The Paradoxical Opposition of “Right” and “Right” in Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’ and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s ‘The Watch’
By Peter Krause
“It may not be surprising that Greek tragedy would offer a valuable frame for staging testimonials of real-life catastrophe.” – (Moira Fradinger 762)
“What does it mean to say that we live in tragic times? The 9-11 attack was certainly a tragedy, but whose tragedy was it?” – (Anne McClintock 819)
Regarding contemporary war novels, it is worth noting Phil Klay’s ‘Redeployment’ (2014), which won The National Book Award for Fiction in 2014, and Ben Fountain’s ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ (2012) and Kevin Powers’ ‘The Yellow Birds’ (2013), which are both lauded by reviewers and English departments alike and are being adapted into Hollywood movies. Unlike these novels, ‘The Watch’ sits largely unnoticed in the nascent canon of Iraq and Afghanistan war literature. Thus, it is worth asking: Why study ‘The Watch’? Why turn my attention to Roy-Bhattacharya’s novelistic retelling of Antigone in particular and not Marianella Morena’s ‘Antígona Oriental’, an updated adaptation set in Uruguay during the dictatorship years (1973-1985), or Femi Osofisan’s ‘Tegonni: An African Antigone’, which puts the Antigone story in conversation with colonial legacy in Nigeria? But it is the wartime setting of ‘The Watch’ that perfectly illustrates the “right versus right” tension of the Ur-Antigone story. Roy-Bhattacharya stages his retelling of the tragedy in a context most urgent, relevant and controversial for American readers: the American war in Afghanistan. It is wholly appropriate that a contemporary, post-9/11 retelling of Sophocles’ story be set in the context of a recent war because the diametrical opposition of two opposing “rights” that are entirely dependent on perspective constitutes the fundamental nature of war. Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’ is set in the aftermath of the clash or “war” between Polynices and Eteocles, as is rousingly recounted by the Chorus in lines 118-178. Especially in the wake of Hegel’s commentary in ‘Aesthetics’ , it is fitting and timely that a subsequent adaptation of the story should extend the narrative to include not only the dynamics of aftermath, but also of wartime itself. If the United States is to engage so constantly in neo-colonial wars abroad, then it should be made to encounter the consequences of its actions not only in reportage and non-fiction, but also in its favourite literary medium, its darling mode of escape: the novel.
Chapter one of ‘The Watch’, the Antigone story is set in the bleak, mountainous terrain surrounding an American foreword operating base in Kandahar Province, the very real site of some of the most persistent and deadly fighting in the country in the last decade. Bodies of dead Afghan fighters litter a small valley below the base. A firefight in which nine American soldiers and dozens of Taliban were killed has just concluded. Nizam, a young Afghan woman recently rendered legless by an American airstrike, propels herself slowly on a crude, makeshift wheelchair toward the American army base. The soldiers fire a warning shot and have a translator, an Afghan citizen, tell her not to come any closer. When asked what she wants, Nizam explains that the Americans have killed her brother, Yusuf. She wants to identify his body and then take it home to be buried in accordance with Islamic tradition:
“I make my own voice big and answer that I am here to bury my brother, who was killed in the battle yesterday. I am his sister, I call out. My name is Nizam. […] I try to picture how they must see me from their side: a small, shrouded figure in a wooden cart slung low to the ground.” (6)
Nizam’s pitiful request initiates a predictable quagmire of problems, logistical, tactical and ethical. The American soldiers suspect that she is a Taliban fighter herself, there to blow herself up in retaliation. “You must leave,” they tell her sternly. “He will be identified by people coming from afar. Experts. Then he will be buried” (6). Nizam protests. She reiterates her request and states that she will not leave without his body, which must be buried soon in accordance with Islamic rite. “He is dead,” the Americans counter. “What business can you possibly have with him?” (6). Yusuf is suspected of having been a high-ranking Taliban leader and, as such, his body has symbolic value as a trophy and piece of propaganda. It will rot, unburied, in the base until authorization arrives for it to be flown to Kabul, where it will be displayed by the Americans on television as a gruesome warning to all Taliban and would-be terrorists.
Thus, the central conceit of the novel is established: a sister dedicated to properly burying her brother’s body, and a dictatorial force that not only refuses to surrender the body, but also plans to disgrace it through public display. As the review of the novel in The Guardian says, “So far, so Greek”  . Like Sophocles’ Antigone, ‘The Watch’ goes on to detail the entrenched positions of both Antigone (Nizam) and Creon (The Americans, specifically the unseen officers in Kabul who order Yusuf’s body to be withheld). Sophocles’ Antigone disobeys Creon, is punished, and eventually commits suicide, after which Creon realizes the error in his ways and breaks down. Roy-Bhattacharya’s Nizam defies the Americans and refuses to leave, causing some soldiers to sympathize with her, while others maintain that she is a threat. In the novel’s final scene Nizam reaches into her robes for uncertain reasons, there is unspecified “movement on the slopes” around the base, and one of the especially suspicious soldiers shoots and kills her (279). The end of the novel is inconclusive about whether or not she was able and willing to blow herself up the whole time. For the purposes of this analysis, what is most important about the narrative is how it supports the idea of “right versus right” discussed by Hegel.
Since so much of this essay is concerned with the fateful disagreement in Antigone between the title character and Creon over the treatment of Polynices’ body, it is useful to include Antigone’s summary of the incident at length:
Those two brothers of ours, in burial
has not Creon honored the one, dishonored the other?
Eteocles, they say he has used justly
with lawful rites and hid him in the earth
to have his honor among the dead men there.
But the unhappy corpse of Polynices
he has proclaimed to all the citizens,
they say, no man may hide
in a grave nor mourn in a funeral,
but leave unwept, unburied, a dainty treasure
for the birds that see him, for their feast’s delight. (lines 25-35)
Antigone notes that Creon has, according to his own laws, buried Eteocles “justly and with lawful rites,” while at the same time legally proclaimed that Polynices’ body shall not be buried. Thus, the idea of “law” is destabilized because Creon acts in two very different manners, each in accordance with his own arbitrary definition of what is “lawful.” It is this early unsettling of the definitive nature of “law” in the play that initiates the disagreement between Antigone and Creon. Essentially, Creon’s laws are selective, applicable to one brother and not to the other, which is fundamentally problematic. On Creon’s edict, Butler writes:
“This is a law of the instant and, hence, a law with no generality and no transposability, one mired in the very circumstances to which it is applied, a law formulated precisely through the singular instance of its application and, therefore, no law at all in any ordinary, generalizable sense.” (10)
Another way to articulate Butler’s point is to call Creon’s Thebes a kind of “state of exception” in the sense that Giorgio Agamben defines the concept, as a state of martial law or suspension of the whole juridical order . A state of exception exists when the application of laws becomes selective, rather than systematized or juridically ordered, so as to render the laws themselves individual, case-by-case decisions rather than predictable, systematic parts of a larger legal order. There is nothing systematic or ordered about Creon’s decision because in honoring Eteocles he adheres to one existing law and in pointedly dishonoring Polynices he adheres to another contradictory law. An exception is made for Polynices in the moment, purely out of spite. Explaining the relation between the state of exception and wartime, Agamben says, “the ‘state of siege’ or ‘martial law’ expresses of course a relation to war, the state of war” . Thus, we can understand that war, like that which precedes ‘Antigone’ and is ongoing in ‘The Watch’, often begets states of exception in which normal legal circumstances are suspended in order to accommodate radical government for the sake of the city or state. Interpreted this way, Creon’s law of the moment, dubbed a non-law by Butler, actually retains its validity given the context of wartime that inspires it. The important thing to note is that whether or not Creon or Antigone is “right” is entirely dependent on perspective, and is ultimately indeterminable, as is discussed below.
Regarding Creon’s firm prohibition against burying Polynices’ body following the pyrrhic, mutually-lethal clash between Polynices and Eteocles, Hegel writes:
“[Creon’s] command contains an essential justification, provision for the welfare of the entire city. But Antigone is animated by an equally ethical power, her holy love for her brother, whom she cannot leave unburied, a prey of the birds. Not to fulfill the duty of burial would be against family piety, and therefore she transgresses Creon’s command.” (Hegel 221)
Thus, Hegel highlights the paradox of the situation: both Antigone and Creon are compelled by equally valid reasons, which makes their predicament fundamentally irresolvable. Creon is justified by his legal right as King to impose whatever laws he believes will most benefit the city, especially in the wartime state of exception, while Antigone is understandably motivated by her familial loyalty and religious faith. Determining who is “right” is impossible. While many versions of Antigone cast Creon as a cruel dictator, there is textual evidence in Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’, and the many versions that follow it, to support the claim that he is more spiteful than dictatorial, and legitimately attempts to act in the best interest of the city. It is crucial to recall that Polynices does attack Thebes, as Sophocles’ Chorus recounts:
Roused by contentious quarrel;
like an eagle he flew into our country,
with many men-at-arms,
with many a helmet crowned with horsehair.
He stood above the halls, gaping with murderous lances,
encompassing the city’s seven-gated mouth. (lines 130-136).
Peter Krause is a graduate of Goucher College (summa cum laude) and holds a M.A. in English and American Literature from New York University. Fascinated by contemporary literature, postmodernism and the nascent literatures of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Peter currently teaches at North Star Academy College Preparatory High School in Newark, NJ.
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