What cruelty without wisdom

(The above is highlights of a marionette version of Antigone produced this year…..)

Antigone is the reading which has affected me the most (in the tragic sense) thus far in our curriculum. A young woman who has lost almost everything – her father and mother, her two brothers in one terrible waitron day, her royal place as her uncle Creon assumes the throne. And now the ultimate insult – she is barred from attending her brother Polynices in performing burial rites to appease the gods of her tradition.

A tale about the transition from kinship to state-rule, a tragic ode to star-crossed lovers, a reminder that no matter how powerful a head of state believes himself to be – the gods can always do him one better. Antigone is a nasty work in which King Creon pays the ultimate price – losing his son, his wife, and the faith of his people.

Some notes for class discussion:

Antigone: The representation of kinship and loyalty to family. She insists on observing burial rights for her brother even though his is believed to be a traitor to his state. Sentenced to death by Creon, Antigone is guided by her innate sense of justice and morality and thus is unable to escape her fate.

Creon: Embodiment of the state and the right of kingly rule. It is Creon who decrees that Antigone must die for her attempt to observe burial rights, arguing that he has the right to determine for the people what must happen. Creon spends an inordinate amount of time focused on whether or not his subjects are being bought off with money:

Money! Nothing worse
in our lives, so current, rampant, so corrupting.
Money — you demolish cities, root men from their homes,
you train and twist good minds and set them on
to the most atrocious schemes. No limit,
you make them adept at every kind of outrage,
every godless crime — money!

Because this is a recurrent theme, one wonders if the point Sophocles is making is that with the rise of the state (and the dwindling of traditional kinship ties), subjects are more easily bought and sold and therefore less trustworthy.

Haemon: Son of Creon and fiance of Antigone, Haemon attempts to reason with his father but is ultimately overtaken by his youthful passion. He represents the argument for a more inclusive state and leadership, a ruler who listens to the people. The scene in the play with the most pathos is that which finds Haemon clinging to Antigone (who has hanged herself rather than starve to death behind a brick wall) before charging at his father and then killing himself with his own sword. Haemon demonstrates the hazards of dismissing his subjects and his own family by delivering the ultimate punishment in the form of self-sacrifice.

Antigone’s death: The death Creon chooses for Antigone is emblematic of what she represents. In his final verdict, Creon determines that Antigone should be walled away with a few provisions to keep her going for a few days but ultimately she will be left to starve. This is clearly a metaphor for subsuming family/kinship relations in the service of the state; they cannot be destroyed outright but must wither away in a forgotten place. Antigone refuses this fate by committing suicide, thus striking at the intention of Creon even in her death.

Tiresias: This blind prophet attends Creon near the end to remind him that men can not override the gods and the great traditions. Reason and wisdom must be the governing principles.

Underlining the tragedy of Antigone – the final chorus reminds us that:

Wisdom is by far the greatest part of joy,
and reverence toward the gods must be safeguarded.
The mighty words of the proud are paid in full
with mighty blows of fate, and at long last
those blows will teach us wisdom.

Let the rest of us hope that the blows which lead us to wisdom are not delivered so harshly as Creon’s.


Post-class discussion notes

I was surprised in class by how many people wanted to come down firmly on one side or the other of the Antigone-Creon conflict rather than appreciating the rigidity in each character is the tragedy and the lesson. In particular I was curious about the argument made by some that without firm rule of law there is no order or society and that to have civilized existence, there is no room for action based on moral imperatives.  Which to me ignores our basic human nature and impulse for social connection… rather than break the law to help out a family member (by stealing medicine – for example), we must categorically follow elected (or traditional) rulers. This is a position I (obviously, if you know me) can not accept as I believe not only do we have the moral imperative to act according to conscience, but I also believe that it is people breaking the rules and pushing on the edges which bring greater change over time. It is only through Antigone’s wild actions that Creon is forced (too late for him, unfortunately) to reckon with what true governance of the people means.

I have long wondered about some people’s willingness to agree with, and follow along with whatever the state suggests – simply because these are our elected leaders. I’m not sure if many of the people who recommend this course have actually met many of our elected leaders, or paid much attention to what they have to say – because clearly so much of the time they don’t speak from a rational place but are blinded by their own prejudices and ideologies. People like Stephen Harper are good at faking rationality – it’s something to do with his impassive appearance I suppose – but there is nothing rational in wanting to make Canada more like the United States (a stated goal of Harper) where so much more of the population lives in poverty. For even if it makes a few float higher, it sinks the boat for the rest of us which is antiethical to a person who claims to be responsible for “the people”. Likewise the refusal of the current government to acknowledge climate change or the environmental degradation of industry – the only framework in which this can be argued for (or ignored in the case of the Con’s inaction) is one in which money is all that matters – as if (to paraphrase Chief Seattle) you can eat money when all the rest of it (rivers, oceans, lands) are sucked dry. Though I suppose those with money will just stockpile food – which makes it okay for them.

Opinions on the current regime aside, I have never believed in an authority greater than my own sense of reason and responsibility. Which also means that I  reserve the right to non-violent action for change. Not only that, but I believe a democracy must make room for all citizens to be heard and that democracy is strengthened by protest as it indicates citizen involvement in the shaping of their country. Antigone’s protest ultimately has the power to re-orient Creon as a ruler, but given his tragic end (destroyed by the death of his son and wife), he serves instead as an apocryphal reminder to the rulers who follow.

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