Culture Reviews: ‘Edvard Munch’, ‘Antigone’

Edvard Munch at the Tate Modern

Edvard Munch’s art portrays alienation, angst and madness in bourgeois capitalist society at the beginning of the 20th century. Munch grew up in a world turned upside down by Darwin, Nietzsche, and Karl Marx. Norway witnessed the development of feminism, and the changing role of women is seen in plays by Ibsen. Munch portrays his ambivalence about this sexual revolution in works like ‘Ashes‘ which evokes a sense of sexual guilt, and ‘Madonna‘ which is a hybrid of Ophelia and Salome, although his ‘Sister Inger‘ portrays a strong, independent woman.

Munch lived in the bohemian milieu in Christiania which was infused with socialism, and opposed the complacency, hypocrisy and reactionary nature of bourgeois middle-class society. He was friends with Bakuninist anarchist writer Hans Jaeger. His ‘Evening on Karl Johan‘ shows an oppressive crowd of bourgeois middle-class people with uncommunicative faces constrained by their norms and values.

Munch’s most famous work ‘The Scream‘ can represent human alienation in bourgeois capitalist society. Marx identified that humans are alienated from their work, their fellow humanity, and from nature itself; in fact, the proletarian is ‘annihilated‘ which can be seen in the horror of the figure in ‘The Scream‘. ‘The Scream‘ can also represent a person experiencing synaesthesia – the union of the senses – a feature experienced by some artists, those in the stages of madness or under the influence of LSD.  Munch wrote that he had been “trembling with anxiety and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature,” which also has echoes of Kierkegaard’s Christian existentialism. Munch’s ‘The Sun‘ is also startling in its synaesthesia, and evokes William Blake’s visionary pictures. Psychological ‘heaven and hell’ were all too familiar to Munch. ‘The Scream‘ evokes the plight of the sane man in an insane society which Erich Fromm identified. He also pointed out that the solution lay in a sane socialist society.

Shortly before his mental breakdown, Munch completed ‘Friedrich Nietzsche‘, a posthumous portrait of the philosopher whose ideas about existential authenticity and eternal recurrence can be elicited from a study of ‘The Scream‘.  Nietzsche posited the theory of eternal recurrence as “the greatest weight” which could be with ‘amor fati,’ the ultimate affirmation of life, and guarantee an existential authenticity or lead to a terrifying nihilism.

Nietzsche was admired by anarchist Emma Goldman who wrote of him as the champion of the self-creating individual advocating spiritual renewal, and she combined this with the anarchist communism of Kropotkin. Nietzsche himself loathed the state, capitalism, ‘herd morality’, and Christianity as all exhibiting a lack of the “nobility of spirit”. The alienated working class in bourgeois society has no self-esteem; it does not have a high estimate of itself, being in the grip of false consciousness. In Nietzschean terms, the working class “is the dwarf of himself… a god in ruins”, and what is needed is a “transvaluation of values”: a class consciousness to create a new man and woman in a socialist society.

‘Antigone’ by Sophocles at the National Theatre

The Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles was recently staged at the National Theatre in London, starring Christopher Eccleston as Creon and Jodie Whitaker as Antigone, the character Hegel described as “the heavenly Antigone, the most magnificent figure”. This production opens with a tableaux modelled on the photograph of President Obama and aides watching the live video feed of the killing of Bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.

Antigone, the woman of personal courage confronting state oppression has been a source of inspiration for dramatists. For Brecht she was the symbol of popular resistance to the horrors of Nazism. For ‘The Living Theatre’ founder, Judith Malina, Antigone “speaks with an ancient voice that is present wherever there is a willingness to speak against conventional strictures and punitive laws and to invoke the boundless human potential”.

Athenian audiences in the Hellenic Enlightenment would have adopted a more nuanced approach to Antigone, one that was based on the society they were living in.  Marx and Engels identified Ancient Greece as a society based on slavery, where agriculture was still developing, the ‘polis‘ (city state) and private property had appeared, and a ruling class was based on land and slave ownership.

In 5th century BC Athens, a form of ‘democracy’ haddeveloped with a franchise that extended only to male citizens (with no say for slaves and other non-citizens). Athens was run by Boards of Jurors (who were salaried, chosen by lottery, and subject to scrutiny and de-selection), and the Council of 500 (chosen by lottery and examination with restricted tenure). Neither were organs of representative government. The source of direct democracy was in the People’s Assembly where any citizen could vote and speak. The Assembly met 40 days a year, had a quorum of 6,000 and drafted all major legislation.

Antigone, as an individual set against the tyranny of the state in the person of Creon, was appreciated by Athenian audiences because only 70 years before there had been authoritarianism. The play’s major themes can be seen as divine/natural law against man-made/state law or private/family life versus public life/citizenship.

JH Bradley in Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy saw the dialectical conflicts in the ethical views represented by Antigone and Creon.  Hegel in Phenomenology of Spirit sees sibling fidelity and the sister-brother relationship (“mutually self-affirming free individualities”) as the strongest possible relationship for a woman within circumscribed family life. In Athens women did not have the vote; they were legally dependent on men, and in the case of Antigone her male guardian is also Creon. Athenian audiences would appreciate the depth of her rebellion not only against the state but also against a man. Hegel identified gender politics, and that patriarchy creates “an enemy within its own gates”. Hegel adores Antigone and believes her to be nobler than Creon.

Sophocles does not have the gods save Antigone, and in Tiresias’s prophecy there is no praise for Antigone. Creon loses his wife, and his ward Antigone, but it is the loss of his son that is the patriarchal tragedy.  For Sophocles and Athenian audiences it is the hubris of Creon which causes this tragedy.

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