Friday, May 02, 2014

Dark wedding: Allusion in Antigone

It was a mere 2,455 years ago (or more) that Antigone had its premier. It's a testament to the formidable problem Sophocles has posed that the other day we consumed nearly our entire time in a lively discussion centering on the question of the political wisdom of Creon.

What's especially curious is that the question of state authority came up as we happened to be reading this famous, strange exchange between Antigone and the chorus that begins with the daughter of Oedipus comparing herself to Niobe:
[823] I have heard with my own ears how our Phrygian guest, the daughter of Tantalus, perished [825] in so much suffering on steep Sipylus—how, like clinging ivy, the sprouting stone subdued her. And the rains, as men tell, do not leave her melting form, nor does the snow, [830] but beneath her weeping brow she dampens her collar. Most like hers is the god-sent fate that leads me to my rest.
The chorus offers the consolation of fame:
[834] Yet she [Niobe] was a goddess, as you know, and the offspring of gods, [835] while we are mortals and mortal-born. Still it is a great thing for a woman who has died to have it said of her that she shared the lot of the godlike in her life, and afterwards, in death.
This provokes Antigone:
[839] Ah, you mock me! In the name of our fathers' gods, [840] why do you not wait to abuse me until after I have gone, and not to my face, O my city, and you, her wealthy citizens? Ah, spring of Dirce, and you holy ground of Thebes whose chariots are many, [845] you, at least, will bear me witness how unwept by loved ones, and by what laws I go to the rock-closed prison of my unheard-of tomb! Ah, misery! [850] I have no home among men or with the shades, no home with the living or with the dead.
The passage has left commentators scratching their heads, and there isn't time now to examine it in detail. Let's note that this is a rare case of a character in tragedy making a literary allusion. Usually the great names of myth are found in the choral odes, where one expects a certain elevated speech. It's not often that a character likens herself to a mythic being.

What's more, the allusion falls on deaf ears. The chorus dwells on the unlikeness, on the fact that Niobe was a demigod, the daughter of Tantalus, then offers Antigone the promise of fame. Antigone, however, apparently sees an utterly different point of congruence between herself and Niobe -- the homelessness of their fates.

Ovid's memorable tale of Niobe depicts a fecund woman who ends orphaning herself, living on as one who is neither dead nor alive, neither tomb nor entombed, an anomaly outside of the binaries of death/life, external/internal.

In Niobe, myth captures an extraordinary fate. The bearer of the seed of Oedipus likens her fate to Niobe's, and apparently the chorus misunderstands the ground of likeness. Of course the very notion of "seed" is a vexed matter in Thebes. Creon himself is a descendant of the original spartoi.

What's clear is that Antigone was destined to be the bearer of the seed of the royal house, but instead, her marriage to the son of Creon turns into a tomb.

At stake, in part, is the weight of this allusion, and perhaps of all allusions in Sophocles. How are they to be read? Antigone calls herself the new Niobe, but what happens is extraordinary: her marriage bed reverses nature. The embrace of bride and groom yields no children, but strangely gives birth to an altered Creon - bereft of children, and therefore of hope of grandchildren, he is rejected by his last son, abandoned to life by Eurydice, and ends in a petrified state that can truly be characterized as a living tomb.

If the chorus fails to "read" Antigone's allusion correctly, it's worth asking how well we manage to read allusions to other myths woven into the odes. The next choral ode will bring three dark tales to light, posing interpretive questions that have bothered commentators for 2455 years.

Sophocles' language seems basic, yet it works at the dark foundations of order, where terror is found, and a profound apprehension that conjoins simplicity and enormity. At this crucial moment in the play, the chorus's inability to read Antigone is foregrounded, and our reading must grapple with doubts as to the capacity of their witness.

No wonder our discussions are lively.

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