Saturday, March 22, 2014

Enter the Guard: Voice and polis in Antigone

A motif that comes up again and again in Sophocles' Antigone is a tension between one voice and more than one. It surfaces stylistically as well as thematically. Take for example, the first entrance of the Guard, a study in characterization. Many have noted his similarity to some of the lower characters in Shakespeare, how their language seems to run at one thing, then another.

Upon the guard's first entrance, he narrates the circus within himself:
My king, I will not say that I arrive breathless because of speed, or from the action of a swift foot. [225] For often I brought myself to a stop because of my thoughts, and wheeled round in my path to return. My mind was telling me many things: “Fool, why do you go to where your arrival will mean your punishment?” “Idiot, are you dallying again? If Creon learns it from another, must you not suffer for it?” [230] So debating, I made my way unhurriedly, slow, and thus a short road was made long.
The divided consciousness, at the beck of multiple voices, going round in a circle, trying to adjudicate the case at hand, insulting itself on both sides of the aisle, a mini-political assembly all in one. The guard narrates this internal scene to Creon, then more or less pulls himself together and speaks in a more composed voice:
At last, however, the view prevailed that I should come here—to you. Even if my report brings no good, still will I tell you, [235] since I come with a good grip on one hope, that I can suffer nothing except what is my fate.
In the space of a few sentences, Sophocles has both given dimension to the guard and offered a glimpse into the inner imbroglio of an undecided mind, moving from the realm of "fool" and "idiot" to the officiousness of, "the view prevailed." The guard goes on to describe the scene at the grave, shifting to a lyrical power that provides a most memorable simile of Antigone in action, a bird bewailing its empty nest.

But it's what the guard says upon his return after arresting Antigone, that, within the full text of the play, will haunt Creon:

ἄναξβροτοῖσιν οὐδέν ἔστ᾽ ἀπώμοτον
ψεύδει γὰρ  'πίνοια τὴν γνώμην:
My king, there is nothing that a man can rightly swear he will not do. For second thought belies one's first intent. [390]
Moreso than many others, this play cannot be read, only re-read. Only after we have seen Creon change his mind, reversing his order on the question of Antigone and the burial of Polyneices, does the guard's seemingly commonplace remark reverberate with the somber ironies of Sophocles' art.

The theme runs throughout -- from the Ode to Man which resists single definition to the motif of coerced political silence to the increasingly heated exchange between Haemon and Creon: To rule is to subject multiplicity to one mind, to speak with one voice. But the creature that seeks to subject itself to one voice is itself a creature of many voices, many attributes, many parts. It is deinos. The heterogeneity of man, as exemplified in the guard's distinctive patchwork of sentences might lead us to consider the insights of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who wrote about what he called heteroglossia, and the hybrid utterance:
The hybrid utterance, as defined by Bakhtin, is a passage that employs only a single speaker—the author, for example—but one or more kinds of speech. The juxtaposition of the two different speeches brings with it a contradiction and conflict in belief systems.
Bakhtin was interested in the open-endedness of the novel in contrast to what he saw as the closed, finalized world of epic. Perhaps in Sophocles we see a dramatist using a heteroglossic speaker in a play that is, at least in part, about the complications and dangers of trying to silence all but one tongue.

As Creon will find out. A telling exchange comes later, line 736 ff:

Am I to rule this land by the will of another than myself?         
ἄλλῳ γὰρ ἢ ᾽μοὶ χρή με τῆσδ᾽ ἄρχειν χθονός;
That is no city, which belongs to one man. 
πόλις γὰρ οὐκ ἔσθ᾽ ἥτις ἀνδρός ἐσθ᾽ ἑνός.
Creon uses the word ἄρχειν for "to rule" - the idea of arche as "first" -- of all the many, this one, the first. Creon will call the guard a "babbler" (λάλημα) and claim that the man's voice sickens him (ἀνιαρῶς316). But Creon's firstness slides into onlyness, and the dialogic -- an open political order in which differences coexist and self-organize via a coherent discourse -- collapses into empty monologue. At the extremes you get either a cacophany of babblers, or one big tongue.

No comments: