Ireland, Antigone and Sundry Mourning Bodies

On June 22, 2014 by admin

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 Kusumita Datta

[Kusumita Datta has submitted her MPhil work, undertaken at the Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. HUG thanks Amlan Dasgupta for facilitating the publication of this essay.]

My larger work constitutes a close study of the Irish post-revolutionary deployment of Antigone, through the enactment of the myth, by placing it within the text’s own interpretive history as well as a mythological-historical document within the changing world of Irish society. I have tried to unravel the need for newer versions of the Antigone today, in contributing to a contemporary  understanding of nationhood, especially in times of displacement and forceful assimilation in that troubled nation. The Irish Antigones since the 1980s do not simply emerge from discussions surrounding the civil‐rights movement in the North and the advent of the resurgence of civil strife from the late 1960s onwards.

The particularly local potency of the 1980s Irish Antigones was founded upon pre‐existing cultural affinities and practices that allied Antigone to Erin, the virginal emblematic figure of Romantic Irish Nationalism. Indeed, even Seamus Heaney’s version, commissioned for the centenary celebrations of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, draws upon this rich seam of cultural  resonance. But, in addition to nationalist accretions, Antigone was also merged with the mythological figure of Deirdre in the Irish cultural imaginary as a strong independent woman who challenges the dictates of the patriarchal system. Brendan Kennelly’s version, performed in the Peacock Theatre at the Abbey in 1986, was able to draw upon these deep affinities between Deirdre and Antigone.

Heaney’s play on this theme is much indebted to William Butler Yeats’ Antigone who is portrayed implicitly as a figure for the depredations of civil war, the calamity wreaked on “Brother and brother, friend and friend, / Family and family” by the “great glory driven wild” that is Antigone’s response to Creon, “driven” by familial piety and affection against the unreasonable demands of the state. So, linking 1904 to 2004, Heaney’s Antigone may be a gesture of piety to Yeats. This intellectual heritage is therefore not just allegorical, political but also literary in nature, emphasizing for us the wide range which needs to be considered.

In the larger work I have looked closely at four Irish authors and their retelling of the saga and the allegory—Seamus Heaney, Owen McCafferty, Brendan Kennelly and Tom Paulin. In the following essay, I would specifically like to consider the idea of mourning in these retellings of the Antigone allegory in the Irish context.

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The Fate of the Dead Body and its Grief in Antigone

Death and burial have been integral issues in the myth and play of Antigone. George Steiner, while enumerating the various reasons for the endurance of this ancient play posits a minor reason in the ‘subject of live burials’ and the motif of ‘entombment of living persons’ as an exercise in arbitrary judicial power. Moreover the opposition between the household gods and gods of the city finds a pivotal manifestation in the burial of the dead. In death, the ‘individualized particularity’ (1)  is best achieved as the individual reverts immensely to the ethical domain of the Self. Of course when death occurs in the war-service to the nation, this ‘achieved totality’ is expressly civic in nature. The ‘civic’ must then be understood in terms of a ‘communal totality’ when the family keeps away the appetites of unconscious organic agencies, and sets its own action in place of theirs, to wed the relative to the bosom of the earth and an elemental presence which does not pass away. This is what Hegel perceives as the ‘positive ethical act’. In the words of Tara Beaney:

‘Hegel’s thinking here is dialectic; he considers two subjects engaged in a life-and-death struggle to realise their subjecthood. Just as each stakes their own life, so too do they seek the other’s death, since ‘the other’ is something which opposes their own status as subject.’ (2)

Hence the ethical act is perceived as a conflict whose reconciliation will result in the attainment of the Spirit of Self-Consciousness. In its reconciliatory ethics it enunciates a concept of the ‘beautiful death’ in a rightful acknowledgement by the family and an enactment of all rituals pertaining to the dead. Beaney has explained how the concept of the ‘beautiful’ dead is only a negotiation by the nineteenth century of ‘their own complex attitudes towards horror and death, and [they] have done so through seeing Antigone’s death as beautiful work of art.’(3) Hence it is hardly a site of reconciliation but only points a path forward to an inadequacy and indeterminacy in our due acknowledgement of the dead in the rites of mourning.

Both Antigone and Creon embody a death-instinct, one acting for and one against the forces of life. The Hegelian conflict is also best dramatized in the kinship relations of fraternity and sorority. The rites of burial, with ‘their literal re-enclosure of the dead in the place of earth and in the shadow-sequence of generations which are the foundation of the familial, are the particular task of [the] woman.’(4) When this task falls upon the sister, bound by the most genuine bond of philia, it attains the greatest degree of holiness. Yet it is also a crime because the state may not be prepared to relinquish authority over the dead. The dead body may claim honour or chastisement. In Sophocles’ play Polyneices claims both. However the end there is a ‘calm of doom, parity…The body of Polyneices had to be buried if…the living was to be at peace with the house of the dead.'(5) But our consideration of mourning which follows the ritual of burial or a lack of it undermines the sense of the holy, the calm and the peaceful.

In this context Jane Coyle feels that ‘Creon’s centrality marginalizes Antigone almost to the point of underplaying the importance of the burial itself’. (6) I’d therefore like to concentrate more on an act subsequent to the burial of the dead—the mourning of the dead, a lamentation evoked after the burial, which also constitutes a major act of defiance. Keening as an elegy crystallizes not just the grief over the passing away of a loved one, but the confrontational stance of those participating in the act, to bring about a peace, not only for, but with the dead.

From being a legal to a lyrical act, it enunciates a whole story of the trauma-ridden, who do not or cannot mourn openly, but for whom this is the only act of redemption. The weariness, the fear, the ability to bypass political inhibitions through small acts of defiance, only attributes credibility to an innate power of endurance, most evident after devastation. The twenty-first century may not experience any final reconciliation or a peace of mind, but an acknowledgement of all who have been afflicted is much important to enable conditions for the survival of all. In the Irish context, one recalls the central character Maurya, at the end of J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea, who understands death not as fact but as experience and it enables the survival of this poor widow, at peace with herself, especially after all whose sons were delivered to the hungry sea. In our present world the death or entombment of one may be phenomenal, but the grief of generations may yet create a phenomenal staying power against the existential confusions of the ambitious living.

Pertaining as it does to an existential reality; it is also in turn moderated by it. Seamus Heaney characterizes it as ‘the imagined reality of that [the] confusing wake’. For some the mourning of the dead is a domestic rite, while for others it is a show of political solidarity. The rite of mourning needs to overcome this confusion to become a mode of distinct grievance. We may better understand this confusion by referring to Heaney’s ‘Funeral Rites’ in his anthology, North. The coffin-carrier tries to imagine a placation after witnessing the violence of death because he is aware that the dead has remained unavenged. Yet:‘Now as news comes in of each neighbourly murder we pine for ceremony, customary rhythms.’(7)While we are trapped between our desire to mourn and an inability to do so, we realize the true nature of redress as remedy and redress through violence. Withheld from mourning we cannot express our grievance but our lament for every death hints that we must nurture an alert conscience for doing so.

We are, of course, concerned with the role of lament in the post-national era. In The Politics of Friendship, Jacques Derrida traces the nature of a ‘seismic’ revolution in the political context of ‘friendship’. A post-revolutionary period is “an hour of joy, an hour of birth but also of resurrection…the passage from the dying to the living,”(8)  even as the living is in the throes of the dying. Revolution and its aftermath are not just about a change but an inherent violence and weariness, enmeshed as it is in the last gasps of the dead. It is quite interesting to note the role of dead bodies in the Irish versions of Antigone, especially these later versions.

Mourning and lament are important ingredients of Sophocles’ tragedy as he provides much dramatic space to the burying of Polyneices, Antigone’s ‘kommos’, and ends the play with Creon trying to lament over the bodies of Eurydice and Haemon. Let me try to attend the various measures of grief and how they posit claims of both defiance and detachment; solidarity and solitude; between siding with others and being true to our individual solitary self in times of grief.

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Grief as Grievance: Counter-Revolutionary Perspectives from Tom Paulin to Owen McCafferty

Jacques Derrida understood the word ‘grief’ in French as meaning ‘damage’, ‘blame’, ‘prejudice’, ‘injustice’, ‘injury’ but also ‘accusation’, ‘resentment’ or ‘complaint’, the call for punishment or vengeance. In English the same word means primarily ‘pain’ or ‘mourning’, but grievance also expresses the subject of the complaint, injustice, conflict or wrong that must be righted, a violence to be repaired amidst counter-revolutionary moments of weariness and nihilism.

It is an anthropological given that mourning as lamentation is first expressed for kinship relations, which then shapes the larger boundaries of the private and public, as the grief is affected by the ‘friend and enemy’ binary. From a radical opposition between them, the family relations are once more invoked, changing the very nature of lament and grief.

Unlike the act of burial, mourning resides on the edges of the juridical, the political, and the techno-biological while at the same time containing a risk of sweeping them away.

Some or most of us express grief for the event of death but there is a precarious distinction, more problematic and fragile, between death (so-called natural death) and killing, between murder and homicide. Once it is a sacred act of lament; once it is a political act of grievance. Yet our response remains wary. In ‘Frontiers of Writing’(9) Heaney posits the threshold point of modern-day mourning. Recounting the death of various political prisoners in Dublin while he was enjoying an academic dinner at Oxford, the poet clearly states that he would never have travelled a hundred miles north to the wake, caught as he was between the traditional sense of obligation to the rite and a precariousness regarding supporting those who chose the role of victims. The rite thereof must ultimately become an expression of a terrible sadness for the plight of the dead and those who could hardly mourn for them. The mourner cannot mourn because he is himself the killer.

Towards the end of Heaney’s text, Creon is ‘at bay in guilt and grief.’ Eurydice curses the murderer of her son and can have no peace or mercy. The Old Man continues to search for the bodies of his son, expecting more bodies to come. In the post-national era, when obligations and loyalties to the living and dead are confused, there can be no mercy, no redemption following death as the lamentation remains enmeshed in chastisement and thus perpetually inadequate.


Initial Contexts of Grief and Lament

Most versions of Antigone are set in the context of a rebellious upsurge. This has been the case in Northern Ireland too, as detailed in the first chapter. But an upsurge of bodies and lament has also been part of the context. The Riot Act appeared just three years after the

1981 hunger strike, when ten republican inmates of the H-Blocks had starved themselves to death to protest the British government’s attempts to impose a criminalization policy within the Northern prison system which would deny republicans the status of political prisoners. The contest between the hunger strikers and the British government had convulsed Northern Ireland, and the ensuing campaign for public support had also transformed republican strategy by setting in motion a shift from an exclusively military struggle with the State toward the building of a mass political movement. Coming in the wake of these events,

Paulin’s rewriting of Sophocles’ tragedy addressed itself to a society still traumatized by a powerful collision of wills and antithetical concepts of justice, a collision so intense that it threatened at certain moments to bring the province to the verge of total war. (10)  Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes is set in the context of the dead body of a famous County Derry figure, whose body had come to be waked in the traditional style, and the play is a translation of the title deeds of the dead. The family members and neighbours had come to Toome to observe custom and to attend that part of the funeral rite known in Ireland as “the removal of the remains.” However, Heaney continues: ‘…before the remains of the deceased could be removed that evening from Toome, they had first to be removed from a prison some thirty or forty miles away.’ (11) Families are therefore being kept away from their loved ones, because the loved one (as prisoner) has been appropriated by the State. It is not that we deem it culpable.

Rather Heaney says: ‘The living man had, after all, been in state custody as a terrorist and a murderer, a criminal lodged in Her Majesty’s Prison at the Maze, better known in Northern Ireland as the H Blocks. He was a notorious figure in the eyes of Margaret Thatcher’s government, but during the months of April and May 1981 he was the focus of the eyes of the world’s media.’ (12) Yet for Heaney, Francis Hughes was a fellow neighbor, one whose fathers and sister was known to him. Then wherein lies the political?

While discussing Heaney’s play, another context is also relevant. It is not the insurrectionary nature of violence which invokes grief as grievance but a lament in an eighteenth century Irish poem. In fact it is more vital than these pressing existential events. ‘The Lament for Art O’Leary’, uttered by O’Leary’s widow Eiblín Dhubh Ní Chonaill over the body of her husband, who was shot dead by the British High Sheriff of Cork, Abraham Morris, for refusing to sell his horse, is ‘a stricken urgent keen for a murdered husband, beaten out line after three-stressed line,’ which gave Heaney a ‘start’ and ‘voice’. ‘The desperation provided register for the desperate sister.’ Imaginative reality is here providing a certain source and redress, as it is less mired in the violence of existential reality. Hence Fiona Macintosh’s reference to the pagan lament of Synge’s Deirdre ‘affords representative status to this Irish Antigone’. (13) The ritual lament frees it from overt political associations, mired in the law-preserving violence of recent times.

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Political Lament? Mourning as a Limitation

Ostensibly lament is necessary as the whole political fabric of a society is destroyed when “it’s all just open graves and rubble”. The lack of proper burial then indicates a lack of proper initiative by the government. Creon, by the end of McCafferty’s text, becomes part of this open rubble and stinking bodies, as Haemon becomes one of the numerous dead. The saga of a political upheaval has been enunciated in terms of improper burial and lack of lament.

Fanny Söderbäck finds a site of political action in memory and commemoration. When the family members try to ‘claim’ the body for keening in defiance of the government, they initiate a political action even as they inaugurate themselves into the public realm. Antigone’s burial of her brother is not only her right as a sister. Her insistence on carrying out the burial rites more importantly marks an ‘inauguration of a public realm’ (14) that function as a remedy for Creon’s lack of action. By being a remedial or ‘curing’ act, the burying and lament for the dead body is for the perpetuation of her political act, simultaneously denying its ‘remedial’ nature or the act merely as that of commemoration.

These oppositional statements all apply to Antigone’s response as it is appropriated by her. However the political action initiated by Antigone is defined differently in a twenty first century democratic setup by McCafferty. The burying and the mourning was a glorious act, but it was guided by the wishes of the citizenry. Haemon explains to his father: in this matter it is her that has done what the citizens wanted.

From the citizens applauding Antigone’s courageous act, the focus has now shifted to guidance by the citizens’ desire. This is not just a democratic trend but an opening up of the personal realm into a greater communal one. It will significantly include a picture of the Old Man and his wife being able to go home and mourn for their son together.And it is also significant that Creon cannot participate in this ritual of the family but remain an isolated hero till the end, who can never become the grieving father.

Significantly Creon can never fulfill the mourning rituals. In Sophocles’ play, mourning for the deaths of Eurydice and Haemon are not shown as in the McCafferty version. He only faces the devastation of the ends and the disastrous consequences of his actions/ lack of (proper) actions. Hence the theme of mourning frustrates any reconciliation or redemption which this ‘sacral’ issue may have provoked in us.

Mourning or lament is a celebration, as one aspect of the dead man receives the ultimate recognition from his kinship relations. However it is also a limitation, a threshold juncture including the extremely personal realm which then moves onto the public realm. When the State mourns the deaths of its citizens, it takes away the sacral nature of mourning and posits a glorification of its own ‘political’ position by ‘recognizing’ the dead. Firstly it takes away the ability to ‘pollute’ – the ‘miasma’ affecting the polis, which Tiresias claims has resulted in the diseased body politic of Thebes. When McCafferty’s version details the setting we realize how much this disease has penetrated:

The play takes place in a huge hall within the palace. The palace is in ruins after battle. Part of the hall is being used as a makeshift mortuary. A stack of dead soldiers in body bags. A pile of bloodied swords.

As the play opens an Old Man ‘trails a body bag across the stage then exits’. McCafferty introduces the common man whom the ‘miasma’ has afflicted. The palace has become a similar ruinous mortuary like the house of this old man, who tries to find the last one of his dead sons among the pile: who’s to say i don’t – i am tired of stacking dead bodies – my son – like your brothers – died yesterday on the battlefield – he had no choice – and neither was the war of his making – i will eventually find him in one of these bags – yours is not the only grief.

This is not just a democratization of grief and a lament in general for the masses, but voices a lack of choice for all. Mark Chou writes that modern-day Northern Ireland must contend with the grief of others. But Chou himself quotes McCafferty: ‘I wasn’t especially trying to bring it back to Belfast. I didn’t wish to make audiences feel that it is just or all about us. [It is] timeless for any society going through conflict… I didn’t feel the play was going to have a huge political impact. We were not too concerned with the outside world when we were working through the script.’(15) As a limitation, a threshold point enunciating a conflict, McCafferty harps not only on democratization of grief but on the conflict in the realm of the personal. This is what happens in a counter-revolutionary period. The new peace enables a smooth negotiation by the State, but the personal level in us cries out, not in denying that peace and order and stability yet in defiance against it. Eurydice’s lament is significant in this regard. The messenger reports: ‘…wanting to die the death of her son she slowly pushed the full length of her sword beneath her liver – hoping her screaming would wake the dead…’

What kind of a lament is being posited at the end? It is not just inadequate and impossible but violent in nature. Along with the mother’s sacrifice of her life in lamenting for her son is included a grief-stricken counter-assault in the self and the very concept of solemn grief. The pollution has not filtered from the greater mortals to that of lesser beings. The spheres of lament for both remain the same, but irretrievably moving from the zones of sadness to violence.

In the Spectres of Marx, Derrida talks about an ideological capturing of the trace’ (16). The death of Polyneices, even though certain from the beginning, never constitutes an end, but by its very opposition, as it continues to haunt all living actors. It is like a phantasmagorical presence, enduring as it is festering. The decaying reality of the body of the hero/ traitor is therefore important because it afflicts the whole city. While Paulin concentrates on the grisly details of the decaying body, McCafferty enunciates the response of being “choked” after the unearthing of the embalmed dead. Ismene further points out that Creon’s head is also “full of burst pipes and dead bodies on the streets – he has no time for our grief.” Thus we can say the Creon’s lack of the expression of grief is tantamount to the lack of (political) action. Antigone may have begun this action of grieving, but it is later borne by the masses. Since the pollution afflicts all, a recuperating response needs to be initiated by them. The ‘ideological capturing’ is done by all, not just for purposes of repression when it is done by the State, but for purposes of recuperation by all. Furthermore with the intervention by the state, the very nature of the miasma or pollution is changed. It is only the unnatural modes of death which can prevent contamination. Antigone has successfully included her ‘personal’ voice in the public realm in a brilliant act of ‘politicization’ and hence she must be walled up so that her thoughts shall not “contaminate” the city. Creon now believes Haemon’s words that Antigone’s actions have been shaped by the desires of the citizens. We must also note that here the citizens act in opposition to the state in the latter’s act of interventionist politics because they realize that the laws of the living and the dead are after all not to be confused. After a period of traumatic repression, a state faces its most violent period of counter-assaults.

But Derrida then adds: ‘As in the work of mourning, after trauma, the conjuration has to make sure that the dead will not come back; quick do whatever is needed to keep the cadaver localized, in a safe place decomposing right where it was inhumed, or even embalmed as they liked to do in Moscow.’(17)

The removal of the body from one’s sight is an ideological act. Whenever Polyneices’ body is to be waked, a dust storm is evoked, as people inhabiting the quotidian reality cannot bear to witness it, or rather cannot comprehend it, according to Creon. We may also add that this air of incomprehensibility is reminiscent of the nightmare experienced by the inmates of Stalin’s torture camps. The ‘unreality’(18) then is part of the consciousness of the play, especially the waking. In opposition to it, when the Old Man (in McCafferty’s version) is trailing the stage with a body of bags, he is a figure of defiance. For Creon, the decomposition of the body must continue at the same place, in a mode of general decadence, kept away from all, so that it cannot be affected, or it affect, a distinct course of events.

The keynote of Derrida’s address is the ‘politico-logic of trauma and a typology of mourning. A mourning in fact and by right [is] interminable, without possible normality, without reliable limit, in its reality or in its concept, between introjection and incorporation.’ (19) After trauma, one needs to repress, which may be defined as the basic conflict between ‘introjection’ and ‘introspection’. The sisters try to ‘introject’ the consequences of the death of their brother by the act of mourning, forcefully making it a part of the personal realm, even as Creon’s edict stops them but forces the personalization. Therefore one of them is forced to appropriate. Maria Torok in her 1968 essay ‘The Illness of Mourning and the Fantasy of the Exquisite Corpse’ emphasized that in failed mourning ‘the impotence of the process of introjection (gradual slow, laborious, mediated, effective)’ means that ‘incorporation is the only choice: fantasmatic, unmediated, instantaneous, magical, sometimes hallucinatory…crypt effects (of incorporation)’. (20) Significantly, even this act of appropriation remains ‘failed’. In all versions the sisters agree that they live in a world of sorrow, dishonor and despair. What remains is a fragile existence based on mere survival, an endurance characterized by severe repression which changes the very typology of mourning, making it a hesitating and a wary claim.

In conversations with Denis O’Driscoll, Heaney makes a significant connection between trauma and mourning. His friend Ted Hughes was ‘obsessed’ (21) with the First Worl War, with the trauma his father suffered in the trenches, with the notion that his home in Yorkshire was in ‘mourning’ for that lost generation. To Heaney all seems to signify a place of suffering and decision in Hughes that was prepared for the loss, and waiting for something fatal to happen. Mourning is no nostalgic evocation for the loss. It is palpitating, waiting to cross the threshold point to result in something fatal. Thus Söderbäck (22) called Antigone’s act of mourning ‘political’, a commemoration, bringing back into history what has been erased. The political sphere resurges with newer acts of vengeance, through the mode of what Derrida called an ‘ideological capturing.’

This ‘capturing’ by the state is not always exemplified in the concealing of the traces but in a blatant display of it. McDonald writes (23): ‘In Homer, the mutilation of one’s enemies after their death was commonplace — one remembers Achilles dragging Hector’s body around Troy, or Odysseus ordering that his treacherous maid-servants be hung and mutilated. By insisting on burial for all, Antigone may be representing what some might characterize as a civilized advance. However, recent wars have resulted in the same brutalities towards enemies with severed heads still displayed as war trophies. Wars seem to erase the memory of history’s lessons (24). While Paulin’s version emphasizes on the beastly violence inflicted on the unearthed body, McCafferty has shown that such a scenario is commonplace and the resultant response to it can hardly be as blatant as in Paulin’s version. Rather we continue to sift through the remains of the dead, finding appropriate occasions to mourn for them.

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Mourning as Memory for Heaney: The Eastern European Saga of Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam

If what has been erased is to be witnessed again, the attempt must be singular and selective. Stephanie Schwerter assumes that Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin and McGuckian became interested in Eastern European poetry by the 1960s as a body of writing that had turned into a subversive means of communication, allowing for an articulation of dissent in a coded way. However she has not emphasized on the role of mourning. Lament of the erased foregrounds the use of memory. Magdalena Kay makes clear: ‘The composite image to which Heaney refers, however, depends upon the summation of these poets’ very diverse experiences – of imprisonment, of exile to labour camps, of exile from the country, of voluntary emigration, of perseverance in the homeland (25) so that they create what he refers to in his essay on Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam in The Government of the Tongue, as a modern kind of ‘martyrology’.

Kay asserts that Heaney perceives a voice of ‘romanticism’(26) in Mandelstam’s life and poetics. She is quite correct to point out that ‘the poetics of commemorating heroic martyrdom are separate from those of celebration’. (27)

But what happens when the commemoration is only undertaken to present a celebratory ethics before the world? The great Russian poet died as an exile, lonely in a prisoners’ camp. Heaney’s essay significantly opens with a recollection of Nadezhda, but it is absolutely banal: “After slapping Alexei Tolstoi in the face, M. [Osip Mandelstam] immediately returned to Moscow” (28). Etkind’s recent comments on them are illuminating: ‘Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs read as a remarkable document of mourning, arguably the most important Soviet-era text of atonement.’ The attitude that the author and the readers have towards Osip Mandelstam, a great poet and unique personality, contrasts with the impersonal, nonsacrificial character of his mortification in the camp. Osip simply died in a camp, eliminated like millions of others. Boldly, Nadezhda made no attempt to ascribe a redemptive meaning to Osip’s death. Describing the challenge he threw down to the authorities before his arrest, she did not attempt to construe his death as an act of self-sacrifice. After all the detective work she had done in order to delineate the circumstances of her husband’s murder, she saw it with clear eyes, as a senseless act that had no reason, purpose or justification. The rhetorical effect is created by the tremendous disparity between the attitude of this author and her readers towards Osip Mandelstam and the senseless, nonsacrificial character of his annihilation. In the course of the memoir, this disjunctive effect interacts with another feature of the Soviet mourning – the uncertainty surrounding the deaths of the victims. The time, place, and circumstances of deaths in the camp remained unknown, as if such deaths were simultaneously both a state secret and a matter of mere detail, not even worth mentioning.

The uncertainty of the loss meant that incompleteness would be a central feature of the work of mourning. (29) Any kind of romanticism is quite impossible. As the Old Man searches for the body of his son, he also realizes that such elimination and annihilation has occurred to millions of others. Ultimately he stacks the body with the rest, underlining not only the senseless nature of the annihilation but also an uncertainty which has been imposed by the state and its edicts. As we mentioned, in mourning, witnessing again is a selective act. When Nadezhda preserves the documents of her husband, she was like a hunted priest in penal times, travelling dangerously with the altar-stone of forbidden faith, disposing the manuscripts for safe keeping among the secret adherents. And inevitably, having consecrated herself a guardian, she was destined to become a witness. (30) Like Antigone mourning for her brother the act is singular by its incompleteness, peculiar by being a witness with a solemn vengeance against injustice, a distinct ‘parable of misrecognition.’

Why is such a distinct response mandatory? After unearthing the body and mourning for it again, we re-engage with and are forced to contemplate another version of history. The State will emphasize on what Schwerter quotes as Heaney’s ‘propaganda’ aspect of ennobling the prisoners’ sacrifice, but when a personal patriotism lies elsewhere mourning becomes a ‘political’ lament of a different sort.

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 Mourning as an Act of/ in Terrorism

We have considered the contrarian, rebellious and radical perspective of mourning. But how does it actually result in terrorism? In this context, we must bring in Heaney’s concept of the modern martyrology. Padraig Colman in a blog entitled ‘ground views – journalism for citizens’, posted after the Sri Lankan conflict on 17th March, 2012, relates it to the Irish situation. The period following the Civil War and the Easter Rising saw the rising demand for new martyrs.

In the 1960s in Northern Ireland there was a legitimate, non-violent, civil rights movement dedicated to addressing the grievances of the Catholic population. The movement was hijacked by the hard men of the Provisional IRA. Although they assumed for themselves the role of protectors of the Catholic population, their agenda was to emulate the republican martyrs of yesteryear and to fight for a united Ireland. This degenerated into atrocity and criminality [xii]. Despite the undoubted success of the Good Friday Agreement [xiii]a handful of unelected die-hards do not want peace. They want to create new martyrs for Ireland. (31)

The new martyrs are ‘created’ through an institutionalization of the emotional force of death. Hence kinship relations have to be evoked to gain support for an explicitly political cause. On the one hand many die willingly, on the other they are forcefully made martyr. In Paulin’s text the rebellious gestures enunciate that death, though the disastrous has still been a cause. In Kennelly’s text, the brothers are the victim of a ‘shame’ culture as we have explained. By McCafferty’s time, the concentration is no more on the dead, but death. Committing sins without knowledge, death by suicide, fratricide due to envy, greed for power and family curse – all has made mourning an act of defiance. And as the chain continues it transmutes into an act of fanaticism, as the sons of the Old Man do not have even these reasons for their death. Terrorism does not create the rebel but the wasted.

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Mourning as Cure?

How can we consider such an act of grievance as a cure? Like Wordsworth’s The Prelude (32), Heaney’s poetry and play reports the trauma in the very text whose composition is part of the healing the trauma. Heaney’s Antigone has an anthropological as well as a subliminal orientation. The writer himself hints at this parallel when he says that the idea of a ‘miraculous cure is deeply lodged in the religious subculture, whether it involves faith healing or the Lourdes pilgrimage’(33), and it is a point of similarity in The Burial at Thebes and The Cure at Troy. Literature itself belongs to a realm of pious inspiration. Chris Morash [who has been appointed the new Seamus Heaney Professor of Irish writing], in an article comments on this distinct use of language which could retain the deeply ‘miraculous’ nature: the Chorus’s intelligent, laconic delivery brings out that intense, but seemingly effortless, engagement with language of Heaney’s best poetry. From the first great choral ode (“Among the many wonders of the world, / Where is the equal of this creature, man?”) through to the third ode (“Love that can’t be withstood, / Love that scatters fortunes, / Love like a green fern shading / The cheek of a sleeping girl”), these duets for spoken voice are the highlights of the evening.

The language of the Chorus is based on the “four-beat, alliterating, Old English line” which Heaney explored so successfully in his award-winning translation of Beowulf (1999), and it adds another layer to the hybrid creation we have in The Burial at Thebes. If one line echoes throughout play, it is the Chorus’s “Whoever has been spared the worst is lucky”. There is a sense in which this is theatre for the lucky, and for an Irish audience, the unlucky now live elsewhere. Mixing Bush with Beowulf, a version of a Greek play with a Quebecois director and designer and an Irish cast, The Burial at Thebes is a perversely appropriate addition to the centenary celebrations of Ireland’s national theatre, if only because it suggests that the kind of anguished but intimate national drama on which the Abbey’s reputation has rested for a century is rapidly being superseded by the porous culture of twenty-first-century Ireland.(34)

Along with a focus on the language, there is a hint that the sorrow now resides in the realm of the verbal than in the realm of the political. In its distinctness then, it emphasizes on a metafictionality, to which we now turn our attention as a mode of cure, given the context of the political prisoners and their incarceration. The context of the prisoners reminds us of the issue of pardon. Mourning as an act of remembrance goes beyond sympathy and forgiveness. Kearney explains:

In short, the exchange of stories of suffering demands more than sympathy and duty (though these are essential for any kind of justice). And this something ‘extra’ involves pardon in so far as pardon means ‘shattering the debt’. Here the order of justice and reciprocity can be supplemented, but not replaced, by that of ‘charity and gift’. Such forgiveness demands huge patience, an enduring practice of ‘working-through’, mourning and letting go.(35)

In this act of pardon reside justice and the powers of redress, a covert claiming of justice, making a claim for reciprocity and profound motivation. The main crux of metafictionality may be found here.

In a recent article in The Statesman, Terence Barker comments on a kind of cure the incarcerated may experience, which is quite different from that represented by Antigone’s rebellion. And here the poetics of pardon is enacted in a different shape altogether. In a visit to two Northern Ireland prisons, he discussed about ‘how writing and telling stories can help put the disorder and unhappiness of life into some sort of shape. It allows empathy for others.’(36) Committing the writing to memory is therefore a kind of cure Nadezhda Mandelstam envisaged as a similar kind of lifeline. The danger in both the situations is evident. The Justice Minister, Chris Grayling considered the receiving of books an undesirable privilege and invoked the core nostrums of Tory values – economy, security and punishment. Given the repression, an outlet becomes necessary, and given the subversive power, it takes on the form of a war of words against the war on terror.

The memory henceforth acts as a site of remembrance and defiance but an elegiac and lyric writing, where the self-dependent rhythms of the act of fiction will evoke sustenance and a lifeline which has been banned. Like keening, literature can also be a source and site of ritual lament. It is not a rebellion against governmental rules but a distinct kind of apologia.

The end of any tragedy wishes that cathartic effect and Heaney witnessing a withholding of the prisoners’ body disabling the ritual of keening wishes to seek this cathartic space. This text in translation and as translation is an attempt to work out this space of art and ethics; the body and its rituals; strife and mourning; violence and peace; open anger and solemn rage. In this regard the aesthetics of ‘cure’ enunciates a new kind of hope, which comes with the pardon that we have explained before. An essay in the prose collection Finders-Keepers entitled ‘Cessation 1994’ defines hope as Vaclav Havel used it, different from optimism:’ It is a state of the soul rather than a response to the evidence. It is not the expectation that things will turn out successfully but the conviction that something is worth working for, however it turns out…The self-evident truth of all this is surely something upon which the peace process might reasonably be grounded.’(37) This play does not only enunciate a mutual conclusiveness in poetic imagination or an open conflict thriving on fragmentary poetics. The times are of both peace and war. Bonnie Honig, in a recent book comments on the interruptive politics of mourning and lament, to actually situate its ‘cure’ in the existential context. Sophocles’ play, in foregrounding the lament, is also foregrounding a new humanism of maternal ethics.

While we have consistently referred to the rights of mourning prisoners, Bonnie Honig cites a new development in a worldview characterized by dying, lamentation and finitude: The new humanism, which finds compelling universals in the cry of pain and in the fact of mortality, is instanced in statements such as Lord Eames’ (co-chair of the Consultative Group on Irish Reconciliation in 2008), defending a proposal to provide recognition payments to survivors on both sides of the Northern Irish conflict. Antigone is not a mother: she refuses to be one and laments the fact that she will never be one. But her insistence on lamenting equally both her brothers, one who attacked the city and one who defended it, stands for many as a statement of pure equality to which we are solicited by finitude, but which eludes our grasp in almost every other domain of life.(38)

For common people like Heaney, it is the mourners rather than the act of mourning which is all important. Watching mourners across all religious and political divides attend his funeral; one could not but remember his latest collection Human Chain. Eimear Flanagan notes Heaney making clear that “oddly enough” the poem [about Route 110] began without any mourning intention, and was intended to mark a very happy family occasion but as he makes a note of Aeneas in the Underworld, he put an account of the rebirth of the souls. The solemnity of the occasion as well as its quotidian nature cannot be better emphasized. His poem ‘Miracle’, which he describes as central to the collection, was directly inspired by his illness and there he recalls the people who had to carry him up and down stairs in the immediate aftermath of his stroke. He draws on the biblical imagery of the men who carried a paralysed man to Jesus to be healed. “I realised the guys that are hardly mentioned are central… without them no miracle would have happened,” said the grateful poet.(39)


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  1.  George Steiner, Antigones – How the Antigone legend has endured in Western Literature, Art, andThought (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1996), 32.
  2.  Tara Beaney, “Beautiful Death: The Nineteenth Century Fascination with Death,” Opticon 1826, Issue 7 (Autumn 2009), 3, <>, accessed onMarch 15, 2014.
  3.  Tara Beaney, “Beautiful Death,” 7.
  4. George Steiner, Antigones, 34.
  5.  Ibid., 36.
  6. Jane Coyle, Antigone, a review, The Irish Times, 27 October, 2008, <>, accessed March 4, 2012.
  7. Seamus Heaney, “Funeral Rites II,” New Selected Poems 1966-1987 (London: Faber & Faber, 1990), 53.
  8. Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, translated by George Collins (London: New York: Verso, 2005), 28.
  9. Seamus Heaney, “Frontiers of Writing,” in The Redress of Poetry (New York: The Noonday Press: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1993), 187.
  10.  Joe Cleary, “Domestic Troubles: Tragedy and the Northern Ireland Conflict,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 98.3 (1999) 525. In this article he then moves to unraveling the nature of the violence of the State and the ‘terrorist’ paramilitaries. We wish to focus on the innumerable others in the scene who are not mere observers but also influencers.
  11. Seamus Heaney, “Title Deeds: Translating a Classic,” 411.
  12. Ibid., 411.
  13. Fiona Macintosh, “Irish Antigone and Burying the Dead,” 100.
  14.  Fanny Söderbäck, “Impossible Mourning: Sophocles Reversed,” 171.
  15. Mark Chou, ‘Antigone in Belfast: Staging Violence, Conflict and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, under section 7.
  16. Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx: the state of the debt, the work of mourning, and the new international, translated from the French by Peggy Kamuf (New York & London: Routledge, 1994), 97.
  17. Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx: the state of the debt, the work of mourning, and the new international (New York & London: Routledge, 1994), 97.
  18. Cited by Hannah Arendt in Alexander Etkind, Warped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2013), 27.
  19. Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx, 97.
  20.  Jacques Derrida, “Foreword”, Nicolas Abraham/Maria Torok, The Wolf Man’s Secret Word (1986): xvii and 119n.
  21.  Denis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones, under chapter “So deeper into it: Electric Light, District and Circle.” Ebook.
  22. Fanny Söderbäck, “Impossible Mourning: Sophocles Reversed,” 171.
  23. Marianne McDonald, “War then and now: the legacy of ancient Greek tragedy,” 93.
  24.  Stephanie Schwerter, introduction to Northern Irish Poetry and the Russian Turn– Intertextuality in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin and Mebdh McGuckian (Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 2.
  25. Magdalena Kay, “Heroic Names,” in In Gratitude for all the Gifts – Seamus Heaney and Eastern Europe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 59.
  26.  Kay, “Heroic Names,” 62.
  27. Ibid., 64-5.
  28.  Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope, trans., Max Hayward (Penguin, 1976), cited in Heaney’s The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose, 1978-1987 (London: Faber & Faber, 1988), 71.
  29. Alexander Etkind, Warped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied (Stanford California: Stanford University Press, 2013) 48< 0in%20the%20Land%20of%20the%20Unburied&f=false>, accessed from Google Books on April 18,2014.
  30.  Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue, 73.
  31. Padraig Colman, “Martyrology, Martyrdom, Rebellion, Terrorism,” section, “Proportionality and Presumption: “a self-selected vanguard which claimed the power to interpret the general will”.
  32. Seamus Heaney, “Frontiers of Writing,” 189.
  33.  Denis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones, under chapter “In a wooden O’Field Day, Oxford Professor of Poetry, Translation”. Ebook.
  34. 34.    Chris Morash, “Still sorrowing, here and there,” review of Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes, The Times Literary Supplement, <>, accessed on April 2, 2014.
  35.  Richard Kearney, “Renarrating Irish Politics in a European Context,” European Studies 28 (2010): 45,<>, accessed on April 4, 2014.
  36. Terence Barker, “Why books are a lifeline for prisoners,” The Statesman (Sunday Supplement 8th Day, article reprinted from The Independent), April 6, 2014.
  37. Seamus Heaney, “Cessation 1994,” in Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001 (New York: Farrar,Straus, Giroux, 2002), 50.
  38. Bonnie Honig, Antigone Interrupted (United Kingdom & New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013), 24-5.
  39. 124 Eimear Flanagan, “Seamus Heaney: ‘I live in panic over the next poem’,” BBC News Northern Ireland, Sep 23, 2010. <>, accessed on April 6, 2014.





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