May 2017 – Isms, Phobias and Invisibilities: Bigotry on the Couch

 Antigone and Mimi Blasiak:

And What of Their Ghosts and Ours?

Elissa Vinnik

In late July, I sat in the front row of a colleague’s directorial summer project: Antigone. With a cast dominated by women, an oracle in the throes of pregnancy, and Haemon cast as a black man speaking the voice of impassioned reason to his father and king Creon, Sophocles’s words were saturated with the urgency of this political moment. The notes of contemporary misogyny, authoritarian refusal to admit wrongdoing until lives are lost, and fidelity to power and fear instead of compassion bring Sophocles’s 2,500-year-old questions about the role of law and acts of dissent into even sharper focus.

Here’s the gist: two brothers fight in battle; one defends his city, the other seeks to conquer it. Both die and Creon, the new king, gives the former a hero’s burial, while leaving the other brother’s body to wild birds and dogs. He decrees that no one shall bury this body; the punishment for honoring the anarchist’s body is death. Distraught by her brothers’ deaths, Antigone, buries her brother in spite of the Creon’s edict. When caught, Antigone admits her act openly and although she is both betrothed to his son and sibling to the dead, Creon stands ready to enforce his law. Like the laws in which he believes, Creon trusts his voice – that of ruler and arbiter – alone. No entreaty from Antigone, no public opinion from the populace, no judgements and threats from his beloved son Haemon, guidance from trusted advisor, nor foreboding reminders from the chorus can make him pivot. Creon’s refusal to bend not only condemns Antigone to death for covering her dead brother’s body with dirt, but also casts Creon’s own life into tragedy. The audience knows what’s to come—it is a tragedy after all—but it’s hard to watch this and not yearn for a humane approach to justice, especially when Creon absolves himself of wrongdoing by confining Antigone to a vault, saying her fate is “her affair, not ours: our hands are clean” (line 713). It is only after his son and wife are dead by suicide that he rages in grief, “the guilt is all mine” (line 4041).

Although Sophocles’s play does not directly tackle all the phobias (homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia) or invisibilities (like heteronormativity, micro-agressions and class privilege) that dominate today’s language of power relations, points of searing dialogue make it nearly impossible to miss Creon’s patriarchal conception of power, sexism and ageism. In fact, a recent production of Antigone staged in Brooklyn’s East New York and using Ferguson, Missouri and Michael Brown’s murder as its premise, shows the adaptability of the play to address many of the kinds of racialized and bigoted violence and language that pervades in today’s world.

Marc Nemiroff

I was surprised by how powerfully Sophocles’s Kingdom of Thebes reverberated with the themes of the New Directions Spring Weekend: Isms, Phobias and Invisibilities:  Bigotry on the Couch coordinated by Marc Nemiroff, Ph.D. Like Antigone, our weekend themes addressed some “isms,” a useful (though perhaps limited) abbreviation for sexism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, ageism, and anti-Semitism. Among our weekend speakers, Amy Carattini investigated intersubjectivity and its role in cultivating otherness while Richard Ruth examined the interplay between his own and a patient’s gay identity.  Maurice Apprey interrogated the role of intergenerational trauma in his patients’ treatments.

Mimi Blasiak

It was Antigone that brought me viscerally sailing back to Mimi Blasiak’s talk. Sophocles’s questions — “How does Antigone’s birth follow her? How do her forefathers’ crimes ‘infect…a family?’” (696, 699) — echo Mimi’s own wondering: how does trauma, and particular traumas related to racism, diaspora, and genocide, impact the next generation, she asks. How does a patient enact the trauma of a parent’s life?

In poet Anne Carson’s Antigonik, a reinvention and retelling of Antigone, the author likens the Greek chorus to lawyers:

They’re both in the business of searching for a precedent … so as to be able to say this terrible thing we’re witnessing now is / not unique you know it happened before / or something much like it.

With similar eloquence and candor, Mimi Blasiak explained how she spent much of her analysis doing the work of a Sophocles’s Greek chorus “searching for a precedent,” trying to name “this terrible thing” in her life that had “happened before/or something much like it.”

For Mimi, that searching began with a deeply loving description of her father: the hero who at fourteen defied the odds and thwarted murder again and again as a Polish Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland. She recalled the touchstone stories of her childhood, those that she’d heard countless times: a harrowing escape from a death march, an epic escape out the window of a train that was bound for Sobibor, a smuggling of gold coins to buy survival. With the a sparkle in her eyes reminiscent of any child’s love for a parent, Mimi recalled how amazing her father was: How smart! How daring! How brave! she told us. She saw him through the single lens through which he represented himself; his bravado, well earned, his optimism, unending. To her younger self, he was no ordinary man. She had a doer of a dad, an awe-inspiring father; he was no ordinary man, no ordinary father.

Her own fears, in comparison, were mundane: bicycling, heights, and people. In spite of an upbringing largely devoid of trauma, a family, and a successful career, her inner life was tortured by a need to clean away filth and haunting vivid dreams. “I recognized that my background as a child of survivor was important,” she told us, “but I didn’t understand how it was related to my dark internal world.” This inexplicable contrast between her life and this inner darkness, she came to understand, “was not unique,” as Carson’s chorus suggests, precisely because it “happened before/or something much like it,” not in her immediate conscious experience, but rather in father’s past as a Holocaust survivor. They were the same feelings her hero father’s stories never named: the guilt and pain of leaving his mother and siblings in the train car bound for Sobibor; the terror that surely accompanied carrying gold coins straight into a concentration camp; and the unspeakable horror of marching past the over the dead and dying to survive a death march. Those ghosts, Mimi says, found a home in her unconscious inner world. “I have come to see the inheritance of my unconscious fears as my own story,” she explains. “I unknowingly took on the questions in [my father’s] narrative that remained unasked and unanswered.”

Thus, the vignette she shares later in her talk paints a less idealized hero; she sees her father’s optimism and his identity as a proud businessman evidenced by the gold watch he wore on his wrist, but also that of the unerasable tattoo from his imprisonment in a concentration camp underneath: a constant reminder etched in skin of pain and loss.

As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Mimi finds herself, like Antigone, born into a lineage torn by trauma that predates her very existence.  She is compelled to right the legacy of historic wrongs that haunt her inner life. Because of her analysis and introspection about her own and her father’s experiences, Mimi is able to recast and reconsider her father’s legacy in a way that is liberatory and even redemptive. By understanding  the weight of her father’s trauma in her life, she has liberatory permission not to carry its weight or be consumed by its crushing power. Indeed, her talk ends: “I have only realized that they are not my burdens.”  

Creon and Antigone

Unlike Mimi, in Antigone’s protagonist and antagonist are denied that freedom of possibility, and the punishment cuts deeply. Creon earns the audience’s reproach by refusing culpability for Antigone’s murder until it’s too late. Antigone, too, might have chosen to budge or hedge, but she doesn’t. “You went too far,” the chorus exhorts, beyond “the last limits of daring—smashing against the high throne of Justice!”  

In all likelihood, she too is compelled to right a wrong in no small part because she carries the heavy load of her father’s sins: marrying and mating with his own mother.

Yet, in spite of all her daring, she does not, and perhaps cannot, examine the role of  her family’s demons as Mimi does, and so her end is self-destructive and tragic.  It is the way in which they delve into and explore their family’s legacy that define their differences and allows Mimi to envision a less haunting, and therefore more hopeful future.

Thus, in different ways, Mimi and Sophocles’s characters pose a powerful question: how far is each of us daring to go–and to name and consider–the legacies of phobias and isms we live out in our own conscious and unconscious daily lives? Can we, for example consider and act on

  • the failure to name whiteness and the role it plays in the lives of white people like me again and again;
  • the failure to consider that a patient or student does not identify as straight until she suggests otherwise;
  • the possibility that even our heroes and heroic leaders, perhaps a parent or a grandparent or the leadership of a school or institute have demons of their own and knowingly and unknowingly make choices motivated by some of the very isms and phobias they and we profess to challenge; and
  • the indisputable reality that our country’s founding on racialized violence and abuse has gone largely uninterrogated and continues to haunt some and literally kill others.

These are merely a few.

Spanish philosopher Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, more commonly referred to by his (shortened and likely colonized) English name as George Santayana,  famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (It is perhaps not coincidental to the questions we were challenged to ask during our weekend that this familiar quote is often mistakenly attributed to a white, European orator, Edmund Burke.) Often, Santayana’s thinking is confined to conversations about world events in history classes. I believe that we must be brave like Mimi, to look to our own pasts, those of our ancestors, and those of the institutions and theoretical frameworks in which we work. We must ask the questions that may destabilize our own senses of ourselves and the selves of our colleagues, friends, families and institutions. We must move beyond seeing that exploration as destructive and threatening, but rather, as Mimi discovered, to embrace its possibility to uplift and humanize. By following Mimi’s vulnerable and brave example, we can better know the outlines of long ago violence and trauma enough that they can no longer condemn us. Instead, we can write more liberated narratives of our own lives and those we care for.

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