Oedipal Tyrannies

In the hysterical 1999 classic “Analyze This” , Billy Crystal as a shrink asks the archetypal question that all shrinks presumably ask their male patients about the Oedipal complex to his patient , Robert De Niro about maternal fantasies . Instead of what a normal male would respond , Robert De Niro shocks us into befuddled laughter by stating “Have you even seen my mother? ” and makes a disgusted face . That was my inauspicious introduction to Oedipus followed by me promptly judging him to be a disgusting pervert.

The name seems to be keep changing but the one that I read was called Oedipus Tyrannous.  I instantly imagined that this meant a tyrant and since we know that he was not a tyrant in the traditional sense , I imagined that tyrant meant King. But eventually it comes to light that tyrant is somebody who deposed off the king and became the king .

The chronology looks like it was inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Memento . We start off in the present where Oedipus is the king of Thebes and trying to understand why the plague is  decimating his city , all he knows is that there is a foul corruption in the city and he needs to root it out. He has become the king fifteen years ago after solving the riddle of the Sphinx , a creature with a head of a human , body of a lion and wings of an eagle . Prior to Oedipus, travelers who failed to answer the riddle were killed by the Sphinx. After Oedipus answers the riddle correctly , the Sphinx jumps to its death . The grateful citizens made him the king and offered him Jocasta , the king’s widow whom he marries and has four children .But the plague stumps even the brilliant Oedipus and not having access to modern technology , Oedipus takes the advice of his brother in law Creon who brings in the blind seer Tiresias . The funny thing about Tiresias is that he shows up in so many Greek plays that I am beginning to wonder if he is like 300 years old by the time he is done making his appearances in all the plays. Tiresias reluctantly gives him a tidbit that Oedipus was the one who killed the original king of Thebes , his wife’s first husband . That is our first introduction to the fury and suspicion of Oedipus . As the play progresses , his fury seems to deepen yet his yearning for an explanation grows even as the strands seem to come together for him and the shades of the horrible truth come to light. The next piece is from Jocasta herself who recounts where her husband was murdered , followed by a confirmation for Oedipus that he is indeed the killer of the late king after she summons the lone survivor from the massacre of the king and his entourage many years ago , a shepherd. But the horrible climax is yet to come . That comes in the form of the Corinthian who comes to let him know that he has become the King of Corinth since his parents died . This is where we are introduced to the prophecy that Oedipus was told when he was a young man that he would kill his father and marry his mother which is also the reason why he left Corinth in the first place . While he is relieved that his father has died a natural death, he is still concerned about the part where he would stuph his mother. The Corinthian tries to put his fear to rest by assuring him that he was adopted but that opens a fresh can of worms.  The shepherd who was first tasked with killing the baby Oedipus confesses under pain of death that he had handed the baby to the Corinthian and that the baby was the child of Laius and Jocasta and at last Oedipus is face to face with the awful truth that he has committed patricide and worse committed the foul act of mating with his own mother . Jocasta has already killed herself by now after realizing that her husband is also her son . Oedipus in a fit of anger and disgust uses her brooch to blind himself , his reason being that his eyes have performed the abominable act of seeing his mother naked.

Oedipus has been dealt a terrible fate, the stuff of nightmares . Not only has he killed his father but he has defiled his fathers bed and has become father to his own half siblings, husband to his own mother . If I could understand music better , I would imagine that this is where the crescendo comes in , the point at which Oedipus finally realizes that he never could escape that terrible fate that was ordained for him . In the play , there is an amazing missing insight that comes from the Corinthian and the shepherd who is a far better device than the traditional Deux Ex machina that the Greek dramatists  liked to employ.

Something that I failed to realize until I talked to others was the impetuosity that Oedipus portrays throughout . He is quick to anger which is the reason why he ended up quarreling with his father’s party , he is quick to imagine Creon and then Tiresias plotting against him , he also jumps to conclusions when he hears the Oracle’s prophecy and runs away from his adopted home. Those turn out to be fatal flaws , his impetuosity and his intelligence which leads him to believe that he can escape his own fate .

So what does one take away from this awful tragedy ?? If it was written , it shall come to pass . Predestination or the concept that the Celestial watchmaker has already ordained everything that shall come to pass and we as humans are powerless against it . In India , this was a concept that seemed very familiar and something I grew up with and I hate it because it is contrary to the concept of free will, it implies that we humans are powerless . Taken to an extreme , it states that we are not responsible for our actions .

Henry Ford had a saying “Whether you believe that you can or you cannot , you are right” .

This is the riddle of the Sphinx .  Can you solve it?

“What animal walks on all fours in the morning , two in the afternoon and three in the evening ?”

 

 

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