Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Antigone of Bruce Springsteen: Highway Patrolman by Stephen Klugewicz

antigone of bruce springsteen
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.
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