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PRIVATE INVESTIGATIONS Austin WHEN I WAS a college student back in the radical late ’60s, I was confounded by a phi losophy professor’s attempt to foist a reading of Antigone on us in an effort which he voiced all too clearly in his final summation to steer us away from conscientious objection and opposition to the war in Vietnam. You know the story: when Polynices dies trying to take Thebes, once ruled by his father Oedipus, his uncle Creon becomes king and orders that the rebel Polynices not be given a funeral. Antigone defies Creon, saying a higher good compelled her to bury her brother. Creon, in order to preserve the authority of the state placing the order of the state before the propriety due the gods orders that Antigone be buried alive. When a seer informs Creon that his action spells doom for the state and for his family, Creon rescinds the order only to find that Antigone has hanged herself in the cave in which she was sealed, once again not submitting to the orders of the state. Creon’s son, who was Antigone’s lover, kills himself, as does Creon’s wife, Eurydice. Now this philosophy professor argued that this was a tragedy of Creon, not of Antigone, because it was Creon who had to decide whether to kill Antigone in order to preserve the state. Antigone acted, instead, out of pure moral motivation with no regard for the preservation of the state. I could buy that up to a point. He went on to say that it was Creon’s hubris, or overreaching pride, that prevented him from doing what was best for the state from the outset. I couldn’t argue with that. But then he went on to say that the preservation of state order is the highest order and ultimately part of the order of the gods. He said Antigone was actually peripheral to the argument of the play as the anti-war protests were peripheral to the considerations of the U.S. government. Determining how best to preserve the state was the message of the play, he asserted. I thought he took a sharp right turn there. It seemed to me then, and does today, that what Antigone proves is that the highest good, an act of the highest order, may not triumph, probably will not, but that the act of defiance of an illegitimate order and authority of the state was ultimately in the state’s best interests and was the underlying human tion of the state depended on the preservation of a just society. The rest was housekeeping. NOW CONSIDER William Bennett. It has been said that some people with training in the humanities become neo-conservatives as a result of what might be called classic liberal interpretations of the classic works of western civilization. \(Gandhi once said he considered “western civilization other words, the classic liberal interpretation, that of what might be labeled the “bourgeois humanist,” focuses on the plight of the individual at the expense of consideration of greater societal good. That is what is said to be at the root of nineteenth and twentieth century preoccupation with Hamlet. Perhaps a reading of history and literature as the triumph of the individual will is what makes Mr. Bennett the misanthrope he seems to be. But that is such a shallow reading that it is probably not the case. Antigone’s triumph is not that she removes herself from society but that she confronts it head on, ultimately transforming the view of the chorus. Hamlet is little more than a smoothtalking, introspective prince until he decides to end his self-imposed separation from society and act to change things. They are individual wills that find they must do battle for the greater good. No, William Bennett is probably trained in classic liberalism, but that doesn’t quite explain him. Mr. Bennett’s philosophy probably has more to do with the brand of law-and-order humanism, as self-contradictory as that may sound, espoused by my philosophy professor. How else can you explain someone who reads Oedipus or Agamemnon or MacBeth consorting with Reagan or Jeane Kirkpatrick? \(How can you explain someone who reads anything explain someone who is supposed to be steeped in the literature of hubris and know the agony of Lear getting along with the Jerry Falwells of the world? It’s difficult to figure. Part of it must be that, as a product of the Great Books reading of civilization, Bennett is more concerned with hierarchies of knowledge than with what the books say. His must be a mind comfortable only with received knowledge, with the rigid frame-work provided by a cultural ordering honed by centuries of white, male elite scholars. It is a safe bet that Mr. Bennett’s classics do not include classics of Asian literature or black or African literature, not the Tale of Genji, the poems of Li Po, or Jean Toomer’s Cane. Mr. Bennett’s hierarchies must be a rigid framework designed to prevent the mind from roaming too freely. But that still does not explain the Bennett way of knowledge. You could bound me in a nutshell of Great Books, and still William Bennett and I would not dream the same dreams. I think that is because Mr. Bennett is more preoccupied with the nutshell than with the meat. It is true that the creative act is in many ways a conservative act. It is an act of ordering, of creating or highlighting correspondences and patterns among people and events that in real life occur in a more anarchic or haphazard manner. It is also true that the plays of Shakespeare, for example, end with the order of the state, of kings, intact, even if the occupants of the positions of power are new. Even if Shakespeare or Sophocles had in mind upsetting the political order of their day which they probably did not it would not be in their best interests to shake too mightily the bedrock upon which their patrons sat. In all these great works order is important. But it is most important as a base, from which to launch the anarchic mind and spirit. How else to read King Lear? There is state order at the beginning and end of the play. There is the interplay and perversion of all sorts of archetypal patterns. But, in the end, all is broken down. All structure and order are disassembled. All lendings are thrown off to bare “the thing itself.” So it is not the ordering of great works Reading with William Bennett By Geoffrey Rips 14 FEBRUARY 8, 1985