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Existentialism & Culture

Oedipus: A Thinker At The Crossroads

Eva Cybulska asks who Oedipus thinks he is.

The myth of Oedipus is very old. It first appeared in written form in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. Aeschylus and Euripides wrote plays about the hero, as did Julius Caesar, Ovid and Seneca, and more recently Andr é Gide and Jean Cocteau. But the greatest version of all is the play Oedipus Tyrannos by Sophocles, first staged in 429 BC.

The fifth century BC was Greece’s golden age of enlightenment, and Sophocles was contemporary to some extraordinary minds. Protagoras, a prototype atheist, proclaimed that ‘man was a measure of all things’, while Democritus believed everything to be the result of natural laws and not the result of a ‘prime mover’ or a ‘final cause’. Heraclitus, the philosopher of change, strife and logos, died when Sophocles was twenty-five. When the play was staged, Socrates was forty, Hippocrates was thirty, although Plato was merely an infant.

Western civilisation was at the crossroads of religion and reason: the gods were beginning their exit as reason and science commenced their triumphant march. The Chorus in Oedipus Tyrannos proclaims thus:

They are dying, the old oracles sent to Laïus,
Now our masters strike them off the rolls.
Nowhere Apollo’s golden glory now –
The gods, the gods go down.

Thespis, an acknowledged creator of drama, staged his tragedies from 534 BC; but it was in the fifth century BC that Athenian democracy, tragedy and philosophy came into full bloom and influenced one another. Unlike in the epic poem, the protagonists of tragedy were acting out pluralistic points of view, thus promoting debate. By exposing conflict, drama became a chariot of progress in the theatre of human thought.

The Story

Oedipus was doomed before birth. Laïus, the king of Thebes, learned from the Delphic Oracle that any child born of his wife Jocasta would become his murderer. When in due course Jocasta delivered a healthy boy, the king snatched him from the nurse’s arms, pierced his feet with a nail, bound them together, and ordered a servant to expose the infant on Mount Kithairon. But the servant disobeyed the command, instead passing the baby boy to a shepherd, who in turn took him to Corinth, where a childless royal couple adopted him as their son.

As a young man, Oedipus was teased about his origins, and in search of the truth he went himself to consult the Delphic Oracle. There he heard the dreadful prophesy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. He understood the Oracle as referring to his adoptive parents, and decided never to return to Corinth, thus defying Apollo’s will. But at “the crossroads where three roads meet” he encountered an old nobleman in a chariot who ordered him out of the way. Oedipus, who was on foot and alone, retorted that he acknowledged no betters except the gods and his own parents, meaning the Corinthian couple. When the old man struck him on the head, the infuriated Oedipus killed him and his entourage. Oedipus then proceeded to Thebes, where the Sphinx (which means ‘the Strangler’) awaited him, at the city gate. Half-woman, half-lion, she had been devouring any traveller who could not give the correct answer to her riddle: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening?” Oedipus correctly answered with one word: “Man.” The Sphinx, offended in her pride, resorted to suicide. The grateful city offered him the hand of the widowed queen Jocasta, and the throne. The couple had four children and lived happily... until a plague struck the city many years later.

This is the moment at which Sophocles’ play begins. Jocasta’s brother Creon, having consulted Delphi on Oedipus’ behalf, tells him that the city is polluted by the presence of Laïus’ murderer, who must be found and punished for the plague to end. The city’s elders turn to Oedipus for help – he once saved them from the monster, he must now save them from the plague. In the process of the investigation, Oedipus discovers that it was he who killed the old king at the crossroads, and that he had married his own mother. The dreadful prophecy has thus been fulfilled! Uncannily echoing the Sphinx, Jocasta commits suicide. Oedipus blinds himself before going into exile.

The myth of Oedipus differs from the standard myth of a hero in that Oedipus acts of his own volition, and alone he conquers the monster (previously, Athena had often assisted heroes). He does not kill the Sphinx using physical force, but drives her to suicide with a word. In an agonistic dialogue with seer Teiresias, Oedipus boasts:

There was a riddle, not for some passer-by to solve –
It cried out for a prophet. Where were you?
Did you rise to the crisis? Not a word,
you and your birds, your gods – nothing.
No, but I came by, Oedipus the ignorant,
I stopped the Sphinx! With no help from the birds,
the flight of my own intelligence hit the mark.

Through his intelligence and courage alone, Oedipus earned? great respect and achieved a position of power. But is that enough to be a complete human being? Many years after the encounter at the crossroads and the victorious combat with the Sphinx, Oedipus comes to another defining moment: “Do I really know myself and those I love?” he asks: “Do I believe or do I search?” And thus begins his quest for self-knowledge.

The Quest For Truth: Mythos Versus Logos

“Many are wonders and terrors, yet none more wonderful and terrible than man” – this line from Sophocles’ earlier play Antigone is the key to understanding Oedipus. He is a hero full of contradictions: intelligent and na ïve; at home yet homeless; proud, yet able to expose himself in front of those who admire him; guilty and innocent. He repeatedly comes to the crossroads within himself: the crossroads between myth and reason; between being a puppet in the hands of the gods and being an individual responsible for his own fate; between being a persona and becoming an authentic self.

When the plague rages over Thebes, the man who conquered the Sphinx with his intelligence and a word consults not his reason but Apollo and his prophet Teiresias. He also makes a number of logical blunders. When Creon recounts that La ïus was killed by a group of brigands, Oedipus changes plural into singular and says:

A thief, so daring, so wild, he’d kill a king? Impossible,
Unless conspirators paid him off in Thebes…
If anyone knows the murderer is a stranger,
A man from alien soil, come speak up.

Before Teiresias implicates him in the murder of Laïus, Oedipus has already made up his mind – the murderer is a stranger and singular, very much like himself.

Another logical discrepancy concerns the number of people in Laïus’ entourage. Oedipus remembers killing three; Jocasta tells him that there were five, of which one, the slave, escaped. This slave (who, rather surprisingly, also turns out to be the shepherd) is called as a key witness. Meanwhile, a messenger from Corinth arrives to announce the death of the old king, Polybus, Oedipus’ adoptive father. This completely distracts Oedipus, and the question concerning the number of robbers is never asked of the key witness. Although he knows that ‘one cannot be many’ and that ‘three is not five’, he does not follow the Socratic principle of Elenchos – asking questions until a clear answer is forthcoming. Oedipus, the chief investigator and prosecutor, at once judge, jury and defendant, convicts himself as his father’s killer and his mother’s husband without any obvious rational proof. So at the crossroads of mythos and logos, Oedipus seems to have got lost.

Here is a limited comparison between mythical and rational thought (for a more elaborate discussion I refer you to Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms):

• Central to the mythical worldview is an assumption that nothing in the world happens by accident, but according to some preordained plan and purpose. Apollo’s wrath brings about the plague, aimed at punishing the city polluted by the killer of La ïus. Thus the solution to the crisis is to appease the god by banishing the ‘polluter’. Oedipus never questions this. By contrast, rational thought is hinged upon regularly-revised opinion.

• Wisdom requires a tolerance of doubt and not-knowing (Keats’ negative capability), which leads to the postponement of judgment, to a ‘willing suspension of belief’. Inference is based on the balance of probabilities, and thus the conclusion must be open to revision. By contrast, mythos yearns for certitude: it wants to believe rather than not believe. Oedipus can tolerate neither not-knowing nor the postponement of finding, and he never revises his assumptions.

• A stable categorical framework of cognition is the foundation for rational thought. By contrast, the categories of thought in mythos (as in dreams and in insanity) are either malleable or non-existent. The issue of the exact nature of La ïus’ murder, of the sequence of events and of their timing, never arises in Oedipus Tyrannos. The action of the play is suspended in an eternal present. In a strange metamorphosis of identity, the shepherd becomes a slave, and then a shepherd again. The metamorphosis of identity was commonplace in mythical thought, as ancient gods and heroes often changed into other beings (see Ovid’s Metamorphoses). And yet, ironically, the Sphinx’s riddle was about the consistency of identity.

• The omnipotence of thought and act is central to the mythical worldview. Words are endowed with a magical power and can physically determine the course of events. Oedipus sent Creon to Delphi to ask Apollo “what I might do or say.” Moreover, omnipotent guilt lies at the heart of the mythical conscience, so that a person can cause a great disaster, but also avert it through sacrifice. This is the case with Oedipus, who offered himself for the city and his people, as it was with Christ who ‘died for our sins’. (Remnants of this mythical guilt can still be observed in the delusions of the psychotically depressed.)

• In myth there is no verification of the sources of information, and recognisably unreliable sources are given credence. Creon, whom Oedipus suspects of a plot, is entrusted with the task of consulting the Oracle; Teiresias, who could not solve the riddle of the Sphinx, is consulted in the matter of epidemiology; the slave/shepherd, who ran away from the scene of the king’s murder, is called upon as a reliable witness.

• Unlike concepts used in good reasoning, mythical words have no fixed meaning. This malleability of words results in the abundance of word-play and linguistic puns in Oedipus Tyrannos. Unsurprisingly, OIDiPOU (‘I know where’) easily becomes OIDiPOUS (‘swollen foot’), for instance.

• In myth, all the forces of nature are expressions of the demonic, or of divine will. Yet Oedipus has a will of his own – to defy the prophecy of Apollo, to investigate the murder of king Laïus, and to know himself. At the crossroads of self-knowledge he takes a Socratic path of enquiry.

Oedipus is a seeker of truth, and the word zêtein (‘to search for, investigate’) appears frequently in the play. The related word zêtêma (‘enquiry’), also occurs in Sophocles, but not in Aeschylus, as it does not seem to be used in Greece before the fifth century. “Investigating things under the earth and in the sky” (Plato’s Apologia) was the new scientific outlook of the Greek enlightenment. In the Hippocratic treatise On Ancient Medicine, Oracular magic gave way to prognosis based on observation and past history, so that foreknowledge became an achievement of the human mind rather than the prerogative of the gods.

But what drives Oedipus in his quest for truth? Is it curiosity, or is it fear? The word ‘fear’ appears in Oedipus Tyrannos seventeen times, which is about one third of all the instances in the extant plays of Sophocles. Over half (nine) appear in the dialogue between Oedipus and Jocasta when both become panic-stricken. When Oedipus was answering the riddle of the Sphinx, he seemed to behave like a cool scientist; but when he was searching for his identity, it was, I suggest, fear which made him vacillate at the crossroads between rational and mythical ways of thinking. When our existence is threatened we frequently return to this junction of Reason and Unreason, and all too often we take the regressive path towards mythos.

Psychoanalysis And The Sphinxing Of Oedipus

When his ‘seduction theory’ got into trouble, Sigmund Freud became desperate for a new dogma which would form the centrepiece of his psychoanalytic theory – a single solution to the riddle of neurosis. Oedipus’ story gripped Freud’s imagination, and he described his discovery in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess: “A singular thought of general value has occurred to me. I have found amorousness in regard to the mother and jealousy towards the father in myself, and I consider it now a universal event of early childhood… If that is so, then one understands the thrilling power of Oedipus… The Greek saga seizes upon a compulsion which everyone recognises in themselves. Every member of the audience was once a budding Oedipus in fantasy, and this causes everyone to recoil in horror” (from The Origins of Psychoanalysis). And in the Interpretation of Dreams, Freud wrote: “[Oedipus’] destiny moves us only because it might have been ours – because the Oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother, and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that that is so. King Oedipus, who slew his father La ïus and married his mother Jocasta, merely shows us the fulfilment of our own childhood wishes.”

As conceived by Freud, ‘the Oedipus complex’ is not a result of the complicated emotional relationships within a family, but an instinctive biological impulse that all males must go through. According to his theory, three –year-old toddlers are plotting to murder their fathers in order to sleep with their mothers. (Melanie Klein has ascribed even greater perversity to even younger children.) It looks like a spectacular revival of the doctrine of ‘original sin’, despite Freud’s official stand as an atheist! Redemption can be achieved only through a vigorous scrutiny by a trained Grand Inquisitor, who would not hesitate to use “the strongest compulsion of therapy” (Freud’s own words) in the most resistant cases. Any protestation on the part of the analysand would only confirm his guilt, while any memory of real sexual abuse in childhood would be deemed a fantasy. The ghost of Joseph K. (from Kafka’s The Trial) lurks in many psychoanalytical consulting rooms, as does that of Dr Krokowski – the “father-confessor” with the “redeeming power of the analytic” from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

However, Freud arrived at his Oedipal insights not through the painstaking observation of his patients, but in a moment of epiphany when reading these words of Jocasta:

Have no more fear of sleeping with your mother:
How many men, in dreams, have lain with their mothers!
No reasonable man is troubled by such things.

Furthermore, Freud never attempted to falsify his earth-shaking discovery in a scientific way; instead the complex acquired a status of a religious creed, and ‘heretics’ (his own term) were excommunicated from the Psychoanalytic Movement. Intriguingly, Freud completely overlooked what one might call the ‘Laïus complex’ – the jealous tyrannical father wishing to annihilate the son whose powers he fears. Perhaps this blind-spot was a result of Freud’s own repression of his hostility towards his younger intelligent and creative colleagues? Or again, perhaps one reason why he never acknowledged the influence of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche on his speculative theory was that, rather like La ïus, he had to ascertain his priority where the ‘three roads meet’?

For Jung, in contrast, the unconscious is not a repository of suppressed instincts, but a vital driving force, much like the Schopenhauerian ‘Will’. Life thus becomes a self-realisation of the unconscious – a journey towards individuation and completeness. From this perspective, the murder and incest in Oedipus Tyrannos could be seen as a metaphor for the most frightening aspects of ourselves (the Jungian ‘shadow’), which we refuse to acknowledge. One might then say that by taking responsibility for his horrifying deeds, Oedipus absorbed his ‘shadow’ and so became a whole in-dividual. The birth of a whole individual also marks the birth of empathy – only an ‘undivided self’ can visualise the inner world of the other and establish a compassionate relationship, as Oedipus did with his children. Paradoxically then, it is in his ‘fall’ that Oedipus becomes a more complete human being.

Oedipus – An Existentialist In Search Of Himself?

Who is Oedipus? Perhaps there are as many Oedipuses as there are readers of the tragedy, or spectators in the audience?

Hegel, for whom the problem of self-consciousness stood at the centre of philosophy, established Oedipus as an inaugural philosopher in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy. Heidegger’s definition of philosophy was one of a self-generating process of destruction and recreation, of which Oedipus was an embodiment. It is, however, Kant’s doctrine of the co-existence of freedom and necessity that I find most relevant to Oedipus. Being necessarily the character he was (passionate, quick-tempered, proud, courageous, stubborn, intelligent and inquisitive) he chose to kill the old man at the crossroads and conquer the Sphinx. Fate is what we create for ourselves, so that we ‘become who we are’, to paraphrase Pindar’s expression and a subtitle to Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo. Yet by freely taking responsibility for his deeds, Oedipus becomes a modern Sartrean hero, ‘condemned to be free’. He has the courage to face pain, sorrow and absurdity, and in Oedipus at Colonus, he “begins his life on the other side of despair.” Thus Oedipus is a tragic hero who stands alone at the crossroads, asking, “To know myself or not to know myself?” As an existentialist he might ask, “To be authentic or to live in bad faith?” In anguish, he chooses to follow the path to self-knowledge and authenticity.

Perhaps the appeal of Oedipus lies in his uncompromising search for identity – a search for the essence of what it is to be human in all its ‘existential aloneness’. The human condition is inherently tragic and paradoxical, and it is knowledge which makes it so. Silenus, tutor and companion, to the god Dionysus is quoted as saying that “life is freest of pain when it is accompanied by ignorance of its own suffering.” Sophocles echoed this wisdom in these lines spoken by the Chorus in Oedipus Tyrannos: “Ignorance made you happy. The truth has made you blind.”

Oedipus Tyrannous is a tragedy of knowledge, vision and blindness: truth is trapped in illusion, and in the disturbances of language and emotion. Overwhelming pride, but also anger and fear, blinds reason. Initially, Oedipus is blind not only regarding his own identity, but also the identity of those he loves. Later, fear blinds him to the illogical basis of his conclusions. And yet, as he loses his physical sight, his insight awakens. This is the most crucial and poignant moment of dramatic reversal (peripeteia). It shows how we allow our spirituality and compassionate humanity to shine forth only after abandoning the concreteness of our existence and our attachment to our possessions (including power). Oedipus is a man true to himself, who by destroying his well-being creates his own fate and becomes who he is. Finally, he offers himself as a sacrifice to Thebes, the city which has revered him as a wise ruler, and the city he truly loves. And this, I think, is what moves the audience.

© Dr Eva Cybulska 2009

Eva Cybulska is a psychiatrist. A collection of existential short stories about her patients Old Trees Die Standing, was published by Athena Press.

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