SEEING ONE'S WAY: THE IMAGE AND ACTION OF OIDIPOUS TYRANNOS
Richard Diamond, Department of Classics, University of Dallas, Dallas,Texas, U.S.A. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
With Aristotle as our guide, we find Oidipous Tyrannos to be the near paradigmatic tragedy. Sophokles uses the best of techniques. Especially in matters relating to peripety and recognition, the very soul of tragedy Oidipous Tyrannos is the exemplar.(1) Even when Sophokles errs, he does so in the best way.(2) Aristotle explains to us in general why the Oidipous story is so tragic, why it arouses fear and pity in the reader. We pity seeing the once great Oidipous fall to the depths of the greatest misfortune. We fear because we see this as resulting from a flaw, hamartia , in Oidipous' character. We see ourselves as prone to make the same sort of mistakes and fear lest such a tremendous misfortune befall us as well.(3) Yet Aristotle stops short of pointing out to us the particular mistake of Oidipous. He expects we are not blind, and allows us to recognize it for ourselves. Although Sophokles manifests Oidipous' particular mistake in many ways, we shall consider only one of them: the imagery and words of his play.
In reading it closely a second time, we are struck by Sophokles' careful use of words. His words are ironic. The more we pay attention to his choice of words while holding the play's action in view, the more we notice Sophokles employs the social virtue of wit, eutrapelia .(4) By putting a good spin on things, he pleases what is best in us, our rational faculty. He does more than this, however; his use of irony clarifies the story for us. Consider the scene where Oidipous is seeking Laios' killer, and where he asks the chorus about that story which tells of the king's murder: What is it? For I am looking into every story.(5) The chorus replies that Laios was killed by some hodoiporon (292), a word which, when pronounced correctly, hauntingly resembles a form of Oidipous . We are led to consider whether Oidipous' name truly means something other than swollen foot as the messenger's etymology suggests (1036 with 718). Is there a sense in which Oidipous is himself a wayfarer? Perhaps he is even one lost, one who does not know ( oid' ) his way ( pous ).(6)
To find ours, let us step back once more and examine Sophokles' use of words. At a glance we notice a great deal of words related to sight in Oidipous Tyrannos . Roughly twice as many appear to us here than in the Antigone. The number picks up once more where Oidipous makes his final appearance in Oidipous at Kolonos. We can draw little more from this than that seeing and Oidipous are connected, fundamentally connected.
In Greek, as in English, the words for sight are fundamentally connected to knowledge. Oid' , the perfect form of eido , the Greek verb of seeing, is used always with respect to knowing. Hence, we must now consider what Oidipous does not see, what he does not know, which leads to his misfortune. In the play itself we find the only man who proves to know what is going on - who knows who Oidipous is - is Teiresias. This seer then plays a crucial role in our understanding of the play. Let us consider his words:
You reproach my anger, but you do not observe your own dwelling in you; instead, you blame me (337-338).
Oidipous' problem is his anger; not his anger simply, but that he does not perceive it. Let us return:
Teiresias: If indeed there is any strength of truth. Oidipous: But there is, except for you! There is none of this for you, since you are blind in ears, mind and eyes (369-371).
Since we already know it is Teiresias alone who properly understands Oidipous' situation, we must take it that Oidipous is wrong in asserting the seer to be blind in mind. Ought we then to apply the latter characteristic to Oidipous himself? Consider Teiresias statement:
You have sight, but you do not see where you are in evil or where you dwell, or with whom you are living (413-414).
Thus Sophokles has us ask the question, who is blind? We must answer that Teiresias is physically blind, yet he sees himself and Oidipous' nature. Oidipous is physically sighted, but he is blind to himself, to his own nature. That is, Oidipous is blind to his birth, he does not notice his swollen foot, his mother, and other things. Aristotle claims this is highly improbable, yet we must ask why Oidipous so lacks even the most basic self reflection. We can only surmise that he is too busy doing the greatest of deeds to notice trivial matters, too busy to look anywhere but straight ahead.
There then seems to be some connection between knowing oneself and physical blindness. Sight reveals the greatest number and variety of objects; it is what allows us to know distinctions in many things.(7) Yet when one is blind, he must rely upon his other senses, especially touch. Touch is the sense of certitude, it is touch that is the basis of knowing.(8) In fact one is aware of his own existence through touch. Touch then is the primary sense of self- knowledge. Yet touch is also the sense of sympathy; as we say, 'to put yourself in another's shoes', is to feel for another and understand him. Teiresias in Antigone says that he sees through another's eyes. This is what Oidipous clearly fails to do in his dealings with Teiresias and Kreon. He sees no need to look through any pair of eyes other than his own.
Teiresias cannot do anything great - he cannot be a ruler - his blindness prevents that. Hence he can reflect upon himself and others insofar as he is not distracted by the dazzling amount of princely duties. We recall that, for all his foresight and knowledge of himself, he cannot (or will not) solve the riddle of the sphinx. In his confrontation with Oidipous, he would be quite willing to keep silent about the nature of Oidipous' sin and allow the city to continue suffering under the plague (329-334). That is, he seems to be indifferent to the plight of the city. From this the reason why Oidipous blinds himself perhaps becomes clearer: he sets aside his greatness, his ability to quickly see the answer to the most insoluble of problems, in his blinding of his physical eyes that they might no longer distract his mind's eye. Oidipous can no longer know anything but himself.
We are to wonder, if Oidipous' solution be the right one, whether whatever way one chooses to follow in life there is a corresponding blindness. This is the question Sophokles leaves his reader, and can only be answered by looking to Oidipous' original situation. The full nature of his self-sufficiency, his quickness of wit - whatever one might wish to term it - is what he did not see. The latter is what had allowed him to solve the riddle of the Sphinx, rule the city well, and become great. Oidipous knows his way in such great circumstances and for that reason overlooks the possibility of getting lost. He sees, and he does not see. Out of never giving pause to discern where exactly it was he was heading, he walked inexorably to his own downfall. This is the great irony of the story: Oidipous could have avoided his horrible fate by putting aside his quickness of wit - also his temper - and leading a celibate life, a life outside the admiring gaze of the people. A life without greatness. Oidipous wanted to be famous; he became infamous. It seems then, for Oidipous at least, only his self-blinding could fully release him from the temptations of public life. And it is because we see ourselves in this that we fear.
1. Poetics 6, 1450a34; cf. 11, 1452a30ff; 13, 1453a7ff; 14, 1453b27; 16, 1455a17.
2. Poetics 15, 1454b6.
3. Poetics Chapter 13.
4. Nicomachean Ethics Book IV, chapter 14, 1128a1ff.
5. Oidipous Tyrannos 287. The translations are my own.
6. Cf. Lidell and Scott, pous , second definition.
7. Aristotle, Metaphysics I, 1.
8. Aristotle, De Anima II, 9.
Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 1 - June 1993 edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington antiquity-editor@classics.Server.edu.au ISSN 1320-3606