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Get back to work Antigone. The Ergonomics of Grief.

March 4, 2016


We concluded a discussion of Antigone yesterday by reflecting on the way in which governments, echoing the rhetoric of King Creon, continually talk about “moving on” from trauma, about “drawing a line” separating the past from the future and, indeed, seeking to to diminish historic trauma with the singularly hollow and obvious phrase “it was a different time”.

Antigone stands for all of those who assert that some old wounds need to be kept open until they heal (if they heal) in an honest and complete fashion.  Creon stands for those who want everyone back to work.  Earning.  And spending when not earning.

Our ancestors used to be draped in black for extended periods after intimate bereavements.  Are we to assume that the wearing of mourning was an archaic imposition on the living and the abandonment of the practice has been a blessedly modern form of liberation?   I don’t think so.  I think that the abandonment of prolonged periods of mourning has more to do with sparing other people.   There was a time that I would have welcomed the opportunity to spend months and month draped in black just so as to save the time and trouble to explain to everyone I met that I was damaged and going through something of a process.  The abandonment of public mourning means that grief has lost its social, public recognition.  Like so much else – it has been privatized – a purely individual burden.

And then there’s the economic reality.  People in a state of prolonged grief don’t work especially hard or buy stuff.  They are neither producers nor consumers.

I’m so old that I can remember people sitting down and arguing about what a truly “leisured” society would look like in the hi-tech twenty-first century.  Surely by then, advanced mechanization would have reduced the working day to the point where the principle trauma for humanity would be how to fill all those endless empty hours.

Karl Marx could have put us straight.  Back in the 1860s, in the first volume of Capital, he noted that the role of machinery is never to “save labour” but to increase surplus value.  In our twenty-first century, “leisure” is validated only in terms of purchasing and “leisure time” is only tolerated insofar as it stimulates a consumer economy.  Prolonged, meditative grief – a time when everyone understands that you are learning to understand the height, breadth and depth of defining loss – is something that used to be regarded as necessary – but something we no longer deserve.

Creons are many.  Antigones are few.


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