Suzanne Buffam, "On Antigone"

Suzanne Buffam's little lyric "On Antigone" strikes me as if the perfect words have been spoken.

Suzanne Buffam, "On Antigone"

Suzanne Buffam's little lyric "On Antigone" strikes me as if the perfect words have been spoken. Antigone itself never ceases to transform those who attend to it. A woman wants a proper burial for her brother, a man who wanted to burn down the city he was barred from ruling. That woman's uncle, self-appointed but a genuine defender of Thebes, posits one law: this traitor, his nephew, cannot be buried. As the play progresses and Creon's law against law undermines his own authority, the greatest concerns become visible. What even is law, if things that seem like common sense ("don't honor traitors") deny an unwritten notion of humanity? What is family, if you have to deny the family you actually have for a brother who would have killed you in his rage?

Buffam brings us to a devastating conclusion in about 20 words. "Love too is a law." Her words are earned; every word of Sophocles' tragedy is an atom in her letters. I cannot stress the difficulty of speaking this credibly and powerfully of a 2000 year old work which people with names like "Hegel" and "Heidegger" have done extensive commentary on. Leah Souffrant calls Buffam's poem a "remarkable distillation," pointing to how it "moves us slower into Antigone's world." I want to take the time to illustrate that slow movement further.

On Antigone
Suzanne Buffam

Law spoke
And the land bit its lip.
Why spit in the wind?
Love too is a law.

Law spoke, says the poem.

Law spoke, creating this world. The one I'm in now. Our law built through dictates written and unwritten. Through it, money triumphed over virtue, industry over nature, and opportunity over aristocracy. The laws were not intended to be bad, but as a whole, they can be awfully blind.

Law spoke. I constantly feel awkward and uncertain. There are boundaries that I don't always understand until I see power in action. That is no sure guide to anything, of course.

When we turn to Antigone, the question is upfront: Who is law? Is it Antigone, who speaks for an unwritten law? You must bury family members because they're family. Or because it is the law of the gods. Or because this has always been customary. Or is it Creon, whose law is dictated after a battle, whose law has general consent? Both characters confront awkwardness and uncertainty. Creon wouldn't have posited his one law about traitors if he were sure of his position. Antigone stays resolved though you could say the play is a document of her breakdown.

Law spoke, and nothing was settled.


"Law spoke / and the land bit its lip." Buffam sides with Antigone. Nature, the gods, and the way we've done things for a long time all rest on one side. The other side is a mere dictate.

Right and wrong couldn't be clearer. You must bury traitors. Humanity must own itself. The inhumanity of some is our shame, not just theirs.

It sounds so clear, so reassuring. But look at "the land bit its lip." Antigone hangs herself while locked in a cave. The land bit its lip and swallowed Antigone, not Creon. Creon's wife and child kill themselves, forcing their interment. Seeking justice means terrible things happen, but for whom? Why does nature tremble, then lash out violently?

It's as if violence never really knows its target.


"Why spit in the wind? / Love too is a law." It's remarkable how stupid Creon is. He does spit in the wind. He does not compare to Oedipus, who had the ability to free a people from a monster. All the same, Creon's stupidity and barbarity makes him perfect for considering how legitimacy works. Why can't we simply declare traitors food for birds? Does a law need to be particularly liked to be a law?

The anger that burns for a villain only goes so far. The anger that burns for a particular sin only goes so far. You can't actually build a regime on hate. At some point, someone has to stand for something.

If that is a political teaching, it is subordinate to a greater teaching: "Love too is a law." And it is a mess. Antigone only thinks of one brother before she dies. Neither her other brother or Ismene, her sister, seem to count for anything. It's not a lack of love making them invisible to her. The problem is that to act on love entails commitment to the action. In our world, in a similar but more ignoble manner, we've seen the political emerge from the far too personal. A not so small example: billionaires don't want their inheritances to be taxed one penny, so they'll break every public service in their sight. The irony is that the children of billionaires would absolutely benefit from public education. They'd meet those outside their bubble, they'd see how people with less do more, they'd hear from voices they might never hear otherwise. They'd learn to follow and lead. Love is a law which demands more than tragedy.


Souffrant, Leah. "A Slowing 6: Distillation (toward Justice)." Jacket 2. July 2, 2015.