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Ismene’s Forced Choice: (Post) Lacanian Sacrifice and Sorority in Sophocles’


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Ismene’s Forced Choice: (Post) Lacanian Sacrifice and Sorority in Sophocles’ Antigone
This paper is dedicated to the memory of Alyssa Peterson (C Company, 311th Military Intelligence BN, 101st Airborne), one of the first female US soldiers who died in Iraq:
Appalled when ordered to take part in interrogations that, no doubt, involved what we would call torture, she refused, then killed herself a few days later, in September 2003 . . . According to the official report on her death released the following year, she had earlier been "reprimanded" for showing "empathy" for the prisoners. One of the most moving parts of that report is: "She said that she did not know how to be two people; she ... could not be one person in the cage and another outside the wire." Peterson was then assigned to the base gate, where she monitored Iraqi guards, and was sent to suicide prevention training. " But on the night of September 15th, 2003, Army investigators concluded she shot and killed herself with her service rifle,” (Greg Mitchell, Editor and Publisher, April 23, 2009).
Myths are stories about people who become too big for their lives, temporarily, so that they crash into other lives or brush against gods. In crisis, their souls are visible.

Anne Carson, Grief Lessons, 8


******************** *********** ********** **********************
Ismene: Such wretched straits.

Oedipus: Hers [Antigone's] and mine?

Ismene: And mine too, my pain the third.

Oedipus at Colonus
You’ll soon show what you are, worth your breeding, Ismene, or a coward – for all your royal blood.

Antigone to Ismene, Antigone


I did it, yes – if only she consents…

Ismene to Creon, Antigone1

This paper develops a new reading of Sophocles’ Antigone, uncovering subtle collusions between Antigone and Ismene and exploring their implications for Antigone scholarship, democratic theory and feminism. Antigone scholarship in Political Theory, Philosophy, and Classics has long struggled with how to deal with this sororal relation. Antigone’s apparent brutality toward her sister seems to conflict with Antigone’s claim that she was “born to love.” And Ismene’s late effort to share her sister’s fate seems out of character given her earlier character-defining refusal to defy Creon. These puzzles are solved by the reading developed here in which the sisters act in coordination beneath the radar of Creon’s sovereignty. Their action in concert conforms in some ways to Jacques Lacan’s ethics of creativity but the sisters also, contra Lacan, act politically.

Lacan does not himself grant ethical agency to Ismene. In this, he is not alone. Indeed, for centuries, Ismene has been cast as the inert drab backdrop against which her more colorful heroic sister stands out. Antigone is active, Ismene passive, Antigone is heroic, Ismene cowardly, argue conventional readings. Slavoj Žižek preserves them:

we must oppose all attempts to domesticate her, to tame [Antigone] by concealing the frightening strangeness, ‘inhumanity’ a-pathetic character of her figure, making her a gentle protectress of her family and household who evokes our compassion and offers herself as a point of identification. In Sophocles’ Antigone, the figure with which we can identify is her sister Ismene – kind considerate sensitive, prepared to give way, and compromise, pathetic, ‘human’ in contrast to Antigone, who goes to the limits, who doesn’t give way on her desire (Lacan) and becomes, in this persistence in the ‘death drive,’ in the being-toward-death, frighteningly, ruthlessly exempted from the circle of everyday feelings and consideration, passions and fears (1989.116-117).2
Splitting Ismene and Antigone into passive and active characters, comfortable and monstrous, oriented to survival or sacrifice, recurs even when the conventional takes on the two sisters are revalued rather than repeated. For example, Jill Frank argues that Ismene is not withdrawn or weak; she is patient and bides her time, while Antigone, by contrast, is too quick to act, too fiery, too thunderously loud to be truly effective (2006). Mary Rawlinson criticizes feminists for deriding Ismene’s focus on survival in favor of Antigone’s heroic martyrdom (forthcoming). Ismene’s this-worldly orientation is actually more valuable to feminism than her sister’s sacrificial desire, Rawlinson concludes.

But Ismene does more than survive and she sacrifices herself in her own way: she responds creatively to a series of what Lacan calls “forced choices,” and this is in keeping with, not in opposition to, Lacan’s ethics of desire or what Alenka Zupančič casts as a Lacanian ethics of creativity (1998). Indeed, I argue here, Lacan’s term, “forced choice,” actually invites an assessment of Antigone’s supposedly ordinary sister that is very different from the one he and his followers, like Žižek and Zupančič, themselves give. When Ismene, who wants to die with Antigone, agrees to go on living without her, Ismene does not, contra Lacan, Žižek and various feminist readers, choose survival and avoid death.3 Instead she acts ethically, in Lacan’s terms: she confronts her own limit and does not back down. Her limit is not death, but rather to go on living in the house of her sister’s killer, Creon. This is her second forced choice and she does not avoid it. As we shall see, she does not avoid the first forced choice pressed upon her either, and in relation to that one she is creative. The first forced choice, ordered by Creon but delivered by Antigone, is presented by Antigone as a choice between flagrant disobedience or cowardly withdrawal: Will Ismene help bury Polynices, or not? But, I will show, here too Ismene finds a way to act otherwise, in keeping with a Lacanian ethics but moving ultimately beyond ethics as such and into politics: As a close reading of Sophocles’ play suggests further, the two sisters act in concert in ways that complement not compete, or complement and compete.

The play’s subtleties are worth attending to as democratic and feminist theorists continue to work through our centuries’ long relationship with Antigone, her readers and receptions. Antigone is not just the familial heroine of burial and the guardian of the dead celebrated by Hegel for her service to the brother. Nor are her actions best seen as vindications of would-be extra-political universals such as the ontological fact of mortality in light of which we are all positioned as mortal (Stephen White, 2009) and grievable (Judith Butler, 2004). Antigone may be all these things but she is also – and more importantly for democratic and feminist theory -- a partisan sororal actor in concert who sacrifices herself for a living equal: Her sister. Antigone avows the sacrifice when she tells Ismene to go on living and says “my death will be enough.” And Ismene subtly acknowledges her sister’s gift by ceasing to remonstrate with her and accepting her own fate. Certain assumptions about sacrifice, heroism and agency have blinded us to the sisters’ sororal agency in the play and perhaps also to the powers of sorority in the world around us. Such assumptions are well-tested by re-reading the very play that has to some extent undergirded them and whose conventional interpretation is undergirded by them.

The idea that Antigone’s death is a sacrifice is not new. In 19th century Germany, philosophers from Hegel to Schelling, Goethe and even the composer Felix Mendelssohn, approached Antigone through a sacrificial structure typical of their Christianizing moment. In the 1840’s, Sophocles’ heroine was identified with Mary Magdalene who also put herself at risk to care for the dead when she took Jesus’ broken body down from the cross (Geary 2006). Antigone’s sacrifice for her dead brother was appropriated not on behalf of the anti statism in the name of which this heroine has so often since been redeployed but rather on behalf of an uncompromising, selfless loyalty and devotion that stood as a particularly central virtue of modern Christianity. This self-sacrificing figure of lamentation, not the dissident violator of Creon’s law, is the Antigone Friedrich Wilhelm wanted to see in his court theater in 1842.

Antigone’s sacrifice is usually assumed to have been on behalf of the much talked about heroic and dead brother, Polynices, not for the sake of the still living, quiet and anti-heroic sister, Ismene. I document the text’s suggestions that we do well to look past Polynices and reconsider this portrait of Ismene. The dead brother is one object around whom the sisters connect and contend, rather than a crucible that divides them. And we unearth the sororal collusion at the play’s center by attending less to formal law and more to practice, less to the edict against burying Polynices (the focus of so much of the Antigone scholarship) and more to the two transgressive burials of Polynices (the focus of very little of the scholarship). This helps cast Ismene’s subtle agency into sharper relief, but also highlights the fact that each of the two burials accomplishes something unique, rather than, as is usually done, casting the first as a failure that is corrected or completed by the second burial. My argument begins by way of a close reading of Sophocles’ text, then turns to reconsider that reading and its political implications in light of Lacan’s (1992) and Bernard Williams’ (1973) very different but overlapping treatments of ethics as the impossible negotiation of tragic dilemmas or forced choices.
“I don’t deny a thing” – The Problem of the Two Burials

Sophocles’ Antigone turns on the prohibition by Creon, ruler of Thebes, against burying Polynices, son of Oedipus and brother of Eteocles, Ismene and Antigone. Eteocles and Polynices have both died in a battle brought on by Eteocles’ refusal to share the throne of Thebes with Polynices, and Polynices’ decision to wrest his promised share in ruling from his brother by attacking Thebes with a foreign army. Because Eteocles defended the city and Polynices attacked it, Creon, the men’s uncle and now ruler of Thebes, buries Eteocles with high honours and orders that Polynices’ body be left out to rot. The edict puts Antigone and Ismene, Polynices’ sisters, in a difficult position since it is left to them to bury and lament their brother. Burial would normally be performed by men but surviving sisters would feel called upon to provide it should no one else step in.

Creon’s edict is violated twice. The first time, at night, unwitnessed, someone performs a symbolic burial ritual: the body is not buried, but dusted.4 The story of what happened that first time is told to Creon by a sentry, a sighted man who did not see it, in a scene that mirrors a later scene with Tiresias, a sightless man who sees all. Creon accuses both men of selling out for money. In both instances, the charge is false and Creon’s impatience with both characters is a clue he will misread the signs they bring to him. In the case of the sentry’s first scene, the signs have also been misread by critics ever since.

The sentry explains to Creon that he and his companions, posted by Creon to guard the body and prevent anyone from burying it, somehow failed to see something that must have happened right before their eyes. Someone came in the night and sprinkled dust over the body of Polynices, in clear violation of Creon’s edict.

Creon suspects the guards of corruption and sends the sentry back to his post at the corpse site with strict instructions to find the offender (they also re-expose the corpse, though it is unclear they were instructed to do so). The sentry soon returns to Creon gleefully with a prisoner: Antigone. The sentry’s success is not a product of good detective work, however, but rather of good fortune. There was a second violation of Creon’s edict – a second burial. And this time Antigone has been caught in the act; the guards witnessed her performing the rites for Polynices. In the ensuing scene with Creon and in centuries of interpretation since, the assumption is that this second act of burial was committed by the same person who performed the first. In fact, the mystery of the first burial is never solved.

The text does not explicitly contradict the assumption that Antigone committed both violations but it does offer some suggestions that it might have been worth looking elsewhere for suspects, perhaps beyond the obvious or maybe right at the obvious (a counsel that will be apt in Oedipus’ case, in a later Sophoclean tragedy, as well). The subtle suggestions in the play become more forceful once we ask: Why was Polynices buried a second time? Readers have over the years provided answers that support Creon’s assumption that Antigone performed both burials, preventing the mystery of the first burial from becoming too pressing. For example, noting that in the first burial the body was only dusted but that in the second Antigone pours libations, Jebb infers that Antigone must have returned because she had earlier forgotten the libations and needed them to complete the rite (note on verse 429, 1900). 5

Another possibility is that since the corpse had been unburied by the guards after the first burial, Antigone wanted to re-perform the ceremony, to undo their undoing. This possibility is suggested by Gilbert Norwood who explains that Antigone’s performance of the second burial is a mark of her stubborn obsession with keeping her brother’s body covered (1928.140, cited in Rose 1952.251 n. 7). Seeing the body re-exposed, she buried it again and so opened the line of events that would ultimately lead from one death to the next. But why did Antigone return to the body at all, having already buried it? There is a hint in the sentry’s claim that Antigone upon seeing the body called down curses on the heads of those who had done “the work,” which could mean she was cursing those who had unburied Polynices, which intimates she knew about the first burial presumably because she had performed it. However, the despised work might be not the un-burial, but simply the work of leaving the body unburied, guarding it, outlawing the burial, and so on, all of which led to the decay and decomposition that are cause enough for Antigone’s cursing.6

Another reason for the second burial could be that Antigone’s aim was not yet achieved. If her goal was not only to bury Polynices but also to stand up to Creon, she had reason to return. Indeed this is Creon’s perspective which continues to frame critical receptions of the play: “This girl was an old hand at insolence when she overrode the edicts we made public. But once she had done it – the insolence, twice over – to glory in it, laughing, mocking us to our face with what she’d done, I am not the man now, not now: she is the man if this victory goes to her and she goes free” (480-485 [536-542]). On a reading that accents Creon’s claim, Antigone does not want to get away with her crime and is dismayed to think she has done so. When she realizes the soldiers might never catch her after the first burial, she comes back to do it again precisely so as to get caught in the act. This reading is not contradicted by the text but neither is it given much support. Antigone never boasts about the two burials, nor is she represented in such unheroic terms that it is really credible that she would try once to defy Creon, fail, and have to try again. Still, this reading has one merit: it shows the issue may not be just about Polynices. He is also an occasion for a political clash Antigone seeks to stage.

Perhaps more suggestively, we might explain Antigone’s second burial of Polynices in psychoanalytic terms. If Creon’s edict disables Antigone, and Ismene’s refusal to help Antigone do the work of burial makes matters worse (without Ismene’s help, Antigone cannot lift the body), this deprives Antigone of the fuller satisfactions burial provides survivors and leaves Antigone trapped in a kind of melancholic stuckness (Honig 2008). Seeking, and failing fully to bury Polynices, she can achieve only a simulacrum of the proper rites and so she acts out a repetition compulsion which might have gone on forever had it not been interrupted by her arrest. This interpretation finds support in or lends support to Stanley Cavell’s claim that there is, in Elisabeth Bronfen’s words, “a repetition compulsion at the heart of the tragic theme” (2008.287).7

This last is similar to the reading offered by J. L. Rose, who maintains that the solution to the problem of the second burial is solved by close examination of Antigone as a tragic character obsessed by one idea: “Antigone’s complete absorption in one idea or interest is manifested in her passionate support of what she considers right and in her courageous love of her dear ones” says Rose drawing for support on A. C. Bradley’s discussion of Shakespeare’s tragic characters (Rose 1952.221, citing 1929.20) and further splitting the two sisters: “Strength and conviction and intensity of feeling attain in [Antigone] a great force. When she is brought into conflict with a selfish person, like Ismene, the utter unselfishness and self-sacrifice of her nature stand out clearly.”

Thus, the mystery of why two burials? is resolvable within the frame of the play. But the focus on solving the problem of the second burial has distracted attention from the rather more productive problem of the first burial. And there is some evidence to suggest the first burial was not performed by Antigone.

First, when Antigone is caught and then brought before Creon, she does not only confess, she also is said not to deny violating Creon’s edict. Confession and non-denial are not exactly the same thing, as Judith Butler has also pointed out in the context of a different argument (2002. 8, 33). “We interrogated her,” the sentry says, describing the scene at the corpse site, “charging her with offenses past and present – she stood up to it all, denied nothing” (432-35 [482-4]). What shall we make of her non-denial? If Antigone did not perform the first burial, the sentries’ charges might be the first she has heard of it and she might well be confused. What past offenses? she might have been silently wondering, denying nothing, but not affirming anything either since she did not in fact commit all the acts with which she is charged.

Confusion may also be evident in her posture as she stands accused before Creon. After hearing the sentry’s report, Creon says to her “You, with your eyes fixed on the ground – speak up” (441-42 [489-91]). Eyes fixed on the ground is how the sentry describes himself and his comrades at the scene of the first burial when they realize someone must go tell Creon his edict has been violated: “one man spoke out and made us stare at the ground, hanging our heads in fear” (268-70 [305-6]). In the context of the play, this is a posture of cowardice, out of character for Antigone, and so it seems to call for explanation. Perhaps it is a sign of something else. Might Antigone avert her face from Creon to hide confusion? While the sentry speaks of an earlier burial she knows nothing about, she listens and thinks about how to handle the questions that will inevitably follow. And when Creon asks if she buried the corpse, she is ready: “I did it, I don’t deny a thing” (443 [492]). This could be the civil disobedient’s classic confession, which takes entire responsibility, and is anticipated by Antigone’s earlier admonition to her sister in the play’s first scene to shout the crime out “from the rooftops” and “tell the world” rather than hide it and keep it a secret (86-7 [100-101]). Or we could see some care, some crafting in the language. Does “I did it” go to the second burial? And “I cannot deny it,” which is not the same as “I did it,” go to the first?

When Antigone says I cannot deny it, is she wondering: Did someone else bury Polynices before I got there? But who? She does not know; the first she heard of that first burial, she was standing in front of the sentries, called to account for “offenses past and present” (433 [483]). Antigone has no way to find out more. She can’t ask her accusers. She thought she was alone, acting in isolation, but now it seems perhaps there is another. She won’t betray that secret supporter by calling attention to the mystery of the first burial. Nor will she lie and say she did it. Hence: her “I won’t deny it,” said to Creon, is anticipated in her scene with the sentries: “We interrogated her,” the sentry says, describing the scene at the corpse site, “charging her with offenses past and present – she stood up to it all, denied nothing” (432-5 [482-4]).8

More to the point, the style of the first burial is not at all in keeping with Antigone’s character. Her shout-it-from-the-rooftops attitude is hardly in evidence in the secret nocturnal performance so quietly performed that the guards miss it.

Did someone else bury Polynices? But who? Who has motive, opportunity, and with whose character is this particular performance of the crime well-fitted? The chorus hazards a guess to Creon, “Could this possibly be the work of the gods?” (279 [316]). But the possibility is so thoroughly dismissed by Creon that no one in the play and few critics since dare revive it for serious consideration.9 “Stop – before you make me choke with anger – the gods! You, you’re senile, must you be insane? . . . Exactly when did you last see the gods celebrating traitors? Inconceivable!” (280-3, 288-9 [317-19, 326-7]). Creon is cutting: “tell me, was it for meritorious service that they proceeded to bury him, prized him so?” (284-5 [321-2]). And he is subtle, for with his insistence that Antigone is responsible for both the first and the second burials he makes it unthinkable that anyone else – divine or human – might have performed the first one. If we assume, as the sentry clearly wants us to and as Creon does, that Antigone performed both burials, then the case is neatly solved. Antigone is a lone burial zealot and we need not worry, as the chorus does, about the gods.10

Certainly the stealth with which the first burial is performed is consistent with the Chorus’ hypothesis, however. And if it was the gods, and the text surely does not rule that out, then that is compatible with what I am calling Antigone’s confusion regarding the first burial and with her refusal to own or deny it. But the dynamic of the play is affected too by this possibility, in less than salutary ways: if it was the gods, then they have expressed their disapproval of Creon’s edict earlier and with greater clarity than tragedy would normally allow (though this problem is mitigated by Creon’s inability to get the message, in which case the audience knows of the gods’ disapproval and knows that Creon is blind to it). And Antigone who later seems uncertain of whether she has the support of the gods (921-6 [1017-1020]) has less reason to doubt their approval of her actions. We are left with a small rather than a radical uncertainty: the small uncertainty is that we do not know for certain it was the gods who performed that first burial, but they may well have done. The more radical uncertainty is that we do not know for certain where the gods stand on the question of Polynices’ burial. The latter uncertainty, mitigated if the gods performed the first burial, is fundamental to the tragedy, which depends on viewers’ ambivalence regarding how the body of a traitor may be treated.

But there is also another possibility, one that opens the play up in even newer ways than the possibility that the gods did it. This other option is less thinkable to the chorus, and less imaginable to audiences through the ages: What if Ismene did it?


“Keep it a secret” -- If Ismene Did It

If Ismene did it, we no longer need to puzzle out why Antigone might have buried Polynices twice, nor why the gods would intervene so early and settle the question posed by this tragedy. Instead, we have two sisters, two burials. And each is done in the characteristic style of each sister. The first, Ismene-like, sub-rosa, quiet, under cover of darkness, performed exactly, to a “t,” as Ismene counseled Antigone to do it in the play’s first scene: “then don’t, at least blurt this out to anyone. Keep it a secret” (84-5 [98-9]). The second, true to Antigone, is performed with loud, keening, and vengeful cries out in the open, in the noon-time sun: “the sun stood dead above our heads, a huge white ball in the noon sky, beating, blazing down,” the sentry tells Creon (415-17 [460-62]).

But how can this be? Didn’t Ismene express horror and shock at the thought of defying Creon’s order? Didn’t she try to dissuade Antigone from committing this very act? Didn’t she opt for human over divine law? Didn’t she express confidence that the dead would forgive her this very choice?

Ismene did indeed say all these things. But she said still more. At the end of their harsh and typically sororal exchange in the first scene, Ismene declares her love for Antigone.11 Perhaps alone on stage, perhaps in her sister’s silent presence, Ismene says: “Then go if you must, but rest assured, wild irrational as you are, my sister, you are truly dear to the ones who love you” (99-100 [114-116]). How should we read these lines? How should they be performed? To most readers, the lines are resigned and convey a passive declaration of unconditional love for her impossible impetuous sister. But imagine this: Imagine Ismene says the lines thoughtfully, as if a new idea is coming to her, a plan is forming. Imagine that the line “you are truly dear to the ones who love you” is not an apology, not a request for forgiveness or understanding, not an indulgent or resigned whatever you do, we love you anyway, but a statement of still emerging resolve. Imagine that the line “you are truly dear to the ones who love you” a reflection on what love calls for. Ismene may with these words show a plan in formation, an intention to do something -- to stop her sister from the rash act that will surely bring about her death.12 What if, reflecting on her love for Antigone, Ismene resolves to do something about it?

Burying Polynices first, before Antigone could do it, Ismene may have hoped to save her sister from her fate, to make it unnecessary for her to take on Creon and risk her life. To do this, Ismene had to go beyond the limits by which she understood herself to be confined. Some limits were stubborn. Just like her sister, Ismene too is unable to lift the body alone. She can only give it, at best, the ritual dusting the sentry describes to Creon. Unlike her sister, Ismene is not inclined to transgress Creon’s law. She sees no honor here, only danger and reckless disobedience. So she takes the smaller risk of a stealthy nocturnal act. Still, she gives up the idea that women are “not born to contend with men,” that submission is the sisters’ lot (61-2 [75]). If she did bury Polynices, she did it not for political principle but for her sister and possibly for her brother as well. Perhaps a secret nocturnal burial would be enough to rest Polynices’ soul. Perhaps it would be enough to stop Antigone taking the risks of public transgressive action. (Was there perhaps also a tad of sibling rivalry in Ismene’s having to do it first? Perhaps no more than in Antigone’s need to do it better – louder, more heroically,)

This reading helps explain in a bit more depth than others the cries emitted by Ismene when Antigone is taken prisoner. Ismene would mourn her sister’s fate, in any case. But she would surely mourn it all the more passionately had she put herself at risk to avert it. Her cries are so loud and unsettling, Creon comments on them: “I just saw her inside, hysterical, gone to pieces. It never fails: the mind convicts itself in advance, when scoundrels are up to no good, plotting in the dark” (491-4 [549-52]). These lines are commonly taken to be more of Creon’s paranoia by readers who assume Ismene’s incontrovertible innocence. But if she is not innocent, then Creon’s lines may signal a quintessentially tragic stumbling on a truth just barely out of reach.

Creon shows some perhaps dim awareness of the twinned and complementary character of the two burials and the two buriers when he says, first of Ismene, that she has been “plotting in the dark” (494 [552]) and then adds, regarding Antigone: “Oh but I hate it more when a traitor, caught red-handed, tries to glorify his crimes” (495-6 [552-4]). One sister was quiet and surreptitious; the other flaunted her crime flagrantly. Having “accuse[d] her sister [Ismene] of an equal part in scheming this, this burial” (489-90 [547-8]), Creon at this moment intends to punish both women while distinguishing their levels of culpability in a single crime. He is focused here on the planning (in which he believes Ismene is implicated) and the action (of Antigone) but his words work as a perfectly tragic double entendre -- he could just as well be speaking of two crimes, two burials, the first performed in stealth, “in the dark” and the other, “caught red-handed,” out in the open. If the sisters’ guilt is “equal” as he insists, in spite of the fact that as far as he knows one only planned the deed while the other carried it out, it is because Creon senses something else may be the case: their crimes though not identical are actually not that different: Two sisters, two burials.

This is the moment at which Creon commands that Ismene, until now in this scene heard but not seen, be brought from the palace. Antigone responds by frantically trying to distract him. Like someone seeking to save another from a raging bull, she waves a red flag in his face and calls his wrath upon herself: “Creon, what more do you want than my arrest and execution?” and sure enough, he falls for it: “Nothing. Then I have it all” (497 [555]). To which Antigone, still protecting her sister by focusing the bull’s enraged gaze on herself, says: “Then why delay?” That is, why wait for Ismene to be brought from the palace? And then to keep his focus, Antigone provokes him further: “Your moralizing repels me . . . Enough. Give me glory! . . .” (499-502 [557-61]), she says before goading him one last time. Turning to the chorus, she calls him a tyrant who rules by fear (505-6 [565-6]) but her effort to monopolize his attention falls short.


“I did it – yes.” -- Ismene Speaks

The question of Ismene’s fate is not settled by the time she arrives on the scene. As she enters, Creon turns his attention fully to her, once again stumbling, unknowingly, on some truths: “You – in my own house, you viper, slinking undetected, sucking my life-blood! I never knew I was breeding twin disasters, the two of you rising up against my throne. Come, tell me, will you confess your part in the crime or not? Answer me. Swear to me” (531-5 [598-603]). Having indeed slunk, undetected, to perform the first burial of Polynices, Ismene now speaks out loud: “I did it, yes -- ” (536 [604]).

Why has no one for hundreds of years or more taken her at her word?13 She confessed. Not only does she not deny it, she actually owns it.

Perhaps her confession is overlooked because on other readings, in which Ismene is quiet, passive, and cannot think of challenging Creon’s authority, this late effort to share her sister’s fate seems wildly out of character. Truly, as Creon (whose perspective will subtly frame the critical reception of these scenes for centuries) says, she must be “hysterical.” On the reading developed here, however, Ismene’s confession is completely compatible with and is even evidence of her willingness to risk herself in her own way for her sister. In all fairness, however, it must be said, Ismene abets the blindness of those who claim she lacks agency. No sooner has she confessed than she seems to take it back.

““I did it, yes -- if only she consents – I share the guilt, the consequences too’” (536-7 [604]). Why the proviso “if only she consents?” If Ismene did do it, then why does she need Antigone’s consent? If she did not do it, then why does she say she did? Most critics focus on the last question: It forces them to account for how it is that Ismene here shows a courage that, on their readings, she lacked earlier.

But focusing on the first questions, we may find a clue to the puzzle’s solution in the play’s first scene. Ismene has refused to help Antigone bury Polynices and has tried to persuade Antigone away from her course using every possible rhetorical tactic, reminding her of the ignominious fates of their father, mother and brothers, underscoring their limitations as women and underlings dependent upon the hospitality of their uncle, and urging her sister to see her course of action is extreme. Antigone listens but is undeterred. And then, impatiently, harshly, she says, “I won’t insist, no, even if you should have a change of heart, I’d never welcome you in the labor, not with me” (69-70 [82-3]). This withering rejection may still ring in Ismene’s ears several scenes later. Ismene may have it in mind when she confesses her act and then seeks her sister’s permission to confess. Ismene says, in effect: I did have a change of heart. I did the labor. Won’t you welcome me in after all? Because of what you said earlier, I won’t confess without your consent.

Indeed, in Creon’s “will you confess your part in the crime or not?” Ismene may well hear echoed Antigone’s earlier: “Are you worth your breeding, Ismene, or are you a coward for all your royal blood?” At first, Ismene seemed unable to rise to the challenge. Seemingly frozen within the binary terms of Antigone’s forced choice – hero or coward? – Ismene chose inaction. But then Ismene saw her way through. She is neither-nor, a quiet actor willing to take some risks but not powerful enough to stem the tide of events. And now here, confronted with Creon’s either-or she seeks again a third way. Will she confess or not? Not for her the heroics of isolated autonomy. She will confess but in order to do so, her sister must consent.14 And Antigone says yes, and no.

She extends protection to her sister and refuses to allow her to confess. When Ismene had earlier asked Antigone to keep her own transgressions a secret, Antigone mocked her sister, but here her gift to Ismene is the very secrecy Ismene earlier valued. For Antigone has now decided. She will sacrifice herself for her sister. The sisters then argue in front of Creon about whether Ismene should share Antigone’s fate and the argument is won by Antigone who never utters her sister’s name again. Antigone is often criticized for this. It is a sign of her coldness, critics say.15 But the erasure of Ismene is Antigone’s gift to her, the gift of survival to the sister who initially sought to survive.


“Words Alone:” The Sisters’ Second Fight

If Ismene did it, then the final scene between the two sisters takes on an incredible dramatic pathos (536-561 [604-631]). How to read these lines? From a perspective informed by the sisters’ sororal agonism, Antigone’s accusations against Ismene operate as a double entendre that is nothing short of brilliant. Instead of a set of flat accusations leveled unlovingly to her unjustly despised sister, Antigone’s words in this scene convey a series of complex realizations and strategies. Perhaps for the first time, it is dawning on Antigone that Ismene, now ready to share her punishment, may be the performer of the first burial, still unexplained. When Ismene says “I did it, yes,” Antigone may hear her. Antigone, after all (on this reading) is the only one in the room who knows for certain that she did not herself perform the first burial. Antigone’s response to Ismene, who extended herself in the first burial, and went beyond her limits, is to go beyond her own limits now: Antigone affirms the path she earlier demeaned as cowardly: that of survival.

When Ismene says she wants a share in the deed, and Antigone will not consent, does Antigone belittle her sister? Or does she affirm her? Intonation is everything. And, indeed, the same words, differently delivered, could support either possibility: the line can be said with loving regret or with sneering disdain: “No, Justice will never suffer that – not you, you were unwilling. I never brought you in” (538-9 [605-6]).

But then, surely the next lines suggest only disdain! “Who did the work? Let the dead and the god of death bear witness! I have no love for a friend who loves in words alone” (542-3 [610-11]). With these words, Antigone neutralizes Ismene’s confession, calling on the gods and the dead to negate Ismene’s “yes, I did it.” Only Ismene’s second phrase “if she consents” is left standing. And Antigone will not consent. The words of Ismene’s confession thus cease to function as truth statements and become, by dint of Antigone’s dissent, the mere empty vessels Antigone accuses them of being: Words alone. Notably, Antigone’s own words here are virulent. They wound, hence critics’ distaste for the heroine in this scene. There is an interesting paradox here: the words’ not insubstantial impact on Ismene belies Antigone’s dismissal of words as lacking power.

Antigone’s dramatic, indeed melodramatic rejection may speak to the largeness of Antigone’s character in Creon’s newly small post-heroic Thebes. But it may also signal something else: a staged theatrical performance internal to the play’s whose addressee is not actually Ismene but rather Creon, who is himself in the room witnessing all of this. In this scene, Antigone plays out the sisters’ divisions rather than their unity for Creon to witness. It is surely to him that the exculpatory “I never brought you in” (539 [606]) is addressed. It is not, after all, news to Ismene. Ismene is the one person who would know it is false. Antigone did try to bring her sister in and Ismene refused her.

When Ismene begs “oh no, my sister, don’t reject me, please, let me die beside you, consecrating the dead together” (544-5 [613-614]) and Antigone responds with: “Never share my dying, don’t lay claim to what you never touched,” we can imagine her saying these words as a cold, demeaning rejection but we can also hear them said with great tenderness, resignation and sacrifice. It is a delicate line to walk, accenting the former for Creon, the latter for Ismene. But certain tones or gestures would make it work.

This approach is supported by the fact that when Ismene insists further on dying with Antigone, Antigone responds in a way that seems calculated to remind her sister that Creon is in the room. “What do I care for life, cut off from you?” Ismene says, recklessly making dangerously known once again her love for her sister. And Antigone, sensing the danger, moves to bring her to her senses: “Ask Creon: Your concern is all for him” (548-9 [617-8]). Is this not a coded way of saying “pssst; he is right here, in the room!” Ismene does not completely understand yet but, sensing the change in temper, she latches onto the falseness of the charge: “Why abuse me so? It doesn’t help you now” (550 [619]). She is trying to sort it out. She asks the question to herself as well, not just to Antigone. It is partly a rhetorical question. Why does my sister talk like this if it will not help her? It won’t. But it might help Ismene. And this Antigone makes clear immediately: “You’re right,” she says “if I mock you I get no pleasure from it, only pain” (551 [620-1]). Here Antigone hints broadly that her martyr’s goal is now also to save Ismene, who should go on living. And it works. Ismene gives in; her next line accepts Antigone’s subtle instruction: “tell me dear one, what can I do to help you even now?” (552 [622-23]). Antigone’s answer is straightforward: “Save yourself; I don’t begrudge you your survival” (553 [624]).16 It is a gift, a shift from her earlier position when she did indeed begrudge Ismene’s focus on survival. Here that choice is affirmed not mocked, though, as we shall see, it is important that survival now is no longer the option it was earlier. When late in the day Antigone says “my death will be enough,” she consigns Ismene to go on living without her in Creon’s household.

Depending on their delivery, these lines may convey Antigone’s insistence on protecting her sister. Don’t be a fool, she virtually whispers. (Simpson and Millar call it an ‘aside.’)17 Be quiet. Let me handle this. Then out loud she accuses her sister of being all words no actions. But methinks she doth protest too much. Why this insistence? Perhaps she suspects there was an act and not just words, in fact a wordless act, the first burial of Polynices, yet to be explained. Ismene did it. Antigone sees that but cannot say it. Creon is in the room. In this sisterly exchange, the sisters’ reperform their fight from the first scene but this time it is a theatrical performance for Creon’s benefit.

What does Creon know of sisters? He falls for it or at least the chorus does (but are they complicit?). He is softened up by the sisters’ performance for the Chorus’ query. Ismene too? they ask later when Creon rages that Haemon cannot “save those two young girls from death” (769 [865]). “No, not her” he concedes (771 [867]). Ismene will live.

Ismene is not, as Antigone charges, all empty words and no action. On the contrary, as the double entendres might suggest to a knowing audience, quite the opposite is the case. Ismene’s words are well-earned by her quiet courageous actions: first, the first burial of Polynices, which Antigone may now suspect and credit as a worthy act and, second, the attempt to die with her sister, also a worthy act. Antigone’s too loud words are necessary to stop Ismene from confessing, to neutralize what she has already said, to render her actions invisible, to make it thoroughly unthinkable that quiet little spineless Ismene could ever be the one who did it, the one who first buried Polynices.

The same motivation, the desire to protect Ismene, may motivate Antigone’s later melodramatic cries that there is no one left to mourn her.18 If she goes out of her way to diminish her sister, that is because Antigone does not know that Creon will soon crumble. She thinks he will rule Thebes henceforth and Ismene must survive in his household. If he thinks Ismene is nothing, Creon may let her survive.

If Ismene did it then Antigone becomes much more of a tragic heroine than on other accounts. She is surrounded by words whose meaning exceeds her grasp, enmeshed in relations she does not appreciate or understand. In this, she is much like Creon in this play, and like Oedipus in his. Ismene’s actions also stage for Antigone the heroic scene in which Antigone, by absolving her sister, outwits Creon, as she will soon do again, with her suicide. That is what Antigone does; she outwits.19 And she helps Ismene by mastering the opacity for a moment, redeploying it to save her sister in a way that makes sense of Antigone’s otherwise strange claim that she was born to love.20

If Ismene did it, then her insistence, at the end of the play’s first scene, on the love she bears Antigone is significant. These are not empty words. That Antigone might have mistakenly thought so is part of Antigone’s tragedy. Arrogating to herself alone the right of action, and thinking her acts alone – brazen, bold, provocative – qualify as action, she sees in the words of others only the emptiness of non-performance … until nearly the end of her life. In the end, the charge sticks to Creon, who shouts and warns about consequences that he ends up trying to undo, but not to Ismene. Late in the action, Antigone awakens to the truth of Ismene, suspects her action, respects her power in stealth (so different from her own), and offers her the protection that love demands, the sort that suits the recipient. Playing out a sororal enmity that is as false as it is convincing to Creon, Antigone saves her sister’s life and leaves alive a remnant of the family.

If Antigone saves Ismene, then she recalls for us a story that Antigone in her next scene obliquely cites. In Herodotus’s story, Darius, having sentenced Intaphrenes and his family to death, responds to the wailing of Intaphrenes’ wife by offering her the chance to save one relative: She chooses her brother and explains her choice with such clever reasoning, citing the irreplaceability of her brother, that Darius is moved to ‘reward’ her by freeing not only her brother, as asked, but also her eldest son. Others have pointed out that Antigone is not really like Intaphrenes’ wife (Samuel Weber 2004). The latter acted prospectively and was able to save her brother but Antigone’s brother is already dead and all she can wrest from sovereign power (and she fails) is the right to bury him. But these readers forget about Ismene and do not notice that without Antigone’s interventions on her sister’s behalf, and without the chorus’ protestations, Ismene (regardless of her implication, or not, in the first burial) too would have been killed. Citing the story, then, Antigone may toy with Creon. She cites only the part about the irreplaceable brother but reminds us of the whole of the tale, and calls to mind that remnant son, recalling for the audience if not for the unsubtle Creon none other than… Ismene, the remnant. Moreover, on the reading offered here, Antigone does act prospectively. She seeks to save the doomed sister. Questioned by the chorus, deceived by Antigone, distracted by the sisters’ coded conversation, Creon relents and Ismene lives.21

If Ismene did it, and if Antigone sacrificed herself for her sister, then we have here the story of two women partnered in their difference – one brazenly bold, the other possessed of a quieter courage – both acting in resistance to overreaching sovereign power but acting also in love for each other. The sisters do not form a democratic collectivity or a feminist solidarity, per se. But, on this reading, they care for each other in turn: Each guesses at the other’s sacrifice in quiet isolation and utters the lines and performs the acts that suit and extend her character.

If this sisterly solidarity has been almost invisible until now, that is a testimony to the difficulty still for most readers, as for Creon himself, of imagining a female agency that is agonistically and solidaristically sororal and not merely subject to male exchange. It may also show, as Simon Goldhill says of Antigone’s feminist readers, how beholden many are to “the myth of the heroine [Antigone, which] is constructed with all the inspirational force and selective blindness of hero worship,” (2006.160). For Goldhill, this hero worship ought to give way to an unblinking assessment of Antigone’s unpalatable rejection of her sister. Goldhill is right; relinquishing our habitual reading of Antigone as heroic (solitary, autonomous) opens the play up. What we see, however, when we do so is not, contra Goldhill, a really unkind and unheroic Antigone that should discomfit feminists, but something else that has remained undetected for even longer.


“Let her choose” – Ethics and/as Forced Choice

Antigone, who says she was born to die – indeed, she makes clear that she had decided to die long before Creon issued his edict -- is tailor-made for Jacques Lacan.22 From Lacan’s perspective, Antigone is not opposed to Creon (as Hegel says) but is rather dependent on him. Creon provides the occasion for her to meet her antecedently formed death wish.23 In her being-toward-death, she is able to resist the lure of choices we normally mis-take for ethical ones.24 For Lacan, a properly ethical choice abjures the service of the goods and defies the governance of ethical codes. Both are alien to us: The former tames our desire into feeling satisfied by the faux-satisfactions of endless chains of goods, and the latter holds us to account by principles that have nothing to do with the particular shape of our unique personality, which is betrayed by the demand for universality. Lacanian ethical action, says Paul Allen Miller, “is Kantian in its devotion to a pure concept of duty, but psychoanalytic in its predication on a highly individualized desire that cannot be generalized, with regard to its content, into a universalized maxim” (2007.83; citing Lacan 1986.68, 365-366).

This approach, equally critical of both Kantianism and utilitarianism, calls to mind Bernard Williams’ critique (1973) of both Kantianism and utilitarianism to theorize ethics as necessarily immaterial, code-defiant, and personal. Williams, too, develops his account of ethics by confronting tragic choice in its formative and sometimes destructive impact on human character. There are two key differences between Williams and Lacan, however: Lacan is drawn to the beauty of such situations, while Williams focuses more forcefully on the suffering that attends them; and Lacan is focused on being-toward-death while Williams is focused on survival. The beauty to which Lacan is drawn is perceived by the observer, it is the perspective of the analyst, while the suffering to which Williams attends is experienced by the subject of ethics.25

But, notwithstanding these signal differences, for both Williams and Lacan the tragic situation or the forced choice breaks the grip of the everyday, forcing us out of our default conformities to the service of the goods or the codes of morality. Lacan affirms this for it forces into the forefront our own unique character and desire, while Williams regrets it for it threatens to destroy us; but both see the tragic or forced choice as one that calls for ethics, not for goods or codes. For Williams, such moments test our core commitments and integrity in a world of plural goods and sometimes tragic situations, while for Lacan our openness to the tragic situation forces us beyond our mere traits and commitments to a more existence-affirming awareness. Thus it seems fateful, as it were, that these two very different thinkers converge in their judgments of Antigone.

The echo to Lacan is unmistakable when Williams casts Antigone in Shame and Necessity (1993) as death-bound in a way that precedes and exceeds Creon’s edict: “Creon’s obstinacy does not simply elicit a noble response from Antigone. It triggers a ready and massive self-assertion and the fact that her end can mean what it does mean (and still more, what it has come to mean) is in a sense Antigone’s good luck” (86-87). For Williams, however, such self-assertion is not, as in Lacan, the rupturing manifestation of a desire that knows no law; it is the assertion of self by a person who is a law unto herself, as we all are or might be.

Because both thinkers focus on Antigone’s uniqueness, both stress her solitariness rather than her sorority. But Lacan provides a way to read past that when he offers a useful rubric for thinking about ethics as forced choices. Zupančič (1998) explains the idea when, through her own and Lacan’s readings of Antigone, she suggests that Lacan’s idea of an ethics of “absolute choice” should be understood in connection with his concept of the “forced choice,” of which there are two kinds: the first, called “classical,” the second, “modern.” Antigone herself is seen in relation to the first of the two. But, as we shall see, the one labeled “modern” fits Ismene all too well.

The first, classical “forced choice” captures Antigone’s predicament and has a familiar structure. The example of it given by Lacan is “’Your money or your life’” in which the two terms are asymmetrical. “If I choose the money, I lose both. If I choose life, I have life without money, namely a life deprived of something.” In this forced choice, one of the two options, life, “is not simply one of two alternative possibilities but is [also] the indispensable condition of the choice itself.” Does this mean we should choose the money, then? Not quite. “This minimal structure already allows us to deduce the ethical figure to which it is related. It could be defined as the ability to choose where there is no choice” (Zupančič 1998.109-110, italics in original).

In other words, the impossible choice is possible. There is a third term that makes it so, “something which exceeds life” (Zupančič 110).26 It can be many things, anything that serves as an “Ultimate point of identification for the subject,” as his or her “ultimate support.” Costas Douzinas (1994) captures it when he refers to Antigone’s “I-must.” Alternatively, it may be the Lacanian S1 that anchors the signifying chain and is not itself subject to that chain’s metonymic trade-offs and translations. Or it is a principle, idea, commitment or affiliation without which life would no longer be what it is, without which life would no longer be worth living. It may be what Bernard Williams calls “integrity.” Or it may “appear, for instance, as a ‘point of honor’ but [whatever it is] it is always something in which the subject recognizes his/her own being – something which determines the subject beyond life and death”(Zupančič 110). This is what makes sacrifice or martyrdom possible. This, for Lacan, is what Polynices is to Antigone, the one irreplaceable thing that is the ground of all else. (On our reading thus far, however, Ismene could also be seen to occupy that place for her sister.)

More than sacrifice is at stake here, however, for it is essential to an ethics of forced choice that the tested subject does more than simply yield to the force of the choice. Caught in the snare of the forced choice, Antigone, Zupančič argues, is not merely re-active, she is creative. This creative Antigone is no passive resister or civil disobedient. For she not only says “no to Creon and is willing to pay for it with her life.” That presumably would be merely to submit to the force of the choice. Antigone’s no also has the dimensions of an act because she creates “a new possibility there where the options seem to be exhausted” (111).27 We might think this refers to her sororal solidarity, but Zupančič is not alert to that. If Antigone is ethical for Zupančič, it is because when she is confronted with the forced choice that defines ethics she not only makes the impossible choice, she does so in a way that “forces others to choose, confronts them with a forced choice” (111). Not much detail is provided by Lacan nor by Zupančič regarding the specific elements of Antigone’s ethical creativity but Sophocles’ text rewards those who return to it with this question in mind.

When Antigone is subjected to a forced choice imposed on her by Creon, she may seem simply to pick one of the options presented by him. For example, in response to the edict that forbids the burial of Polynices, which presents her with the forced choice – leave your brother unburied or bury him and die -- Antigone chooses the latter. But there is evidence of creativity in the way Antigone conducts herself under pressure. After all there are more than one way to bury Polynices: we know that from the three very different burials of Polynices.

Thus, the issue is not whether or not Antigone buries Polynices: That anemic framing is Creon’s are you with me or against me way of presenting it. The issue is how she does so. Antigone buries Polynices, owns her deed, and sings her final dirge seeking to frame her own and not Creon’s understanding of her act for posterity. When she avows her crime, frames her actions in heroic terms, and cites Herodotus’ story of Intaphrenes’ wife – all of these are part of her act and with these she shows she has not limited herself to the small question of obedience but has embraced the larger ethical situation and reformulated it.28 She performs the burial of Polynices in a way that she hopes will recast the ethical situation. She will, she tells Ismene, perform the act heroically, publicly, and the people of Thebes will celebrate her for it. Creon will come around, or not. Either way, she will have glory and the implication is that, as a result, the awful choice that staged all of this for her will lose its force henceforth. This, more than any of the traits Zupančič looks at, is Antigone’s creativity, surely. She aims to create “a new possibility there where the options seem to be exhausted” (111). She does so by making public an act criminalized by Creon.29

These maneuvers are made in the context of other forced choices imposed on Antigone along the way. When Creon asks Antigone if she violated his edict, he has a specific way of asking: He frames it as a forced choice designed to rule out any heroism: “Do you deny you did this – yes or no?” (441-2 [491]). Her only choice is to deny, or not. The only affirmation on offer is that of double negation, that of non-denial. Thus, as we now see with the help of Lacan’s rubric and in addition to our earlier reading, something creative is going on when Antigone responds with “I did it, I don’t deny a thing.” With these words, she rejects the binary on offer, the forced choice that seeks to limit her to (non)denial. Ignoring that limitation, she says “I did it,” and then in case Creon fails to get the message of her reframing, she makes clear her rejection of the vernacular of denial -- “I don’t deny a thing,” as in – I don’t do denial. Thus, she not only claims responsibility for the forbidden act; she rejects the double negation – non-denial – to which he tries to confine her.30 She fastens on a more heroic affirmation, something she will pick up on later when, in dialogue with the chorus, she tries to connect her situation first to Niobe, then to Intaphrenes’ wife.

And then there is the last forced choice, imposed on Antigone at the scene of her entombment: After Creon has told his soldiers to take her away and wall her up in her tomb, he adds: “abandon her there, alone, and let her choose – death or a buried life with a good roof for shelter” (885-7 [973-4]; italics added). Once again, we might think that Antigone fails to contravene the terms of the forced choice. After all, she chooses one of the two options, quick death not the slow death of buried life. But to see things this way is, again, to stay inside the forced choice framework Creon seeks to impose, and to miss the very thing he seeks to obscure. Antigone finds a third way. Although she will in the end die a quick death by her own hand, she uses the moments that follow Creon’s pronouncement of her free but forced choice – “let her choose” -- to sing her dirge for herself in which she compares herself to Intaphrenes’ wife and frames her action as one of fidelity to a law of singularity mentioned here by her for the very first time.

Thus, “the fact that her death can mean what it does mean,” as Williams puts it (1993.86-87), is not simply a matter of “good luck.” It is also a testimony to her capacity to construct for herself something like the elongated, “beautiful” death of Homer’s heroes. Indeed, before the death that is inevitable, Antigone participates in the agon over the meaning of her actions, a privilege Creon seeks to reserve for himself when he restricts her to menus of options with choices predetermined by him. He tries to economize. She is excess. When he says take her away, you’re wasting time, he diminishes her dirge as mere impotent delay – she is trying to buy time, he charges, but it won’t work. Rather than ask, as executioners do: “have you any last words?” Creon mocks Antigone for her use of words. This is his response to her effort to frame the meaning of her act and secure the meaning of her death for posterity. He also anticipates. After saying it is her choice how to die, he makes clear the falseness of the choice: either way, “Dead or alive she will be stripped of her rights, her stranger’s rights, here in the world above” (890 [976-77]). It is for these, surely, that Antigone fights in her moments of overliving -- for the right to make meaning of her life, to tell her story in her own way, in a way that promotes her cause and preserves her memory. And yet most receptions of her have stayed within the domain of the forced choices that her actions try to break apart: – public versus private, male versus female, order versus anarchy.

Recall that Zupančič says that if Antigone is ethical it is because when she makes the impossible choice, she does so in a way that “forces others to choose, confronts them with a forced choice” (111). Zupančič argues that within the frame of the play three people are solicited by Antigone into the structure of the forced choice -- Ismene, Creon and Haemon – and all three fail. As coldly as Creon, Antigone makes the stakes clear to Ismene: We’ll soon see what you’re made of, she says to Ismene: “Worth your breeding, or a coward.”31 And, Zupančič says, Ismene “makes the wrong choice (or rather she refuses to recognize that there is a choice)” or better, we might say on Zupančič’s behalf (for this is not our reading), Ismene refuses to recognize that the choice is inescapable, that it has force, that it is for her, that it forces itself on her.

Faulting readers of the play from Hegel onward, Zupančič goes on forcefully to claim: This is no “solitary ‘isolated’ sacrifice that [Antigone] owes her brother and her gods.” Instead Antigone sees her choice as involving a solicitation “as something which very much concerns others and not solely as a private act.” Thus, when Ismene says she is unable to help bury Polynices and expresses her fear for Antigone, Antigone responds in ethical terms: “Don’t fear for me. Set your own life in order” (83 [97]) (italics added). She even invites Creon “to resubjectivise himself as a master, but instead Creon tried to reaffirm himself as the master” which, Zupančič points out “is not at all the same thing.” (111). Ismene “understands the stakes of the choice” but fails to rise to its challenge. She “panics.” Creon, too, is said to “panic.” The charge rings truer in his case than in hers. Ismene is distressed in the first scene, but there is no evidence of panic. And she, unlike Creon, does rise above the choice Antigone forces upon her. Ismene does set her life in order. On the reading developed here, she finds her own way. Burying Polynices surreptitiously, Ismene does not duck the choice, nor does she pass the forced choice on to another. She breaks its spell, choosing neither flagrant disobedience nor meek inaction. She does not consent to leave her brother unburied nor will she allow herself to be drafted into a disobedience she considers inconceivable. She does what Zupančič admires as quintessentially ethical: Ismene creates “a new possibility there where the options seem to be exhausted” (111). If we have not until now appreciated the significance of her actions then that is surely because we have not risen to respond to her solicitation to us to choose rightly how to receive her.

Ismene may act ethically but the contested binary of obedience versus dissidence reasserts itself when we allow her act to be covered over by Antigone’s act – the second burial. That may be why Ismene so often disappears in the play’s pages, invisible to readers, or invisibly unimportant except as a point of contrast to the heroine. And if her aim was to save Antigone the trouble of transgression, Ismene fails there too. But this is not her only forced choice. In her final scene with Antigone, she faces another forced choice and here failure is not an apt term for what occurs.
“What do I care for life, cut off from you?” – Ismene’s modernity

Ismene’s last forced choice is different in structure from the one described by Lacan as “classical.” Indeed, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the one he calls “modern.”32 By contrast with the classical forced choice captured by your money or your life, the modern forced choice is captured by Freedom or death. Here it appears that we have a choice but really we do not since choosing freedom under threat of death is hardly a free choice. Zupančič explains, quoting Lacan: “’…in the conditions in which someone says to you freedom or death!, the only proof of freedom that you can have in the conditions laid out before you is precisely to choose death, for there, you show that you have the freedom of choice.’” The strange thing about the structure of this choice, Zupančič says, is “the only way you can choose A is by choosing its negation, the non-A: the only way the subject can stay true to his Cause is by betraying it, by sacrificing to it the very thing which drives him/her to make this sacrifice” (italics original; 115).

The example given by Lacan and analyzed by Zupančič is that of Sygne de Coufontaine, the heroine of Paul Claudel’s 1911 play The Hostage. Confronted with a forced choice of the modern sort, Sygne comes to realize that she cannot choose death in order to preserve her “reason for living” because death would be the easy way out and the situation (which is incredibly contrived though it may be seen as a fable of the forced choices of the French aristocracy in post revolutionary France) demands something else of her. She is asked to marry a man she detests in order to save the life of the Pope whom she is harboring from Napoleon’s forces. The man who seeks to marry her is a Jacobin named Turelure who had her aristocratic parents executed before her eyes during the Revolution and now threatens to apprehend the Pope, unless she yields. If she marries Turelure, she will save the Pope but she will marry someone she detests (thus violating the sacrament of marriage) and cede to him her family’s aristocratic title and land.

Sygne’s first instinct is to kill herself; her second is to fight Turelure even if it means everyone in the house including the Pope will be destroyed.33 But there is something about the situation that presses Sygne further. Her family’s priest, Badilon, asks her to take the hardest course of all: “not to sacrifice herself for the Cause (something which she would do without hesitation),” but to go on living without her reason for living (Zupančič 1998.116). Badilon says to Sygne as she wrestles with her decision and considers her honor for which she is willing to sacrifice her life: It is good “to have something of one’s own. For then have we something which we can give.” (l. 54-55, cited in Zupančič 1998. 116) True sacrifice calls for her to sacrifice and live. She will marry Turelure and live as his wife to save the Pope. She will be his hostage. Her deep resistance to the course she chooses manifests itself corporeally. Toward the end of the play, she is beset by a facial tic, an involuntary twitch that mimes the head shaking gesture that normally means no.34

Zupančič argues, following Lacan, that it is only with modernity, with the loss of a possible faith in an afterlife and its redemption, that we get the idea that ethics may demand not the sacrifice of one’s life but of one’s reason for living. We certainly get something like it from Utilitarianism, the modern social theory that casts as moral any action that brings about greater pleasure over pain. Early Utilitarianism would surely say that Sygne must insert herself into the situation to bring about the socially preferable outcome, regardless of the individual suffering she may undergo as a result. Indeed, Utilitarianism is, arguably, for this reason and notwithstanding its avowed secularism, deeply sacrificial in structure. Against the utilitarian view of morality, Bernard Williams argued that such sacrifices cannot be morally required, for the one thing that morality cannot ask of us is to give up who we are. Our integrity is a postulate of ethics and so it cannot be positioned as one of its calculated mandatory trade-offs. Williams recognized we are sometimes put into such situations – he had a deep appreciation of Greek tragedy -- and wrote about the need to face such tragic situations with integrity. He understood that in the modern world of plural values with no transcendent notion of the good, such tragic situations are an ineliminable feature of moral life. But he found repugnant to morality the utilitarian claim that morality demands self-sacrifice.

That psychoanalysis, which seeks to plumb the depths of the human personality, might be interested in such self-abandonment makes sense, for the subject of psychoanalysis suffers as a result of its fortressing within layers of psychic defense. In the context of Lacanian psychoanalysis in which a great deal of what makes us who we are numbs us to the real, the idea of giving oneself up, sacrificing integrity, may seem promising. The goal of psychoanalysis is, after all, precisely to dis-integrate the subject. But to call this ethics is another matter and to intimate from it a politics (as contemporary Lacanians seem to want to do) is yet another matter, still. We need not, however, adjudicate the questions of ethics and integrity in order to gain new interpretative insight from the structure of what Lacan calls the modern forced choice. For in Sophocles’ Antigone there is one character who comes close – awfully and anachronistically close -- to this “modern” position, the position in which “the subject is asked to accept with enjoyment the very injustice at which he is horrified,” and that character is – Ismene.35

It is Ismene who is asked to remain living when she would rather die, to dwell in the household of her sister’s murderer and to depend upon the hospitality of a man who has taken her parents’ place. When she begs to be allowed to die with her sister, “What do I care for life, cut off from you?” (548 [617]). Ismene makes clear the difficulty of going on. But Antigone, playing Badilon to her sister’s Sygne, says no. There is something – but what? -- about the situation that calls for Ismene to live. It is not just the truth of Ismene that demands she go on living, or not just that, for her commitment to survival is not, as it turns out, absolute. Here she longs to die with her sister, after all. It is rather, as Antigone sees, the fate of this aristocratic family, as it will be later of the Coufontaines, to insist on its place in a world that seeks to leave it behind. Antigone sees what is at stake. That is why the exchange with her sister is, for Antigone, painful: “You’re right,” she says “if I mock you I get no pleasure from it, only pain” (551 [620-1]). That pain is not just a marker of the difficulty of acting out a feigned derision for the sister she loves. It is also the recognition of the fact that Ismene, fated to live, will suffer a martyr’s life no less than Antigone will suffer a martyr’s death. Thus, we see that what Lacan mapped in temporal terms, classical and modern, marks the difference between the two sisters in this classical play – one dies for her cause in her own way on her own terms, the other lives for it, in her own way and not on her own terms. Both sacrifice though one is more otherworldly and oriented to death and the other is more this-worldly and oriented to life. Both converge in their actions and commitments. And both act not just ethically but also politically. Why then are critics of all stripes so quick to see these two women primarily as (un)ethical actors or solitary political (anti-) heroes and never as partners in action in concert?
ō koinon autadelphon Ismēnēs kara” -- “Ismene-head”

In a recent paper (“Antigone, Agent of Fraternity: How Feminism Misreads Hegel’s Misreading of ANTIGONE, or Let the Other Sister Speak,”), philosopher Mary Rawlinson focuses on Ismene as a better model for feminist politics than her more renowned sister. Ismene privileges the world of the living, Rawlinson argues, and she looks toward the future. “Why should we feminists valorize Antigone’s embrace of the dead brother over the living sister?” she asks. As I read the play, the focus on life has more traumatic implications than Rawlinson may realize. Ismene is even bolder, more creative and more admirable than on Rawlinson’s account. And as I read Antigone here, she herself stands for some of the very things (connection, orientation to life) Rawlinson admires in her underestimated sister. Once we render visible hitherto unseen elements of both sisters’ agency, the still Hegelian splitting of Ismene (passive) versus Antigone (active) breaks down and the possibility of coordination surfaces. The sisters’ sororal power negotiates the non-negotiable options pressed upon them by sovereignty and fate.

Simon Goldhill also makes the case for Ismene. Criticizing Irigaray and Butler, he argues that they allow Ismene to be shut up with the women while embracing Antigone as a model for a feminist politics based on the purity of blood (Irigaray 1984) or on its contamination (Butler 2000, rightly, I would say, sees kinship as always already political, defined, supported promoted, undone by state institutions). Either way, Ismene is erased, by feminist readers of the play and by its heroine, as when Antigone calls herself the last of the line of Oedipus. “Ismene is written – spoken – out of the family line. This silencing is all too often repeated, rather than analysed by the critics,” Goldhill claims (2006. 157).

For Goldhill, the relevant context for taking Ismene seriously are the shifting politics of the 5th century in which “The general frame of the city-state, on the one hand, and the specific frame of Athenian democracy, on the other, change the structuring politics of the personal” (148). As “key institutions of the family, like burial, and key terms of family affiliation are taken over by the State . . . brothers can become a civic, political symbol” (148), not just a familial-political one. From the brothers whose conflicts were central in heroic epic to the new political claim of equal citizenship as fraternity, something like Derrida’s “phallocracy” is evident, Goldhill says, but “against the claim of fraternity, sisterhood also changes as a normative term. Sisterhood learns to speak” (148). With this claim, Goldhill opens the possibility of taking seriously the sororal ties of Ismene and Antigone, but he does not follow it up. However, as we have just seen by tracking the coded communications that pass between Ismene and Antigone in front of Creon -- how sisters speak may be the more fundamental issue, not whether they do. Indeed, Goldhill provides support for this thought when he notes the odd way in which Antigone addresses her sister, in particular, the alienness of Antigone’s opening words, “ō koinon autadelphon Ismēnēs kara,” “Oh dear sister of the same womb, [something like] “Ismene-head.” This may well point to the doublings of incest in this perverted family context, as Miriam Leonard suggests (2005) or the contortions to which sisters are driven by institutional tensions in a time of transition, as Goldhill persuasively argues. But it may also suggest another possibility worth considering here: Like many sisters, these sisters too may have a private language, a coded way of speaking between themselves that eludes the understanding of outsiders. Sorority may be as untranslatable and elusive as the play’s famously difficult first line.

Sororal power can be belittled, of course, as Creon mocked and belittled the daughters of Oedipus. But, as the Chorus knew, sometimes powerful forces are underestimated by their belittlers. These sisters may bury the brother, as Hegel required of (one of) them, but they do not only do that. Or better, in burying the brother, they also do something else. It matters that there are two of them, not just one, for as they act in agonistic concert they hint at an alternative politics, and an alternative to Hegel’s dialectic. Carol Jacobs (2008) sees how Antigone must escape and exceed the negativity of the Hegelian dialectic. She does not pause to note how Antigone’s ability to do so may be rooted not in her heroic autonomy but in her sororal relation. In her individuality Antigone is, as Hegel would rightly note, fated to mere negativity and little more. In their sorority, however, the sister’s negotiations of the forced choices thrust upon them model a tragically doomed politics that is, notwithstanding its tragic character or perhaps even because of that, a more serious force and a more powerful example to feminists now than the individual and sacrificial politics of conscience for which Antigone is traditionally celebrated even by radical feminists from Irigaray to Butler.

If in the end Antigone dies a death less glorious (in heroic terms) than the one she initially hoped for, it is a death admirable for its commitment to the still living sister wrongly thought all these years to have been brutally mistreated and erased by the heroine, Antigone. Such misreadings are shaped by conflations of heroic agency with agency as such and are enabled by Creon’s perspective, which so many readers of the play unconsciously adopt rather than interrupt. They further are misled by an inability to apprehend the workings of agonism in which not only struggle and rivalry but also mutual respect and equality – even care – are characteristic elements.


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1All citations are from Fagles’ translation, The Three Theban Plays (Sophocles 1982). References to the play put the Greek lines first, with lines from Fagles’ translation second, in brackets. While not myself trained in Classics, all references have been checked against numerous translations and classics scholars have been consulted to be sure no interpretative weight is put on idiosyncratic translation.

2 Žižek’s criticism of the idea that Antigone is “gentle protectress of her family and household” [the guardian role to which Antigone is often consigned) is echoed by Alenka Zupančič. I suggest here we may see Antigone as protective without necessarily needing to see her as “gentle.”

3 Mary Dietz (1985), for example, arguing against Jean Bethke Elshtain’s claim that Antigone represents family values against Creon state-centered calculations (1982), says that Ismene may represent the family but Antigone is best seen as a political actor: she acts as a “citizen” of Thebes, not as sister or mother.

4 On the historical significance of Creon’s treatment of the dead body, see Honig 2009. On the dusting, see Jacobs 2008.

5 Cf. Rose 1952.219-251. Hame (2008.11) argues that “Antigone on her own can provide only a limited number of funeral procedures for her brother in two separate visits to his body: sprinkling of dust on the body (Ant. 245-47, 255-56, 429) and pouring libations (Ant. 430-31). The rites Antigone is able to perform for Polyneikes are interpreted in the play as equivalent to burial. Antigone thus assumed responsibility for her brother’s funeral rites and, although she was unable to perform preparatory rites, the she did complete the main act of burial.” Hame is right to point to the difference between the first and second “burials” but she does not comment on why dust and libations would be performed in two separate visits to the corpse. That is the problem Jebb sought to solve, as noted above. On Jebb’s and other solutions to the problem of the second burial, see Rose 1952.219-223 and 245-251. For further sources see Hame 2008 n. 37 and n. 38.

6 Still with this first possibility, we can ask further: if the first burial was merely ceremonial, merely a dusting and not a real burial, then why should the un-burial which was not a real un-burial seem to Antigone to call for a (ceremonial) re-burial? Is the symbolic cultural work of the first burial itself undone by the guards’ action? If so, Antigone buries the second time for the same reasons as the first.

7 Citing Cavell 1976.310.

8 Butler calls attention to this denial as well, focusing on the power of language as Antigone calls on it and on the importance of the fact that the crime is as much (or more) the speech, the saying “I did it” (which Creon does indeed refer to as her insolence) as the purported act of burial (2000.8).

9 Charles Segal is one of few to consider it seriously (1981 and 1995). Carol Jacobs notes with interest efforts to establish the non-overlap between Antigone’s agency and the gods’ (Bernadette) or the contiguity of their actions (Steiner) (2008.1-26).

10 When Creon accuses Antigone of “insolence, twice over,” he does not intend to address the two burials question. The burials are the first insolence, and the publicity of her actions, the second insolence. But his term “twice over” could also refer to the two burials.

11 Typically sororal in that sisters fight like cats and dogs and soon again are best friends. Thus, it is not difficult to make sense of the fact that “Antigone’s treatment of Ismene, then, moves from a passionate appeal to the normativity of sisterhood to an equally total rejection of her sister. From intense recognition to no recognition at all, from common blood to refusing the claim of the common.” Simon Goldhill, whom I quote here, says this is a symptom of 5th century shifts in family form (2006.157-158).

12 If so, then Antigone’s words have had some impact, unbeknownst to her. Dewald and Kitzinger (2006.122-129) note Antigone is under the impression she has no support because she is not present when Haemon argues with his father. There is more evidence of support: the sentry has mixed emotions at catching Antigone: “it hurts a man to bring down his friends,” he says, “But all that, I’m afraid, means less to me than my own skin” [l. 487-489]. The sentry, an ordinary everyman sort of character, thinks of Antigone as a friend betrayed and says so to Creon. This line may help account as well for Creon’s continued impatience with the sentry though he has caught the culprit. The sentry has let show his loyalties.

13 There are two exceptions. After completing this essay, I was made aware by Jennet Kirkpatrick (who relies on it) of a research note and a reference to it, both from 1911: Rouse 1911.40-42 and Harry 1911.3-46. Rouse’s reading lights on some of the same details as mine (uncannily, he even borrows as I do below Shakespeare’s “methinks she doth protest too much”) -- but he does not treat the question of the first burial in connection with the play’s later scenes and its development of the sororal relationship. Nor of course does Rouse pose the question of whether to read Ismene as classical or modern, in Lacan’s terms, as I will go on to do here. The existence of this research note does pose for us, however, the question of why this reading failed to penetrate Antigone scholarship. That is, what investments in Ismene’s passivity and in Antigone’s singularity have thus far prevented this other reading from taking hold?

14In other words, Ismene’s confession, which depends on another’s is a speech act that combines constative and performative features. If such speech acts work it is not in spite but rather because of that category-breaking commingling, Derrida argues in “Declarations of Independence” (1986.3-19).

15 Garry Wills parses the conventional view: She says it is the highest duty to be true to ''one's own'' (philoi, not ''friends'' merely, but family and allies -- the adjective refers as well to one's own property or one's limbs); yet she turns with enmity on her sister, Ismene, when the latter says the burial cannot succeed (it doesn't), and then generously tries to join her in taking credit for the failed attempt at burial” (2004).

16 Butler rejects the idea of female solidarity between Antigone and her sister, saying: “She owns the deed that she did which is in itself a somewhat awesome thing; She’s asserting that she is a sovereign subject who performs an act [ie., she was not put up to it] and that it is her act and hers alone. And she won’t let anyone else take credit for the act. Ismene tries to come in, claim solidarity, says: “I’ll say I did it too. Antigone says: No, no you didn’t do it.” So it is not a notion of feminist solidarity that one derives from Antigone! I think that’s one of the misappropriations one sees in Luce Irigaray and others” (2001.39). In response to Butler, I would note that Antigone’s protest: “Never share my dying, don’t lay claim to what you never touched” does not end there but rather with: “My death will be enough” which suggests she has made a calculation and is thinking not (just) about the rightness or justice of the claims of who did what but also about the consequences. Also, Butler seems to share what she takes to be Antigone’s perspective when she suggests Ismene’s words are empty, or unearned, unconnected as they are to real actions. But, as I suggest, the charge is made by Antigone intentionally falsely. All of this suggests, contra Butler, that there is solidarity here, though of what sort remains an open question.

17 D.A. Hester (1971.30) cites Simpson and Millar for the view that Antigone’s harshness is a device meant to save Ismene. Hester says critics are overly subtle in making this case but Simpson and Millar’s arguments (1948.78-81), which I discovered only after developing the reading offered here, are compelling, and Hester in his otherwise fine article offers few reasons for dismissing them. As Simpson and Millar themselves note, their reading is supported also by Jebb
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