In my senior year at North Plainfield High School, our "accelerated" English class was taught by the formidable Miss O'Brien. She gave us a "Great Books" curriculum: it was there that I first read John Stuart Mill's On Liberty and knew I wanted to major in philosophy in college. She taught us how to write the five-paragraph essay with the thesis statement in the last sentence of the first paragraph. She drilled us in rules of grammar. The one I still chant to myself is "One, of phrase, relative pronoun, plural agreement."
In one class, I don't remember the particular topic, I made an impassioned speech against compromise (these were the politically turbulent early 70s): I would never compromise on anything I believed in, ever, ever, EVER! As a result, Miss O'Brien gave me Sophocles' tragedy Antigone to read, in the adaptation by Jean Anouilh. In the play, Antigone, the daughter of deposed King Oedipus, defies her royal uncle Creon's edict to leave her dead brother Polynices unburied. Antigone refuses to compromise. Creon refuses to compromise. By the end of the play many characters, including Antigone herself, are dead.
I loved the play, though it did not make me any more inclined to compromise. Instead, at age seventeen, it made me yearn to be a tragic heroine. Even more than loving the play itself, I loved that Miss O'Brien gave it to me, that a teacher would think an ancient tragedy could be relevant to a 20th-century schoolgirl's life and way of being in the world.
At DePauw this spring, I'm in a reading group on Antigone. The Prindle Institute for Ethics sponsors a number of reading groups each semester. Some faculty member proposes a book on which he or she would like to lead a discussion. The Prindle purchases the books and the lovely snacks. Then the group members meet together for a period or weeks or months to discuss the book, over wine and cheese, by the Prindle fireplace. I just finished leading my own group on philosopher Susan Wolf's book Meaning in Life and Why It Matters. Now I'm in the group on Antigone, led by Keith Nightenhelser, who also happens to be my dearest friend from graduate school.
This group is erudite and intellectual beyond anything my youthful self every could have imagined. We've read Judith Butler's book Antigone's Claim: Kinship between Life and Death. Now we're on to Bonnie Honig's fabulous book Antigone, Interrupted. Both authors continue what I now know is a long tradition of thinking that the play is relevant to our way of being in the world. Hegel's famous reading of the play is as a dialogue between the opposing claims of sovereignty (Creon) and kinship (Antigone), the state and the family, the public and the private. Butler complicates this view considerably: Antigone, as the child of an incestuous union (her father, after all, was Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his own father and married his own mother), is hardly positioned to defend traditional family values. Honig focuses on "interruptions" in the play: which characters interrupt other characters, and why, and what does this say about the balance of power among them? She interprets Antigone not as crazed with lamentation for her dead brother, but as a political actor, committed as strongly to life as to death.
At my second meeting with the group last night, I loved thinking how happy Miss O'Brien would have been to have eavesdropped on our discussion. Oh, and how happy she would be that I could spot the error in the first sentence of Honig's first chapter: "I am one of those people who finishes other people's sentences." NO! One, of phrase, relative pronoun, plural agreement: "I am one of those people who finish other people's sentences." And how happy she would be that now I compromise all the time, probably too much, a result of all that has happened to me over the intervening forty-three years: wonderful things, terrible things, transformative things, things that make me much less willing to stake my life on any absolute.
The reading of Antigone has been a beautiful gift to me, then and now.