Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Nicole Jerr reviews Jonathan Strauss’s Private Lives, Public Deaths

Jonathan Strauss. Private Lives, Public Deaths: Antigone and the Invention of Individuality. The Bronx, N.Y.: Fordham University Press, 2013. 216 pp. Hardcover $90.00. Paperback $24.00. 

Reviewed by Nicole Jerr

4 June 2014

In Private Lives, Public Deaths:  Antigone and the Invention of Individuality, Jonathan Strauss turns his attention to fifth-century Athens.  He anchors this shift from his previous studies of nineteenth-century French literary and cultural history by using some of the same themes and ideas found in his other publications:  death, desire, the city, and modern subjectivity.  This last term, which Strauss refers to as the concept of a “living” individuality, is most startling in the context of a discussion of ancient Greece.  For some readers these thematic anchors will hold in tension an impressive interdisciplinary project that incorporates analyses of not only ancient dramatic and philosophical texts and their reception in contemporary theory but also cultural practices regarding burial, such as funerary monuments and speeches, revealing the emergence of the concept of individuality.  For other readers, the anachronism that Strauss “seeks to work through rather than avoid” (p. 9) may prove one anchor too many and sink a project eager to find traces of a distinctly modern subjectivity in Antigone, which he locates, negatively, in the form of a desire.  

In order to gain access to this cultural and philosophical moment, bound up with the origins, tensions, and fictions of the polis and its citizens, Strauss relies on two disciplinary traditions.  He considers the work of certain classical scholars–primarily Jean-Pierre Vernant and Nicole Loraux–on the political and historical context of Attic tragedy, alongside Hegel’s treatment of Antigone and his more recent psychoanalytical interlocutors such as Lacan and Luce Irigaray.  The presentation of the similarities and points of intersection between these disciplinary approaches may be more appealing to readers more expert in, and inclined toward, discussions of modern subjectivity and less familiar with ancient cultural, material, and intellectual history than to those coming to this book already equipped with this information about the ancient world. 

Strauss sees in the tragedies, and in Antigone in particular, not the evidence of an individual subject, but the desire for one.  Ultimately, Strauss’s analysis points to an affectively constituted subjectivity, charting the shift away from the priority of blood kinship, to which Antigone appeals in her attention to her brother’s corpse, to that of chosen kinship, represented in the drama by Haemon, Antigone’s fiancé.  Haemon defies his father’s claim that Antigone is a replaceable woman by loving her to the point of his own death.  In this way, Strauss’s description of an emerging concept argues for a subjectivity initiated and developed by love, finding in this living individuality a way out of tragedy.