I want to tell you a story about me and a young woman named Antigone. Antigone (4 syllables, accent on the 2nd) isn’t real. She is a character in the Oedipus cycle by Sophocles, a feel-good family story if there ever was one. Just kidding; it is a classic Greek tragedy. I met Antigone when I was fourteen, and I wouldn’t exactly say we hit it off. But it’s strange, how the literature we read for a class when we’re teenagers can stick with us.
To tell about me and her, I have to tell about her, especially what she did in the third play of the trilogy. So, spoiler alert!
Okay. Three plays.
First and best known: Oedipus Rex. Oedipus is the tragic king who, through no fault of his own and a convoluted maze of prophecy and foster parenting, ends up marrying his own mother and having children with her. He finds out about this and responds in true Greek tragedy fashion by tearing his eyes out. His wife/mother commits suicide. Second play: Oedipus at Colonus. Oedipus has been wandering around, blind and half crazy, for a while, escorted by his dutiful daughter Antigone. He finally dies at the end. Third play: Antigone. This third play is the one my class read when I was fourteen, so it’s really how Antigone and I met.
Classicists out there are gulping Pepto-Bismol about now, and I apologize. It’s probably not going to get much better. I’ll keep my explanation as brief as possible and get on to the philosophizing.
When the play begins, Antigone is back in the city of her birth, which is now ruled by her uncle, Creon. There has just been a civil war, and two of Antigone’s brothers died in it after fighting on opposite sides. The one who fought for Creon has been buried with due ceremony, but Creon has decreed that those who fought against him must lie unburied and unblessed. So her brother, Polyneices, is currently putrefying in a nearby field.
Antigone tells her sister, Ismene, that she is determined to bury Polyneices. Ismene is horrified–the penalty for defying Creon in this is death. She argues with Antigone, and Antigone denounces her as a coward and goes to carry out her plan. She is caught covering her brother’s corpse with dust and sprinkling wine for his ghost. Caught and sentenced to death.
The details after that are unimportant right now–my story about Antigone has to do with her decision to bury Polyneices. It nagged at me. At fourteen, I saw Antigone as kind of a self-righteous twit, especially with her tendency to make elaborate speeches about why she is right and others are wrong. I hated the way she treated Ismene, who, though weak and conforming, really had a point when she pleaded with Antigone not to throw away her life for something that was not going to help their brother.
Years later–decades later–Antigone would come to my mind. Why did she do what she did? Was it really more of a rebellious act against her uncle? Was it survivor’s guilt? A deeper masochism? Why was she willing to risk her life for a stupid handful of dust that the guards just brush away again?
Antigone’s speeches clung to my mind; their stately cadences seemed to carry a meaning beneath the meaning. It was only a few years ago that I realized why she, and her illogical decision, fascinated me so: because her decision was illogical. Because she was drawn to do something that seemed to be a very poor bargain. Because she was impelled by an inner drive that answers to nothing and nobody but itself.
I didn’t want to be like Antigone. I didn’t even like her. But her decision intrigued me with its sense of inner rightness. She knew that this was what she needed to do, no matter what the consequences–why? No reason but the urging of her Self. No reason but congruence. No reason but the knowledge that she needed to take this path in order to remain who she felt herself to be.
She became a symbol to me of what I call a “Self thing.” Something we do because we feel we must, even if it seems silly or futile. The times when something might be working perfectly on paper but our hearts tell us something is wrong. Call it our spiritual essence, or our intuition–I certainly don’t have just one name for it.
As I wind up the story of Antigone and me, I get to the inevitable part when I link it to the art of living with the conditions we battle: well, I need not stretch too far. Contact with our Self, no matter what illogic we find when we establish contact, is a vital part of our healing and our lives. Living in closer congruence with that Self is one path to peace.
I’ll tell you one more secret. Sometimes, when I am trying to talk back to my self-destructive thoughts, or my compulsive thoughts, or just my weakness, I summon Antigone. I stand her there, in my mind’s eye, her draped garments brushing the ground as she stands regally among Greek columns. And then I let her loose–self-righteousness and all, except that it comes out now as oracular pronouncement rather than arrogance. “O Ismene!” she cries, speaking to the coward in me, denouncing whatever needs to be denounced.