Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Antigone Now

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Antigone Now

Article excerpt

Antigone Studies is a field with a distinguished history, and one that is flourishing again thanks to the emergence of a new community of voices. Interest in Antigone extends far beyond the discipline of classics, inhabiting political thought and feminist literature, German Romanticism and its legacies, psychoanalysis, and post-colonial theory and performance. (1) Hegel's reading is, of course, the most influential: in the Phenomenology of Spirit, he uses Sophocles's play to dramatize the transition from one ethical order to another, from the "natural ethical community" (268) of the family to the "community, the superior law whose validity is openly apparent" (272). Antigone also turns up in Thomas de Quincey's celebration of the "Holy Heathen" heroine (315); in Matthew Arnold's infamous verdict that a drama about dying to bury a brother "is no longer one in which it is possible that we should feel a deep interest" (12); and in Virginia Woolf's completely antithetical impulse: "Antigone could be transformed [...] into Mrs. Pankhurst, who broke a window and was imprisoned in Holloway" (302). Attention to Antigone has long formed an undercurrent to academe's Oedipal obsession, but we can credit the appearance of Judith Butler's Antigone's Claim: Kinship between Life and Death with this century's resurgence of interest. (2) Butler assesses anthropological discourses of kinship to posit a performative interpretation of Antigone's gesture of mourning, and to advance a queer critique of the presumptions of psychoanalysis regarding the family in the symbolic order. Redefining Antigone, not as a representative of any particular sphere (house hold, state), but as a figure for relational identities in crisis, Butler asks, "which social arrangements can be recognized as legitimate love, and which human losses can be explicitly grieved as real and consequential loss?" (24). Her reading shows how the prohibition on Antigone's mourning parallels a situation that "those with publicly ungrievable losses--from AIDS, for instance--know too well" (24).

Since the publication of Antigone's Claim, the political implications of kinship and mourning have animated inquiry on Antigone, but recent work shows three new directions. In the first, the perspectives of classics are being brought to bear on the Antigone of feminist thought. The second, more directly indebted to Butler, assesses the viability of Antigone as a concept for psychoanalytic thought and practice. Finally, the third introduces questions of genre, and specifically the genre of tragedy, to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of the tragic experience. In what follows, I will trace these trends--the classical, the psychoanalytic, and the generic--in some recent works: Rita Felski's Rethinking Tragedy; Joan Breton Connelly's Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece; Vanda Zajko and Miriam Leonard's Laughing with Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought; Miriam Leonard's Athens in Paris: Ancient Greece and the Political in Post-War French Thought; and Cecilia Sjoholm's The Antigone Complex: Ethics and the Invention of Feminine Desire. These studies reveal the emergence of a rich dialogue among classics, psychoanalysis, and literary theory, and show an encouraging tendency to question the conventional coordinates of the field. I conclude by arguing for the need to bring the category of performance into this conversation, which would provide an even more sophisticated understanding of Antigone, one that encompasses the historical and aesthetic dimensions of Greek tragedy, as well as the modern reception of Sophocles across intellectual, literary, and stage traditions. Sophocles's Antigone delivers as much diva as doxa, and the theatrical spectacle of this rebellious heroine on a crash course with death can prove wildly suspenseful, or dangerously subversive, to a theatre audience. But if miscast or poorly produced, Antigone can appear (as it did to Matthew Arnold) a dull play of ideas whose self-righteous heroine cannot be ushered from the stage quickly enough. …

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