Written by Claudia Hauer, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Sophocles’ play Antigone remains one of the most compelling and oft-performed of the Greek tragedies. The play was recently adapted for use in Ferguson, Missouri by Theater of War, a social justice project which uses performances of Greek tragedy to encourage communities to bridge the military-civil divide.
In the case of Ferguson, Antigone addressed the stark divide between law enforcement and citizens. Antigone’s resistance to the tyrannical authority of the state resonates with audiences. The opposition between uncle Creon and niece Antigone reflects the timeless conflict between the laws of the state and the laws of conscience—for instance, French playwright Jean Anouilh’s famous 1944 re-staging of the play in Nazi-occupied France emphasized Antigone’s rejection of authority.
In these popular productions, Antigone’s conflict with the state has focused on her taking a stand for the good. In the early 19th century, in his Lectures on Aesthetics, Hegel argues that Antigone is the greatest of the Greek tragedies for the perfection in which it pits Antigone and Creon’s principles against one another. But there is another possibility as well. One of Antigone’s strongest qualities is her desire. Aristotle argues in the Nicomachean Ethics that all men by nature desire the good. What if the key word in Aristotle’s statement is not ‘the good,’ but ‘desire’?
This emphasis on desire forms the basis for an alternative interpretation of the play offered by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. This interpretation takes Antigone beyond social justice issues on into the realm of identity that often underlies broader social patterns of oppression. Lacan’s psychological view focuses on the way Antigone comes to terms with the fact of her incestuous birth not through reason or principle, but through her focused and manifest desire to bury her brother.
According to Lacan, Antigone demonstrates how ethical conduct can and will occasionally transcend the conventional social boundaries when it comes to human identity. Antigone shows us that the conventional boundaries we draw between human and other-than-human are not fixed, but porous.
By presenting us with a character who is undeniably human and yet whom convention labels ‘unnatural’, Antigone remains relevant not just to social justice issues, as in the Hegelian interpretation, but also to contemporary boundary issues such as gender identity that challenge conventional social categories. To give a contemporary example, the notion of an individual being transgender seems to many to be ‘unnatural,’ despite the obvious evidence of the humanity of the individual.
Lacan’s reading begins with a variety of passages in the play that suggest Antigone is not acting on principle at all. For example, while lamenting to the Chorus after hearing her death sentence, Antigone says, “Had I had children or their father dead, I’d let them moulder. I should not have chosen in such a case to cross the state’s decree” (905-7).
Lacan goes on to argue that while Antigone may lack principle, her burial of her brother is driven by an ethics of desire. In that respect, Antigone’s ethics align with Aristotle’s view that the ethical is located at the conjunction between action and desire. This interpretation sees Antigone as unquestionably ethical in the actions she takes to fulfill her desire to bury her brother.
The hold Antigone has over us cannot be understood in terms of a dry and intellectual analysis of elements like character or moral principle, Lacan argues, but rather by acknowledging the fact that we are fascinated by her, even that we desire her. As he writes:
“We know very well that over and beyond the dialogue, over and beyond the question of family and country, over and beyond the moralizing arguments, it is Antigone herself who fascinates us. Antigone in her unbearable splendor. She has a quality that both attracts us and startles us, in the sense of intimidates us; this terrible, self-willed victim disturbs us.”
Lacan preserves the Aristotelian combination of value and desire as the basis for ethical character, but instead of sharing in Aristotle’s assumption that it is our values that reveal our quality, Lacan finds the more interesting element to be desire.
In terms of conventional humanity, Antigone should not have come into being at all. This is made clear in the legend—she comes into being both through divine mandate and the abomination of incest. Antigone challenges the audience and the characters within the text to reposition the conventional border between human and nature, now stretched to its limits by the taboo of incest.
Antigone illustrates that she too is a human being, even though the terms of her birth defy human convention. In this way Antigone herself challenges those who view the play – whatever is concealed within her or beyond her, we do not want to see; it would threaten the ethical basis of our community to see it.
As the daughter of Oedipus’ terrible incest, she should not, according to society, exist. Yet she does exist, and she does not deny herself the power of her passion for the brother who is equally the product of a broken taboo. Lacan argues that the audience relies on Antigone to protect us from those aspects of her being that may be too intense for us. From her very first opening lines, Antigone demonstrates that she is prepared to act with or without our help.
In disturbing us, Antigone also challenges us in how we respond to her. Lacan suggests that the Chorus gives us the clue about how to respond to Antigone. In Lacan’s reading, the Chorus serves as a mediator between Antigone and the audience, doing the difficult and honest work of responding to Antigone so that the audience can manage their own responses. In this manner, the Chorus makes it tolerable for all audiences to engage with Antigone.
Antigone can endure something that an ordinary human could not: the realization that the borders that we have constructed around what it means to be human are not fixed. Antigone asserts her humanity with passion and courage, despite her incestuous birth. Admiring Antigone’s self-control, the Chorus marvels: “Many the wonders but nothing more wondrous than man.”
Antigone controls her world through her own desire. Antigone teaches us that the work of each human being is to confront, each to the limit of her ability, the uncomfortable truths of our collective uncertainty about what it means to be human.
Lacan, Jacques. 1992. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book VII. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. Translated by Dennis Porter. New York: Norton & Company.
Aristotle. 2000. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Terence Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.