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Home Notes for Introduction to Literature
Notes for Introduction to Literature
~~ A Reading of Oedipus ~~
This play, written almost 2500 years ago, is still so relevant today.
The more I think about it, the more I can relate to it on so many levels .
First, I can directly appreciate how Oedipus feels when he learns the oracle's prophecy. We don't know how old he is, but he's "of age." I picture him as a strapping young adult ("chief among the men of Corinth" l.248), with his whole wonderful, princely life ahead of him. Suddenly some drunken reveler at dinner one evening lets it loose that Oedipus is not who he thinks he is. Deeply disturbed, unable to shake off that spookiness, he goes to Delphi and Apollo pronounces that, indeed it's true, his wonderful life is over: he's fated to commit the most horrible crimes it's possible for a man to commit. Patricide. Incest. Regicide. It's a terrifying fate that's been decreed for him. Imagine how he must've felt, learning of that destiny. He didn't ask for it, he did nothing personally that he's aware of to deserve it--yet, there it is. A bombshell out of the bright blue sky. What's the first thing Oedipus does? He tries to avoid it! He runs away. But it's not the running of a coward. It's the running you do to survive, or to protect those you love--it's self-preservation--and it's the running you do because you can you feel and you hope that you are free to run. When Oedipus leaves Corinth, in a sense he's rejecting the Gods and putting his faith in himself. He's exercising his freedom, his human free will, and he's using his intelligence--he runs away because by the power of his wits he hopes he can defeat the oracle's prophecy. And although I've never been handed a prophecy, I think I know what it feels like, from experience, to be on the receiving end of someone else's expectations for what my life will be. I can identify with that desire Oedipus has to shape his own destiny, cut his own way. He was handed a terrible, terrifying fate and he wants to change it.
Isn't one of the most idealistic facets of that diamond in the rough, the American Dream, that very promise? Didn't that 18th century French farmer, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur (1735-1813), enamored of the uncanny new American way, lure countless thousands to these shores by spreading word of that very promise? In his influential Letters from an American Farmer he inspired his fellow Europeans to leave those villages in tired, old Europe where there's was no hope for anyone, where peoples' lives were predetermined--born a peasant, die a peasant. Come to America--the Land of Opportunity! We still proclaim that ideal today--and it's a beautiful ideal. And wouldn't Oedipus have wanted to reach the shores of a new land where he could become the "master of his destiny"? Don't we all want that?
Thematically, the play presents so many interesting questions that haven't grown old or tired yet
Just how free are we humans anyway? Are we really free, can we really roam about at will, make choices, make a difference, think our own thoughts? Or do we find ourselves ruled like puppets on a string, the playthings of unseen but all-commanding forces? Do we have the power to cut our own path, or are we practically weightless, like leaves blowing around in a Godless, meaningless void, subject to blind winds and mechanical "laws of nature"? These are some great questions-and a sensitive reading of Oedipus the King leads us to raise them.
What about Oedipus' struggle for self-knowledge? "Who am I?" Isn't that a universal question we all try to answer throughout our lives? The search for an answer doesn't stop after adolescence. You have to keep asking it, because you keep growing, changing, becoming different all the time. Who am I? It's a simple question but a large one. ("I am large, I contain multitudes " said Walt Whitman in "Song of Myself.") Oedipus is blind. He has no idea who he really is. And that makes him vulnerable. That blindness, that lack of self-awareness, makes him incredibly vulnerable. Did you see how that acquaintance back home in Corinth was able to pierce Oedipus with just a few drunken shouts? It wasn't merely because he said to Oedipus, "You're not the man you think you are." Anyone can say something like that. But what makes Oedipus vulnerable is that it's true! And his blindness leaves him open to that attack.
His blindness leads him to murder Liaus on the path where three roads meet. It leads him to take his own mother's hand in marriage. His blindness leads him to put a curse on himself and his children that will kill some of them and make the rest all the more miserable forever. His blindness leads him to falsely accuse those who are trying to help him (Tiresias and Creon). He is blind, in the dark, as to the real consequences of his actions, and his blindness stems from his lack of self-knowledge. Ironically, he thinks of himself as very "enlightened," someone who has proven his "lights" by defeating the sphinx. ("Is this your prayer? Come I will answer it" he tells the chorus at the very start of Scene 1.) Indeed, his reputation as a very smart and capable leader is made very clear even earlier by Priest in the prologue:
Oedipus thinks of himself, and he is thought of by the people, as a liberator, a wise man, a man "wisest in the ways of God." The people trust him. But the truth is lurking unseen. That unseen truth makes him utterly vulnerable. And that unseen truth has already worked its damage on the people themselves, killing them with plague.
And it's true today. On a very large scale Our own country was blind-sided on September 11th by a devastating attack that struck the very heart of its most vital, most important city. Thousands of people tragically perished. Hundreds more tragically perished in rescue attempts. And I ask myself--weren't we blind the way Oedipus was blind? How deeply do we really know ourselves, what we represent in the larger world we live in? How finely do we understand the reasons why some nations, groups, or individuals around the globe resent us, hate us, feel murderous towards us? Who are we in their eyes, in our own eyes, and why? What actions do we take around the world, what values do we represent-not just in word, but by deed? I'm not trying to consider whether or not our nation "deserved" it (how can anyone deserve such a horrible fate?) the way some very cynical observers chillingly argue. I'm just asking whether or not we were blind to the fact that such hatred existed out there and it was aimed with deadly force against us. And I'm asking if we are ready to seek the painful truth, like Oedipus, or whether we can continue in our blindness.
is a hero to me because he seeks the truth at all costs. He refuses to disengage,
even when he gets the drift, even when he begins to see where all of his questioning
is leading. Imagine the courage it would take to pursue the truth when you
knew you were in danger of hearing something horrible, horrifying about yourself,
about your loved ones. But Oedipus won't settle for half-truths, and he certainly
won't stand for hiding behind the veil of power that would protect him from
the truth. He faces it head on, though he knows it will stab him to his very
core, strip him of everything. At the end of the play the only thing he has
left is his human dignity. But that's enough.
~~ exploring further ~~
(good and bad) deal extensively with ancient Greek mythology.
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