Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Quote of the Day (Jean Anouilh, on ‘The Tribe That Asks Questions’)

“Why do you want me to be quiet? Because you know that I am right? Do you think I can't see in your face that what I am saying is true?... I want everything of life, I do; and I want it now! I want it total, complete: otherwise I reject it! I will not be moderate. I will not be satisfied with the bit of cake you offer me if I promise to be a good little girl….We are of the tribe that asks questions, and we ask them to the bitter end. Until no tiniest chance of hope remains to be strangled by our hands.”— French dramatist and screenwriter Jean Anouilh (1910-1987), Antigone (1944), adapted from Sophocles’ tragedy, translated by Lewis Galantiere, reprinted in Jean Anouilh: Five Plays, Volume 1 (1958)

I confess that, in the last few weeks, I have watched the tumult on college campuses nationwide with deep misgivings, and particularly at my alma mater, Columbia University.

I have wondered about the damage to institutions and to the general image that higher education presents to a segment of the public that, more than at any other since the Second World War, suspects such schools as being inimical to their way of life.

I have questioned how the message that most students are probably trying to convey—the humanitarian problems faced by the people of Gaza—with the anti-semitic fringes distracting from their discourse.

I have thought about school administrators—well-meaning, often inexperienced, and caught between opportunistic right-wing Capitol Hill members and students with demands frequently difficult to satisfy.

And I wonder about the students themselves—how much their idealism mixes inextricably with willfulness, even ignorance, about consequences.

At one point outside Columbia’s Hamilton Hall a couple of weeks ago, a news segment featured a female protester, shouting rapidly and furiously. In all her stridency, the young woman reminded me of the image of a similar one from a play I had seen on public television a half century ago, in my teens: Jean Anouilh’s Antigone.

When French audiences first saw the play staged in the midst of World War II, they interpreted the mortal-stakes conflict they were watching as analogous to their own, with Antigone standing in for the Resistance movement; her uncle Creon, the ruler of Thebes, for the Nazi collaborator Marshal Petain; and the guards for the German occupying forces who were "just following orders."

But, in a manner stronger than what I found on the printed page for this play—and even more than Sophocles’ Greek tragedy that started it all—the performance of Genevieve Bujold (in the accompanying image) in the title role, one year after the end of the Vietnam War, must have brought to mind for TV viewers of the time the fierce passions that many protesters in the conflict displayed.

Motives, emotions, and issues of right and wrong were far more clear cut in World War II than they would be in the domestic protests over Vietnam, mirroring the ambivalence in the Anouilh text.

This Antigone was every bit the “tense, sallow, willful girl” introduced by the Chorus and embodied by both Bujold and the young woman I saw on the news. Stubborn, obsessed, she resists the entreaties of Creon (played by Fritz Weaver) and her more conventionally beautiful but less passionate sister Ismene to obey Creon’s edict that the body of her brother--who led a rebellion against the state--be left on the battlefield to rot.

Typically, in her youthful zealotry, she bursts out to Ismene:

“The first word I ever heard out of any of you was that word ‘understand.’ Why didn't I ‘understand’ that I must not play with water-cold, black, beautiful flowing water-because I'd spill it on the palace tiles. Or with earth, because earth dirties a little girl's frock. Why didn't I ‘understand’ that nice children don't eat out of every dish at once; or give everything in their pockets to beggars; or run in the wind so fast that they fall down; or ask for a drink when they're perspiring; or want to go swimming when it's either too early or too late, merely because they happen to feel like swimming. Understand! I don't want to understand. There'll be time enough to understand when I'm old...If I ever am old. But not now.”

“If I ever am old”—she can’t see beyond the present moment, and if it means living in a world she can’t abide, she’ll have none of it.

Creon, who years before had “loved music, bought rare manuscripts, [and] was a kind of art patron,” has been forced, with the deaths of his brother-in-law Oedipus and the latter’s sons, to practice “the difficult art of a leader of men.” But, like college administrators the last several weeks, he has come to see order as the overriding consideration of what he oversees, leading to a fate he can’t escape.

Creon tries to disabuse Antigone about “the kitchen of politics,” but it doesn’t work. What matters are the dictates of her conscience: “Tell me: to whom shall I have to lie?” she asks Creon. “Upon whom shall I have to fawn? to whom must I sell myself?”

In the clash between reason and passion, authority and conscience, Antigone and Creon drag not only themselves but those around them to disaster. Nothing else is possible when authority won’t answer the unyielding “tribe that asks questions.”

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