soldiers in the media–as heroes in WWI, and then as victims, often mutual victims on both sides, on the other, and then (in Vietnam) as babykillers and worse. 

I am, I’ll admit, watching this series obsessively.  So it’s not that I don’t like it.  I just don’t know if the portrayal of the men and officers is as admirable as I think it is or if I’m just so used to military people being portrayed as wimps or nutcases that even sort-of good looks wonderful.

If that makes sense.

Written by janeh

March 6th, 2010 at 8:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses to 'Antigone'

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  1. Antigone. We talk a lot about the individual conscience and about justice, and rightly so. But there is also obedience to the law, which is neither, and also seems to be in play here. It is good that a state should provide justice, but it’s famously hard to define, and while individual conscience is essential, it has also impelled many people to do unconscionable things. But it is ESSENTIAL, if we are to live in community, to abide by the law, even if we don’t think the law is right or just. Every court decision and every election leaves disappointed people whose civic duty it is to obey the decision that disappointed them. That is what stands between any society and anarchy and civil war. In that sense, Antigone and Polyneices are on the same side, and Creon, whether he is just or not, has a valid point.

    But, of course, so does Antigone. It’s not a situation with a happy ending available.

    There really was a similar case in Central America–I think Costa Rica–maybe early in the 20th Century. The winner of a civil war disbanded the army, which had fought for the opposition, and left the enemy dead to rot in the streets. Shocking, but the country missed the coups, revolutions and civil wars which have marked subsequent Central American history. Doing evil that good may come of it, anyone?

    BAND OF BROTHERS. If the writers are accurate, those soldiers are very good indeed. They’re relatively young without being conscripted children. They’re citizen soldiers, not careerists, they’re the pick of the Army–three divisions of airborne of a 100 division force–well-trained, and their war didn’t go on long enough for casual brutality and terminal fatigue to set in. A lot of this would be true of the officers and men in GETTYSBURG as well: shown accurately, they’ll look pretty good. Sadly, CROSS OF IRON and THE PATHS OF GLORY are also pretty accurate for the places and people they portray. Do we want a more general discussion of films which have white-washed–or slandered–various militaries?


    6 Mar 10 at 12:11 pm

  2. I studied Antigone in college too, but I’d long since read it on my own. I think I’d always understood the individual conscience vs authority theme, but it always did seem to me that there simply is no way for it to end well. That’s true of Oedipus Rex as well. There’s a thread of – well, just of the gods simply messing with people in these plays, and in response people do what people do. Antigone reacts in one way and Creon reacts in another. I think that Sophocles deliberately used the interference of the gods as a canvas to show us the human conflicts.

    I do remember seeing the Anouilh movie too, in high school.

    As for Band of Brothers – it’s good and it’s respectful of the military without being too starry-eyed, I think. There’s a tremendous amount of respect paid to the soldiers for what they did and what it cost them, but they’re not portrayed as supersized heroes, just as strong people who did what they had to do. Like Antigone and Creon, they react in individual ways to the situation they find themselves in. It’s a good series.


    6 Mar 10 at 12:22 pm

  3. OK, let me catch up. I don’t watch war movies or read novels about wars, but even I suspect that the injured and unwilling soldier and the vicious evil soldier as stereotypes must surely have run their course, much like some of the cardboard heros I remember from when I did watch TV shows about war.

    I ‘did’ Antigone in high school, and as best as I can remember got the standard explanation of state vs conscience, but the most common opinion among the students as I recall was that Antigone was an idiot; what was the big fuss about? Go along with Creon and everything would be fine. I tended to look for heroic romantic figures at that point in my life so I rather liked the image of the heroic sister standing up to everyone for the sake of her brother.

    I’d already read the Dalrymple article. He’s got a point; it seems that so many people find it far too difficult to remember that there’s a human being at the other end of the email, and far too easy to forget basic courtesy and sometimes even humanity. I once read a newsgroup which had a regular poster who was routinely mocked and humiliated and always came back for more. Common enough, but in this case, the unfortunate man died, and his sister, clearly completely unfamiliar with Usenet norms, posted the fact in terms that made it clear that he had had an extremely isolated life – and almost the only human contact he had was through Usenet. Consequently, the sister assumed he’d found a supportive community online, when in fact he’d found a comparatively nasty one. The flamers posted a few shamefaced messages, and must have changed their ways for all of thirty seconds.

    Being polite to other humans is learned – and without the visual cues to trigger the learned reaction, it often doesn’t happen. It says something about ourselves when our training to treat each other decently can’t survive the absence of visual cues. It’s kind of the reverse of the knowledge that a lot of our patience, kindness etc is determined more by our own comfortable, well-fed state than by our inherant virtue.


    6 Mar 10 at 12:58 pm

  4. I’m sorry. I don’t like to post twice, but it occured to me that in my ringing defense of the law, I had made it sound like an absolute. Certainly there have been–and will be–times when “civil disobedience” is the least bad option. And it’s a much better choice than killing people and blowing things up.

    But even King and Gandhi–to say nothing of the pro-Communist marchers of the 1960’s–still mostly needed and wanted the law obeyed. They wanted not to be robbed. They wanted people to pay taxes for “social justice” and to obey “anti-discrimination” laws, and for the military to obey the civil power regardless of what the generals thought of the orders given. They wanted, in short, that other people not do what they themselves were doing.

    It’s an important point, and when Antigone is seen as only having to overcome fears and not as having to decide what is right, we miss it. Creon could be entirely wrong in his dictate, and Antigone still wrong to disobey him.


    6 Mar 10 at 2:22 pm

  5. Antigone: I agree with Robert and have nothing to add.

    Band of Brothers: Neither Mique nor I have combat experience and cannot comment on the battle scenes.

    One thing my reading has taught me is that war is a skilled trade and, unfortunately, its one in which people get killed. Officers have to accept that at times they will give orders which send men to their deaths. Soldiers have to accept that they need to obey orders even if it means dying.

    I suspect that people who find deer hunting objectionable will have trouble accepting that. They may be able to accept it in a “good” war such as WW2 but no in what they think is a “bad” war such as Vietnam.


    6 Mar 10 at 4:29 pm

  6. I apologize for the 2nd post. I just came across this in the New York Times. Its about 2 recent war movies.



    6 Mar 10 at 4:36 pm

  7. The whole point of civil disobedience is to be willing to pay the price for disobeying the law, though, so it’s not just disobeying.

    It is sometimes necessary, but you have to be willing to suffer the punishment.



    6 Mar 10 at 5:51 pm

  8. As John said, I have no combat experience. Also, as an Australian, I’m not qualified to comment on the accuracy of the portrayal of American Army officers and enlisted personnel in combat in any case. But, Hanks and Spielberg were meticulous in avoiding most of the usual Hollywood casting and dramatic clichés.

    It looked right and felt right.


    6 Mar 10 at 7:17 pm

  9. Joining the band in posting twice, I’m currently reading Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society. I’m not yet up to the chapters you refer to above, Jane.

    But I’m wondering whether, having finished the book, you have changed your mind about the general theme of the book. Your first impressions seemed to suggest that the book too generally and unfairly critised “intellectualism”.

    It’s early days yet, because I’m only up to Chapter 4, but I haven’t got that impression at all.

    Incidentally, the Lady of the House thanks you (not!) for your contribution to the overload of weighty tomes in this house.


    6 Mar 10 at 7:29 pm

  10. Jane said…”One of the things that always bothered me about this play is the fact that worrying about unburied bodies in a family whose children were the result of mother-son incest is…ah…possibly disproportionate.”

    I’ve observed that those families with some irregularities in their makeup tend to go overboard in complying with all of society’s *other* traditions. It’s okay to ignore the elephant in the room if you’ve polished the butler and fluffed up the garden.

    Band of Brothers was an incredibly moving portrait of regular human beings put in situations of extreme stress, danger, and sorrow. Most of them were very young, and it nearly broke my heart when they talked about their ordinary lives back home. It made you realize that every one of the thousands who died did so with their stories untold.

    It also depicted, pretty unflinchingly, the damage done to human bodies under attack. There’s nothing glorious about it, except the human spirit to just go on, no matter how bleak things get.

    I wouldn’t worry too much about absolute historical accuracy. It’s accurate enough, I’m sure they tried very hard for that, but more important, it’s true to the experience of the people who were actually there.

    Check the Extra Features on the DVDs you’re watching, and see if it comes with interviews with actual WWII veterans. I seem to recall something like that when we watched the series and they all said it was very true to life. If you’re watching it on cable, you may be out of luck.


    6 Mar 10 at 7:47 pm

  11. I read Antigone on my own when I was much younger, and I arrived at conclusions similar to yours, if much less articulate or developed. For me, Sophocles portrayed different ideas, such the inevitability of fate, the oft-repeated, debatable adage that to be human is to suffer, that nothing and nobody is painted black or white, people, situations, laws, rules, everything is grey, and must be treated as such. Oedipus the King teaches us that even the crimes we consider most offensive and deplorable could have been committed in innocence, that conversely, even the most upright and noble of men can be guilty of the worst crimes. Antigone teaches us that the rules meant to promote and ensure righteousness and morality can have the absolute opposite effect and be counterproductive if they are set in stone and not shifted from situation to situation. As you said, Creon was justified, as was Antigone. As illustrated on the website Shmoop, Creon meted out to Polyneices the appropriate treatment for dishonorable exiles, while Antigone fulfilled obligations to the gods by burying her brother.

    Dylan Lawrence

    20 Jul 11 at 3:32 am

  12. What Cheryl said above (“Being polite to other humans is learned – and without the visual cues to trigger the learned reaction, it often doesn’t happen. It says something about ourselves when our training to treat each other decently can’t survive the absence of visual cues.”) ties into what I was saying in an earlier posting about types of intelligence. There are those among us who have been born without the ability to learn to recognize these visual cues. They aren’t good people or bad people or self-centered people or rude people, they are just blind to these cues. We can talk all we want about “they should learn to read other people’s reactions,” but they do not have the type of intelligence required to do this. I have a mother who was “blind” to these visual cues, and a brother who is likewise “blind” in this respect. My mother took many college courses in psychology, aced them, wrote papers for the courses, and prided herself about how much good she was in psychology. And yet she was unable to read even the most blatant cues that she was irritating someone, annoying someone, angering someone, embarrassing someone, etc. People who suffer from this handicap, as with all invisible handicaps, are not treated with any kind of compassion, and of course if you asked them, they would deny having any kind of handicap. In that respect, also, they are in a worse position than someone who is blind or deaf, because at least society recognizes that such people have a handicap. The inability to read the visual cues that other people give us is just as much a physical handicap because it is a deficiency in the brain itself. (By the way, if you are expecting me to be politically correct and say “challenged” instead of “handicapped,” you will have a long, long wait; if you want to get me going on a long rant, just ask me what I think of “politically correct.”) I likewise have one of those invisible handicaps. I cannot remember people’s faces. I have been laughed at, sneered at, and treated with hostility because I have failed to recognize people I know. It was particularly bad when I was a high school teacher. I went through hell trying to learn the names of all the students in my classes. (We learn from other cues: “tall, male, glasses, big nose,” or “short, blonde, curly hair, female,” etc.) Just this spring I read an article in the New Yorker and discovered that (a) this condition is called prosopagnosia, and (b) there is a part of the brain that handles facial recognition, and it is separate and distinct from the part of the brain that handles other visual memory. I had already discovered about 10 years ago that while I cannot remember what someone I met looks like, I can remember what a photo of them looks like (that uses a different part of the brain). Back when my children were young and I was picking them up after a soccer practice or after school, I have actually had occasions where I spotted them from a slight distance away only because I recognized the clothes they were wearing. Pretty funny to others. Not so funny when you are the one with facial recognition deficiency disorder.
    It is quite possible that the poster Cheryl talks about above, who was mocked and humiliated on the newsgroup, came back for more because that was the norm he had learned to expect from everyone in his life, whether in “virtual” relationships or “real” relationships.


    20 Jul 11 at 2:26 pm

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