Here’s the thoughts that occurred to me, after watching the Anne Carson translation of Antigone[i] performed at the Kennedy Center recently.
The bodies of the 9/11 hijackers were carefully separated from the wreckage of the twin towers. They were interred in a different graveyard from remains of all those others who perished at their hands.
There was an African-American member of John Brown’s raid who was executed a week after Brown. While Brown’s body was returned to his widow, for burial at their farm in New York State, the body of the African-American man was interred near the execution place, then dug up by medical students, to be used as a cadaver for dissection. At the time, similar to ancient Greece, this was believed to endanger the soul’s ability to rise on judgment day, since it would not be whole.
Thus Kreon’s edict, exercising sovereignty over the bodies of defeated enemies, abides in our history. We, too, make distinctions about the bodies of our enemies compared to those we wish to honor. Most productions of the play, as well as readings of Antigone, focus on his misogyny or the irrationality of his edict regarding the dishonoring of the dead body of the invader Polyneikes. Kreon, though, having just survived the onslaught, felt, as any political leader might, that he needed to exercise his authority, to show that he was indeed the strong leader his people needed in the troubled times after the attack.
Keep in mind George W’s approval rating reached 80% after 9/11.
Kreon, in his argument with his son Haimon, stresses the issue was anarchy or order. Given the number of Iraqis and Afganis who had been murdered and tortured in the war on terror, we Americans are hardly in a position to find fault with Kreon’s perspective. Jeb Bush’s recent comment about his brother’s actions as president, “He kept us safe,” might serve as a line from the chorus of this ancient Greek play.
Kreon was quite correct in observing that if Antigone’s defiance prevailed, “he would be the woman.” That is, his weakness would have been there for all to see. This would have created the danger of another invasion of Thebes. Isn’t that what the Republican critique of Obama stresses, that he has shown weakness, thus encouraging the terrorists, Putin, China? Obama tolerates drone strikes that kill people at a wedding party, or in a hospital, because he believes he doesn’t have a choice. He must appear to be strong.
Kreon’s son and his wife both scorn him, not understanding the impossible circumstances he finds himself in. They express their fury and helplessness by taking their own lives. Should we blame Kreon for their deaths? The chorus seems to, talking at the end of the play about wisdom.
But couldn’t we see the chorus as culpable in what happens to Antigone and all the rest? They didn’t demur from Kreon’s edict, or intercede on behalf of Antigone throughout the whole play. They wanted to be kept safe is all. Then they found fault with their leader’s actions. I think we can say, given his cautious performance in office, that Obama was free to criticize the Iraq War because he wasn’t in the Senate when they voted on it. Had he been there, he’d have done what Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and all the rest felt they had to do: support a hugely popular president as he called for war. It didn’t work out so well for Kreon or George, so we can blame them afterwards.
We might then view Kreon’s anguish at the end, not so much a consequence of his poor judgment, as what occurs when the split becomes too great between the burdens of office and the feelings of a human being. Nobody, not the chorus, not his son or his wife, not the pundit Teiresias, understood he had to be the tough guy. Given the recently thwarted attack, he didn’t perceive any other option, if he wished to be the leader. The play thus becomes equally his tragedy, as Antigone’s. Or, perhaps, ultimately, it is ours. We place impossible demands on our leaders, then abandon them when they make a mistake.
Everyone in the play who dies, Antigone, Haimon, Eurydike, does so at their own hand. This ought to be understood as the ultimate expression of the powerless seeking power. They wished to be in charge of something, if not in the world, then, over their own lives. They felt helpless to change Kreon’s edict. Kreon felt helpless to alter it.
How many people would be alive today, if we Americans learned to live with our insecurity and helplessness?
[i] Synopsis: As the play opens, Kreon and his city Thebes have just survived and beaten back an invasion led by Antigone’s brother, Polyneikes. He and her other brother, Etocles, who remained loyal, killed each other in a duel. Kreon ordered Etocles to be buried with full honors, and for the body of Polyneikes to remain unburied. Antigone defies Kreon’s edict, wishing to provide her brother with passage to the underworld, which, her culture believed, would be blocked if he were not buried. He sentences her to death. His son, Haimon, who intended to marry Antigone, kills himself in frustration at his father, as does Kreon’s wife, Eurydike. By the time Kreon realizes he’s overreached, and goes to free Antigone from the cave he’s walled her in, she has also taken her own life. The play ends with him feeling wretched and regretful.