Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"Antigone's flaw"

In the following linked text: ...

... Patricia Lines recharacterises Antigone?s moral character to flawed. We learn that she is "self centred" - according to modern psychological analysis. We have first of all no indication that the Pagan Greeks regarded that as hubris, and second of all, the charge makes _anyone_ "self centred" if centred on a difficult situation one-_self_ is facing.

I am not very subtly reminded of the reading of Hippolytos, in which he commits the "hamartia" of insulting his stepmother and therefore his father. I had the displeasure to be examined on precisely that play, admiring Hippolytos myself and by an examinor who at every cost _had_ to find a tragic flaw in Hippolytos - i e in the main character.

I wonder, what is the tragic flaw of Oedipous in Oedipus in Colonis? What it was back in Oedipus Rex, there is no doubt, at least not to Aristotle's mind. But in the follow up?

Actually, there _is_ a story about a tragic flaw in Antigone: it is Creon's, just as Creon committed another tragic flaw in Oedipus in Colonis, when trying in vain to secure the sacred relics of Oedipus for Thebes. And just as Theseus commits a tragic flaw in Hippolytos, when asking his father to kill his son.

Let us face it: Greek Tragedy is - at least in these extracts, left intact by Christians - anti-totalitarian. It says there are things a ruler _must not_ command or forbid. It says there is a limit on the ruler's claims on the citizen, as well as on the wisdom of the ruler.

A certain modern communist school of intellect finds this disgusting. The tragic figure with the tragic flaw cannot be Creon, Creon and Theseus: it must be Antigone executed by Creon, Oedipus persecuted by Creon to return from the exile which left Creon in power, Hippolytos put to death by the wish of Theseus innocently accused of an incestuous adultery he never did commit. Because, if so, the tragic flaw is in an individual who had the hubris to face the state when the state was unjust.

This state-friendly rereading of state-sceptical tragedies reminds me of Jew-friendly rereadings in which Shylock is the tragic hero of Shakespeare?s play. Of course he is _that_ to a modern pro-jewish reader, who sees _any_ sneers at Jews as so much unprovoked persecution on part of prejudiced antisemitic Christians. Even if the sneers are about greed and even if the character in question is greedy. Even if the taunts (sometimes exaggerated perhaps, but understandable after some rumoured acts) of Jews wanting to spill innocent Christian blood is parallelled by Shylock wanting to cut out a pound of a man's flesh, closest to the heart, even if that means that he spills the man's blood and life. For, after Hitler dishonouring Antisemitism, after 1945, no respectable playwright like Shakespear may be read as writing a play with partly Antisemitic content. Shylock must be Christ, even if he is the Devil (if anyone is Christ in the Merchant of Venice, it is Antonio: he is in fact very comparable to Christ in St Irenees theology, as well as Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and tha Wardrobe), so that Shakespear may not be Hitler.

In the very same manner, tragedies written when Athens had just made Socrates a martyr for his teaching of objective ethics, tragedies full of the sense of futility in certain statesmen's state-wisdom, must be re-read so as to make Antigone and Hippolytus if not villains (that is impossible) at least tragic fools and something very much less than heroic martyrs.

Unfortunately for this reading, Hippolytus was in Athens worshipped as a Hero. So was Theseus. But in Theseus' case, his sacredness comes from being the son of Poseidon, and from doing great deeds in spite of and beside obvious blunders. Hippolytus' one great deed - spurning love and therefore finally the criminal love of his stepmother - would, on this reading, _be_ an obvious blunder. And Antigone's one great deed, a clear parallel to Electra, the difference being that the latter was successful, would be _her_ obvious blunder. This reading serves not clarity of thought or litterary analysis, it serves only the agenda of denying that Antigone and Hippolytus were paragons. Just as the psychologists who retroactively have diagnosed Socrates as suffering from schizophrenia (as I have heard) serves the agenda of cutting down admiration for a martyr of philososphy. And these agendas serve only the greater agenda of looking at the state as something divine, which no citizen or inhabitant, not even non-rulers of the royal house, may challenge in any way without incurring the guilt and tragic flaw of hubris.

Let us compare how Patricia Lines judge Creon and Antigone:

"Creon, by contrast, understands the needs of the polis. Following a civil war, he has placed a premium on order. He will do whatever is necessary, including the stern enforcement of harsh rules. He faces another dilemma in his role as leader: he forbade the burial of Polyneices and decreed this harsh punishment before he was aware of Antigone's guilt. To pardon his future daughter-in-law as his first serious act as ruler of Thebes would compromise all future claims to fairness in his rule. Yet Creon listens to the chorus of old men; he listens to the blind seer. After struggling with the issue, he reconsiders his judgment; he determines to bury the body of Polyneices and to unbury Antigone with his own hands."

So, when Creon commits an injustice and impiety, setting aside personal feelings, he is sensitive to fairness and the needs of the state?

"Antigone, on the other hand, recognizes the demands of true justice and champions it. She spurns Ismene, who initially hesitated to assist her but soon after wished to share in her sister's punishment and death. Antigone refuses the offer. When Ismene asks whether her sister has cast her aside, Antigone's answer ignores Ismene's change of heart: "Yes. For you chose to live when I chose death." Antigone seems to speak not to spare Ismene, but to wound her to the quick. Antigone leaves Haemon, her betrothed, in the cold, as she left Ismene. She never seeks him out, nor even mentions his name. Yet Haemon is ready to defy his father for Antigone's sake, and he refuses to live without her. Ironically, this may be what he must do to win her affection, for Antigone reveals no tenderness for anyone except those already dead."

So, when Antigone sets aside personal feelings in order to be pious and ready to suffer death for it, she is self-centred and insensitive? And when she wounds people it has nothing to do with trying to leave them out of her suffering? Which fails with Haemon, but succeeds with Ismene, who survives to guide her blind father in the play Oedipus in Colonis.

Let us remind that Antigone was indeed of the royal race and had therefore at least potentially, a hightened responsibilty for public morality. Its first need is not enforcing harsh rules, even or especially after civil wars, nor being fair and equal in its unfairness and iniquity. If a corpse had been left unburied, the state would have been cursed. If the burier had remained hidden and private, justice and piety would have become then and there a private adventure of cheating the state (as it has since become in some places) rather than remaining the official morality of the state.

Hans Lundahl
Aix en Provence
Tuesday of Great and Holy Week, 2007

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