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antigone of bruce springsteen

Viggo Mortensen as Franky

In Sophocles’ great play, Antigone, the eponymous heroine defies Creon, the ruler of Thebes, by burying her brother, Polyneices, who fought against Creon in the city’s recent civil war. Creon has decreed that Polyneices’ treachery will be avenged by allowing his exposed body to be desecrated, “chewed up by birds and dogs and violated.” Anyone who attempts to bury Polyneices will be punished by death. Antigone, however, protests that there is a higher law than that of any king: a duty to family that the gods themselves honor above human law:

I will bury him: well for me to die in doing that. I shall rest, a loved one with him whom I have loved, sinless in my crime; for I owe a longer allegiance to the dead than to the living: in that world I shall abide for ever. But if thou wilt, be guilty of dishonouring laws which the gods have stablished in honour.

The questions raised by Antigone are timeless: What is the relationship between man’s law and God’s law?  What makes human law just? What gives legitimacy to the rule of a king? Does one’s duty to family come before one’s duty to the state?

In 1982, American composer Bruce Springsteen released a solo acoustic album, Nebraska, a dark and brooding creation, much inspired by Mr. Springsteen’s reading of Flannery O’Connor. The fifth song on that album is “Highway Patrolman,” which details the story of a Michigan policeman named Joe Roberts who has “always done an honest job, as honest as I could.” But Joe has “a brother named Franky, and Franky ain’t no good.” Since they were “young kids,” Franky has been a bad seed. As an adult, Franky repeatedly gets into minor trouble, presumably drunken bar fights and the like, and once Joe puts on a badge, it is he who is usually sent to collect his brother. Joe, however, cannot bear to put Franky, with whom he has been close since childhood, in a cell for the night: “Well if it was any other man, I’d put him straight away/But when it’s your brother sometimes you look the other way.”

Franky and Joe apparently for a time have an interest in the same woman; a line in the song’s refrain tells of the brothers often”takin’ turns dancin’ with Maria as the band played ‘Night of the Johnstown Flood.'” But the brothers’ mutual love is so great that even a woman does not come between them. Joe marries Maria and settles down for a time as a farmer, as Franky enlists in the army, presumably fighting in Vietnam. When the farm fails, Joe becomes a policeman, the job that will eventually present him with a stark choice between loyalty to the state and to his family.

One night, Joe gets a call over his police radio:

There was trouble in a roadhouse out on the Michigan line
There was a kid lyin’ on the floor lookin’ bad, bleedin’ hard from his head
There was a girl cryin’ at a table and it was Frank, they said

Joe gets in his cruiser and spots Franky in a Buick, and the two become involved in a high-speed chase:

Well I chased him through them county roads
Till a sign said “Canadian border five miles from here”
I pulled over the side of the highway and watched his taillights disappear

Lytras_nikiforos_antigone_polynicesIn Sophocles’ play, Antigone tells her sister Ismene as they debate the decision to bury their brother: “False to him will I never be found.” In “Highway Patrolman,” Mr. Springsteen’s refrain contains this line: “Man turns his back on his family, well he just ain’t no good.” In the end, Joe Roberts, like Antigone, makes the decision that one’s loyalty to family takes precedence over one’s loyalty to the state. Now, it should be pointed out that Antigone also has justice on her side: The burying of the dead is a sacred duty that no king can override—despite even the alleged crimes of the dead man. Officer Roberts, on the other hand, is presumably letting his brother get away with a crime. Yet, like Sophocles, Mr. Springsteen is challenging us to consider basic questions about man’s relationship to man and to the state: Where ought our first loyalty lie? And when, if ever, do the demands of justice outweigh duty to our family?

Such is the power of “Highway Patrolman” that actor-director Sean Penn turned the song into a film, starring David Morse and Viggo Mortensen as, respectively, Joe and Franky. (The official video for the song is embedded above and uses scenes from the film.) This adaptation is true to the Mr. Springsteen’s original in that the above questions are at the core of the story… questions that all men ought to ponder and yet which we hope were are never forced to address, like Antigone and Joe Roberts, in such a terrible way.

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1 reply to this post
  1. A similar conundrum presented itself during a homicide documentary last night. A son turned witness against his mother after 15 years of suspecting she was a murderer. Both my fiance and I automatically lauded the outcome of this moral quandary and then looked at each other with skepticism; we are perhaps the epitome of anti-statism and a mother-son bond is the antithesis to the impersonal relationship between citizen and state. However, I believe contained within this post is an unnecessary bifurcation. according to the Constitution, we believe in an inalienable right to life bestowed onto us from our Creator. If this is so, then we empower the state to protect those rights. Or put another way, moral law supersedes both the state and familial relations. In murdering someone and denying them their liberty, they’ve violated superhuman law not state code.

    I suspect this logic is outside what can be articulated within a Bruce Springsteen ditty which are so often characterized by the glib sentimentalization of proletariat totems. Springsteen’s “art” amounts to a collection of vacuous sign-posts and the lionization of simpletons defined by their circumstances; painfully demotic in its oral and musical language.

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