Antigone Between Two Deaths
When does this complaint begin? From the moment when she crosses the entrance to the zone between life and death, that is to say, when what she has already affirmed herself to be takes on an outward form. She has been telling us for a long time that she is in the kingdom of the dead, but at this point the idea is consecrated. Her punishment will consist in her being shut up or suspended in the zone between life and death. Although she is not yet dead, she is eliminated from the world of the living. And it is from that moment on that her complaint begins, her lamentation on life.
Antigone will lament that she is departing [atapsos] , without a tomb, even though she is to be shut up in a tomb, without a dwelling place, mourned by no friend. Thus her separation is lived as a regret or lamentation for everything in life that is refused her. She even evokes the fact that she will never know a conjugal bed, the bond of marriage, that she will never have any children. The speech is a long one.
It has occurred to some commentators to cast doubt on this side of the tragedy in the name of the so called unity of the character represented as the cold and inflexible Antigone. The term [psuchon] is that of coldness and frigidity. Creon calls her "a cold object to caress," line 650, in a dialogue with his son, so as to let him know that he's not losing very much. Antigone's character is contrasted with her complaint so as to bring out the lack of verisimilitude in an outburst that, it is held, should not be attributed to the poet.
It's an absurd misinterpretation, for from Antigone's point of view life can only be approached, can only be lived or thought about, from the place of that limit where her life is already lost, where she is already on the other side. But from that place she can see it and live it in the form of something already lost.
Antigone between two deaths 281
And it is from the same place that the image of Antigone appears before us as something that causes the Chorus to lose its head, as it tells us itself, makes the just appear unjust, and makes the Chorus transgress all limits, including casting aside any respect it might have for the edicts of the city. Nothing is more moving than that[imepos enapges] , than the desire that visibly emanates from the eyelids of this admirable girl.
The violent illumination, the glow of beauty, coincides with the moment of transgression or of realization of Antigone 's Atè, which is the characteristic that I have chiefly insisted on and which introduced us to the exemplary function of Antigone's problem in allowing us to determine the function of certain effects. It is in that direction that a certain relationship to a beyond of the central field is established for us, but it is also that which prevents us from seeing its true nature, that which dazzles us and separates us from its true function. The moving side of beauty causes all critical judgment to vacillate, stops analysis, and plunges the different forms involved into a certain confusion or, rather, an essential blindness.
The beauty effect is a blindness effect. Something else is going on on the other side that cannot be observed. In effect, Antigone herself has been declaring from the beginning: "I am dead and I desire death." When Antigone depicts herself as Niobe becoming petrified, what is she identifying herself with, if it isn't that inanimate condition in which Freud taught us to recognize the form in which the death instinct is manifested? An illustration of the death instinct is what we find here.
It is at the moment when Antigone evokes Niobe that the Coryphaeus sings her praise, line 840: "You then are half
goddess." Then Antigone's response bursts forth, and she is far from being a half-goddess: "This is absurd;you are making fun of me." And the word she uses means "outrage," which, as I have already indicated, is manifestly correlated to the moment of crossing over. The Greek word is used here in its proper sense, which is directly related to the term meaning to cross over - "outrage" is to go "out" or beyond (c'est aller outre), go beyond the right one has to make light of what happens at the greatest of costs. [Lbpigeis] is the term Antigone confronts the Chorus with: "You do not realize what you are saying. You outrage me." But her stature is far from diminished as a result, and her complaint, the[kommos] , her long complaint, follows immediately.
The Chorus then goes on to make an enigmatic reference to three quite disparate episodes from the history of mythology. The first concerns Danae, who was shut up in a bronze chamber. The second is to Lycurgus, the son of Dryas, King of the Edonians, who was mad enough to persecute the servants of Dionysos, to pursue and terrify them, and even to rape their women and to make divine Dionysos jump into the sea. This is the first mention we have of the Dionysiac. In Book II of the Iliad we find Dionysos in a deathlike state, and he goes on to revenge himself by transforming Lycurgus into a madman. There are a number of different forms of the myth - perhaps he was imprisoned; blinded by Dionysos's madness he even killed his own sons whom he mistook for vine shoots, and he hacked off his own limbs. But that's not important because the text only refers to the vengeance of Dionysos the God. The third example, which is even more obscure, concerns the hero Phineas, who is at the center of a whole bundle of legends that are full of contradictions and extremely difficult to reconcile. He is found on a cup as the object of a confiict between the Harpies, who torment him, and the Boreads, the two sons of Boreas who protect him, and on the horizon there passes, strangely enough, the wedding procession of Dionysos and Ariadne.
There is certainly a lot to be gained in the interpretation of these myths, if it turns out to be possible. Their disparate character and the apparent lack of relevance to the issues at hand is certainly one of the burdens that the tragic texts impose on their commentators. I don't pretend to be able to solve the problem, but it was by bringing to the attention of my friend Lévi-Strauss the difficulty of this passage,that I recently managed to interest him in Antigone.
There is nevertheless something that one can point to in this rash of tragic episodes evoked by the Chorus at the moment when Antigone is at the limit. They all concern the relationship of mortals to the gods. Danae is entombed because of the love of a god; Lycurgus is punished because he attempted to commit violence on a god, and it is also because she is of divine descent that Cleopatra the Boread and rejected companion of Phineas is implicated in the story - she is referred to as[amippos] , that is to say, as swift as a horse, and it is said that she also moves faster across solid ice than any steed; she's a skater. Now the striking thing about Antigone is that she undergoes a misfortune that is equal to that of all those who are caught up in the cruel sport of the gods. Seen from the outside by us as [atpagodoi], she appears as the victim at the center of the anamorphic cylinder of the tragedy. She is there in spite of herself as victim and holocaust.
Antigone appears as [autonomos] , as a pure and simple relationship of the human being to that of which he miraculously happens to be the bearer, namely, the signifying cut that confers on him the indomitable power of being what he is in the face of everything that may oppose him.
Anything at all may be invoked in connection with this, and that's what the Chorus does in the fifth act when it evokes the god that saves.
Dionysos is this god; otherwise why would he appear there? There is nothing Dionysiac about the act and the countenance of Antigone. Yet she pushes to the limit the realization of something that might be called the pure and simple desire of death as such. She incarnates that desire.
- Think about it. What happens to her desire? Shouldn't it be the desire of the Other and be linked to the desire of the mother? The text alludes to the fact that the desire of the mother is the origin of everything. The desire of the mother is the founding desire of the whole structure, the one that brought into the world the unique offspring that are Eteocles, Polynices, Antigone and Ismene; but it is also a criminal desire. Thus at the origin of tragedy and of humanism we find once again an impasse that is the same as Hamlet's, except strangely enough it is even more radical.
No mediation is possible here except that of this desire with its radically destructive character. The fruit of the incestuous union has split into two brothers, one of whom represents power and the other crime. There is no one to assume the crime and the validity of crime apart from Antigone.
- Between the two of them, Antigone chooses to be purely and simply the guardian of the being of the criminal as such. No doubt things could have been resolved if the social body had been willing to pardon, to forget and cover over everything with the same funeral rites. It is because the community refuses this that Antigone is required to sacrifice her own being in order to maintain that essential being which is the family Atè, and that is the theme or true axis on which the whole tragedy turns. [Thus, Antigone's Até is not a matter of a desire which comes strictly out of nothing. Her desire is the desire of the Other, but one that chooses to identify with one side of her family history, the desire which it has occluded behind its