August 24, 2020

Antigone in the Age of the Coronavirus

Dr. Fauci is a modern day Tiresias, calmly counseling an adherence to truth and moderation and resolve

In Sophocles' play, written in about 441 BC, newly crowned King Creon punishes Antigone for trying to bury her fallen brother Polyneices, who had raised an army against Thebes and been branded a traitor by Creon. His first act as king, in fact, was to declare that on pain of death, no one would observe the burial rites for Polyneices. Antigone couldn't bear this – his body would be left to rot, devoured by scavenging birds and dogs – so she openly and unapologetically defied the order: she buried his body. Creon's response is to sentence her to death. He has to follow through, he thinks, if he is going to prove himself a strong leader, and he is steadfastly – stubbornly – unwilling to listen to alternative viewpoints.

As the drama ratchets up the tension – will Creon go through with this?! – in walks Tiresias. Tiresias would have been a well-known figure to the ancient Greeks. He's a seer, a prophet of sorts, who divines the future and dispenses advice. He's blind; his physical impairment is an ironic reminder of his higher form of sight. We meet him in Sophocles' earlier play, Oedipus Rex, trying to hint to Oedipus that he is the source of the plague on Thebes, and that if he wants to help the city he might start by looking in the mirror. Something similar happens in Antigone. When Tiresias arrives at Creon's court, he reports having sensed a disturbance, and he comes to give Creon the best advice he can, hoping to puncture the king's thick-headedness.

Asked what news he brings, Tiresias replies,

News that you would be as well to heed.
...where you are standing now
Is a cliff edge, and there's cold wind blowing.
So, what does all this mean? Tiresias notes that the omens began appearing – wheeling birds, sacrificial offerings rejected and rotted on the altar, "slurry, smoke and dirt..."
The rite had failed. Because of you, Creon. You and your headstrongness.