October 31, 2023

“A Hot Mind Over Chilly Things”: On Antigone

Alenka Zupančič

Still from Sophie Deraspe, Antigone (2019).

Sophocles wrote Antigone in or before 441 BCE, in a world that was in many ways almost unimaginably different from our own. And yet the figure of Antigone continues to haunt our imaginations and influence our thinking about a whole range of different ideas and battles, including very modern ones. Over forty different adaptations of Antigone have appeared in the past hundred years, not to mention many “creative” translations and countless readings—philosophical and otherwise— of the play. If we take just the past six years, several new adaptations have appeared. Two of them, both from 2017 (Stefan Hertmans’s poetic monologue Antigone in Molenbeek and Kamila Shamsie’s novel Home Fire), place Antigone in the context of terrorism and the contemporary “war on terror”; one (Sophie Deraspe’s film Antigone [2019]) places her in the context of the recent refugee crisis; while Slavoj Žižek’s Antigone (2016) rewrites the play with three alternative endings and invents a powerful way of introducing a third element— the chorus as collective subject—into the usual and well-rehearsed theme of the relationship between the individual and the state.

It is certainly not unusual for a classical play or hero to receive many different versions and readings (“interpretations”), but Antigone is still quite exceptional. Antigone is also exceptional for the many really interesting versions of herself she has instigated—instigated rather than inspired, because fire seems to be much more associated with the effect Antigone produces with her “cold,” inflexible persistence. “You have a hot mind over chilly things,” Ismene says to her in the dialog that opens the play. This expression is indeed quite inspired, and it goes against the common mantra and prescription according to which we need a cold mind to deal with heated things: the worst things and situations are chilly, rather that hot, and it takes a very hot mind to truly engage with them and make others do as well.

The fact that there are so many strong versions of the play points to something very ingenious in the way the original drama is constructed. For although we talk about different versions (implying difference, differentiation), all the really good ones also reproduce something: they manage to repeat, or perhaps re-create, reactivate, some singularity of the constellation called “Antigone,” as laid out in the original play.

Generally speaking, it seems that Antigone comes into focus (of rewriting and interpretation) every time there is some significant tectonic shift or crisis in the social fabric, in the symbolic structuring of the law, or in the wider realm of morality or Sittlichkeit. More specifically, perhaps, the figure of Antigone seems to be emblematic of a particular kind of social antagonism that touches on the question of the very constitution, and being, of the social. Thus, if we wish to pin down the “eternally” present, relevant singularity of the play, antagonism might be the first step in defining it. But antagonism should in this case be understood not as hostility and conflict between two (or several) elements but rather in the sense in which Marx talked about “class antagonism”: not simply as conflict between different classes and their interests but as something that pertains to the very logic of the space, or reality, in which these classes exist—in this case, the reality of the capitalist mode of production. In other words, talking about antagonism in the case of Antigone is meant to direct our attention not to her conflict with and opposition to Creon but rather to something that surfaces in and through this conflict, something that brings to the fore a singular torsion, or crack, which defines the very ground they stand on in their conflict. This is the double perspective and hence the power of Antigone as a figure who not only stands her ground in her opposition to Creon but makes us perceive the otherwise invisible constitutive elements, exceptions, and dialectical tensions of the social space. What we are presented with is thus not simply a conflict between the two protagonists as two elements of reality but an impossible glimpse of what constitutes this reality and belies its status as a neutral medium in which different positions appear and enter into conflict. This is why the singular way in which we as readers or viewers of Antigone experience the play would perhaps be best described by the term “parallax view”: a simultaneous existence of two perspectives that normally never meet or exist on the same plane. And yet here, in Sophocles’s play, that is exactly what happens: they meet.

Antigone is not such a great text because the play “gives us much to think about” or “presents us with a difficult (moral) dilemma.” If we go down the road of questioning whether Antigone is right or not to demand what she demands and focusing on that to the exclusion of everything else, I think we miss the whole point and power of the play. She is what she does and demands, and her actions reveal, expose, something in the order and structure of which she is a part, much more than they reveal something about herself. Her act—covering Polyneices’s body—and her demand constitute the inaugural fact (or should we say event?) of the play; although Antigone certainly has reasons for her actions, and enumerates some of them, her act nevertheless appears to be the absolute starting point, which then has consequences for both past and future. In this respect, Antigone is like Hamlet without the figure of the ghost appearing as a distinct character. To put it more precisely, if in Hamlet everything begins with the apparition of the ghost and his words, then in Antigone there is not even a ghost of authority testifying to the wrong that took place; it is all about Antigone’s subjective and subjectivizing conviction (her “hot mind”); this is why we could say that it is her own appearance and actions that have a ghostly aftereffect, create a spectral but irreducible afterimage that persists throughout the play. We could also say that rather than “presenting us with a difficult (moral) dilemma” and “giving us a lot to think about,” the play drops something on us, discharges something on us that is what it is, even if we don’t fully understand what it is. It works on us. It works through us. It gives us something; it transmits something “impossible” and unfamiliar. The headache it can give us is caused not by overthinking this or that dilemma but by something more like a glitch or almost a visual challenge of seeing, in one and the same frame, both the reality and its constitutive inherent twist—hence the idea of parallax view.

It is thus important to emphasize that the two levels or points of view at issue in this parallax are not simply those of Antigone and Creon, though their confrontation certainly helps to bring to light the parallax gap we are trying to define. Nor is this simply a matter of confrontation between state power or state laws and some other, eternal, unwritten ethical or divine laws. Here, it is indeed very important to determine what exactly is the status of the divine, unwritten laws that Antigone famously invokes at one point and that she believes Creon is violating. But before we address this question, two further opening remarks seem necessary.

First, the story of Antigone implies and presupposes the other two stories of the so-called Theban Trilogy, Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus. Key elements of these two plays are at the heart of the tragedy of Antigone and cannot be separated from it. The fact that Sophocles, although the order of the plays narratively is Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and then Antigone, wrote Antigone first, clearly indicates that the other two plays, or their basic narrative elements, were present from the beginning as inherent elements of the constellation called “Antigone.” It also illustrates my point about Antigone’s actions being an absolute beginning: something that implies (its own) history rather than follows from it.

My second remark, related to the first, is that Creon is not simply a ruler, a king, a figure of state power, under whose rule the events described take place. He comes to power only when the two brothers (Polyneices and Eteocles, both sons of Oedipus) kill each other. The edict that honors one brother and excludes the other from burial rites is not simply one of his edicts but is his inaugural act, the act in this case coinciding with the constitution of power. This is by no means insignificant, and it is pregnant with implications. Moreover, we are not dealing merely with a change of power, a change of ruler, the replacement of one king by another, but—in the wider Sophoclean perspective—a change from, say, the blameless but no less unspeakably “criminal” rule associated with Oedipus (who, unbeknown to himself, has killed King Laius, his own father, taken his place, and married his mother, Jocasta) to a “civilized,” normal, business-as-usual rule. This tectonic shift is at the very heart of Sophocles’s play.

Let us briefly recall the background story. Polyneices and Eteocles, the two sons from the incestuous relationship, were to share the kingdom after the exile of Oedipus, each taking a one-year reign in turn. However, Eteocles refused to cede his throne after his year as king. Therefore, Polyneices raised an army to oust Eteocles from his throne, and a battle ensued. At the end of the battle, the brothers killed each other, after which Jocasta’s brother, Creon, ascended the throne.1 He decided that Polyneices was the traitor and therefore should not be accorded funeral rites. (In Jean Anouilh’s version of Antigone, Creon cynically refers to this decision as a necessary constitutive myth he had to offer his people, choosing quite arbitrarily one brother as the traitor and the other as the hero; he tells Antigone that it is not even clear whose disfigured remains belonged to which brother, so it could also be Eteocles’s remains that lie unburied out there. This explicit addition is, of course, very modern: the addition of a reflexive surplus knowledge, a cynical recognition of the bad or dirty things that “we,” the rulers, must do as a necessary part of the job, the recognition of the necessity and constitutive dirtiness of all political leadership—as if this explicit recognition made it less problematic and morally better. I will return later to the way this logic is often played out in the contemporary social and political context.)

To repeat, the major shift in the background of Antigone is the shift from the rule of Oedipus and his descendants, with the terrible curse and the unconscious crime shaping their destiny, to the “normal” rule of Creon; we could also say that what is at stake here, at least in some respects, is the transition from prehistory (myth) to history, from the rule of an unconscious crime pertaining to the law to the “rule of law” and its excluded, unconscious core. But in this concrete case the transition at stake is marked by Creon’s inaugural excess and hubris, which stains the “normal rule” with an ineffaceable pathology, or pulls this pathology into the very core of the “normal rule”. We could also use here an image to which I will have frequent recourse in the pages that follow—this transition is very much like the passage or shift at issue in the following joke: “We’re not cannibals; we ate the last one yesterday.”

What happens in Antigone, then, has to do with something implicit in the constitution of the normal social order. It has to do with a very specific, singular moment, with a forced normalization and generalization of that moment, and with its consequences for state power in its everyday, normal course or functioning. There is something in Creon’s treatment of state power that violates the respect for the gap of the unconscious that pertains to the law, and it is here that we will locate the central point of violence as perceived by Antigone, one with which Antigone’s own violence is also intimately connected.

In what follows, I propose to work through some of the sensitive points with which Antigone confronts us (durcharbeiten, “working through”—a famous, and very suggestive, Freudian term): sensitive, virulent, contagious, powerful, disturbing, but also fascinating, with all the ambiguity of that term. Fascinating images attract, capture our gaze, but also blind us, prevent us from seeing. One of the many powerful observations Lacan makes in his commentary on Antigone concerns precisely the heroine’s status as a central image. When we see the play performed onstage, he suggests, we are spectators only in relation to Antigone—in relation to the rest of the play, we are more like “listeners.” Only Antigone necessarily emerges as an image, with a blinding splendor, with a “sublime beauty” that, of course, has nothing to do with her physical appearance.

There are several such sensitive points in connection with Antigone. I will highlight and discuss three, which could be roughly placed under the following strongly interrelated headings: violence and unwritten laws; death and funeral rites; incest and desire— or, from another, parallax perspective: terror, undeadness, and sublimation.

This is the prologue to Let Them Rot: Antigone’s Parallax (Fordham University Press, 2023). Published with permission of the author and Fordham University Press.


This part of the story also provides the starting point of Aeschylus’s tragedy Seven Against Thebes, as well as Euripides’s The Suppliants and The Phoenician Women. There is no doubt that Eteocles breaks the original agreement and usurps the crown, provoking Polyneices’s attack. Based on these other plays, there is also no doubt that Creon’s punishment of Polyneices—leaving his body exposed—is based neither on human nor divine law and is in fact an excess.

Literature, Psychology & Psychoanalysis, Philosophy

Alenka Zupančič is a Slovene philosopher and social theorist, one of the prominent members of the “Ljubljana school of psychoanalysis.” She is Research Councilor at the Institute of Philosophy, Scientific Research Center of the Slovene Academy of Sciences, and a professor at the European Graduate School in Switzerland. She is the author of numerous articles and many books, including Ethics of the Real: Kant and Lacan; The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two; Why Psychoanalysis: Three Interventions; The Odd One In: On Comedy; What is Sex?; and Let Them Rot: Antigone’s Parallax.


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