maybe oedipus’ real problem is nosiness

I don’t think I find mythology worthwhile for the same reasons as most people. Often I don’t “get” myths, if I may sound like an ignoramus for a second. But that’s just the starting point for me; if I can’t understand them at first, I like to give them the benefit of the doubt and consider what they might be a metaphor for. This is the spirit in which I read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex recently.

photo by Madeleine Burleson under cc

It starts out with a plague in Thebes, where Oedipus has been king ever since he saved the city from the sphinx and took queen Jocasta as his wife. Pretty quickly, we learn that the cause of the plague, according to the oracle, is that the city is suffering from “pollution” in the form of the man who killed the previous king, Laius. Get rid of this guy and the city will be back in business. The rest of the play consists of Oedipus interrogating people who may have information on who this terrible man could be. (For what it’s worth, I read the David Grene translation from the series of Greek tragedies edited by Grene and Richmond Lattimore.)

I’m just beginning to wrap my head around Aristotle’s Poetics, so I’m not even going to use the phrase “fatal flaw” in this post, and besides, it’s more fun to come to these things with no ideas on what you ought to be looking for. But even if I can’t define “fatal flaw” exactly, I think it’s only natural that I’m looking for some significance — a mistake Oedipus makes, a character trait that damns him — that explains why he is so totally screwed. I want to get to the why of the art just as much as the who and what.

There are two immediate problems with the plan of attack, however. First, as a modern reader I can’t tell which of the odd omissions and plot holes are are due to some long-dead Greek theater conventions and which should be taken as significant. For example, doesn’t anybody find it worth mentioning that Oedipus fathered children with a woman who must be, by definition, a generation older than he is? It seems strange to me, but maybe this was understood as a non-issue by a Greek audience of 5th century BCE.

But a larger problem looms, even if we give Sophocles a free pass on stuff like that. Namely, it’s hard to see what the play wants to say about the causes of Oedipus’ epic fail.

As I read through the play following Oedipus’ journey as he searches for the killer cursing his city (spoiler: the butler did it), I was looking for anything that could be seen as O.’s fault or failure in judgement. And this is the second problem: His errors are few and far between and, most importantly, not particularly highlighted by the play itself. Arguably, Oedipus isn’t characterized as exceptionally narcissistic, pompous, stupid, arrogant, or quick to anger. When people are hesitant to tell him the truth, he becomes enraged, but that makes sense if he doesn’t realize that he himself is the one plaguing his city. (Ruth Scodel’s An Introduction to Greek Tragedy has a nice summary of this in her analysis of the play.)

photo by guy_on_the_streets under cc

True, Oedipus did kill his own father, which sounds heinous even if he didn’t know the man’s identity. But the play spends little to no time on this fact; we never hear about how this murder was the cause of everything that came after. It’s treated as a bit incidental, as though he had flipped somebody off once at a crossroads.

So my best answer to the question of Oedipus’ mistake is that he can’t seem to leave well enough alone when someone tells him some version of, “Well, you probably don’t actually want to know the answer to your question.” By my count, he ignores at least three clear warnings to this effect. First, the blind prophet Teiresias arrives, only to explain that he probably shouldn’t have come at all:

Alas, how terrible is wisdom when
it brings no profit to the man that’s wise!
This I knew well, but had forgotten it,
Else I would not have come here.

Teiresias is a big-time tease, in other words. I mean, he just “forgot” that he needed to avoid talking to O. about this? In real life, people who don’t want to talk about something don’t announce it by saying, “Oh, sorry it slipped my mind that I was avoiding this subject entirely because I have information that would turn your life upside-down and possibly lead you to blind yourself! But never mind — forget I said anything.”

So some of the blame for Oedipus’s insistence on learning the truth could be laid at the feet of Teiresias. In any event, this pattern recurs: Later, when some of the nastiness has been revealed, Jocasta begs Oedipus to let it go, but he plows on. Finally, Oedipus cross-examines the herdsman who took infant Oedipus from the queen and — surprise! — didn’t kill the baby like he said he would. Even at this point the herdsman warns Oedipus that he has some, ahem, bad news for Ed Rex, and is the king really sure he wants to hear it? Since this heedless, headlong search for the truth is one of the few things that makes Oedipus an identifiable character (besides his tendency to get angry at people stalling the investigation), maybe that’s his Big Mistake.

And yet, this seems pretty human to me, not so much a flaw as an unfortunate character trait. Most people will take an opportunity to discover the truth, or at least we wouldn’t blame them for it. Given this, the play doesn’t show Oedipus’ sin so much as random damnation of a man that wasn’t that bad to begin with. Whether you call this fate or the will of the gods, Oedipus’s downfall seems arbitrary and not terribly satisfying. It implies a senseless universe. That might be an accurate description of the reality we live in, but it doesn’t feel like a fresh artistic impression of the world, as the sentiment just rubs our noses in a fact we probably understand very well already.

So I take something else from Oedipus Rex. I think the play is suggesting that there is a basic moral rot that can fester in our lives without our knowledge or willing participation. It’s nothing new (even probably for 5th century BCE) to say that there is great evil in the world, but Rex implies that its protagonist is part of this great evil without even being aware of it. And if this is true of Oedipus, who doesn’t seem to have any other great flaws to his name (except for a little incidental homicide that the play doesn’t seem too concerned with), then maybe any of us have this same moral rot underneath our lives. Are we innocent if we don’t know of the sin we commit? That is, in part, what the play engages with.

And then it also asks whether we even want to know about this sin. Are you an Oedipus, who insists repeatedly upon the truth, or would you want to remain ignorant of what you can’t help having done anyway? I think I have, at least to my ignorant satisfaction, found the point of Oedipus.

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