"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

10 February 2014

Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles



Creon: The Prince Apollo openly enjoins upon us
            to sever from the body politic
            a monstrous growth that battens there:
            stop feeding that which festers (218).

Creon: If you really think a stubborn mind is something to be proud of
            you’re not thinking straight (233).

Oedipus: Oh Zeus, what plaything will you make of me? (239).

Oedipus: Lost! Ah, lost! At last it’s blazing clear.
            Light of my days, go dark. I want to gaze no more.
            My birth all spring revealed from those it never should,
            Myself entwined with those I never could.
            And I the killer of those I never would (253).

In some ways, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex—like Hamlet—is a really difficult play to talk about, especially in a limited amount of space, because so much has been said and written about the play that one doesn’t know where to begin or in which direction to proceed.

For Aristotle, Oedipus Rex was the quintessence of what a great tragedy should be. It hits all the marks Aristotle sets out in the Poetics: Oedipus is a man who is essentially admirable, not only a king but the honored savior of Thebes, who falls because his tragic error/flaw[1] pushes him to pursue knowledge against the advice of those around him, and thereby reveals that in attempting to avoid the power of prophecies, both he and his father Laius unwittingly brought those prophecies to pass. As we near the revelation of Oedipus’ guilt, everyone grows increasingly uneasy, until at the end there is a catharsis—a purging of emotions—when Jocasta has killed herself and Oedipus blinded himself and preparing to leave Thebes forever.[2]

I also really like René Girard’s examination of Oedipus Rex, which he takes as characteristic for a different theory of understanding tragedy. For Girard, there is a cycle of crisis and scapegoating, or what he calls the selection of the sacrificial victim—the person whose guilt is supposed to stand in as cause of all the tensions, divisions, and problems in the community, and through whose expulsion the divisions are temporarily healed. What I find really interesting in Girard’s argument is the claim that ultimately it need not be Oedipus himself who becomes the sacrificial victim—there are other people whose could be seized upon as guilt of a crime that has upset a natural balance, namely Tiresias and Creon. Girard argues that each of these men is as much a freak, as much a potential pollutant, as Oedipus. Both men failed to adequately pursue Laius’ murderer at the time of the murder—Tiresias not using his power as a seer to reveal the culprit, and Creon not using his authority as regent ruler to launch a thorough investigation. Additionally, Tiresias is distinct from the rest of humanity because 1) he is a seer and therefore picked out for special contact with the gods, and 2) he has experienced life as both a man and woman, separating him out from the normal run of human experience. Prior to reading Girard, I didn’t think much of it when Oedipus accuses Tiresias and Creon of conspiring against him, but in light of Girard, this seems like a disproportionately important part of the play. After all, this is when Oedipus is (unconsciously) trying to deflect attention away from his own guilt and identify an alternative sacrificial victim.


[1] There is disagreement about whether Aristotle means a tragic flaw, in the sense of a character flaw, or a tragic error, in the sense of a mistake. Paul Roche—whose translation I am reading—comes down on the side of the former, referring to Oedipus’ ‘fatal flaw’ in his character introduction (211). I, on the other hand, think that Aristotle was probably writing about a mistake, since Aristotle himself says that plot is the supremely important component of a play, and character is only secondary. But I think modern audiences/readers, who have been conditioned by the psychological novel to think primarily about character, are more comfortable with the idea of a flawed character, an idea that comes out of the Romantic period (I think) and its preoccupation with the flawed hero.
[2] I maintain that the catharsis in Aristotle is also primarily a plot component, not a purging of the audience’s emotions, as many (including Augusto Boal) argue. While this may be a side effect, I think Aristotle is principally focused on a plot point, as whatever tension has led to the crisis of the play and built through the action is finally released, allowing the surviving characters to breathe easier in a space (temporarily, at least) free of guilt.

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