July 10, 2003

From Gerald R. Lucas

Character v. Fate in Oedipus the King

When Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex, the cultural and intellectual zeitgeist of Athens was undergoing a paradigm shift, from the privileging of one cosmological view to that of another. The gods were dying and being replaced by Socrates and his ilk: those who wanted to eschew the days of superstition and prophecy in favor of a more secure faith in the educated man’s ability to figure the universe and his place in it out for himself without depending on the mystical prognostications from spastic oracles. While somewhat successful — we all know what happen to Socrates (“I drank what?”) — this trend nevertheless made its impact on the time and the future of Western thought.

François-Xavier Fabre: Oedipus and the Sphinx (1806)

It seems to me, reading OR once again, that the tragedy is (1) not much of a tragedy, and (2) very postmodern. Yes, I am projecting my own culture’s intellectual zeitgeist on this play from 2000 years ago, but one of the aspects of literary studies that so intrigues me is the continuing influence and applicability of the ancient works to our traditions and beliefs today. Freud saw this connection through Oedipus, and though many have questioned the continuing importance of the Oedipal narrative on our psycho-sexual relations (we’ll let the Republicans hold on to the traditional family myth for as long as they want), we must wonder whether or not OR even makes sense anymore today.

One question that might speak to OR’s contemporary significance is Oedipus’ acknowledgment of his culpability in his actions. In the quotation above—arguably his anagnorisis—Oedipus seems to take responsibility for his actions: even though Apollo, chance, fortune, or whim might ultimately direct our courses, these things do not mitigate our responsibility for our actions. We might blame unfortunate events in our lives on bad karma or invoke trite aphorisms like “the lord works in mysterious ways” or “everything happens for a reason,” but when it comes to acting, making our hands work, we are responsible. Indeed, Oedipus ran into some bad luck seemingly based on religious prophecies, chance, and misdirection, but he took action based on his character — ultimately he takes responsibility for his actions, though not too gracefully or consistently. I can’t blame him for that: I sometimes have difficulty taking responsibility at all, and when I do it’s with many an “er . . . uh . . . ok.”

Yet, now we’re back to the Hamlet question: when do we have enough evidence to act? Yes, Oedipus is impetuous and obdurate, but he is able to act, even though he might be wrong: “No matter — I must rule.” While Oedipus acts too quickly, Hamlet waits too long; both end . . . well, you know. Perhaps Hamlet is correct in his critique of philosophy and reason, or the human ability to arrive at solid decisions. Indeed, there are more things in heaven and earth than our limited minds are able to consider. How, then, can we ever act with any confidence? When do we have an appropriate amount of information to support an ethical decision? Is this, too, what Aristotle meant by his Golden Mean? Like writing a dissertation: at some point it just has to be over — you just have to do it with the understanding that it’s impossible to cover every nuance of your topic. Just write it.

When I say that OR is not much of a tragedy, I do not mean literarily, but based on our current, un-heroic, un-tragic times. Yes, OR is the definitive tragedy. However, I think the significance of the tragedy is lost on many contemporary readers, at least as far as personal experience if not cultural. Yes, the Oedipal narrative still informs traditional notions of family in America today, but the reality of family is becoming something less than nuclear, making perhaps more money for the psychoanalysts and pharmaceutical companies. While I might not go as far as D&G, I would suggest that the analyst’s couch should become less necessary as cultural norms move away from ideals of perfection that we cannot obviously live up to, perhaps with the exception of Rick Santorum and his friends. Technology might put the Oedipal narrative to rest for good.

Do we men (does this apply to women, too? — really, I don’t see why it wouldn’t, if we’re to buy Freud’s reasoning), like Freud suggests, still desire to hold onto the protective mother and banish the infringing father when that myth is not consistent with our experience? Yes, there’s some psychic residue — and there probably will be for a time, but a move away from those traditional roles might just be psychically healthy and make OR less tragic and more of a curiosity.