The Wisdom of the Ancients: A Cathartic Approach to Teaching Antigone
You touch my most painful thoughts,
a lament plowed over and over
for my father and for the whole
destiny of us all...
–Antigone, lines 855-860
My father, Jim Kairies, died five years ago this summer. Jim’s life was filled with both honor and courage, but perhaps one of my most cherished examples was his career as an Airborne Ranger in the 82nd Airborne Division of the US Army. A Purple Heart, Silver Star, and Distinguished Service Cross recipient, he sustained multiple physical injuries during his two tours of duty in the Vietnam War which would show up decades later as his body began deteriorating through knee injuries, high blood pressure, stroke, and the lung cancer that would metastasize into the brain cancer that killed him. (Disclaimer: he also was a lifelong smoker.) These medical conditions, which his physicians attributed in significant part to his injuries sustained in the war and exposure to Agent Orange, were so severe that by the time he was in his early 70s, he was paralyzed, living in a wheelchair, and had qualified for a lifelong 100% disability benefit with the Veterans Administration (VA).
However, despite his physical legacy from the trauma of war, I have always been more acutely impacted by the mental suffering my dad endured his whole life, likely because I, along with my sister and my mom, lived for decades with his mental illness as our constant companion. Jim had severe mood swings, fits of anger and rage, anxiety, and a debilitating depression that he medicated through alcohol. But of course, like many trauma survivors, he avoided the pain of therapy or psychiatric treatment, and his story was complex in that he was also, at the same time, one of the most charming, loyal, and loving people I’ve ever known.
My father’s untreated PTSD, which also stemmed from childhood abuse, was my early teacher as I mirrored him and always prepared to face the certain threat hiding around the corner by being hypervigilant. As a young girl, I could scan any room for energy shifts because, as my father’s daughter, I was preparing myself for my own little battles: confronting the enemy, or the monster of rage, that could erupt in my dad at anytime by intervening and attempting to distract, coerce, or assuage his tantrums, restoring my family equilibrium by being the performer, the helper, and the fixer. The years, and eventually decades went by, and it wasn’t until my 40s when I would seek professional help and start unraveling the layers of anxiety, fear, and codependency I have carried since the earliest years of my memory.
In his book The Theater of War, theater director Bryan Doerries discusses what Ancient Greek drama can teach us today and addresses why and how he uses modern interpretations of ancient plays to help those grieving or living with trauma, including veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to wade into and process their suffering. He refers to the cathartic effects of Greek drama on the citizens of Ancient Greece through the lens of the term allostatic load, coined in 1993 by Yale psychologists, as the “physical strain of the body’s stress response– hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol– upon the cardiovascular system and other organs and tissues” and that “maybe tragedy was a mass therapy for lowering the Athenian allostatic load and recalibrating the city’s response to stress.” After all, Athens had, according to Doerries, “lost thousands of men to war, yet they had no time to grieve their losses, no sanctioned occasion on which to express the fullness of their emotions.” And, according to Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, “Trauma affects not only those who are directly exposed to it, but also those around them. Soldiers returning home from combat may frighten their families with their rages and emotional absence. The wives of men who suffer from PTSD tend to become depressed, and the children of depressed mothers are at risk of growing up insecure and anxious.” Therefore, as Doerries notes, the people of Athens, who were the families of the military men and soldiers, also needed a collective “scream” and to engage directly in catharsis, and that need has not changed.
As I collaborate with Megan to plan our study of Sophocles's tragedy Antigone with our sophomores, 16 year-old girls living in a community that is often hyped-up on stress hormones, I think back to myself as a sophomore, a “little soldier” living at home with my very ill yet very wonderful dad, and know my allostatic load, unbeknownst to me, was likely to the breaking point. And if that was the case then, I can only assume and know deep in my heart that our students now, who are recovering academically, physically, and emotionally from COVID-19, managing home and family relationships, social pressures, and juggling a million activities to get into the colleges of their choice, are also carrying significant allostatic loads, some of which could be inspired by trauma. So, our question this fall has been, how can we teach Antigone through a well-being lens, and what do the themes of pain, suffering, and family loyalty offer our girls, centuries later? Can reading and performing Greek drama help our teenage students experience catharsis, even if only a small one, and manage their own allostatic loads?
Yes, I know and my mind is in turmoil.
--Kreon, line 1095
Antigone was one of the first texts I taught as a high school English teacher: a newly minted “Dr. Megan Griffin.” That fall semester I was wrapping up the publication of two articles spun from my recently completed dissertation while lesson-planning for two courses I had never taught, attempting to balance a new job with a new baby, and navigating the recent news of my mother’s terminal brain cancer. Needless to say, my own allostatic load was high. I didn’t know that term then, however, so I certainly didn’t register the potential connections between the play’s catharsis and my own need for it.
What struck me instead during that initial reading were the Chorus’s final lines: “Wisdom is the greatest part of joy,” alternatively translated as “Good sense is the first principle of happiness.” I immediately loved these lines for their beauty, even if I didn’t fully understand them or the rich context of the Ancient Greek wisdom tradition within which they are rooted. For me, a teacher drowning in seemingly unanswerable questions–does teaching ever get easier, do babies ever let their parents sleep again, how do people (and their loved ones) continue to live following a terminal diagnosis–these words offered me the reassurance that I didn’t necessarily need answers. Rather, the very process of discernment could be a relief on its own. In short, seeking wisdom, especially for those questions that burden us, can be an essential part of joy and happiness.
I have now taught Sophocles’s Antigone to teenage girls for about a decade, believing that there is something about a fifteen-year-old Greek princess holding fast to her principled ideals in the face of an increasingly tyrannical, egotistical, and misogynistic male authority figure that just feels like a meaningful way to kick off a sophomore curriculum on female protagonists. Doerries writes in Theater of War that Greek tragedies often feature teenagers “thrust into ethically fraught situations with no easy answers,” and for many years, my students and I have reflected on these ambiguities in Antigone, asking questions like: What should one do when faced with a law that contradicts her (religious) beliefs? What do we do when we see injustice sanctioned by law? To what extent should we remain loyal to our family, even when they have committed a crime or acted unjustly? That the play also offers testimony to the necessity of catharsis, as Kate discusses above, reinforces its importance in a curriculum for young women, especially one framed through the lens of well-being. This lens has allowed us to more intentionally address students’ allostatic load, the communal need for catharsis, and the wisdom necessary to carry us through it all.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Antigone, the short version is this: Antigone’s twin brothers Eteocles and Polynices battle for the Theban throne following the death of their father Oedipus (yes, that Oedipus: the one who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother). As the barely older brother, Eteocles ascends the throne; angry, his twin Polynices flees to Argos and there, after marrying the king’s daughter, raises an Argive army and attacks his homeland. In a swift, decisive battle, the two brothers kill each other; Eteocles dies a hero, Polynices a traitor. Following their death, their uncle Kreon becomes king, immediately prohibiting the burial of Polynices: Polynices is a domestic terrorist, after all, a young man who has committed violence against his homeland in the (misguided) pursuit of power. The play opens with Antigone’s rejection of Kreon’s proclamation while her younger sister Ismene begs for her to just obey it: “We need to recognize that we are women, / not meant to fight against men” (61-62). Antigone will of course die for her actions—burying Polynices not once but twice—but not before rhetorically going toe-to-toe with a powerful man at least twice her age. (Spoiler: Kreon eventually realizes the error of his stubborn, prideful ways but not before losing his son, his wife, and his kingdom in the process.)
Kreon’s realization is that he should have listened not only to his son Haemon, who repeatedly encouraged him to resist such rigid thinking, but also to the blind prophet Tiresias, who insisted “that the most powerful possession is good counsel” (1050). Kreon’s “deadly stubbornness” is his undoing, and in the final scenes we watch this once prideful king have an emotional breakdown–a visceral, visual image that leaves us, the audience, filled with both pity and fear (1261). Our pity and fear, Doerries indicates, is not “in service to mere entertainment” but rather for catharsis: “to purify or refine [these emotions] of their toxic qualities.” So, while my students might have giggled as they reenacted Kreon’s final lines–he wails and cries for several pages, relying heavily on hyperbolic language–my hope is that they also recognize that his deep remorse is one we can learn from, both emotionally and academically.
Whoever thinks that he alone contains good sense
in speech or spirit, which no other has,
when opened up is found to be a blank tablet.
No, even if a man is wise, there’s no shame
in learning many things and not being too rigid.
--Haemon, lines 710-711
As we refreshed this unit, then, we knew that we needed to focus not only on catharsis but also wisdom, finding more intentional ways to bring this story first performed in 442 BC into the lives of our twenty-first century students. By pairing our class reading of Antigone with Kamila Shamsie's 2017 reimagining of the story, Home Fire, and framing our discussion of the play through the lens of retellings, we hoped to establish the play’s themes as contemporary and create a modern day connection to catharsis for our students. In the novel Home Fire, our students immersed in the story of Isma and Aneeka, two British sisters whose brother Parvaiz has disappeared to follow in the footsteps of their jihadist father, and whose death in Pakistan causes an international controversy, with Aneeka attempting to bring his body home to England for burial. The central conflict of the siblings mirrors the questions posed in Antigone: To whom do we owe our loyalty? Is the bond of a family stronger than adherence to the law? Should a traitor (in this modern case, a member of a terrorist organization) receive an honorable burial?
Also told through the fog of war, Shamsie’s novel gives us the chance to grieve for Parvaiz with the sisters, despite his betrayal of the state, challenging us to see beyond the danger of a single story and empathize and feel the death of a son who “would listen to those stories of his father for which he’s always yearned—not a footloose and feckless husband but a man of courage who fought injustice, saw beyond the lie of national boundaries, kept his comrades’ spirits up through times of darkness.” In a class discussion of Home Fire, a student noted: “Isma is deeply affected by the War on Terror and struggles to cope with her intense feelings. She fights to bury her emotions by pouring them into her work. She manages her frustration by taking her negative experiences and, ‘[making] it research,’ demonstrating the unique outlets people use to find catharsis,” opening up the discussion to a natural segue–as a sophomore student, how are you finding your catharsis?
I don’t know. To me, too much
silence seems as ominous as loud weeping and wailing.
–Chorus, lines 1251-1252
Doerries’s book Theater of War offers so many brilliant and accessible insights on Greek tragedy. So, as we concluded our class reading of Antigone, we provided our students with an excerpt from it on catharsis, and then, in their journals, they brainstormed a current event or story that connects to the need for catharsis right now in our society or culture, like the adolescent mental health crisis, COVID-19, burnout, or shortages of healthcare professionals. After locating a recent article on the issue, they then considered both this article and Theater of War in conversation with Antigone, journaling about how and why they connect and what drew them to the story: what do they learn about the human need for catharsis?
The following class day, we turned our attention to wisdom. We are enthusiastic fans of The Happiness Lab podcast by Dr. Laurie Santos, a professor at Yale University whose class “Psychology and the Good Life” had, when it debuted in 2018, nearly 1,200 students enroll within a week. In the last two years, the course has been made available for free online, and as of January 2022, more than 3.7 million people had enrolled. Her podcast began in 2020 as another way to fulfill our culture’s seemingly insatiable desire to better understand the science of happiness. Two of her episodes in particular–“Happiness Lessons of the Ancients: Aristotle” and “Happiness Lessons of the Ancients: Plato”–pair well with Antigone, clarifying aspects of the Ancient Greek wisdom tradition, a tradition that Haemon and Tiresias repeatedly try to remind Kreon of, only to be heard too late. We spend time as a class attempting to define wisdom, asking ourselves questions like: What wisdom(s) does the play Antigone offer? Where might our world (or our Ursuline community) need wisdom? Where do we, individually, need wisdom?
The world never seems to be short of recent Antigone retellings, and to supplement Home Fire–and to continue reinforcing how and where wisdom and catharsis play a role in our world–we offered a selection of recent retellings to students. Sara Uribe’s 2012 book Antígona González, for example, turns a single Antigone into many—wives, daughters, sons, brothers–capturing the pain and grief of those living under the reign of the Mexican drug cartels. The South African play The Island, first performed in 1973, takes a more metacognitive perspective: it is a play about attempting to stage Antigone in a prison on Robben Island as a way to protest apartheid. Antigone’s Chorus, the group of about ten to fifteen Athenian men in the play who comment on and provide context for the action, takes center stage in Doerries’s Antigone in Ferguson, a production that responds to the shooting of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer. In this retelling, every audience member is part of the Chorus, there to serve as witnesses and to remember. By far students’ favorite retelling, though, is that of the Syrian women who staged Antigone in a Lebanese refugee camp; the grief of these women spoke directly to so many of them, demonstrating just how palpable tragedy can be.
For all human beings, to err is common.
–Tiresias, line 1024
Reading about modern Syrian women reenacting Antigone was a counter-narrative for many of our students; several mentioned their assumptions, or single stories, that trauma victims and people managing intense emotions like grief would want instead to immerse in stories of romance, fantasy, and/or happy endings to escape their pain. We discussed how refugee women performing a Greek tragedy like Antigone reinforces Doerries’s analysis of Aristotle in The Poetics: the purpose of tragedy is to arouse pity and fear not to simply arouse them, but “purify or refine some of their toxic qualities.” In other words, we walk through our fear and suffering by owning them, especially in character as someone like Antigone.
Even suggesting to 16-year-olds that it is ok to sit with difficult emotions relates to the well-being conversation we have with them through our curriculum–it is strong and powerful to admit our fears and to ask for help–and hopefully through these reminders we help our students recognize and maybe even address their potentially harmful avoidant behaviors. We also hope to remind them that we have so much more in common with each other than we know, nothing is black and white, and difficult conversations can be had through empathy. In a summative class discussion of the play, one student noted, “No two people are completely different and have nothing in common” while another replied, “The root of tragedy and human misery is that we are chained to our emotions, and these plays help us deal with that.” Some students mentioned (jokingly, which we still counted as a win!) summoning Kreon’s “refusal to listen and tragic reversal” as a voice in their ear when they make decisions that might result in regret, such as drinking, reckless driving, and being passive aggressive to friends.
In a vulnerable moment, five years later and as we wrapped up our discussion of Antigone, I (Kate) shared with my students that I still miss my dad every day. I miss his wisdom and guidance, his booming voice, and his humor. And I’m still grieving for him, which I told my students, will likely last a lifetime. But I am not alone in my grief, and I hope they realize, neither are they. I know I am not alone because in Home Fire, I encountered one of the best descriptions of grief I have ever read, so I read them the following passage:
“Grief was bad-tempered, grief was kind; grief saw nothing but itself, grief saw every speck of pain in the world; grief spread its wings large like an eagle, grief huddled small like a porcupine; grief needed company, grief craved solitude; grief wanted to remember, grief wanted to forget; grief raged, grief whimpered; grief made time compress and contract; grief tasted like hunger, grief felt like numbness, sounded like silence; grief tasted like bile, felt like blades, sounded like all the noise of the world.”
And I felt peace.
Megan Griffin is a found poet who finds herself poetically searching.
Kate Schenck is a collector of pigments and spices, dreamer, and builder of tables for lesser heard voices.