Brown University, author, Antigone, Interrupted.
I have taught Sophocles’ 2500 year-old play Antigone for many years now and it changes every time I teach it because it is changed by the times. Two years ago, right after the killing of Michael Brown, whose dead body was left lying in a Ferguson road for 4 long hot hours, my students were haunted by Polynices, Antigone’s brother, left out as carrion for birds and dogs: “unwept, unburied,” Antigone says, outraged that the sovereign, Creon, has commanded such sacrilege. In the two years since, we have seen tens more such images, the bodies of murdered African Americans lying in a road, in a park, in a playground, silent testimony to a sovereign police power unashamed by its violence or unused to accountability. Terence Crutcher and Keith Scottt are the most recent to die at the hands of police. We know the rhythm of the aftermath: the voices of the Antigones and the Creons call for justice, plead for calm, convene grand juries, file no charges, maybe someone is fired, maybe not.
I taught the play last week, before this latest wave of violence. It was the day after it was announced that the family of Sandra Bland had settled their suit against Waller County, Texas. Hearing that news while reading the play, I suddenly realized that Sandra Bland, just like Antigone, killed herself while walled off away from others in a rocky cell. Both women were found dead, hanging by a noose of their own fashioning. Both might have lived had they waited a bit longer. Both chose not to wait out their time.
Antigone does not wait because she fears that a long slow death is all that awaits her. For violating Creon’s decree and burying her bother, she has been immured in a cave with some rations to last a few days so that Creon and the city are distanced from her punishment. The rations mean, in a way, that the gods have more time to decide her fate. They can take their time. But this is not a mercy; it is a torture. As she is led to the cave, Antigone airs her fears, recalling the terrible slow death of the goddess, Niobe. The chorus criticizes her for comparing herself to a goddess. But Antigone is not self-aggrandizing here. She sees in Niobe’s example her own future and it terrifies her: “think what a living death she died,” Antigone says. Niobe was “there on the mountain heights,” the stone grew around her and was “binding as ivy” and it “slowly walled her round.” Antigone describes Niobe’s long slow death – “wasting away” -- accompanied by unceasing tears, to this day: “and the rains will never cease, the legends say.” It is horrific: a death that never ends. Who would want that?
|James Ridgeway's Solitary Watch|
Bland, too, was entombed in a rocky place away from the world, hung herself, and was found, too late, dead. No one suspected she had the agency for such an Antigonean act. And even now, no one does. In its aftermath, her act was medicalized. She had reported feeling depressed and suicidal and was not given the medical attention that was her right. It is part of the settlement – in addition to the money the family will receive – that from now on the jail has to have appropriate medical staff on duty at all times. I assume the legal claims of Bland’s family were strengthened by the compelling evidence that Bland felt depressed and suicidal, reported this to the police, and was not attended to properly. We could medicalize Antigone that way, too. Creon did! He says she is insane, mad. She certainly sounds depressed and suicidal. She says she is fated for death, that she is indeed already dead, and that she longs to be with her dead brother in the afterworld. Creon notes that she seems to “long for death.” But most of Antigone’s readers see her as a political martyr not a depressed suicide.
|Korryn Gaines Killed for Refusing to Submit to Baltimore Police|
Sandra Bland depends on others too. Say her name. Tell the world.