Private Lives, Public Deaths: Antigone and the Invention of Individuality

Private Lives, Public Deaths: Antigone and the Invention of Individuality

Private Lives, Public Deaths: Antigone and the Invention of Individuality

Private Lives, Public Deaths: Antigone and the Invention of Individuality

Synopsis

In Private Lives, Public Deaths, Jonathan Strauss shows how Sophocles' tragedy Antigone crystallized the political, intellectual, and aesthetic forces of an entire historical moment--fifth-century Athens--into one idea: the value of a single, living person. That idea existed, however, only as a powerful but unconscious desire. Drawing on classical studies, Hegel, and contemporary philosophical interpretations of this pivotal drama, Strauss argues that Antigone's tragedy, and perhaps all classical tragedy, represents a failure to satisfy this longing. To the extent that the value of a living individual remains an open question, what Sophocles attempted to imagine still escapes our understanding. Antigone is, in this sense, a text not from the past, but from our future.

Excerpt

Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone represents an immense effort to imagine the origins and limits of the political state. Law sets against law in the play, while a tenuous new order is won at huge sacrifice from their confrontation. For whom the city and by what right authority over it? the chorus ponders as the protagonists struggle to impose their image of the social order, create its very fabric, and explain its legitimacy. One can think of the action as a savage, blood-soaked version of a courtroom drama, similar in that respect to the other Attic tragedies, which centered overwhelmingly on judgments, and whose oldest extant cycle, Aeschylus’s Oresteia, culminates in the trial of Orestes and the establishment of a new justice in Athens. These are plays about the punishment of crimes, but with the peculiarity that the law finds itself as much in the dock as the criminal supposedly under its purview. Indeed, the very meaning of criminality raises problems, for even the definition of a judicable individual—what a person is and how to delimit his or her responsibility before the law—comes into question. With its arguments and trials, tragic drama condensed the turbulence of a period caught in the throes of self-invention down to a series of dialogues among a handful of characters. By its very nature, as Nicole Loraux put it, Greek tragedy contained “an opposition between two discourses, an agōn logōn,” but one could go further and say that Greek tragedy is the space of such an agōn logōn, that it is the contestatory verbal place in which the city could take shape as a conscious self-creation.

The reading of Antigone that makes up this book will treat it as a struggle to understand the shape, limits, and meaning of the city at one of its defining moments, a reflection on the rise of the state from the viewpoint of a privileged representative and at a time when the polis was just emerging . . .

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