10. From Philology to Theater: The Construction of Meaning in Sophocles’ Antigone*

The problem facing the contemporary translator of a Greek tragedy may be found in its historical dimension. I try to put myself in the playwright’s shoes: he wrote at a certain moment in time, he took a position within a certain tradition that prevailed at that time, so as to express a certain meaning. Sophocles introduces a new problematic into his plays. I consider Antigone to be a play of debates that probes a political, social, and intellectual aporia.
On the basis of such a formulation, the mere fact that Antigone has been depicted as a heroine or a mythic figure needs to be discussed and reexamined. It is a tradition to which almost all modern interpreters since the eighteenth century have subscribed, and in particular Jacques Lacan in his study of Antigone. [1] When I say “a play of debates,” I refer to what is specifically democratic, in the space for discussion that was opened up by the Athenian theater starting in the sixth century BCE, under the rule of the Pisistratidae. And by “democratic,” I mean the introduction of the political, in which the artistic production delineates the field of a problematics and gives rise to a topic for debate. One can well imagine members of the audience the day after a performance, wondering what Sophocles had meant.
The plot leads one to reflect not squarely on the family and the state, as Hegel thought, but on two perspectives that arise from conflicting interests: one, that of the king, Creon, is rational, and the other, upheld by Antigone, rests on the dark forces of belief. This is a crucial moment. As I see it, there is an essential point here where we need to understand Sophocles’ historically determined position vis-à-vis his own tradition. Thus we cannot, in the case of Oedipus the King, and even less in Antigone, move directly to the myth and say that it explains the play.
In my book La naissance d’Oedipe (The Birth of Oedipus), in the chapter titled “The Son of Man,” I analyzed the passages in Oedipus the King that had attracted Freud’s interest. I referred to the problems that were formulated during his lifetime, and first of all at the moment when he went to secondary school in Vienna; he could have re-read the play later on, for example when he was working on The Interpretation of Dreams (just before 1900). I use the example of Freud because he is of direct interest for us; I am situating a particular reading. The understanding of incest or parricide must have taken on a specific meaning in a particular cultural context. This positioning came about at a time when people did not understand how Oedipus could have become guilty.
Let me go back in time. When Sophocles wrote this play, he was not illustrating a myth, as Freud supposed. He was not the spokesman for an ancient truth, as the Romantic representation would have it. He was rather a dramatic author and technician trying to make the best use of a tradition, to draw from it whatever would be valid and theatrically effective.
A brief digression here will allow me to deal with the creation of the corpus of Greek mythology, which is problematic. We have to go back a long way, so my proposition is speculative; but no doubt we must assume that all myths taken together form a system, a system of thematized stories with a certain number of niches—say one hundred ninety—full of mutually corresponding similarities and differences. I believe that the system was set up by a guild, by people who had been delegated by society to do this, and who, because of this mandate, had considerable autonomy.
A very long time, a span of several centuries, separates Sophocles from that earlier pre-epic period when the subject matter was being constituted. Let me emphasize again that a great deal of autonomy was required to rework and transform the tradition. Innovation came as the result of reviving the traditional meaning through transformation, not through reproduction. By adopting this position, I am championing the moment of intellectual actualization, the decisive moment of invention, against the supposed eternity so dear to the humanists. In a way, I am historicizing more forcefully than the historians, since I am asking myself what an individual, an author, by virtue of his own experience and in relation to his own project, was able to do with a cultural tradition that was itself already historical. It is this authorial transformation that we read in every Greek tragedy.
In the case of Oedipus the King, we are dealing with a mythical tradition, the history of the Labdacids. One of the major changes I was able to make in the understanding of this particular story was to show how Oedipus was endowed with a form of non-existence, that he was responsible during his lifetime for annulling his own birth. The transgression was not his—he was the product of it. The fault lay with his father, who should not have sired him.
The same is not true for Antigone. In the case of Oedipus, the myth already existed; it could be found in Homer. We find traces of it there, and also in Pindar and other writers. We can reconstruct a prehistory in order to understand the particularities and the elements of a transformational process. In the case of Antigone, as far as we know, there is nothing earlier than Sophocles.
Just as Oedipus is positioned in the story of his father, Laius, and the Labdacids, so Antigone has a place in the story of her father, Oedipus. And that changes everything. She is her father’s daughter. As such, she is slated to marry Haemon, the king’s son, but in the course of the play she renounces the marriage. This planned union played a major role in the events of the past that provide a basis for the construction of the play. Antigone is also her brothers’ sister. The love Antigone bears for Polynices is not exclusive. He is in no way different from Eteocles, except that he has not received the same burial rites; he should be treated the same way as Eteocles. To put it succinctly, both brothers are cursed by their father, both destined to oblivion: they share the curse of Oedipus. This is an essential feature. Antigone accepts the curse on the two sons, in contrast to Creon, who rejects it. This is the kernel of the whole dilemma, in the role played by collective memory.
Creon believes in the power of politics: he must put an end to these family stories, these stories of the Labdacids that drag the city down into the abyss. So he needs to make distinctions in the family ties, to differentiate the good brother from the bad, friends from enemies, supporters from opponents. Antigone stands before him and says no. She has said no even before he has opened his mouth, because she knew what he was going to say. She has anticipated Creon’s reaction, just as he anticipated her appearance, even before the events dramatized in the play. Antigone, her father’s daughter, refuses to accept the difference created by the military victory; everything else, her disobedience, stems from this choice of a primary solidarity.
The curse that Antigone honors can be explained by the logic of Oedipus, in the meaning that his destiny assumes. Oedipus has done what the gods made him do to punish Laius: he has committed parricide and incest. He has killed twice, in two different ways, by the sword and in the bed, the forbidden engendering that he himself represents. He says so in the dénouement of Oedipus the King, which we read too quickly, precisely because our attention is focused on the parricide and the incest as such, apart from their genealogical motives. At the end of the play, Oedipus, in an almost analytical way, engages in retrospection in his great speech reconstituting the past where he reviews his entire life, from the baby exposed on the mountain who was supposed to be killed by his father to the final discovery of his own identity. With this speech he claims, so to speak, the cognitive advantage of his actions. He was forced to commit them. So at least we should allow him that: that he had to do what he did!
Here lies the meaning of his self-mutilation. Why does he not kill himself, or just continue to live like everyone else? He remains in an intermediate state, where as a blind man he is the depository, indeed the owner, of what he has done and what is owed him. So he lives a split existence between his being and his non-being, his otherness in self-exile, the exteriority he imposes on his progeny two by two: first on his daughters, Antigone and Ismene, and then on his sons. His sons do not want to share the curse with him; they want to govern. This is the subject of Oedipus at Colonus. Eteocles and Polynices both come to beg their father for his support, either directly or through a mediator. But he curses them both, because they have both betrayed him. Why? Because he lives in a state of non-being that he expected them to share with him. His exteriority is the god-given privilege of a non-being, since he was not supposed to exist.
This history of the Labdacids is both the story of madness and the account of a prodigious philosophical probing. It is totally unlike any other Greek mythological construct. And Antigone? She comes on stage and she does not deny her heritage; she keeps repeating that she makes no distinction between her two brothers. And within this logic, she plays her only card. She knows she can play it because she is deeply aware that she has the opinion of the community on her side, that is to say a shared belief in the Erinyes and in the resurgence of the past. She knows that she cannot act as freely or as “royally” as the king—he is not the tyrant he is said to be. Creon is a strictly complementary and antagonistic character; he acts with her in acting against her. In this interpretation, which for me has come to be self-evident, they are both mad together, as if they were in perfect harmony in their opposition.
Translation goes hand in hand with interpretation. One tries to translate completely, that is, to the fullest extent possible. How can one make the text come to life today? Modern interpreters and Sophocles are at opposite poles. The moment of conception and of writing is at the root of an interpretive tradition; and then there is the situation in which we find ourselves, where we have to communicate to an audience of readers and spectators the long, even tedious, seemingly endless work on meaning. At a certain point, one tries to escape from the infinite, from the masses of challenges and discoveries, and return to the simplicity of an artistic, theatrical, and intellectual expression. In the 1970s, when I decided to invest some time in this demonstration, I had worked on a similar preparatory study of other texts, such as Plato’s Phaedrus; I wanted to show what was at issue in the sentences and the syntax when they were placed in relation to the whole, and concomitantly what was the meaning of the work as a whole. In the end I chose Oedipus the King, probably but not entirely because of the impact it has had thanks to psychoanalysis and Freud. No other work has had a comparable influence in today’s world.
After I finished this study, an interesting thing happened. In 1982, together with Mayotte Bollack, I began to translate the play, without yet thinking about its staging. Then it so happened that we were asked if the text could be used for a performance. But when one translates, one makes new discoveries at every turn. The extraordinary thing is that when we started translating, I had already been working on the text for several years; I have always been an avid reader of the tragedians. So I had already formulated an idea of the play, but it was only by translating and reformulating the text that I discovered I had misunderstood the meaning of many passages. I began to rethink the meaning in order to translate it. It is at this point that passing through a degree zero of not-knowing becomes essential. One frees oneself by pondering what a given passage means: it is not the Socratic form of abstention, but something different. One really experiences a radical suspension of knowledge in order to reach understanding.
There was thus a real confluence between the idea we were developing about the scenic effects of our new understanding and the request we had received. But we had already come to know the theater, because our work encountered it in every detail of the analysis. We responded to a request, and came up against other difficulties in the limited time at our disposal.

The codes for understanding

The current situation rests on a debate between codes for understanding, that is, between competing hermeneutics. Earlier, in the centuries before the Revolution, there were a number of specific hermeneutics, mostly theological or juridical. The meaning of a verse from the Bible had to be applied to a concrete situation, or a law had to be applied to a new situation. Protocols were developed for the application of texts in several domains. Then, soon after Kant’s Critiques were published, at the height of German idealism, a philosopher-theologian at Berlin University, Friedrich Schleiermacher, developed a general hermeneutics, which encompassed the orientation that can be called specifically literary. My own practice is derived from this theory.
However, there is another hermeneutics that is currently well-established, thanks in part to the influence of Heidegger’s phenomenology; it gained particular notice in France with the translation into French of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method. All our knowledge is said to rest on the idea of a permanent truth that has grown remote, but that we can recapture, despite the distance, through reading, in dialogue with the text. There are some prerequisites to this representation of things, in which something like a revelation or at least the hint of a revelation seems to appear. The very canon of classical authors retains a theological aspect.
This “philosophical” hermeneutics—and this is the name of that method—is of another order than the approach I use, which I call “critical hermeneutics”: for me, analysis does not uncover an accepted truth, but rather what has been made of this truth at a precise moment in the transformational process of history. The difference is considerable, even for constituting the meaning of a sentence, because the rupture of non-knowledge must intervene in a radical way: at first, I do not know what the thing I want to know means.
In the creative process, I make a distinction between, on the one hand, an associative inflow with all that the unconscious brings with it, a necessarily uncontrolled verbal potentiality, and, on the other hand, the reference system that allows these elements to be placed in a certain order, without any intervening intention, in the psychological sense of the term. So there are many potential meanings in the language, at this first level of inflow, as I have just outlined it, but there is not yet any organization. Language is culturally—and thus in many or even infinite ways—determined. One might be tempted to relate language to an inherent system, but from the standpoint that I am defending, meaning is constructed independently, based on these inflows, these linguistic elements that coalesce in a purely associative and largely irrational way. Both elements are important, intervening together but without any consecutive relation. Something like a system builds up, infiltrates the material or is superimposed on it, and shapes it, thanks chiefly to syntax but also to other formal factors. Still other structures lead from indetermination to semantic determination.
Contrasting this kind of critical hermeneutics to the other kind requires an intervention on my part, an act that structures the material of language to drive it toward a meaning. It is this structuring format that I decipher. I have to repeat the act that has constituted meaning, and of course this work is done with and against every existing linguistic tradition, be it literary, philosophical, or conceptual. I am interpreting a singular act, even if it is repetitive. It is an invention, and thus an intervention that makes sense. It is a microstructure like that of the syntax of a sentence, in a unit where all the combined elements eventually enable one to wonder what type of reflection this is and what its significance may be.
Thus I go beyond the truths discussed by the hermeneuticists whom Ricoeur follows, as well as the authors I am re-reading. Given that the prevailing Parisian Heideggerianism is beginning to fade, perhaps a position such as mine may be able to score some points. It is becoming possible once again to acknowledge the existence of a subject that is not constituted in language, but that intervenes in language, that language uses but does not control.
Each time a passage is decoded, a meaning is decided: “This is what it is, and nothing else.” Conclusions are only reached on the basis of syntax. Take Sophocles, for example: he is a difficult author, difficult to read—even if we succeed eventually—in the play of negations and hypothetical periodic sentences. [2] It is quite staggering sometimes. One must think long and hard before finding and deciding on the appropriate term. The difficulty is considerable, and it confirms that this very technical work belongs to great art, a brilliant construction. Lacan could hardly have understood this, in his study of Antigone, and in his day—within the horizons he grew up with and the people he thought had spoken the truth, such as Hölderlin, Hegel, Goethe, Heidegger, and so on—because none of those thinkers had fully grasped the syntactic nuances either. That is why they focused on words rather than on syntactic structures. Without syntax, I would be unable to do anything at all. I always begin with very elementary questions: What is the subject? What is the complement? These are the points that allow me to define the semantic leaning that links them. Lacan deals rather, if not exclusively, with words: he bores into words, but he does not analyze the relational structures that situate them. In any case he did not have access to those structures; he recognized the Greek words, he could translate a sentence, but he was probably unable to choose between two syntactic structures, and had no inkling of the scope of the disparities in the textual tradition; that was not his purpose, nor was it Heidegger’s.
Sometimes Heidegger does not even bother to translate; he speaks of the logos and we are supposed to know what he means by that. The word can just as well mean “reason” as “group,” “gathering,” or “discourse,” to name a few possibilities. And Lacan does the same thing with atē, a word associated with tragedy: sometimes he simply says atē in Greek; yet it is difficult. The word has two very different meanings in tragedy: the fatality or curse of a destiny, but also misfortune and ruin. It refers to disorder, or transgression, and on the other hand to boundaries, the boundary and the transgression of absolute desire, which Lacan privileges without discussing his choice. Now, in the passages from Antigone I have in mind, atē always means “ruin,” “misfortune,” “chaos,” “collapse”: in other words, it is used in the second sense. From the cause of ruin, we pass on to the ruin itself. We have retained the word “misfortune.” The stakes in this debate are naturally important. Lacan prefers the idea of boundaries; if he sticks to the idea of chaos, it is so he can move on through it toward transgression and the limits associated with it. Lacan’s construction is entirely predetermined by the cultural, intellectual, and philosophical history of the nineteenth century. We are closer to Hölderlin’s Diotima than to Sophocles. There one would find something equivalent to a heroine. One might start with Diotima to construct the emblem of a character caught between need and desire, but one can hardly do this with Antigone. [3]
Heidegger would not be able to go any further toward the meaning of texts, if he were interested in the construction of sentences. Thought is determined with syntax. One chooses to say one thing and not another. The Greek tragedians had read a great deal, if not everything. They read political treatises or their equivalent, or theological treatises, and alluded to them. We recognize the allusions, and it is obvious that what the tragedians say is different from what the treatises say. Our translation tries to show that the tragedians intervene in language and how they do it, the non (no) that is implied in every énoncé (utterance). Certain sentences reproduce public debates; they have been adopted and adapted. Precedence is given to the inherent negation, the unexpected form the expression takes. In the first scene alone, the dialogue between Antigone and Ismene changes meaning completely when one reproduces what is left unsaid. In most cases, a meaning has been brushed aside. It is this gap that creates the meaning. [4]

Works Cited

Morel, G. 2000. “Antigone, l’énigme: Lectures d’Antigone.” Carnets de Lille. La section clinique de Lille 5 (March 2000): 1–19.
Lacan, J. 1992. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959–1960. Seminar, Book 7. Trans. D. Porter. New York. Orig. pub. 1981.


[ back ] * Originally published as “De la philologie au théâtre. La construction du sens de l’Antigone de Sophocle,” in: Études théâtrales 21, “Tragédie grecque. Défi de la scène contemporaine” (2001), pp. 103–110.
[ back ] 1. Lacan 1992.
[ back ] 2. [TN: A periodic sentence is a rhetorical device; the main verb is left to the end, producing an effect of suspense.]
[ back ] 3. Morel 2000.
[ back ] 4. The translations of Greek tragedies by Jean and Mayotte Bollack have been published by Editions de Minuit: Sophocles’ Œdipe roi (1985), Antigone (1999), and Electre (2007); and Euripides’ Iphigénie à Aulis (1990), Andromaque (1994), Hélène (1997), and Les Bacchantes (2005). Interpretations of particular sentences and commentaries on the plays can be found in Œdipe roi, 4 vols. (Lille, 2000); La naissance d’Œdipe (Paris, 1995); and La mort d’Antigone (Paris, 1999).