‘The Word that Kills’ – Massimo Cacciari (2007)

The[1] shrill cry of Antigone, ‘like an anguished bird at the sight of its bare nest’,[2] one must be ready to hear in each moment of the tragedy – at times distant, at others imminent. It fills each pause and determines its rhythm. The spoken word cannot free itself of it, but bears it within as its own, intimate ‘dissonance’.

Eteocles and Polynices fighting against each other outside Thebes, 15th C. (Pinacoteca, Palazzo Sforzesco, Milan)

The word assumes this timbre when it becomes effectively, corporeally toedtendfactisches: that word able to kill, to incur death, to ‘become’ mortal (more than toedtendfactisches, merely ‘murderous’), which is the case for Hölderlin’s ‘das griechischtragische Wort’, the tragic-Greek word. That tremendous power of the word manifests itself in its purest form in Antigone, as the arché of the word itself. It is its originary energy that produces and moves it, that explains its inexhaustible agonism; it is for its sake that words confront one another in the most dangerous of contests, in dialogue. And never does it reveal itself more powerfully than in the inspired, ‘enthusiastic’ word. Indeed, if Creon’s word kills, all the more powerfully does Teiresias strike; and precisely because held back up to the last that it is then finally unleashed almost savagely. Fatal for Creon is Haemon’s word, whose final timbre will be that spit, in Antigone’s thalamus-tomb,[3] so much fiercer than any sword blade. Finally, Antigone’s words lead from death to death, all of which are included in the common destiny of the lineage: inseparable to the point of reciprocally giving one another death, the brothers ‘conversed’[4]; and in a different form that same polemos now persists between Antigone and Creon. Since Logos is Polemos, and the unity of the divine cannot be given except for in the opposition of words, it is not revealed to mortals other than in the articulating-distinguishing themselves of their dimension, their dominions, and of their timai.[5]  

Antigone, Hysterical Productions

This is the essential: to understand the inseparability of the Two, Antigone and Creon. And to give to the voice of both its full ‘homicidal’ power. The two are absolutely necessary to one another: metaphysically foreign to any personal hatred, unstoppable in ‘bringing themselves death’,[6] they thereby incarnate the essence of tragic dialogue. Dialogue is tragic when the distinct dimensions of the Word meet and confront one another, arriving to the acme of clarity, of self-consciousness, and precisely at this limit-point manifest the powerlessness to understands and accommodate [accogliersi] one another. When two figures confront one another with the most fearful weapon, the word, and both discover themselves to be destined to an inability [impotenza] to hear, there explodes irreconcilable conflict – which signals, however, at the same time, the necessity of their relation. Antigone would not be without Creon, whereas her relation with Haemon is entirely contingent. And so it is with Creon’s relationship with Antigone; the antagonism with Oedipus’ daughter characterises him irreversibly. The words of Creon and Haemon can contradict one another as they interweave – and the possibility, however extreme, of their accord is the Chorus’ hope. Creon and the Chorus mis-understand[7] one another and with all the other personae of the tragedy, first of all, with Tiresias. It is only with Antigone that the dialogue becomes of the purest polemos, confronting principles that are ‘conciliated’ only in reciprocally giving one another death. Certainly, the absolute ‘fidelity’ of both to their own demon does not exempt them from doubt: with her punishment eminent, Antigone asks herself whether, during her suffering, will she be struck with the discovery of her error; and, for Creon, Tiresias’ curse in the finale throws open the abyss that from the start shined through his obstinacy. The tragic hero incarnates her destiny and does what she does in doubt and questioning, never passively. And yet each is able only to insist in their own word, even if it condemns and condemns itself to death. Simone Weil appears, for a moment, to associate Antigone’s doubt (a mere hint, but whose timbre is necessary for it to always be heard) with that of Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita: it is the doubt that resolves itself in action, according to the tragic sense of dran explained by Snell,[8] in action inasmuch as it is an irredeemable decision that corresponds to the essence of the protagonist. But the hero of the Indian epos finds peace at the end of action according to his dharma, whereas the autonomy of the tragic hero is always manifested in the contradiction with the other than self. Her word gives death only in receiving it. Or rather, she does not live in all her brightness other than for this ‘dialectic’. 

Antigone from Hölderlin translation, adapted by Brecht 1948

Until the latter manifests itself in comprehensible form, such that the painful participation can ‘convert itself’ into knowledge, it will be necessary for the autonomous words of the protagonists to resonate in a logically coherent manner with the principle that dominates its character. Nothing in this drama continuously intoned with the threnos, the mourning song, is saved by the ‘care’ of the investigation. Nothing declares itself with simple im-mediacy. Certainly, Creon expresses the immanent danger of political action, of praxis, but he is in no way a tyrant in the usual sense of the term. Creon has ruled well, has benefited the polis, saving it from catastrophe at the hands of the powerful ranks of the enemy. The Chorus acknowledges it. Tiresias acknowledges it. For the sake of tradition, perhaps out of convenience, certainly with no great conviction, [Creon] always respected the arts of divination and divine oracles as well. Note, however, that not even his decree that unleashes the tragedy should be taken as a burst of anger, of unreasonable, delirious, vengeful will. It is certainly true that the terrain for the burying of the defeated is risked like no other by he who reigns; here, truly the realm of the sacred becomes confused in the most dangerous way with political decision-making. How far can one push the damnatio of the defeated and killed enemy without it becoming an offence to the underworld gods, becoming an act of impiety? Creon in no way ignores the problem, he does not throw himself unwittingly into the abyss that the command prepares for him. On the contrary, evident in all that he says and does is his effort to find a convincing, responsible, and reasonable response to the problem. The punishment that he inflicts on Antigone he arranges without any ‘sadism’, but solely to avoid any accusation of impiety. Above all, the enormity of Polynices’ guilt appears clear to him: he is not a simple enemy, but the brother who aims to annihilate the brother, the earth that has nourished him, the very gods who protected him. Should not the custodians of the sacred be precisely his most staunch allies in pronouncing the sentence? The enormity of the punishment follows from the enormity of the sin, in no way from the arrogance of the one who imposes it. Moreover, Creon makes it known that others in the city supported the defeated one. Might not Polynices find sympathy and support within Thebes itself? He who reigns steadfastly (and rationally!) knows that he can never satisfy himself with a victorious paean, such as the Parados that the Chorus intones, but that he must immediately strike ‘the clandestine followers of the defeated’ (K. Reinhardt). The punishment inflicted on Polynice’s corpse must resound like a terrible warning, all the more necessary in Creon’s eyes, the more the Chorus of the great elders of Thebes explicitly show themselves reluctant in sharing the decision of the sovereign. That such a decision is in no way a sign of violent rage is demonstrated, ad abundantiam, by the treatment of the servant who announces Antigone’s ‘crime’, and by Ismene’s ‘absolution’. If anything, it is characterised by a final yielding to a sudden movement of the soul, an unconditioned reflex in the face of Tiresias’ curse. More than a meditated ‘conversion’, or reasoned ‘contrition’, it resembles an unstoppable display of fear. He does not ‘yield’ to Tiresias’ words, but rather plummets, he completes his catastrophe. And his final lament echoes that of his victim (K. Reinhardt). One could truly affirm that Creon recognises the error he committed at the very instant that his logos falls silent to become invocation, fear, prayer, lament. The consciousness of guilt manifests itself when the word that gave death dies. 

Antigone au chevet de Polynice, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1868)

Antigone in no way opposes Creon’s logos, however ‘unreasonable’ it appears. We could even easily believe that she understands its ‘rationale’. But this ‘rationale’ would in any case be entirely alien and impotent in her eyes. If one interprets the conflict between the Two as within the sphere of right or of ethics or politics, one completely misses the target. Sophocles intuits this, ‘with fear and trembling’: Antigone does not aim at ‘reforming’ Creon’s power so as to render it more obsequious to tradition; she does not seek compromises, however high level, between the positive right of the State and domestic pietas. She does not call for a new right, nor for a new political order. Antigone’s word manifests a radical alterity with respect to all these dimensions of the logos. Here lies her ‘immeasurableness’, which the Chorus readily recognises. The laws of the city, any law in no way binds her; she ignores whether they apply [valgano] where she is interested in counting [dove a lei interessa valere].[9] That’s enough for her. Of course, had the issue not arisen, Antigone might have been able to live an entirely ‘normal’ life in the polis, but this would not have changed anything in her character: the commands of the law are absolutely alien to her. She would not have obeyed them; rather, she would not have had the chance to notice their existence. Antigone’s word kills the power of existing laws, not in the name of others, which could only be deployed on the same plane and demand equal monopoly [status] and efficaciousness, but as though emptying them from within, declaring them to be nothing in themselves. Creon wishes to strike in Antigone this ultimate danger of any political praxis and not that determinate transgression through which she makes herself ‘guiltily saintly’. Creon intuits, reflected in Antigone, what political power must necessarily hide, its most intimate secret, the authentic arcanum imperii: one’s own impotence before someone who obeys a Law originally ‘absolved’ from any practico-political inter-est [inter-esse].[10] Antigone should not be confused with the prudent voice of the Chorus. It is the Chorus that interrogates itself on the relationship between positivity and right, the artifice of the law and the divine world. Antigone, in contrast, wants only to do what she must, and that the laws permit it or not constitutes a problem for her insofar as her doing condemns her to death. Antigone does not oppose Creon inasmuch as he separates political action from the pietas owed to those joined together, according to the nomos of the fathers; hers is not a ‘critique’ of Creon’s power insofar as it is ‘secularised’. Antigone’s logos ‘simply’ has nothing to say to that of Creon, other than that it is nothing. And the essential relation is established in this: for it is clear that a word ‘finds’ its proper necessary relation with that power which, alone, has the power to give her death. So, the words of the two great antagonists can reveal their own energy only by reciprocally annihilating one another.

Just as Antigone is not the messenger for a new right and her word is ‘im-measurable’ compared to every law of the polis, so Creon is not simply the ‘sophist’ who thinks of the law as mere human artifice. His decisive word sounds rather as follows: salvation can only be found in a firmly organised polis. The structure of the polis not only guarantees the pursuit of what is useful to everyone. The polis saves. Hence the polis is the manifestation of the divine, the divine gift. And who breaks it offends the gods, summoning upon their heads the most terrible punishment. The Chorus immediately warns of the abyss that such an idea throws open, within the Time that is lord of everything and that plays with everything: woe betide those who believe that such a gift might be belong to us once and forever, that it is securely possessed. For then the polis itself becomes a god. And we end up deifying[11] its power. This highest danger is one that Creon does not foresee and hence he precipitates, deluding himself that the laws he issues are ‘naturally’ guaranteed by the divine origin of the polis. His Zeus has become the polis – and he explicitly affirms it: no invocation of Zeus as the protector of the home will divert him from his ‘duty’, and this Zeus will be able to continue to ‘delight’ in his faith only if he does not show himself to be in contradiction with what the sovereign believes to be the ‘common good’ of the city. 

Death of Polynices and Eteocles (Etruscan Funerary Urn, 200 BC)

Antigone as has her own Zeus. It is not necessary to ‘betray’ the text with the violence that only another Greek such as Hölderlin allowed himself to understand that these fateful versus: ‘OU GAR TI MOI ZEUS EN HO KERYXAS TADE…’,[12] depend upon a principle infinitely ‘beyond’ not only the Zeus who Creon imagines, but also to the one honoured by the Chorus. Antigone’s Zeus indicates the divine without form and name. Please note: the unwritten laws of the gods cannot be understood in the same way as the laws that those very gods have decreed; no, ‘they always live, and no one knows when they appeared’.[13]But the gods are born, they distribute the parts, they command with unwritten laws of which, however, the origin is known, because it from the gods that they proceed. Antigone’s Law is ‘of the gods’ because the gods obey them first. It is the eternal and uncreated Dike that lies in the Impenetrable, in the darkness of Hades. The weak light of human intelligence doesn’t touch it – nor does Zeus’ lightning bolt penetrate it. And the Chorus, as it senses the catastrophe that Creon’s words prepare for the city, also intuits the ultimate danger immanent in Antigone’s words: in the name of which god does she speak? It is clear, she does not know how to listen to the words of the polis – but is her Zeus really the same one as that of the city? Or does her word signal to the Archē that no word is able to contain?  But if it were so, then Antigone’s divine would in no way be able to guarantee the salvation of the polis. Creon errs [pecca] in settling the divine in the political order – but is it not be an opposed but complementary sin [peccato] to imagine it as pre-positing[14] every form and every name? And if the Zeus who ‘speaks’ to Antigone has essentially nothing to do with the one who saves the polis, then it will be precisely Antigone’s word that leads to that aberrant desacralisation of power that the Chorus foresaw, in terror, would be the result of Creon’s word. Could a city flourish powerfully by venerating Antigone’s Zeus of the underworld? ‘loving’ the divine that does not give himself to the light of the temples, to the statues and the laws? This is the question that Creon asks the Chorus, asking it for help and understanding. The ‘fact’ itself unleashes this conflict that invests the sense of the human and the divine and the totality of their forms.

War Zone (Aleppo, 2019)

One understands, then, that if tragedy is constitutively ‘political art’, it is so in a sense that transcends all reference to the contents of techne politike and its inner conflicts. It is ‘political art’ because it is the radical putting into crisis of all ideas of the ‘autonomy’ of political action. But political action represents the culmination of human doing. And, so, its constative problematicity illuminates with a tragic light all the forms of doing. The ‘spectacle’ of power of that mortal that is man, tremendous compared to all other entities and to itself, necessarily provokes research, questioning concerning its very limits. Science is not only born of terror-astonishment thanks to the extraordinary power of which human thought is capable, but by the consideration of its inexorable finiteness. The Chorus wants this grasped. And what limits the power of man is the divine: the divine that bestows the foundation of the laws, the faculties necessary to the harmony of the polis; but, first of all and most essentially, the divine has decreed a supreme No to its life: it has made its life mortal, that is a life that negates itself, a non-life. And all [humanity’s] works, all the forms of its doing must observe such a limit, safeguarding it in consciousness, not presuming to surpass it.

The Chorus sees that Creon’s actions do not accord with the divine Dike and he is marked by hybris. The Chorus understands that the idea that moves Creon, that the city might be ‘saved’ by its very laws, by its very order, leads to the undoing of all ties with the divine and, in the end, to the forgetting peitharchia itself, the very ‘art’ of listening and persuasion. The obsession with the danger of anarchy blinds Creon and forces him to forget the limit of the laws of sovereignty. All of this is reflected clearly in the words of the Chorus. But what of Antigone? Antigone represents the problem flung against his gaze. Is Antigone the word that might be able to recall the polis to its ties with Dike? Is hers perhaps the figure that could incarnate the principles expressed in the final verses of the First Stasimon? Certainly not. The exclusive pathos of the daughter of Oedipus for the Originary, her passion for what escapes [si sottrae] the logos that opens, unveils, illuminates, cannot consider the polis to be a mere artifice, its orders to be conventions, which in the end are always impotent with respect to the wordless voice that summons her spirit. Creon denounces Antigone’s solitude. Antigone even exalts in her dialogue-polemos with her sister. The Chorus is painfully forced to recognise her. But there cannot be a polis of the solitary, a polis of mortals who presume to escape [sottrarsi] the eye of law, to inhabit a ‘place’ inaccessible to the gaze. The love of Hades must be banished from the space and time of the city. But the Hades that animates Antigone’s word is certainly the archē of all divine form and name. And so? Must the city make itself autonomous from such an Archē? Must its word represent its forgetting? If Creon’s Zeus reduces the divine to political archē, Antigone’s abandons forever the temples of the city. The tragic image of the absence of the divine in the space of the polis appears to be consumed in the battle between the two principles. Here is the ‘greatest terror’, the deinoteron, of which the mortal is capable, and the ‘spectacle’ of which so dismays the Chorus.

Antigone, Greek National Theatre 1969

The city will have to survive the conflict between Antigone and Creon, but not because it can reconcile it. Its time has devoured Antigone. As well as Haemon’s love for her – that love which he wanted to conserve alongside his father’s command. Tiresias succumbs as well. His divinatory art saves no one. His knowledge is now but the useless knowledge of what has been. The city’s becoming no longer takes place under the aegis[15] of the gods. What looms, what it is necessary to confront is the care for the city, so that the city resists in its human, all-too human confines of wisdom, prudence, and measure. Within such confines, the future cannot be known, nor can the guidance of the god’s oracle be known. We can only scan for indistinct signs, on the basis of historia, of the knowledge and description of facts, of what has taken place. The current command, the sovereignty present in the laws, will never be able to ‘pay for it’ itself as Creon hoped. And never will the city be able to attune itself with the solitary presence of Antigone’s god. But Creon must survive. The medicine of death is not permitted him. Sophocles’ genius grasped this essential point: the tragic tension would have broken down had Creon also brought his life to an end. Creon believed that only the polis saves, and now he unwillingly experiences the fact that only the polis survives. Since it is only in the polis that he ‘believed’, now he must share its destiny. Along with the Chorus of the elderly, which sing the song of renunciation and disenchantment. And to Ismene. The absent presence of her sister must always be ‘heeded’ [ascoltata] in the conclusion of the play. The profound depths of Antigone’s solitude were revealed to her in relation to Ismene; the gesture with which she drives her off mirrors that with which Creon decrees, symmetrically, the non-burial of Polynice and Antigone’s living entombment. Antigone’s ‘banishment’ condemns Irene to the order of the polis; only there will she be able to live, it matters not under what laws, forever a subject. In the time of the polis, they will have to tirelessly seek occasional compromises between the prudence of the elderly and the will to power of the rulers, between the timorous piety of Ismene and the servile fear of the first guard, who is the image of the plethos, those plebeians so despised by Antigone. Here Creon will be summoned to survive, defeated alongside the blind Tiresias. A harsh law and harsh test, the necessity of which the tragic word announces without a shadow of consolation. And, so, the pathos that arouses teaches [fa sapere] – and only knowledge [sapere] ‘cures’.


[1] This is the introduction to Cacciari’s own translation of Sophocles’ Antigone, Einaudi, Turin 2007. All notes are by the translator.

[2] Antigone, 424-5. All translations are based on Cacciari’s. 

[3] Thalamus, meaning marriage chamber. 

[4] Literally ‘dialogued’, used as a verb. It is worth noting, since the role logos – and dialogue is clearly rooted in logos – plays in this passage. 

[5] Timai referes to the honours paid to gods and heroes in various cults, such as sacrifices, rituals, etc.

[6] I have translated rendersi morte as ‘bringing themselves death’. However, rendersi, as reflexive, could equally be translated as ‘bringing one another death’ and ‘bringing oneself death’. All these meaning should be born in mind. 

[7] Cacciari frequently uses hyphenation to make conceptual points, to which one needs be sensitive. He takes a common word but signals its elements to trouble our habitual understanding. It is not always possible to reflect this adequately in English. Here the word that I have rendered as ‘mis-understand’, is  fra-intendeIntendere in Italian means ‘to understand’; fraintendere is a perfectly ordinary word that means ‘to misunderstand’; but the prefix fra means ‘between’. So, what we have here is an understanding that somehow fails, a misunderstanding, missed in the between two actors in a dialogue (linked to logos and polemos). It is thus a misunderstanding that takes place ‘in common’. 

[8] The editors of the Norton Critical Edition of Aristotle’s Poetics point out that the ‘word drama (a thing done) is derived from drân (to do)’ (Aristotle, Poetics, edited and translated by M. Zerba and D. Gorman, Norton & Company: New York, 2018, p. 5 n. 1). Cacciari makes much of this in Hamletica (a translation, Hamletics, is forthcoming from Seagull Books). I take the reference to be to the German classicist, Bruno Snell.

[9] This sentence is ambiguous, but I think it can be best interpreted as follows: it is not that Antigone does not know whether the laws apply where she wishes them to, but that she is indifferent as to whether the laws apply (valere) where she wants to ‘count’ (valere). That is to say, we might say that she does not know, and is indeed disinterested in whether the laws (of the polis) count there where she is a ‘law unto herself’.  

[10] Cacciari’s neologism, inter-esse, links togetherness, interrelation, inter, with ‘to be’ (the Latin esse). Interesse also means ‘interest’. This is relatively straightforward to render in English as I have with ‘inter-est’, where ‘inter’ is a relational prefix whereas est comes from the French ‘to be’, drawing on the Anglo-French Norman, ultimately Latinate rooted, interesse.

[11] Instead of the verb ‘to deify’, Cacciari uses idolatry as a verb – in the sense of turning the city into an idol. That’s not easily done in English. 

[12] ‘For me it was not Zeus who made that order…’, Antigone, 449ff.

[13] Antigone, 456.

[14] Pre-potente is untranslatable, and I have settled for an unhappy solution to what, at least to me, appears an intractable problem. The Italian prepotente means ‘overbearing’, ‘arrogant’, ‘bullying’. The prefix ‘pre-’, as in English, signals a pre-cedent in time or in logic. Potente, on the other hand, means ‘powerful’. I have retained the ‘pre-’ but have had to settle for the act of positing, as if it were an act of force. The sense appears to be that Antigone’s divine ex-cedes and pre-cedes all form, all differentiation, and it does so because it is to it that the gods themselves always already submit – in a time immemorable – as to a ruling origin (Archē).

[15] The Italian makes no reference to Zeus’ shield, the Aegis, but – minus the classical reference – this is essentially correct. The Italian speaks of the becoming of the city being ‘subtracted from the power of gods’, which I think is somewhat clumsy in English.  

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