Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The decree of relation: Creon's three card monte

The so-called "Ode to Man" -- the second ode in Sophocles' Antigone -- poses a challenge. It is, in effect, an effort to "read" man, this creature who shoots across the seas, rubs the earth, snares other kinds, struts on stage. No creature is more deinos than man. The interpretive effort to assign some meaning to this word has been huge, and ranges from the cheerleading valorization of "wonderful" to the somewhat less reassuring sense, offered by Heidegger among others, of unheimlich, uncanny.

A couple of quick points. For one, the ode deserves to be read in its context, which is resonant with fragmentary echoes of the ode throughout. Note also that the speaker of the ode is addressing the speaker of the ode -- man is speaking of man. One thing that's strange (deinos) about man is that he is rather singular in calling himself strange. He is estranged, but not as in "fallen from some prior Edenic primal realm." Rather as if to say, "I say I do not understand I," or, "I cannot read me," or, "I am one, yet not one." This is the anthropological impass that stands between the subject who speaks and the subject of which he speaks.

What's unsettled is a principle basic to Aristotelian logic:

For that logic to function at all,  it must be that A = A.

In this text, however, it cannot be ruled out that I \ne I. Man here is strangely not intact, or whole. This creature does not possess itself, master itself, read or rule itself in a total, seamless way. There's at least a crack.

A reader might thus be advised to attend to the seismic references (σείσαντες163, 584, 1274) in the play. This rift is stated early, right after the first ode celebrates the city's integrity after a severe, seven-sided challenge.

Here's Creon's first speech:

[162] My fellow citizens! First, the gods, after tossing the fate of our city on wild waves, have once more righted it. Second, I have ordered you through my messengers to come here [165] apart from all the rest, because I knew, first of all, how constant was your reverence for the power of the throne of Laius; how, again, you were reverent, when Oedipus was guiding our city;

Creon doesn't actually use the metaphor of the "ship of state," though it's often translated this way. The state was shaken [σείσαντες] by πολλῷ σάλῳ"wild waves," or "strong tossing" - according to Liddell-Scott-Jones (LSJ), σάλῳ can describe an earthquake or a wild sea. Seismic shifts that reach a certain magnitude can obliterate the difference between terra firma and poluphloisboio thalassēsHomer's much-thundering sea. (A friend who just experienced the massive recent earthquake in Chile described it as a sea-sickening undulation, a series of rolling waves.) 

It seems that Creon cannot act without setting off reverberations he does not see. After declaring the gods to be both cause and cure of this latest state-shaking, Creon's initial act is to divide the populace.

"I have ordered you," he says, "through my guides to ἐκ πάντων δίχα" -- literally, to tear yourselves asunder from the all. While the colloquial sense might not sound that strong, the underlying sense of δίχα points up the fact that his first speech is addressed not to the entire city, but to a select group. They are distinguished for their unwavering loyalty to the throne of Laius.

Why does that matter? Because Creon is about to set forth two claims. First, he will assert his total legitimacy through γένους -- kinship:

I now possess all the power and the throne according to nearness of race with the dead.
He will then proceed to speak of how the whole mind of a ruler is not knowable until he has been tested in action. The word for testing, ἐντριβὴς, literally means "rubbed," as from a touchstone.

He goes on: to hold one's tongue from fear is to be a cowardly traitor, if someone is attacking the state. The state is and must be greater than any friend to its leaders and subjects, greater than those who can't be our friends because they attacked the state. The state is what saves us. He concludes his intro with:
τοιοῖσδ᾽ ἐγὼ νόμοισι τήνδ᾽ αὔξω πόλιν, 
Such are the rules by which I strengthen this city.
He then says:
Akin to these is the edict which I have now published to the citizenry concerning the sons of Oedipus: Eteocles, who fell fighting [195] in behalf of our city and who excelled all in battle, they shall entomb and heap up every sacred offering that descends to the noblest of the dead below. But as for his brother, Polyneices, I mean, who on his return from exile wanted to burn to the ground [200] the city of his fathers and his race's gods, and wanted to feed on kindred blood and lead the remnant into slavery—it has been proclaimed to the city that no one shall give him funeral honors or lamentation, [205] but all must leave him unburied and a sight of shame, with his body there for birds and dogs to eat.
Note the first word, "akin." The Greek is ἀδελφὰ, the word for brother, or sister, the first noun in the first line of the play, Antigone's address to Ismene - O my very own sister...

Creon is arguing that the speaking that will act to differentiate two brothers and sons of Oedipus is legitimate because it is brother to the logic by which he has just proved the πάτραthe fatherland, to be supreme. It is as loyal son to the Fatherland that he undoes the brotherhood of the sons of Oedipus.

Creon is professing allegiance to the ties of family, only he has substituted the Fatherland for Oedipus, making it his duty as legitimate son of the state to divide, to rend asunder, the brothers Eteocles and Polyneices.

The power to say that "A is A" and that "B is not B" is the power of the decree, the speech act authorized by Creon's nearness to the race of Oedipus, whose plight made it impossible for the King to say whether he was father, or son, or brother. Oedipus, ignorant of his race, could not know to whom he referred when he said "I."


Upon his proximity to the blood of that confusion, Creon sets forth his negation of the relation of familial brother-to-brother in favor of a brave new father, who aims to set things straight.

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