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Oedipus Rex: the Spirit of Athens

I’m looking at Oedipus again. This time it’s for a screenplay that I’m mulling over… have been mulling for some time.

I’ve read the play many, many times with many different translations, but the most recent by Robert Fagles (Three Theban Plays) is by far the most interesting. The introduction to the play he provides is not only illuminating, but it has had immediate repercussions to things that I’ve been considering.

The most interesting topic that Fagles brings up, IMO, is the importance of the time period in which Sophocles was writing. According to Fagles,

So far as the action is concerned, it is the most relentlessly secular of the Sophoclean tragedies. Destiny, fate and the will of the gods do indeed loom ominously behind the human action, but that action, far from suggesting primeval rituals and satanic divinities, reflects, at every point, contemporary realities familiar to the audience that first saw the play. 134

This is of very great interest to me. Again, as I’m writing a screenplay based on Oedipus the notion of how Sophocles made the story interesting to his own audience at his particular point in time is a central concern that I face.

Fagles also notes that there has been a tendency, in our time, to romanticize the religious aspects of Greek life, pointing directly to WB Yeats, who “conjure[d] up mystic romantic visions” but was “for Sophocles and his audience, a fact of life, an institution as present and solid, as uncompromising (and sometimes infuriating) as the Vatican is for us.” 135 This too is critical, pointing to the realities of life in 5th century Greece. The Oracle was no romantic force, steeped in mystery and incense and cloaked in the wonders of the Order of the Golden Dawn. It was a source of frustration and power and something that had to be paid off or cajoled or catered to. It’s religious grip was stubborn, as was its power over the masses who adhered to it’s pronouncements and had to be pacified when decisions were made. No greater demonstration is necessary of the power that a religious institution can leverage than the very institution to which Fagles points: the Catholic Church. Today, for instance, much has been made of Obama speaking at Notre Dame, and provides concrete example of the power that the Catholic Church can mobilize against a leader—if not the media itself, which has been drooling over this ‘event.’

Similar to our own time, belief itself was under attack. Fagles points clearly to the tension that existed at the time Sophocles wrote Oedipus surrounding prophecy and belief. Some believed in prophecy, the gods, and their ability to see the future. No where is this tension better expressed than in the play itself. Tiresias, who in the end proves to be the true seer, versus Jocasta, who offers nothing but disdain for prophets and her own hypocrisy of ‘enacted’ religious offerings. As Fagles puts it, “prophecy was one of the great controversial questions of the day.” 137 Today, similar questions abound, with often surprising results reported in surveys that show Americans resounding belief in God, and yet fewer and fewer Americans seem to demonstrate said belief in the way they live their lives. Very like Jocasta there is a disconnect between what is said and what is practiced.

More interesting to me, perhaps is the general environment of 5th century Athens, which Fagles describes as “an age of intellectual revolution,” one that lent itself to challenging received belief and casting “scorn” on the practices of the past—such as “self-appointed professional seers.” 136 This time period might be compared to the rise of medicine in nineteenth and twentieth century America and the rejection of “quacks” or those who postured as medical doctors but were not certified or approved by the traditional establishment—such that as it was at the time. This notion that Fagles points to of an intellectual revolution combined with other aspects of the Athenian character to produce an “ideal man,” which is what Oedipus represents. Such characteristics include:

  • Belief in self-made destiny—self-made man;
  • Contemporary language (not mythic);
  • Man of action—a will to action;
  • Experience—which, as Fagles points out, is the result of action
  • Courage
  • Desire to know the truth
  • Anticipation—action based on reflection (i.e. not rash action)
  • Adaptability
  • Dedication to the interests of his city; public spirit; statesman
  • Creative vigor and intellectual daring
  • Investigator, prosecutor, and judge
  • Questioner, researcher, discoverer
  • Calculator, physician
  • Belief in individual responsibility

What Fagles describes is that Athenians:

Could have seen in Oedipus a man endowed with the temperament and talents they prized most highly in their own democratic leaders and their ideal vision of themselves. Oedipus the King is a dramatic embodiment of the creative vigor and intellectual daring of the fifth-century Athenian spirit… The fifth century in Athens saw the birth of the historic spirit; the human race awakened for the first time to consciousness of its past and a tentative confidence in its future. The past came to be seen no longer as a golden age from which there had been a decline if not a fall, but as a steady progress from primitive barbarism to the high civilization of the city state. 140

As such, much of what Oedipus says in his speeches reflect this: as Fagles writes, “[Oedipus’] speeches are full of words, phrases and attitudes that link him with the ‘enlightenment’ of Sophocles’ own Athens. ‘I’ll bring it all to light,’ he says.” 142

Above all Oedipus is presented…as a symbol of two of the greatest scientific achievements of the age—mathematics and medicine. Mathematical language recurs incessantly in the imagery of the play—such terms as measure, equate, define…and the mathematical axiom: “One can’t equal many.”

As well, in the play “the city suffers from a disease, and Oedipus is the physician to whom all turn for a cure. ‘After a painful search I found one cure; / I acted at once.’” 142

This leads Fagles to a dramatic point, that the fate of Oedipus, is the fate of Athens.

The catastrophe of the tragic hero thus becomes the catastrophe of fifth-century man; all his furious energy and intellectual daring drive him on to this terrible discovery of his fundamental ignorance—he is not the measure of all things but the thing measured and found wanting. 143

There is much in what Fagles says of Athens that can be said of America today (and in the past). The American spirit has great similarity with that of the Athenian ideal in the 5th century and we are at a point in history when technology leads us to believe that we are capable of measuring all things and setting the direction of our own destiny, history, and fate. It remains to be seen if we are the measurers or the thing measured: if we, as a culture, will suffer the same fate to which hubris and self-confidence led Oedipus—to his own fall. The only question is the means of this fall, which will not, in our time be brought about by gods; but we dare not dismiss what the gods fundamentally represent: the impersonal and terrible force of nature, which we court and unleash with every new experiment in virology, genetics, and computer intelligence. Chaos theory applies. We cannot predict the forces that we play with or that we may unleash—like the character played by Jeff Goldblum in Jurrasic Park, and like the Chorus itself in Oedipus, we are caught between the belief in self-made destiny and the implacable force of gods.

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