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Butler: Is It All Greek? | The Nation

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Butler: Is It All Greek?

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The outlines of the troubled Theban family are well-known. Oedipus Rex, actually written after Antigone (442 BCE) though its action precedes it, begins with the problem of a plague. As a priest informs us:

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Georgette Fleischer
Georgette Fleischer is completing a manuscript on "Genre Departures: Women Writers and the Crisis of Representing...

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It really is about time we had the letters of Rebecca West.

A blight is on the fruitful plants of the earth,
A blight is on the cattle of the fields,
a blight is on our women that no children
are born to them; a God that carries fire,
a deadly pestilence, is on our town,
strikes us and spares not, and the house of Cadmus
is emptied of its people while black Death
grows rich in groaning and in lamentation.

Soon, of course, we learn what the trouble is, when the blind seer Teiresias informs Oedipus the King, "You are the land's pollution." Unwittingly, the man has murdered his own father during an altercation at a crossroads, wedded his own mother and produced four offspring who are in fact his half-siblings. This unbearable truth causes his wife and mother Jocasta to hang herself in the polluted bedchamber, where afterward Oedipus tears the brooches from her robe in order to blind his own eyes. Toward the end of Antigone's Claim, Butler raises an issue that supports my reading of the book's contemporary occasion: "Consider that the horror of incest, the moral revulsion it compels in some, is not that far afield from the same horror and revulsion felt toward lesbian and gay sex, and is not unrelated to the intense moral condemnation of voluntary single parenting, or gay parenting, or parenting arrangements with more than two adults involved (practices that can be used as evidence to support a claim to remove a child from the custody of the parent in several states in the United States)."

In Oedipus at Colonus (401 BCE), the middle play of the trilogy but written last, an old, blind Oedipus is led onstage by his daughter Antigone. (Sigmund Freud, who did so much for the Oedipus myth, referred at the end of his life to his daughter and fellow psychoanalyst Anna Freud as his "Antigone.") Here, the theme of proper burial, which is so important a theme in Antigone and in Antigone's Claim, receives advance treatment. Oedipus begs of Theseus, King of Athens, a proper burial when he dies, that Theseus accept "the gift" of his "beaten self: no feast for the eyes." The oracle has prophesied that if Oedipus's sons do not tend his corpse, Thebes will be conquered by Athens, and Oedipus wants revenge on his sons because they drove him into exile from Thebes. When Polyneices makes an appearance toward the end of Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus not only rejects his son's plea to join his side against his other son, presently in possession of Thebes, he curses them both; a curse that comes to pass between the action of Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, when in battle both brothers die at once on the other's sword. Polyneices' final words in the trilogy are spoken at the end of Oedipus at Colonus to his beloved sister Antigone, to whom he offers a blessing if she will honor his corpse with burial rites. And here we have arrived at Antigone and Antigone's Claim.

From the start of her career, Judith Butler has been on a quest for a theory of the subject that might work for "those who live, or try to live, on the sexual margins." As she stated in her new preface to the recent reissue of her first book, Subjects of Desire: "In a sense, all of my work remains within the orbit of a certain set of Hegelian questions: What is the relation between desire and recognition, and how is it that the constitution of the subject entails a radical and constitutive relation to alterity?" Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit has underwritten most of Butler's work, as has the work of Lacan, whose seminar on "The Ethics of Psychoanalysis" is the other major influence on Antigone's Claim. The book both follows from Butler's earlier work and turns in some interesting new directions; namely, it moves explicitly into the realm of ethics and implicitly into practical politics.

While Butler has tended in the past to focus particularly on the section of the Phenomenology of Spirit that deals with the famous "Lordship and Bondage" relation, in Antigone's Claim she makes what seems like an inevitable advance in the text, given the confluence of her present interests, into the section of the Phenomenology that deals with "the true Spirit: The ethical order." In this part, Hegel argues that it is the "Family" that "as the element of the nation's actual existence...stands opposed to the nation itself; as the immediate being of the ethical order, it stands over against that order which shapes and maintains itself by working for the universal; the Penates [household gods] stand opposed to the universal Spirit." For Hegel, it is woman who is associated with these household gods that stand opposed to the universal Spirit or the state; it is woman who is associated with the divine, as opposed to the human, law. The figure of Antigone upholds the divine law when she buries her brother Polyneices (twice) in defiance of her uncle Creon, who has ordered that the corpse of a man who threatened the integrity of the state will be left to rot in the sun, torn by beasts and birds.

Butler's affinities with a philosophical tradition arising from Hegel--the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxist philosophers and social critics (though she rarely if ever refers to them in her work)--are not limited to her use of difficult language, which notoriously won her a Bad Writing Award from the journal Philosophy and Literature. Butler shares with the Frankfurt School a fundamental, one might say foundational, debt to the Hegelian dialectic, which Marx harnessed in his theories of history. Hegel explains his dialectic in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit:

Knowledge is only actual, and can only be expounded, as Science or as system; and furthermore, that a so-called basic proposition or principle of philosophy, if true, is also false, just because it is only a principle. It is, therefore, easy to refute it. The refutation consists in pointing out its defect; and it is defective because it is only the universal or principle, is only the beginning. If the refutation is thorough, it is derived and developed from the principle itself, not accomplished by counter-assertions and random thoughts from outside.

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