Two tragedies

I recently reread, after way too many years, two classic tragedies: Sophocles’ “Oedipus King” and “Antigone”. Many things came to mind while reading them but I’ll stick to a few.

1. While reading these plays I couldn’t NOT ask myself why do we, in 2010, keep on reading them. Why do they matter? Do they really matter? Do we read them because therein lies the origins of Western literature/culture/philosophy? Do people keep on analyzing and reading and talking about them to be recognized as well read, intellectual, cultured? And, when one reads them, is it possible to detached oneself from everything that has already been said or written about them and decide bias-less if they are actually good plays, good tragedies, good literature? Can I, we, one, really have a personal opinion or interpretation of the plays or is any opinion or analysis always and irremediably mediated by, at least, 2,500 years of translations, ruminations, and interpretations?

2. For “Oedipus King” I must emphatically answer “NO” to the last question posed above. I found it impossible to detached from a psychoanalytic reading of the play: Oedipus is no longer a king but a complex. Yet, the play poses a really interesting question, one that actually seems very relevant today: Should a King (a president, a senator, a politician…) be banished, denigrated, deposed, because of a “moral” issue, because of something that has to do with his (or her), broadly defined, personal life? In the play the answer is, evidently, yes: absolutely. Yet, in our supposedly secularized politics, the same seems to hold. Just think of Clinton and his “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” The Lewinsky scandal was based on a personal failure according to a particular moral or ethical code. Did it really disqualify Clinton for being president or make him less capable? I truly don’t think so yet his impeachment points in a rather different direction. It was argued that the issue was not the affair itself but the fact that he lied about it and, it follows, could lie about anything else. This implies at least two things. First, that a presidents’ private life is actually a public concern or, to put it in a more interesting way, that Clinton’s sovereign penis is, in Hobbesian terms, the embodiment of the people’s penis and thus everybody has a say. Second, that lying is not contingent but embedded in a person’s character, personality and/or human condition, which is, at best, an eerie assumption.

3. “Antigone”, on the contrary, seemed to me to be “less contaminated”, to put it somehow. It is, I think in many ways, a superior, more complex play. In “Oedipus” there is actually no conflict. Since he in fact didn’t know it was his father he killed and his mother he married (how has he supposed to know?), choosing was, for him, not an option. The Gods have already determined that he was to suffer the consequences of his actions. Hence, Oedipus’ fall is not the result of a real conflict or some personal weakness or amorality but rather the fulfillment of a prophecy; there wasn’t anything he could do, even if he tried to, to escape his fate. In this sense, “Oedipus King” is rather boring: no possible alternative ending, no real conflict, no character development, no agency. This is not the case with Antigone. She, instead, has options, she has to choose between two loyalties—kingship or brothership, law or justice—and therefore she is, as a character, much more interesting, complex, intriguing than his father-brother Oedipus.

4. One reading of Antigone interests me presently, but I must advance some sort of preface. In my thesis, I’m writing about the friend-enemy distinction that Carl Schmitt identifies as the kernel of the political and the critique Derrida makes thereof in his “Politics of Friendship”. Derrida argues that Schmitt’s reduction of the political to the friend-enemy distinction is, at best, ambiguous or ineffective given that both are, at best, interchangeable and, at worst, dangerous because it gives way to a notion of nationality based on homogeneity and sameness (the sons of the same mother) and therefore not open to difference and otherness, which in turn leads to exclusion based on racial, ethnic or linguistic traits, to name a few. Moreover, who is or must be regarded as a brother is the sovereign’s decision and therefore part of the legal structure, of the law (what Derrida calls the “logic of fraternization”). Antigone, it seems to me, proposes a different, more just notion of brotherhood and community.

5. When Creon determines that one of Antigone’s brother, Eteocles, will be buried with pomp and circumstance because he fought on Thebes’ side yet the other brother, Polyneices, who also died in battle yet fighting against Thebes, must be left unburied, untouched and not sanctified by holy rites, Antigone decides to bury the latter no matter what. In her decision she puts the brother above sovereign law even if she knows that she might be banished or, worst, killed. The disgraced brother is indeed her “blood” brother but I would like to extrapolate this gesture, this decision, to a political level based on what I mentioned above. If the sovereign and thus law determines who the friend and hence the brother is; if we think that those fighting against the state (think of insurgent or guerrilla movements or resistance) are regarded by constituted power as enemies of the state and thus no-longer as brothers, which is precisely what happened to Polyneices; cannot we said that Antigone gesture suggests a different politics, a different notion/concept/idea of Justice and memory? Isn’t Antigone advancing a true, more just, more democratic logic of fraternization by which the other, even if he is marginalized, forgotten, not taken into account or not recognized as a brother by sovereign power/law, must nonetheless be treated and remembered as equal, as a part that does have a part, as Rancière would put it? Isn’t that what many societies should do, to put the fallen, officially-outcast brother before, and always before, the law no matter what? Shouldn’t a just and responsible memory always do that?

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