The Endless Burial of Polynices in Jorge Eduardo Eielson’s Antígona

Andrea Milena Guardia Hernández
Université catholique de Louvain (UCL)

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PhD candidate in the Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) as a holder of a grant for development (CRI). She is writing her dissertation on the relations between poetry and the philosophical approach on language in the work of Peruvian artist Jorge Eduardo Eielson. She has experience doing fieldwork with marginal communities in Colombia on the use and importance of Literature in the teaching process of over-age students.

La dimension politique de la figure mythologique d’Antigone pourrait se structurer autour des thèmes de la désobéissance civile, du conflit individuel entre la loi divine et la loi humaine, ou de l’affrontement entre les faibles et les forts, dans lequel les faibles vainquent le tyran. Cependant, Jorge Eduardo Eielson propose une version qui ne semble pas correspondre à ces possibilités. Son Antigone est infirmière ; elle se trouve au milieu d’une zone de guerre où il n’y a pas de dieux qui écoutent les prières, ni de lois contre lesquelles se prononcer, ni de droits à réclamer, ni de citoyens à convoquer. Dans cette zone de guerre, il ne reste que la destruction, la mort et la souffrance. Le domaine de la biopolitique offre une voie d’interprétation utile pour comprendre la dimension politique de son poème ; dans les états modernes, l’exception est devenue la règle (cf. Agamben) et son pouvoir souverain lui permet de décider de la vie des citoyens, en créant une zone d’indistinction où la vie n’a plus de valeur (vie nue). Il est nécessaire de considérer la politique depuis un nouvel ensemble de catégories, afin de surmonter la division qui a été à l’origine de la vie nue. Dans ce contexte, l’Antigone d’Eielson et les milliers de soldats et anonymes décédés peuvent redevenir visibles.

The political dimension of the mythical figure of Antigone could be structured around the topics of civil disobedience, the individual conflict between following divine law and human law, or the conflict between the weak and the strong, where the weak overpower the tyrant. However, Jorge Eduardo Eielson offers a reinterpretation of the play that doesn’t seem to fit in these possibilities. His Antigone is a nurse amidst a war zone where there are no gods to call upon, no laws to decide against, no rights to be claimed, and no citizens to summon; there is just destruction, death, and suffering. To understand the political dimension of his poem, the domain of biopolitics offers a useful path of interpretation: in modern states the exception has become the rule (cf. Agamben) and its sovereign power allows the State to decide over the life of its citizens, creating a gray zone where life no longer has value (bare life). The law has withdrawn and it is therefore necessary to think the political from a new set of categories, to envisage new politics which can overcome the schism that created bare life, giving way to a new reality where Eielson’s Antigone and the thousands of anonymous dead soldiers can be visible again.

“Antigone […] die schwesterlichste der Seelen”
Goethe, Euphrosyne.

Antigone, daughter of an incestuous couple and guide to her blind father whose tragedy fell upon her; Antigone, sister of the fallen traitor of the city and tireless protectress of the divine laws of the dead; Antigone, woman and bride who refuses injustice and takes the leading role in her own destiny. Without any doubt, her story stands as a timeless narrative that has sparked many reinterpretations that cut across the frontiers of time and space, allowing the myth to relocate and re-signify the questions posed by the original play. Contemporary Latin American literature is no exception;1

One example of Latin American adaptions of the myth of Antigone can be found in the analysis made by Rómulo Pianacci, Antígona: Una tragedia latinoamericana, Irvine California, Gestos, 2008. Also in the dossier by Jennifer Duprey (ed.), Hispanic issues on line: Whose voice is this? Iberian and Latin American Antigones, University of Minnesota, no 13, Fall 2013.

there it is possible to find Antigones with multifarious voices, women who declare themselves against violence, dictatorship, war, injustice and other scourges that oppress their society.

This is the case of a poem written by Peruvian artist Jorge Eduardo Eielson (1924-2006) under the name of “Antígona2

Jorge Eduardo Eielson, Poesía escrita, Bogotá, Norma, 1998, p. 69 ss. All verses quoted in this article come from this edition.

” in 19453

Even though the different editions of Poesía Escrita (1976; 1989; 1998; 2013) mark 1945 as the date of writing, Castañeda states that some fragments of the poem appeared in 1944 in La Prensa, a Peruvian journal; the poem was first published in its final version in 1945 in El Mercurio Peruano (see Esther Castañeda Vielakamen, “Bajo la luna griega de Eielson: Una version particular de Antígona,”, La casa de cartón de OXY: revista de cultura, no 6, 1995, p. 40).

. Eielson’s poetry has been a topic of analysis and interpretation in Latin America and Europe4

Two critical volumes: Martha Canfield (ed.), Nudos y asedios críticos, Madrid, Iberoamericana, 2002. Luis Rebaza Soraluz (ed.), Ceremonia comentada: otros textos pertinentes (1948-2005), Lima, Lápix, 2013.

. His rich artistic proposal can be approached from a literary, visual or intermedial perspective, and his work offers abundant material, written and non-verbal, to reflect on the nature and reaches of aesthetic language, the dualistic comprehension of the body, and the limits of poetical thought. However, among the many interpretations that critics have made of his heterogeneous work, there is not a comprehensive interpretation of his Antigone5

The only critical text available is the short article by Castañeda, op. cit.


This omission may be the result of many factors: first, it is an early text that only announces the main lines that will later ground and traverse his poetry; it could be fair to say that “Antígona” is outshined by other contemporary texts like the award-winning “Reinos6

Ricardo Silva Santiesteban, “La poesía de Jorge Eduardo Eielson”, in Ricardo Silva Santiesteban (ed.), Poesía escrita, Lima, Instituto nacional de cultura, 1976, p. 17.

” or the much-celebrated “Habitación en Roma”. Another reason could be that this poem is associated with a set of other poems that aim to construct modern reinterpretations of mythical figures, such as the Greek hero Ajax (“Ájax en el infierno”), the French hero Roland (“Canción y muerte de Rolando”) or Don Quixote (“En la mancha”)7

All of these included in Eielson, op. cit.

; even if they were written and published separately, there are some generalized affirmations that aim to describe these poems as an ensemble8

See, for example: Martha Canfield, “Largo viaje del cuerpo hacia la luz”, in Canfield (ed.), op. cit., p. 99. José Miguel Oviedo, “Jorge Eduardo Eielson o el abismo de la negación”, Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos, no 417, p. 192; Silva, op. cit., p. 18; James Higgins, Hitos de la poesía peruana, Lima, Milla Batres, 1993, p. 96.

. Finally, one could point out the social and political nuances that are present in “Antígona” but absent from most of his work, which could make it an odd example of his poetry and, consequently, not a paradigmatic poem to study.

Nevertheless, Eielson’s rewriting of the Greek myth allows for interpretations of the political dimensions of the modern individual who finds him/herself on the margin, in this case, of a war zone; additionally, it also opens onto interpretations that consider the bodies of the wounded and the fallen as corpora devoid of humanity and, therefore, not worthy of the respect and consideration of funerary rites. In this line of thought, this article offers an analysis of Eielson’s poem with multiple purposes: first, to recover this text from the margins of his work in order to widen the scope of critical studies of his poetry; second, to establish how the political dimension in his poem is presented in relation to the place of the individual, as citizen and body, in modern society; lastly, to bring to light a Latin American reinterpretation of Antigone, one that can interact with other voices already incorporated in the critical readings of the myth.

Eielson and ‘the political’

Jorge Eduardo Eielson was born in Lima in 1924. He began his artistic career at the age of nineteen when he published his first book of poems Cuatro parábolas del amor divino (Four Parables of Divine Love) in 1943 and became a celebrated author when he received the National Poetry Award in 1945 for his collection Reinos (Kingdoms). He was an active member of the cultural movement in Peru during these years, before leaving for Paris in 1948, after being awarded a scholarship. He established himself between France and Italy, and he died in Milan in 2006.

During these early years in his home country, Eielson edited and published an anthology of eight poets that were not yet included in the national canon, a work developed with contemporary writers Sebastián Salazar Bondy and Javier Solorguren, following the lead of plastic artist Fernando de Szyszlo. The anthology, published in 1946, was titled La poesía contemporánea del Perú (Contemporary Poetry of Peru), and it presented a selection of authors whose poetry was somewhat far from what had been established as traditional subject and style9

The poets included in this anthology are: José María Eguren, César Vallejo, Martín Adán, Emilio Adolfo Westphalen, Xavier Abril, Carlos Oquendo de Amat and brothers Enrique and Ricardo Peña Barrenechea. Instead of choosing Manuel González Prada or José Santos Chocoano, Eielson and his peers decided to label as “contemporaries” authors with an eccentric place in the literary tradition. See Inmaculada Lergo Martín, “César Vallejo en las antologías poéticas peruanas (1921-1965)”, in Manuel Fuentes and Paco Tovar (eds.), A través de la vanguardia hispanoamericana, Tarragona, Publicaciones URV, 2011, p. 273.

; this decision showed the interest of this young generation in setting new foundations for their art, ones that gave them a voice of their own and a ground to build their artistic proposals. With the same collaborative team and probably the same interest, Eielson also participated in the creation of first editions of Las moradas (The Abodes), a journal under the direction of poet Emilio Westphalen, which followed the renovation spirit of the avant-garde journals, aiming at “a renovation of the arts, new values, the importance of a ‘new sensibility’, the combat against the values of the past and the status quo imposed by academies10

“[…] la renovación de las artes, los nuevos valores, la importancia de “la nueva sensibilidad”, el combate contra los valores del pasado y el status quo impuesto por las academias.” My translation (from now on, MT). Jorge Schwartz, “Introducción”, in Jorge Schwartz (ed.), Las vanguardias latinoamericanas, Madrid, Cátedra, 1991, p. 45.


This dialogue between tradition and the present, setting new foundations that were in tune with the context while still acknowledging the past, came from a common spirit in Eielson’s time and generation, not only in Peru but in Latin America. At the beginning of the twentieth century, avant-garde movements had given artists and thinkers the energy to rebel against and break with the past in order to create new forms with a profound awareness of their techniques and materials. They launched a project that sought to renew the arts and their language, with utopic goals such as creating new ways for a new literature, one that corresponded to a new society, or more apocalyptic objectives such as taking the poetic word to its limits and toward annihilation11

Saúl Yurkievich, in “Los Avatares De La Vanguardia”, Revista Iberoamericana, vol. 48, no 118, 1982, p. 360, presents this idea of the two strategies of the avant-garde, one that he calls futuristic and another that he calls agonizing.

. However, this ambitious project was stopped abruptly by the war, and all that remained of its force was debris scattered as an image of the devastated cities. Eielson was a part of this post-war spirit, a part of this generation that inherited the belligerent avant-garde project, but also was tied to the hopelessness and uncertainty of the socio-political context.

This generation has been called the posvanguardia (post-avant-garde), even though some of its members, like Octavio Paz, do not find the appellation very appropriate12

Octavio Paz, Los hijos del limo: del romanticismo a la vanguardia, Barcelona, Seix Barral, 1998, p. 210.

. The posvanguardia is not defined as a concrete literary movement but as a generation born at the beginning of the twentieth century that began their artistic career around 194013

The term posvanguardia is established by the critics as a way to characterize the diffuse movement of writers after the avant-garde movements, which had a clear beginning but not a unanimous ending. For more on the concept and characteristics of the posvanguardia, see: Roberto Fernández Retamar, “Situación actual de la poesía hispanoamericana”, Revista Hispánica Moderna, vol. 24, no 4, 1958 and Rodolfo Mata, “La vanguardia silenciosa”, Revista Iberoamericana, vol. LXXIV, no 224, 2008.

. They share existential concerns caused by the isolation and destruction of war and have to confront the task of building literary worlds with a language that was taken to its limits and, nevertheless, seems insufficient to cope with the bleak feeling of this time. The term posvanguardia implies an asynchrony, its members arrive after (post) an artistic movement of revolution; the worries, achievements, and failures of the avant-garde movements are still there but as a past experience that was not fulfilled or that was outgrown. The posvanguardia meant a critical perspective of this heritage, its social political context, as well as that of language and of art and life in general.

It was somehow a return to the avant-garde. But to a silent avant-garde, secret and disillusioned. A different avant-garde, one critical of itself, and in a solitary rebellion against the academy that had become the first avant-garde. […] The ground that attracted these poets [posvanguardistas] was not inside or outside. It was this area where the outside and the inside converge: the area of language.14

“En cierto sentido fue un regreso a la vanguardia. Pero una vanguardia silenciosa, secreta, desengañada. Una vanguardia otra, crítica de sí misma y en rebelión solitaria contra la academia en que se había convertido la primera vanguardia. […] El territorio que atraía a estos poetas no estaba afuera ni tampoco adentro. Era esa zona donde confluyen lo interior y lo exterior: la zona del lenguaje.” MT. Paz, op. cit., p. 209.

The place where the reflections of these poets took place was not inside or outside, as Paz puts it. There was a tension between art and politics, which was already present in the avant-garde movements as a concern of many artistic manifestoes. A tension that seemed to divide poetry between the committed artists and the pure artists; as Octavio Paz describes it, Hispanic poetry around 1945 was divided into “socialist realism15


” and “regretful avant-gardists16


”. This tension, labeled either as the aesthetic and the socio-political side17

José Miguel Oviedo, Historia de la literatura hispanoamericana. de Borges al presente, vol. 4, Madrid, Alianza, 2001, p. 203.

, the formalist and the historic/realist line18

Yurkievich, op. cit., p. 359.

, or between the pure poets and the social poets19

Higgins, op. cit., p. 75 ss.

, pervades the descriptions of the transition, in Latin-American literature and especially in regards to Peruvian literature, from the historical avant-garde to the generation that came after. However, it is necessary to assume this contrast as a critical and analytical description instead of an absolute dichotomy or a definite limit between artists and their works. It is more meaningful in terms of a tension than an exclusion, a tension between what the arts could mean after the “technical” transgressions of the avant-garde and after the devastation of the war. Somehow, however, the context reduced these aesthetic experiments to useless inventions, but at the same time this useless language was all the artist was left with. The artist must now follow a solitary road, a secret and disillusioned path, as Paz states, trying to write on the brink of a small threshold created by tradition, avant-garde invention, social political devastation, and their own existential questions.

This spirit of tension in posvanguardista is present in Eielson’s Generación del 5020

Some critics do not use the concept of Generation to avoid the problems linked to this associative category, and speak rather of Poesía de los años cincuenta (Poetry of the 50’s). The list of members usually includes Eielson, Blanca Varela, Carlos Germán Belli, Javier Sologuren, Sebastián Salazar Bondy and Fernando de Szyzslo, among others. Regarding this point: Peter Elmore, “El cauce y el caudal: Emilio Adolfo Westphalen y José María Arguedas en la cultura moderna del Perú”, Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana, vol. 38, nº 75, 2012, p.231. Oviedo, op. cit., p. 213. Camilo Fernández Cozman, “La poesía de los años cincuenta y un poema de Eielson”, La casa de cartón de OXY, nº 6, 1995, p. 12.

in Peru; they were concerned with the search for a national identity, the instability of democracy21

Between 1945 and 1948, Peru was under the government of José Luis Bustamante who, with his predecessor Manuel Prado (1939-1945), set a democratic intermission from a sequence of military rule. After twenty years of the authoritarian government of Augusto Leguía (1919-1930), Luis Sánchez (1930-1933) and Óscar Benavides (1936-1939), the coming to power of Prado and Bustamante prepared the ground for a spirit of renewal and change that encouraged intellectuals to discuss and to promote free thinking, an attitude exemplified by Eielson’s participation in the anthology and journal. However, this spirit of renovation would be truncated by a coup d’état and Manuel Arturo Odría’s rise to power (1948-1956).

, and the social concerns towards indigenous people and their rights and recognition. At the same time, they posed many aesthetic questions around poetic language and how to position themselves with regard to tradition and the national canon. Again, it was not about a disjunctive choice: it was more a question of how to follow this diffuse path to consolidate their poetical voice, between poetry and politics. Sometimes, writers were categorized by the critics as being on one side or the other, and these labels had an effect on how their poetry was interpreted. For example, in Eielson’s case, he was labeled by some as a “pure” poet22

See Higgins, op. cit., p. 87 ss.

, as a poet “of suggestion” interested in the symbolic assimilation of French symbolism and avant-gardism23

See Fernández Cozman, op. cit.

, or was placed aside from discussions about art and politics, declaring that he was not involved in these debates24

See Marcos Martos, “Jorge Eduardo Eielson: la vitalidad agónica de la poesía”, in Libros & Artes, no 4, 2003, p. 8.

. It seemed that he was not interested in taking a stand or in making a declaration about what was happening in his country and in the world. In this line of thought, Higgins argues that his poetry is “completely detached from national reality25

“Porque la suya es una poesía completamente desvinculada de la realidad nacional.” Higgins, op. cit., p. 87.

”. However, it is possible to find a political component in some of his work26

Although this political dimension has been pointed out in some of his collections, there are no studies on this matter. Besides the poetical text, “Antígona”, which I present in this article, there are good examples of this political interest in the collection Habitación en Roma (Room in Rome) from 1952; also in his novel Primera muerte de María (First Death of Mary), started in 1959 and finished in 1980, where it is possible to analyze the tension between races in a mixed (mestiza) population in Lima.

, which shows that, as mentioned earlier, for his generation, the struggle with poetic language and the struggle to understand their reality are not distinct, but share common concerns.

Eielson’s Antigone shows this political/aesthetical concern, and it constitutes a reflection of how the devastation of the war was an issue for the poets of his generation; it is a poem from his youth and one of the first texts he published before winning the National Poetry Prize. From a formal perspective, “Antígona” is a poetic text of thirty short fragments, with two to eight lines each. The fragments are designated by a roman number and are written in a prose-like style, without versification. It sets its scenario in a war zone, presenting a series of landscapes where “only Death remains, the woods of Glory, where an arch of moldy canyons rises at its entrance27

“solo la Muerte ha que-/dado, el bosque puro de la Gloria, a cuya entrada un arco/de cañones se alza enmohecido.” I translated all the verses quoted for the purpose of this article; the original verses are included in italics as a footnote. Each verse quoted indicates the fragment from which it is taken.

” (I); the surroundings are described as filled with ruin, rust, moss and drought28

For example, “-abierto mausoleo- guardado por el ángel de la herrumbre” (-open mausoleum- guarded by the angel of rust) (III), “habéis visto a Antígona vagar por llanuras musgosas” (have you seen Antigone wander through mossy plains) (XV), “Sequía del alba, monumento y sol” (Drought of dawn, monument and sun) (XVII), “estos son los días de un planeta en ruina” (these are the days of a planet in ruin) (XXI) or “dedos con moho abren/el peral sangriento en la frontera enemiga” (moldy fingers open the bloody pear tree on the enemy’s border) (XXIII).

. There we find Antigone, a nurse who strives to tend the wounded, and mostly the dead, all by herself, as the poetic voice assures: “you, alone, remain there29

“tú sola quedas allí.”

” (III). Her actions seem fruitless and invisible in the loneliness of a bleak field; only the poetic I watches her and describes her deed of love.

Antigone and “the political”

To analyze Eielson’s Antigone from a political perspective, it is necessary to establish how “the political” is to be defined. There is a large repertoire of analysis on the tragedy of Antigone from the political point of view; however, the way the “political” is understood transforms from one analysis to the other, showing the complexity of the original tragedy in the many possibilities of interpretation. To summarize these approaches and, thus, set the foundation to interpret Eielson’s poem, three paths might be outlined to show how the political is understood regarding the play: first, as the execution of the law; second, as the conflict inherent to the citizens’ freedom, and, third, as the effects of an individual’s ethical structure.

In this regard, the first approach considers the political as the correct execution of the law. The fifth century democracy reforms in Athens meant a change from thesmos to nomos, and, as a result, laws created by humans could now have a positive status just as other unwritten laws before them, divine laws, for example30

See Philippe Gérard, “Les enjeux politiques d’Antigone”, in L. Couloubaritsis and François Ost (eds), Antigone et la résistance civile, Bruxelles, Ousia, 2004.

. However, this new nomima was not as incontestable as the previous unwritten mandates, and they demanded the approval of the people to be accepted and included in the city31

However, this does not imply that human law and divine law were two different instances; the law of the city, a key cultural value for the Athenian society, had its principles on the mandates laid by the gods. See Edward Harris, “Sophocles and Athenian Law”, in Kirk Ormand (ed.), A Company to Sophocles, Chichester, Blackwell, 2012, p. 289.

. Following this perspective, the core problem of the tragedy lies in the way Creon has created and established the edict that prohibits Polynices’ burial; Antigone does not abide by the law because it is not only unfair but also illegal32

Granting the right of burial, even to enemies, was an Athenian law. See Harris, op. cit., p. 289; Gérard, op. cit., p. 189.

. Thus, what the antinomy portrayed in the tragedy shows is the lack of a juridical mechanism to control, filter, and appeal these new written laws once they are issued33

Gérard, op. cit., p. 203.

; likewise, it reveals the lack of a mechanism to control and respond to civilian disobedience and objections of consciousness towards these new laws34

This focus on the correct execution of the law allows us to conclude that the tragedy does not arise from the conflict between Creon and Antigone, but finds its origin in the haste of Antigone’s decision to kill herself; if she had been more patient, the people would have come around in her defense because she was defending legality. See Harris, op. cit., p. 291.


A second approach considers the political as the collision between the citizen and the state; in other words, the political lies in the conflict between the individual’s freedom to choose and to resist what he or she believes to be unjust and the impositions of the state apparatus that sets arbitrary limits to this freedom, even becoming a tyrant35

For an overview of this approach in different European adaptations of the myth see Simone Fraisse, Le mythe d’Antigone, Paris, Armand Colin, 1974. See, especially, chapter 3.

. The political would lie in the transgression of the law due to ethical motives, which could resonate with modern individualism; here the tragedy is read from the paradigm of the weak against the strong36

This understanding of the political is capital in Transatlantic Studies. See Jennifer Duprey, “Antigone and the Poliethical Life”, in Duprey (ed.), op. cit. p. 1.

and the importance of the play’s characters would not lie in their individual psychological situation but in their general figure whether they represent the citizen and the tyrant37

This definition of the political as the individual transgression of the law in search of higher justice allows a comparison between the actions of Antigone and civil disobedience, even though her actions are closer to conscientious objection. See Gérard, op. cit., p. 195.

. From this perspective derives an additional possible analysis, one that I will not address here, that considers the political as the rise of the feminine figure that stands above the role and the frontiers that a patriarchal society has set for her; in this line of interpretation, it is not only the individual who fights against the state, but a woman who resists a gender-fixed model that society has imposed.

Finally, the third path when analyzing the political in Antigone would be to distance the tragedy from the problem of law and resistance, focusing on the ethical struggle. This approach considers the leading characters as concrete individuals38

Sophie Klimis, “Antigone et Créon à la lumière du ‘terrifiant/extraordinaire’ (deinotès) de l’humanité tragique”, in L. Couloubaritsis and François Ost (eds), op. cit., p. 63 ss.

who don’t represent their collectivity, either in family, state, citizens or women, but as human beings led by their own ambitions, dreams, and weaknesses. It is important to establish a relation between the ethical and the political, which are not two separate spheres but two interwoven dimensions39

See Duprey, op. cit., p. 10.

; here the political is understood as collective action where multiple individuals come together in language and, thus, in dialogue. Regarded as individuals, Antigone and Creon develop their actions according to the forces of their own personalities; they go beyond their social roles, motivated by their desire to prevail over the other, falling into a hubristic mode of behavior40

See Klimis, op. cit., p. 65; Gérard, op. cit., p. 198; Harris, op. cit., p. 291.

. They fail to moderate their words and their actions, and that is why they cannot include themselves in the city or in their families—because they are locked in their own autonomy41

Understood as “thinking alone” without including others and falling into hubris. See Klimis, op. cit., p. 101.


A voice for the fallen

Having briefly presented the context that frames the relation between Antigone and the political, the question that now arises is which of these perspectives is the most convenient to understand Eielson’s poem; as is almost always the case with art, the answer appears to be outside of the box, demanding a new category. His Antigone has no interest in the way the law is executed because the war zone where she wanders is deserted, burnt, and destroyed; it is a place where law does not seem to be present. The point of access to the text, then, cannot be the legal procedure because there is no edict to be appealed, and there are no laws to be applied. Furthermore, given that there is no other figure opposing Antigone, there is also no open conflict, no tyrant to fight against, no public speech to move the denizens into action.

The three outlined perspectives of the political imply a concrete dichotomy that cannot be resolved or fails to be resolved, a dichotomy that causes open confrontation between opposing characters, leading to the tragic outcome of sacrifice and death. Eielson’s Antigone, on the contrary, does not appear to resist or collide; she merely struggles all by herself to carry out her deed in an adverse and devastated land of indifference and silence. Fraisse writes that there is no Antigone without an edict to transgress, and no Antigone without Creon42

Fraisse, op. cit., p. 82.

. In other words, there would be no Antigone without a specific dichotomy. But this is precisely the case in Eielson’s Antigone; in his poem, all the figures of contrast are absent, whether it is the Gods, Creon, the law, or the citizens, while only “Death remains” (I). How is it possible, then, to read his Antigone under the scope of the political if the conditions that determine the political seem to be nonexistent?

Rather than describe Antigone’s open rise “against…”, against the law, Creon or injustice, the poem shows Antigone silently covering the bodies of soldiers with dust, including the brave and the coward (III); she creates this “open mausoleum43

“sobre el héroe o/el cobarde, bañándolo en su polvo -abierto mausoleo-”

” (III) while her face is “stung by ivy and rust44

“Yo adivino tu rostro entre esos arces, mordido por la/yedra y el orín, velando sus heridas.”

” (XI). “After a world of ruin, truncated columns and fallen blocks, under shadows and cries, patches of anger over the green meadows. Butchery and glory45

“Tras un mundo en ruina, columnas truncas y caídos/bloques, bajo sombras y llanto, nieblas de cólera sobre los / verdes prados. Carnicería y gloria.”

” (XXX). Here all that remains is Death and Butchery—both with capital letters—and glory—with a lower case g. She quietly keeps advancing because, in this zone of war, there are no gods to call upon, no laws to be opposed, no rights to be claimed, and no citizens to summon; there is only destruction, death, and suffering. The battlefield constitutes an exception, using Agamben’s46

Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1998 [1995].

terminology, a threshold between normalcy and chaos, where law withdraws to create a new sphere of the political, a sphere where human life loses its “dignity” and falls into a zone of non-distinction.

Eielson’s Antigone cannot be read from the position of the citizen fighting against an unfair law or a tyrant because, in the exception that is the war zone, human life is not entitled to rise or to resist, it is only allowed to survive. According to Agamben, the modern State exerts a sovereign power that now includes natural life in its mechanisms of power (a life that the Greeks called zoe)47

Ibid., p. 151.

, which means that the bodies of the citizens become a nuclear part of the political. Therefore, the State acquires the possibility to determine which lives count, because they constitute a qualified life (what the Greek called bios), and which lives do not. All the subjects on the margins, i.e. the refugees, political prisoners or the disappeared, are “placed beyond recourse to law and yet still in a precarious relationship to law itself48

Anthony Downey, “Zones of Indistinction: Giorgio Agamben’s ‘Bare Life’ and the Politics of Aesthetics”, Third Text, no 2, March 2009.

”; consequently, their life has left the sphere of the “citizen” and remains on the threshold where their death is neither homicide nor sacrifice49

This man whose specificity lies in “the unpunishability of his killing and the ban on his sacrifice” is labeled as homo sacer. The concept of the homo sacer (sacred man) as the one whose life has lost its value, as Agamben presents it, goes back to Roman law. See Agamben, op. cit., p. 48-52.

. Here soldiers have a particular role because, on the one hand, they are an instrument of the State to exert this sovereign power over a subject on the margin; they represent political force and consequently have the authority to inflict violence. On the other hand, as soon as they assume this role, they have to give up the value of their own life and acknowledge it as “bare life”, also becoming “bodies to be killed”. To put it differently, once they gain the power to exert sovereignty over other peoples’ bodies, they lose the right to claim justice over their own bodies—they lose their own voice.

With this biopolitical understanding of bare life, it becomes clearer why, even when there is no law, no Creon or denizens to confront or resist in Eielson’s poem, the actions of his Antigone have a political dimension. She is trying to recover some of that humanity lost in each soldier; wandering through this world of ruin, she buries the bodies she comes across as an attempt to give them their voice. “For each one she buries, thousands and thousands more fall50

“Por cada cual que entierra miles y miles caen.”

” (VI), and neither of them “will see the moon again51

“Ellos ya no verán la luna.”

” (X), they all “march to death, on salt, asphodel, and feces, on the slopes52

“[…] marchan a la muerte, pisando sal, asfódelo y hez/en sus laderas.”

” (X). All of them are anonymous soldiers, anonymous bodies that were “bodies to be killed”; nobody seems to care about them but her. The dead cry for Antigone, and she invests all her energy despite loneliness and indifference: “tumors of fire—her shoulders—, spill to the grave, where the dead cheep over the ruins of mortuary wheat53

“Tumores de fuego –sus hombros– derrámanse a las fosa, furgones/donde los muertos pían, sobre ruinas de mortuorio/trigo.”

” (VI).

The symbolic funerary rites carried out by Antigone are an attempt to return humanity to those who did not seem to count, an effort to make visible those bodies that had disappeared in the state of exception by becoming bare life. Antigone’s actions are not a public display of resistance, and they are not an open rise against the law because there is no prohibition to bury them. There is no law stating that their bodies should rot in open air. Nobody else cares because they just seem to belong there; their life was devoid of value from the moment they took on their role as soldiers, thus the law for citizens does not seem to apply to them anymore. In the threshold that constitutes the state of exception, law has withdrawn and, consequently, the core of Antigone’s actions is not a conflict between following or resisting the law, between accepting or resisting tyranny, but an attempt to question this accepted distribution of the bodies54

This could be understood as the distribution of the sensible defined by Rancière; the order of the police as the order established and the place given to each man inside a society: “Police is, in its essence, the law that, though generally implicit, defines the part or the lack of part of the parties” (“La police est, en son essence, la loi, généralement, implicite, qui définit la part ou l’absence de part des parties.” MT; the original is included in italics). Jacques Rancière, La mésentente: Politique et philosophie, Paris, Galilée, 1995, p. 51.

, where some are supposed to count and others not.

Antigone’s political action intends to fracture this configuration of the sensible by displacing “a body from the place it has been assigned to55

Ibid., p. 52. “[…] déplace un corps du lieu qui lui était assigné ou change la destination d’un lieu.”

”. The exposed bodies of the soldiers in the destroyed battlefield find themselves in the place that was given to them; by undertaking their role in the army, they were marked as bare life and only political action could try to make them visible and worthy again. Antigone’s “open mausoleum” in Eielson’s poem is an example of such action; she advances through the field equipped with “armor56

“Antígona enterrada, con armadura y lanza, a la puerta del invierno.”

” (XX), “spear and helmet57

“Santa es Antígona sin hijos, con lanza y yelmo en la batalla.”

” (XIII), “lantern and radio58

“Cubierta de aluminio, linterna y radio verde en el perfil.”

” (XV), “lamp and shovel59

“Jardines augustos invade, lámpara y pala en la mano.”

” (XVI), rifle and chamomile (XXII)60

“El fusil alzado hacia el estío, mezclado a los efluvios rubios de la manzanilla.”

, to fulfill her task as a warrior and gravedigger, female soldier and healer. Antigone searches for the dead that claim her care (XXVI); each one of them is her brother, each of them “she bathes in the mist as she would wash an Ionian vase, lies with him in another dream, tired and sweet61

“Ella a Polinices […] lávalo en nieblas como a un vaso jonio, tiéndese con él en/otro sueño, agotada y dulce.”

” (XVI).

Antigone does not abandon her task, even though men die by the thousands (VI) and she must endlessly mourn her brother Polynices each of the hundred thousand times she buries a corpse (XXX)62

“Antígona augusta ¿habéis visto a Polinices cien mil veces, sin tregua, sepultado?”

: “Because these are the days of a planet in ruins; […] with miserable governments, kingdoms and republics at War […] [who] populate the heavens with angry dead bodies, like stars63

“Porque éstos son los días de un planeta en ruina […]; con miserables/gobiernos, reinos y repúblicas en Guerra […] [que] pueblan el cielo de coléricos muertos, como estrellas.”

” (XXI). In this scenario, which is the modern State of exception, Eielson’s Antigone does rise, but not to oppose the law, Creon, or to call upon the Gods or the denizens; she tries to break the accepted distribution of the bodies and turn her symbolic burials into a way of recognizing the soldiers as subjects that count.

Breaking out of invisibility

Now, despite her efforts to break this distribution of the bodies and bury soldiers as subjects who have value, Antigone’s attempts seem to be fruitless because silence and indifference remain. Following Rancière’s arguments, political action must be a process of subjectification where one creates an instance of enunciation64

Rancière, op. cit., p. 59.

; those who are excluded “make themselves count and institute a community by placing in common an error that is nothing more than this confrontation, the contradiction of two worlds in single one65

Ibid., p. 49. “[…] s’y font compter et instituent une communauté par le fait de mettre en commun le tort qui n’est rien d’autre que l’affrontement même, la contradiction de deux mondes logés en un seul.”

”. Thus, this instance of enunciation requires a community to be set where it can be possible to shake the established division through the “placing in common”, in other words, through confrontation. But in Eielson’s Antigone there is no community nor “other parties” to confront; in the battlefield one can only find the wounded, the dead, and Antigone, who cries “lost and sad [in her] meadow, fallen amidst the fruits of combat fire66

“Pérdida y triste en tu/planicie, caída entre los frutos de fuego del combate, has/de llorar.”

” (XIX). It is possible to say that, in modern states, since the law has vanished and sovereign power has absolute control to decide over bodies, the process of subjectification is not viable because there is no longer a community that can sustain it.

That could be the reason why Antigone doesn’t have her own voice in the poem, as she does not speak or address anyone; there is no heroism attached to her actions, no self-recognition. It is the poetic voice, a distant and empathic “I”, that describes her loneliness and the devastation she witnesses: “Oh, sister of the shadows!67

“!Oh, hermana de las sombras!”

” (II), “you alone remain there68

“Tú sola quedas allí”

” (III), “you have seen […] scorched athletes […] [and] bone resorts bathed by sunlight69

“has visto […] calcinados atletas […] [y] balnearios de hueso bañados por el sol.”

” (IX). There is no one to care for her, to help her in her endeavor, or to assist her while she struggles; Antigone, just like the fallen, remains anonymous and silent. In a certain way, as a war nurse she also becomes a “body to be killed”, she has entered a zone of non-distinction, a threshold where the exception is the rule, and there is no collectivity to validate or recognize her humanity.

Because Antigone’s actions have a political dimension and because she cannot accomplish her deed in the margin that constitutes the war zone, the poetic voice does not only describe her actions but makes pleas on her behalf. The poetic “I” implores attention, claims the attention of her father—equated with the natural god “father Sun70

“Dazzling Oedipus, father sun of the dead, help her” (VI) (“Edipo fulgurante, padre sol de los muertos, ayudadla”).

”, nature71

“Oh clouds, spring martyr of war, leaned griffins and pines, see her […]!” (“!Oh nubes, primavera/mártir de la Guerra, grifos y pinos inclinados, vedla […]”) (V).

, the ruins of the city72

“Oh, light of mercury, funeral cities, waves that throw marble fruits and horses to the ground, have you seen Antigone wandering the mossy meadows […]?” (“!Oh luz de mercurio, fúnebres ciudades, olas que/aventáis marmóreos frutos y caballos en la arena ¿habéis/visto a Antígona vagar por las llanuras musgosas […]?”)

and, somehow, all readers. The poetic voice addresses every possible “other party” that can recognize her actions in order to allow her to regain her voice by achieving subjectification in a community. Again, there is no heroism in this Antigone, as she does not exemplify civil disobedience; the possibility to fulfill a political instance of enunciation is given, but lacks the community that would recognize the error of the exclusion of these bodies. Antigone strives to give back humanity to each one of these soldiers by burying them, but in the margin of non-distinction there is no possibility of finding others with a voice who could see and understand the meaning of these rites, and which would allow a community to be set and the political to achieve its goal.

From this perspective, the poem ends, and silence remains. Alternatively, some considerations could be made to open further interpretations. For instance, in order to fracture the distribution of the bodies through Antigone’s action, the community could be understood outside the division of zoe and bios. It is possible to consider the outline of this new set of categories in a framework of fraternity rather than citizenship, which would imply another understanding of society as a collectivity and a restructuring of the commitments that individuals have inside of it73

Goldhill, op. cit., p. 237.

. It is also plausible to think of this alternate framework not as a fraternity, but as a sorority74

George Steiner, Antigones, Oxford, Clarendon, 1984, p. 12.

, where, on one hand, brotherhood is tainted by the tensions within the hierarchies of a patrilineal household75

Goldhill, op. cit., p. 236.

, while sisterhood, on the other hand, is not so charged with the rhetoric of family loyalty76

Ibid., p. 237.

. This point of view would allow a deeper analysis of Eielson’s poem by providing a better understanding of Antigone’s political endeavor and her interest to tend all soldiers as if they were her own brother. What unites them in a fraternal link? What is “the common77

To koinon. “Understanding to koinon is the most pressing imperative of its interrogation of family and politics.” Ibid., p. 246.

” (link) between them? How can this shared nature be defined? What is equal and between whom78

“[…] de quelles choses y a-t-il et n’y a-t-il pas égalité entre quels et quels ?” Rancière, op. cit., p. 12.

? Furthermore, these questions about sorority introduce the dimension of gender, which I have left aside here, in order to interpret other fragments of the poem related to the parallels between soldiers and children, and a sisterly/motherly behavior specific to Eielson’s Antigone.

In conclusion, Eielson’s Antigone does possess a political dimension that responds to the interest that his generation had in the relation between art and the present, more specifically in aesthetic questions and the imperative need to reflect on socio-political contexts. His poem can be analyzed under the lens of biopolitics, which allows a better understanding of Antigone’s silent task of symbolically burying soldiers in a war zone where civil law has vanished and only humanitarian rights appear to protect the bodies that were already marked as “bare life”. Yet Antigone’s actions remain unseen and unacknowledged; that is the reason why her political act of enunciation, in other words, her attempt to raise her voice to give back humanity to these bodies that did not count, is unsuccessful. Overall, in the case of this Antigone, open conflict between two concrete and opposed spheres is not necessary for political action to occur; however, the lack of a community that validates the symbolic gesture of the funerary rites leaves Antigone alone and invisible. The construction of such a community would require a new definition of man and of the citizen that allows overcoming the split that originated bare life. Sorority or sisterhood could provide a new framework to think through these new categories, but this path of analysis remains open for future consideration.

Pour citer cette page

Andrea Milena Guardia Hernández, « The Endless Burial of Polynices in Jorge Eduardo Eielson’s Antígona », MuseMedusa, no 4, 2016, <> (Page consultée le ).


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