Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Anatomy of an idiot

This is a kind of thought experiment, an attempt to regard the very rich text of the Antigone from just one angle, centered on the figure of Creon. It's merely a way to discern a pattern of failed reading in the play, which one hopes will not act out the pattern it seeks to describe. There are many ways to look at this play, because there's nothing schematic about Sophocles, and the Antigone is far richer than any diagram.

In one of Antigone's exchanges with Creon, there's this:
Why then do you wait? In none of your maxims is there anything that pleases me—and may there never be! Similarly to you as well my views must be displeasing. And yet, how could I have won a nobler glory than by giving burial to my own brother? All here would admit that they approve, [505] if fear did not grip their tongues. But tyranny, blest with so much else, has the power to do and say whatever it pleases. 
You alone out of all these Thebans (Καδμείων - Cadmeians) see it that way. 
They do, too, but for you they hold their tongues.
The word for "hold" Antigone uses in her reply to Creon is ὑπίλλω -- which has a basic sense of pressing down, pushing under. It was used to describe how a dog holds its tail down between its legs.

Here it is the στόμα, the voices of the people, that Antigone says are pressed down. στόμα is also the word used for the gates of Thebes in the first ode, which are closed tight against the seven generals seeking to destroy the city.

The image of the tongue as too large (Capaneus) or as suppressed is basic to the play. Zeus hates big tongues, as we have noted. One way of looking at the structure of the play is as a set of dialogues between a series of characters and Creon, the king and prime tongue, if you will, of the state. The sequence is this - including the ode that ends the scene with each character:
  • Guard                                         Ode: Man as deinos
  • Antigone                                    "Fortunate they" 
  • Haemon                                     "Love unconquered in fight"
  • Teiresias                                     Ode to Bacchus 
The speakers try to communicate with Creon, to convey that he has erred. Though they are relaying entirely different arguments, Creon's response in each case is the same. Sensing vulgar motives everywhere, he crudely insults each interlocutor. The guard is a slave to conspirators' bribes, Antigone is lost in hubris; Haemon is enslaved to a woman, Teiresias is governed by greed. Each time Creon fails to see his hamartia, his error.

At the risk of seeming too schematic we can briefly consider how each of the four speakers relates to the "crime" that Creon is bent on punishing.

The guard is the one whose eye sees, whose hand arrests. Antigone, the culprit, grounds her justification in a duty to honor the ancient laws and claims of blood. Haemon, like an attorney or adviser, invokes wisdom to persuade his father to yield. Teiresias, who lived through seven generations of Thebans, and whose guidance proved true to Oedipus as it will to Creon, speaks of signs in things that point to something gravely awry. The altars, in fact, are polluted with meat torn from Polyneices' dead body.

The types of characters are not unlike those in a detective story. The police apprehend the villain, the villain is grilled, has his day in court, witnesses testify, a judge sentences him.

If we somewhat schematically look at the characters in terms of the modes of information they bring to the judgment, we find:
  • Eye            senses                present         Guard       Ode to Man
  • Heart         emotion              past              Antigone   "Fortunate they"
  • Mind         common sense     reflection      Haemon    "Love unconquered"
  • Prophecy   reading signs       future           Teiresias    Ode to Bacchus
Each speaker taps into a different form of knowledge -- sensory, intuitive, rational, prophetic. Indeed, they follow the time-honored epistemological pattern by which the mind arrives at truth by moving from the external portals of the senses inward to the powers of the mind and soul.

In series, the dialogues offer a harmonious manifold of perceptions, feelings, reasoning, and insight that puts in question the official legal decree of the king. In a way, Antigone is analogous to Oedipus Tyrannus. There is a mysterious crime, there are clues. The king/detective interrogates witnesses and gathers testimony, drawing the same errant conclusion each time. At the root of the crime, the royal judge in the end finds himself. Oedipus literally finds himself, while Creon is unable to bend, to listen, to yield. His decree, the speech act of the lawmaker's big tongue, usurps all else. It lies at the root of every bad thing that follows.

This deafness to the signs before one, a separateness from the Other, and the repetition of the same thing again and again, are familiar ingredients of humor. In ancient comedy one often finds an old man, the senex, who is proud, foolish, hearing impaired, and the butt of much of the humor of the piece. Looked at one way, Creon has all the trappings of the senex, imprisoned in idiocy (ἴδιος).

Yet with his royal status, Creon has the power to degrade the Other, to make anyone something less than human. Doglike. ὑπίλλω.

Yet the larger scope of the play -- its meditations on man and on the degradations of abusive power; its comprehensive portrayal of three women, and its vision of the precarious dignity of human being -- doesn't teeter on the edge of the comic. The fates of Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice are heavy indeed. In the heightened, extraordinary language of its choral odes, Antigone is all gravitas. But Creon? If he's not a comical senex, does that mean he's a tragic figure? Worth pondering.

ζεύχθη δ᾽ ὀξύχολος παῖς  Δρύαντος
Ἠδωνῶν βασιλεύςκερτομίοις ὀργαῖς 
ἐκ Διονύσου πετρώδει κατάφαρκτος ἐν δεσμῷ
οὕτω τᾶς μανίας δεινὸν ἀποστάζει 
960ἀνθηρόν τε μένος.
955 And Dryas's son, the Edonian king swift to rage, was tamed in recompense for his heart-cutting insults, when, by the will of Dionysus, he was encased in rocky bonds. There the fierce, 
[δεινὸν], blooming force of his madness trickled away.

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