Anne Carson, Antigone, and the State of Exception

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My grandmother died in the paupers’ ward of an insane asylum in late 1944. The asylum was on Java, in the Japanese-occupied Indies, and at that late moment in the war the conditions were grim. My grandmother was blind; she was starving; she had dysentery; she had seizures – more than twenty a day. “She was truly pitiful,” her husband’s older sister wrote later, “and completely alone. She will certainly have had a horrible time the last few years, with insufficient food and poor care.” But to my bereaved grandfather his sister told a different story. My grandmother had had a protector in the asylum, she wrote. She had received regular treats like chocolate; she had eaten an extra meal every day. “Little white lies,” my father told me, “to soften the blow.”

When my grandmother died, my father her son was interned elsewhere on Java, in a concentration camp for boys, nuns, and old men. He was starving, too. On the day she died he was probably working in the camp infirmary, the ziekenhuis, as it’s called on maps of the place. He would mop the floors, or help the sick old men back onto their mattresses, their legs too swollen with edema for them to lift on their own. “They died like flies,” my father said, and histories of the camp bear him out. Whenever new internees came into the camp, he would pepper them with questions about his mother, on the remote chance that someone had seen her. Once, a nun told him that his mother was alive and well and living with a family near the asylum. That nun may have confused my grandmother with someone else; or she may have been telling a little white lie. 

In late 1944 he was thirteen years old.

He didn’t learn about his mother’s death until after Hirohito announced the Japanese surrender, when internees could receive mail again and families could start to reassemble – or in this case, could learn that they wouldn’t reassemble. By that time, ten months had passed, and after all that time what, in the Indonesian soil, would be left of her body? Bones. Hair. Maybe some rags, if she weren’t buried naked. When he found out that she was dead he’d been interned in concentration camps for 982 days.

An asylum, a concentration camp. Two living tombs and two internees, one who died and left her tomb in a bamboo coffin (if her corpse warranted such a thing), and the other who survived and left his tomb a haunted boy. 

I was thinking about these dystopias of human unhappiness recently while listening to a podcast featuring the poet Anne Carson. She was discussing Sophocles’ Antigone, a tragedy that she’s translated twice, first in a version she titled Antigonick and again more recently in a version commissioned by the Belgian director Ivo van Hove. The tragedy enacts the confrontation between Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus and Jokasta, and Kreon, the ruler of Thebes. Antigone’s brother Polyneikes has died as an enemy of the city, and Kreon decrees that by way of posthumous humiliation Polyneikes’ body will rot unburied in the sun – “sweet sorry meat for the lusts of birds,” Antigone says in Carson’s translation. What Kreon calls law, Antigone calls unholy, but he’s the ruler of Thebes, and authority is authority, so the Chorus says. When Antigone buries her brother in defiance of Kreon, he punishes her by imprisoning her in a cave – burying her alive. In this solitary confinement, she re-enacts the death of her mother Jokasta, and hangs herself.             

For Carson, the punishment of Antigone makes Kreon our contemporary. “When Kreon sentences [Antigone] to this non-location,” Carson said, “to this living death, to this in-between condition neither sacred nor profane, neither legal nor illegal, neither criminal nor redeemable, he invents the concentration camp. It is a region where the force of law without law can exercise its power. It is an action that rids the tyrant of his enemy but does not contaminate him with her killing. It is a state of exception that marks the limit of moral sense by making non-sense of moral sense.”

She adds: “We are familiar with this non-sense today under the name of Guantánamo.” 

In that eloquent passage, Carson not only makes her case for the contemporary urgency of Antigone, but also suggests a bibliography of works to read alongside it. In the interview she declares her debt to Judith Butler, and to Hannah Arendt for her concept of “bare life.” But in naming the concentration camp the “state of exception,” she implies a further debt, to the philosopher Giorgio Agamben. The state of exception – when the sovereign suspends the law – is a formula that originates with the Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt, and it is Agamben who has linked that notion to the concentration camp. “The camp,” he has written, “is the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule.” Under the force of that rule, he adds, “the most absolute conditio inhumana that has ever existed on earth was realized: this is what counts in the last analysis, for the victims as for those who came after.” In effect, Carson has Agambenized Antigone, giving us the means to read her living death – her translation into the condition of the zombie – in direct relation to the tragedies of our own moment. 

Photo: Jeshua Nace.
“If the GOP wins the election, Kreon will once again be unembarrassed.” Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Photo: Jeshua Nace.

It’s morally easy to condemn the concentration camp, of course. Its inhumanity has by now been universally acknowledged. To move from Dachau to Gitmo is more contentious and requires greater nerve. But in Carson’s view, “Nobody can nowadays think about that situation without thinking ‘Guantánamo,’ because those people are still there, for years and years. And they’re people without a place to be, not alive and not dead, but otherwise in what Judith Butler calls ‘the permanent elsewhere.’ So I was very struck by that. And there’s nothing to do except say it. There it is. It’s an image. We’re enacting this image again. And it’s still awfully wrong.” Given what the literary critic Colin Dayan has characterized as Guantánamo’s continuity with the American prison system, Carson’s claim allows us also to read Antigone into solitary confinement and its horrors. A 2015 New York Times article on the practice quotes Joseph Harmon, now a pastor in California, who spent eight years in solitary in the Pelican Bay State Prison – a so-called supermax. “At Pelican Bay,” he said, “there is no other reality. It was a tomb. It is a concrete tomb.”

The twist in the Antigonic reading of Gitmo is that Obama, unlike his predecessor, is such a reluctant Kreon. He came into office promising to close the prison within a year. His Executive Order to that effect was posted there for all prisoners to see. When the Republican Party’s refusal to transfer the internees from Cuban to American soil led Obama to renege on his promise, it must have seemed to the internees like a taunting message about the limits of the very sovereign power that exercised such sway over them. On February 23, Obama turned the spotlight again to Guantánamo, reaffirming his intention to close it and submitting a plan to Congress. The Times reported on Obama’s plan with glib prophecies that it would fail.

The reluctance that Obama has expressed to play the role of Kreon is nowhere in evidence among the Republican presidential candidates, of course. If elected, Ted Cruz says, he’ll keep the prison open. Marco Rubio promises that as president he’ll send captured terrorists to Guantánamo and “we are going to find out everything they know” – presumably a promise to resume “enhanced interrogation,” which is to say torture. If the GOP wins the election, Kreon will once again be unembarrassed.

I was listening to Carson by way of preparation for her upcoming visit to St. John’s. On March 11, she’ll present the annual Pratt Lecture at Memorial University with her collaborator and husband Robert Currie. The next day, the two of them will meet with MUN students and the great local actor Mike Butler, and collectively they’ll workshop Antigonick, the first of her two translations of the play and brilliantly contemporary in its flavour, anachronistic, self-referential, achingly moving at some moments, hilariously funny at others. Currie will direct; Carson will play the Chorus. At 8 p.m., in the Rocket Room above the Rocket Bakery, they’ll give a staged reading for the public. Admission will be free. 

Anne Carson. Photo by Peter Smith / Penguin Random House.
Anne Carson. Photo: Peter Smith / Penguin Random House.

Alongside its political urgency, Carson suggests, the play has an additional dimension that gives it power. “There’s also this other image,” Carson says; “I don’t know what to say about it. But the issue of burial itself is something that’s a little remote from modern sensibility, because we don’t have the experience, many of us, of actually burying our dead and being intimately connected to that ritual. But around the time I was translating this, there was a photograph in The New York Times, the front page. It was during the Ebola crisis…. It was a hospital where an Ebola patient who had died was being carried across a courtyard by two medical professionals, wrapped up in the gear. And kneeling in the middle of the courtyard was a woman who was visibly throwing a handful of dirt on this body as it passed. And it just struck me all of a sudden what the significance of that is for Antigone, or for anybody who has that sort of relation to a dead loved one, that instinct to simply cover the body somehow with a layer of decency even if it’s only a handful of dust. So there is that other aspect of it, I think, that comes into our apprehension of the play.”  

This insight resonates with me, too. My father lived and died haunted. He left the concentration camp, one might say, but the camp didn’t leave him. The trauma of his experience there was entangled with the death of his mother. She was always with him, watching him with an uncertain smile from a photo on his bedside table. Because he learned about her death belatedly, in effect she died ten full months after her body did, and by then her corpse was long gone. For him, it was as though she was permanently unburied. He had no means of covering her remains with a layer of decency; he returned to Indonesia fifty years later but couldn’t find a grave. Like Antigone he was “stuck in-between.” Like Kreon at the end of the play, he was “perfectly blended with pain.”

Anne Carson and Robert Currie will deliver the 2016 Pratt Lecture at Memorial University’s D. F. Cook Recital Hall in St. John’s at 8 p.m. on Friday, March 11. They will present a reading of Antigonick the following day, March 12,  at the Rocket Room downtown St. John’s. Click here for more information.

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