Bonnie Honig’s Antigone Interrupted shows how central Sophocles’ play is to recent and current philosophical, political, cultural, psychoanalytical, and gender theory debates in Europe and the USA. The book is not primarily an analysis of these debates (though one learns a great deal about them along the way), but an attempt to make a striking intervention in them. Honig critiques a recent development in philosophical and political thought, which she calls ‘mortalist humanism’, a position which bases its political agenda on our shared finitude and vulnerability as human beings, and which is also a reaction to the state violence and divisiveness of the Bush-era, post 9/11. Honig worries that a ‘politics of lamentation’, emerging from mortalist humanism, easily slides into a ‘lamentation of politics’, which merely mourns the violence of the powerful (sovereignty) rather than dealing with it. On the contrary, writes Honig, sovereignty is something which must be countered, not merely lamented, in order to effect political change, and in this cause she attempts to dismantle the conventional image of Antigone, deeply involved in these debates, as an icon of mourning and familial piety, which has been evoked in the context of political protest groups such as the Madres of the Plaza in Argentina and the ‘peace-moms’ in the USA.
The critical tool that Honig employs, and in which she is most interested at a political level, is interruption. In the course of her argument she interrupts the concepts and narratives of philosophers, film-makers, critics, cultural theorists, feminists, gender theorists, and political campaigners. According to Honig, our reading of Antigone is always already determined by the history of its receptions, which, made into natural, consensual readings by their iteration, prevent us from seeing its other, politically creative possibilities. In the service of this idea she is also prepared to interrupt herself on occasion, changing direction or strategy, making an alternative reading, or even a complete reversal.
In Part One, ‘Interruption’, Honig attempts to reconfigure Antigone within an alternative political and philosophical narrative which she terms ‘agonistic humanism’: which she sees as the third option between anti-humanism and the new ‘mortalist’ humanism. As well as grief, she writes, there is pleasure; it is physical pleasure which eventually ‘interrupts’ grief, or ‘persuades’ us (Freud’s word) to leave it behind. The agonistic relationship between grief and pleasure (or gastêr and thumos, as she puts it) for Honig has political implications, and influences her reading of Antigone. There is a danger, she writes, that the mortalist humanists who look to the universalized, mournful Antigone as an exemplary figure are smoothing over competing political viewpoints: there are arguments we need to have, and arguments about Antigone we need to have. Conversely, she also wants to rescue the humanity of Lacan’s interpretation of her as a death-obsessed sacred- monster of pure desire. The reader will need to be familiar with the history and terminology of the intense nineteenth and twentieth-century debates on Antigone, from Hegel to Irigaray, in order to make sense of Honig’s argument. Miriam Leonard’s Athens in Paris would be a good primer for Honig, as well as being an important book in its own right. 1
Part Two, ‘Conspiracy’, is devoted to Honig’s own reading of the play, setting her reading within her political argument about the need to put the politics back into lamentation. Putting the play into historical context, she relates the struggle between Antigone and Creon to the civic struggle over funerary practice in fifth-century Athens. She tries to resolve Antigone’s irreconcilable commitment to both the uniqueness of Polynices and the equality of the dead by relating it to the concepts of phônê and logos. She advocates conspiracy in politics, and sees a sororal conspiracy in the relationship between Antigone and Ismene in the play, even arguing that it could have been Ismene, not Antigone, who performed the first burial ritual (missed by the guards) over Polynices’ body.
Honig describes the ‘frames’ which are the central concept of the philosopher Judith Butler’s book Frames of War, as being ‘rather like the curse that drives Greek Tragedy’ in their power to determine significance. 2 Applying this analogy to Honig herself, one sees that her book has a tragic energy of its own. She admits that her reading of Antigone is ‘willful’, (‘pressing its case forward against other rivals, trying to make room for itself’), and tells us that this is partly because ‘Antigone has had her effect on me, too’. Her impressive range of reference and detective work on the text is more like the bold cleverness of an Oedipus than an Antigone, and Honig’s fascinating, wide-ranging, riddle-solving argument is not only as wilful as Oedipus, but as ultimately doomed.
Chapter Four is the most effective part of her argument, in which Honig relates Antigone’s struggle with Creon to the civic struggle over fifth-century Athenian burial practice, though even here the connections are made too directly. In making parallels between the politics of burial in Athens and in Sophocles’ Thebes, Honig does not take into account the oblique uses made of Thebes as a setting in tragedy, as a counter-Athens or Athens-through-a-distorting-mirror. This leads her to write too easily of a ‘Periclean polis’ within the play, and of Creon as a democracy-affiliated aristocrat, in contrast to Antigone who refuses to compromise with the polis. This interpretation is partly illuminating in the case of Antigone, allowing Honig to rescue her from her passive role of mother-like universal mourner in order to show what a proud aristocrat the character is, but it does a lot less for Creon. While it is refreshing to find Creon’s case being evaluated again, there are risks in presenting him as a democratic-minded autocrat, especially given Honig’s declared political intentions. More fundamentally, is it difficult to see where to place the democratic (as distinct from the popular) within the play at all, apart from when the soldiers draw lots to see who will give the bad news to Creon. Beyond the chorus, which shifts position warily and pragmatically, where is the democratic will of Thebes? There is no distinction made in Creon’s speeches between the law of the polis and his own will. The popular view, if it emerges anywhere, is with Antigone and Haemon, who both tell Creon, separately, that the city is not on his side. It is wiser, as Peter Burian writes, given the gaps in our knowledge, to see the democratic in the very nature of tragic performance, with its invitation to judge between conflicting viewpoints, rather than in any particular characters, especially off-stage ones. 3
But these are minor problems in comparison with Honig’s consciously provocative argument that it was Ismene who gave Polynices his first burial, not Antigone (who is caught performing the second ritual). Like Oedipus, Honig turns detective. Her scenario of a secret conspiracy between the sisters then expands into a reinterpretation of their scenes together, arguing that the apparent meaning of Antigone’s words is not what she intends Ismene to hear, but is merely an ironic display of angry rejection to fool Creon into sparing Ismene, and to show ‘ sotto voce‘ solidarity with Ismene herself. This is criticism as crime fiction: in fact the contrast between the sisters could not be clearer in the play.
No doubt Honig would interpret this low-culture ‘crime fiction’ analogy, used critically, as revealing this reviewer’s elitist assumptions about Greek tragedy. But the main problem with this book is not one of cultural boundaries but of making the play too strange. Honig’s question, ‘What if Ismene did it?’, belongs with all the other interesting but reductive questions about famous works. Is King Lear in the early stages of Alzheimer’s? Is Heathcliff really Mr. Earnshaw’s illegitimate son with an immigrant woman in Liverpool? Attempting to answer such questions turns the work into a detective case or a case study, a problem to be solved, which implies that somewhere there is a hidden solution. Theories of conspiracy can sometimes produce conspiracy theories.
A lot of Honig’s argument is based on a return to the play, to put Antigone back into the dramatic context often forgotten by previous writers, though what she sometimes does instead is return the play to a performance context, emphasising that the meaning of the words depends on how they are said. This is true as far as it goes, but in order to get across to the audience the heavy ironies that Honig argues for, the actors playing Antigone and Ismene would have to find a way to signal the insincerity of their speeches, which would risk turning the play into a pantomime. Though Honig does not read the play as panto, she does read it as melodrama, but also as very subtle, as it suits her argument. She also takes the characters to be speaking straightforwardly and sincerely, or ironically and conspiratorially, as it suits her argument. Because it seems briefly (and excitingly) as if Honig is going to resolve the long controversy over Antigone’s penultimate speech, specifically her claim that she had an absolute moral duty to bury an irreplaceable brother, but not a husband or son (the speech that Goethe hoped would be proved inauthentic, but Lacan saw as exemplary), it is disappointing to find that Honig’s answer is that Antigone did not really mean what she was saying; she was being ironic, mimicking Creon and trying to cast him as weak.
Often Honig makes political arguments which are convincing, but hard to relate to the play, such as her argument about the politics of grief and pleasure in Chapter One. It is telling that a number of her citations come from Homer rather than Sophocles, and it is easier to make such a connection with Homer, especially the Odyssey, with its many contrasts of suffering and pleasure, than to Antigone, where food is only what Polynices is for the crows, or the bare provisions in the cave, rather than anything to do with pleasure. In trying to convince us that grief is political, Honig sometimes strays towards the doctrinaire. She gives the recent example of the mother of a dead soldier, Lila Lipscombe, in the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, who encounters some scepticism on her way to the White House to join a peace protest, and is told heartlessly, ‘There are a lot of other people too’. Honig comments, ‘This not untrue (but not only true) effacement of her singular loss silences Lipscombe and drives her away from this scene of potential political awakening’. If only the grief-stricken would keep their political wits about them.
This is not the only place where Honig tends towards a programmatic positivism, telling us that Achilles in the Iliad ‘mourns too long’ and ‘goes too far’ over Patroclus, though she does not tell us the length of grief he should be allowed. More broadly, many of her statements on the subject of death seem to be an attempt to wish it away. She refers to the ‘so-called fact of mortality’ and describes Butler as ‘putting the lie to the old saw that we are all equal in death’, rising to her most exuberant: ‘just because man is mortal does not mean we are born to die’. The first two comments are about the social inequalities of our dying and our memorialising, which are all too real, but surely it is also true that we end up equally silent in the end? The third one is a criticism of the ‘mortalist humanist’ emphasis on our shared mortality, and by extension on the mortality we should share, politically speaking. The problem with this argument with regard to the play is that Antigone actually tells us she was born for death — but perhaps she is just being ironic.
1. Leonard, M., Athens in Paris (Oxford, 2005).
2. Butler, J., Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (New York, 2009).
3. Peter Burian, ‘Athenian tragedy as democratic discourse’, in Carter, D. M. (ed.), Why Athens?: A Reappraisal of Tragic Politics (Oxford, 2011), p. 117.