Suffering Tragedy: Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Butler on the Tragedy of Antigone

By Rancher, Shoni | Mosaic (Winnipeg), September 2008 | Go to article overview

Suffering Tragedy: Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Butler on the Tragedy of Antigone


Rancher, Shoni, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Is there still a place in modern consciousness for an interest in the central issues that Antigone signified for the ancient world? Is our continued interest in the ancient tragedy at odds with our modern interests in the individual, and does this betray our misunderstanding the play, or worse, ourselves? According to Hegel, modern tragedy surpasses the ancient in representing modernity's mark of developed self-consciousness, which essentially overturns the place of the substantive ties to family and state that Hegel placed over the entrance to the ancient tragedy. This is the problem that Hegel, in his Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, poses with his view of the difference between ancient and modern tragedy: that the latter expresses the developed self-awareness of modernity and its corresponding interest in something more beautiful and, in terms of this development, more advanced than the problem raised in Antigone (1219). (1) For Hegel, the epic substantive ties to family and state are still present in modern tragedy, but they are no longer the central issue that interests and moves the modern spectator. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, for example, Hegel tells us that the issue is not so much about whether the duty to honour one's family trumps the duty to maintain the security of the kingdom, but rather it is the fully developed character of Hamlet himself and his thoughts and psychological states that interests modernity most (1225-26). The substantive bonds to family and state merely provide the backdrop. Is the modern interest in Antigone, then, as Butler asks in Antigone's Claim: Kinship between Life and Death, merely a nostalgic idealization of kinship, which thus betrays Hegel's point that in modernity these once epically substantive terms have become, in Butler's words, "fragile, porous, and expansive" (22)? The implication of Hegel's view that Antigone is merely of historical interest, and thus no longer of any contemporary relevance, would seem to compel the Hegelian tradition to shift its focus away from the family and the political as substantive terms.

We need a closer look at Hegel's Aesthetics to see how much of Hegel's view we can agree with and perhaps to ask how much of our continuing interest in the tragedy can be said to be born simply out of nostalgia. If we look to Kierkegaard's critique of Hegel's Antigone in his essay on tragedy in Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, "The Tragic in Ancient Drama Reflected in the Tragic in Modern Drama," we find a solution to the problem that Hegel poses for modernity's interest in the tragedy. As I explain below, Hegel overestimates the power of modernity's developed self-consciousness to reflect itself out of its substantive ties to family and state, and in doing so also makes modern tragedy impossible, whereas Kierkegaard is able to explain why the issues between family and state in the ancient Antigone remain of interest to modernity. Kierkegaard demonstrates this last point with the proposal for a modern Antigone, which, while acknowledging that the critical eye of modernity has turned in on itself, nevertheless reminds us of the significance that these substantive bonds have for understanding both tragedy and ourselves.

Kierkegaard's view of the bond between the substantive and the subject presents an additional problem for the Hegelian interpretation of Antigone, one which Butler's reading underscores. Rather than arguing, as Hegel does, that Antigone represents the clearly defined relationship of identity between the feminine and masculine, family and state, which in the end subsumes the former under the latter, Kierkegaard and Butler both argue that there is a fundamental ambiguity to Antigone, which essentially disrupts the possibility of this clearly defined relationship. Like Butler, Kierkegaard points to Antigone's family inheritance as the source of this disruptive ambiguity; for both, this raises the question of authorship regarding Antigone's actions (Kierkegaard 147-56; Butler 24-28). …

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