Aristotle once said that tragedy “is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude.” The better it serves to mirror such interior human experience, the greater the impact it has in the spectator. While the first of the Theban plays written by Sophocles is commonly held to overshadow its sequel in tragic content, the underlying action that joins the two plays however only comes to full at the end of the second. This theatrical unit might also be considered the imitation of the movement of metaphor, as Ricoeur would describe it.
As the theatrical action opens, the connection of a metaphor is opened, initiating a struggle against the inherent distance of the terms that must be overcome and the eventual unveiling of meaning’s magnitude. This climactic moment of Oedipus’ reaction before the fullness of the truth about himself is however a middle point of sorts, which extends through the second play to an eventual opening of horizons, which offers possible ulterior conclusions on the meaning that should be given to the whole of his action, in light of the way that he has taken truth upon himself.
The audience always arrives upon the scene, in media rei. In the first play, Laius has already been slain, Oedipus has already defeated the Sphinx and received the throne of Thebes with Jocasta as his wife, having now four grown children with her. In the second, Creon has decided to banish Oedipus, and the rule of Thebes has tentatively been organized between his two sons. The absence of the audience to these events establishes the necessity of always taking into account an implicit context. Such too is the reality of metaphor.
Oedipus, while not free from defect, is continually the advocate of a noble conscience that must grapple with an inexplicable affliction. The contextual facts are in no way accessorial to the plot, but mark the seeds of action already sown; an action whose gravity, completion and magnitude are yet to be determined by the main actor; and it will be precisely in their determination –in his mode of reacting to them– that the integrity and originality of the Sophoclean tragedy reveals its substance.
[pullquote]Oedipus is presented in capacity as master of metaphor. For this reason he was able to decipher the riddle of the Sphinx, emblematically declaring the unveiling of a man’s life. This shrewd power of deduction that he holds, seemingly all too firmly within his own hands, becomes this tragedy’s perfect leverage. His unyielding tenacity for –and commitment to undertake– truth reveals a frightening testament to the radical demands of existential sincerity; so furnishing a theatrical rebuke of the human willfulness to blur the lines of fact with fiction.[/pullquote]
This sincerity is shown at first in his drive to encounter a cure for the ails of his polis, which means bringing king Laius’ death to justice. The Sphinx had kept the polis from confronting the issue –perhaps a symptomatic skotosis of nolition– for which Oedipus declares, “all have sinned, they could have searched it out, and did not.” So he takes it upon himself to right his people’s fault, but discovers that in order to assimilate the problem, he literally must assume the fault as his own, for it has strangely been his fault all along. He finds himself bound not by a lexical order of responsibility, but by an ontological one.
He is thus master of metaphor in an even deeper sense, for his character becomes the personification of two parallel terms destined to coincide. He, like the metaphor, will be ruled not by the lex of what has been said, but by the (ontological) context of what has been done. The fruit of his dramatic action confesses an opening horizon where the meaning of every consequence had been veiled, distanced from a direct correspondence with the truth. Sincerity presents itself as his only recourse, but with sincerity comes dramatic mortification and privation.
The hypothetical possibilities of the unknown within him never quite equal his prospect; so he remains restlessly unsatisfied until all his doubts can be put to rest upon the matter. Determined to uncover the truth, and eventually, ironically, his true self, Oedipus undergoes a strange metaphorical cleaving of sorts, still reluctantly unconscious of his existential refraction; as the blind prophet declared, “you are your own enemy.” Thus he arrives at the pivotal moment when all truth has been brought before his consciousness, and a judgment must be made, conclusive action must be taken to ratify what has been found; for it has been found in substance to be a contradiction.
Here, the actions placed in motion long beforehand finally receive a delayed but necessary fullness under his own verdict of them. They would remain incomplete without this sincere and informed judgment, either defended behind the agnition of a logical contradiction, or neglected in the self-denial of a nolition. Instead, here all moral fiber is placed into the crucible of Oedipus’ decision. Though he had not willed the fulfillment of the prophecy, the ontological context that he first ignored now cannot be denied or revoked, it must be undertaken. His ordeal could thus be described by Blondel: “These actions that I did not completely foresee, that I did not entirely order, once they are accomplished, weigh on all of my life and act upon me, seemingly more than I acted upon them.”
In order to fulfill what he had set out for, he must now assume what he had least anticipated. The salvation of his people lies in his demise, the knowledge he seeks regards his own ignorance, and the purification of his vision now obliges his blindness, which he afflicts upon himself declaring, “You have looked enough upon those that you ought not have looked upon, failed long enough to know those which you should have known, henceforth you shall be dark.” In the darkness that he assumes, there remains a certain simile with the sin of his people, for out of nolition he declares, “It is better to be blind than dead…I should not want to look upon my father and mother.” Ironically, his parent’s original fault, for which his very namesake is cursed, having distanced his existence from the truth, conditioning the whole mess, remains hidden before his enlightenment, for he cannot detach himself from the actions of patricide and incest which he committed, even if his prospect was never equal to their ontological value.
He however, has taken this remedy upon himself: to equal his deed’s ontological value; incising both a metaphorical and frighteningly real condemnation. This mortification, whose tragic devise is cathartic, shows yet action’s full dynamism, and plays a decisive role upon his arrival at Colonus. Having assumed the ultimate consequences of his own radical sincerity, Oedipus stumbles upon a holy ground where he is destined to die. Beyond this, he inspires the pity and favor of the townsfolk with the promise of bringing them good favor. With this he wins their hospitality, transforming xenoi into philoi, assuming himself the status of a heroic figure; so bringing to fruition certain cardinals of Greek culture that his own Thebes had refused him. His final word is not one of despair but of communion, “philoi, be my patrons and I will bring everything to fulfillment.”
[pullquote]Thus the conclusion of the complete movement between first and second play is thus perhaps not as tragic, but still conforms to Aristotle’s theatrical reflections on recognition and reversal. Oedipus is vindicated in his eternal resting place as a blessing, not a curse, the exact location of which however remains a mystery. There is a certain significance in this fact with regards to the movement of metaphor, for although a metaphor is given a determined end, its horizon continues to open to a mysterious realm, where the true seriousness, completion and magnitude of what is implied, lies not in what was said, but continually in what is to be done, being ever, although perhaps unconsciously, sown into life’s course and destiny.[/pullquote]
This message of unwarranted consequence, irrevocable involvement, and Oedipus’ testimony of radical sincerity before the worst consequences (even if they outdo his own liability), work upon our own sensitivity, our own reluctance to grasp at the unknown in us that becomes latent, but discoverable in action. In this, it seems the Sophoclean tragedy pulls at the heartstrings of an audience too who at first might believe themselves to be uninvolved, but gradually discovers that with or without their own willfulness, they have irrevocably become involved, and must choose how to confront their own interior upheaval. Will the meaning given to it be the product of fact or of fiction? Will our experience of tragedy remain trivial, incomplete and insignificant or will we undertake the labor implied in this metaphoric discovery, imitated for our own observation?
© 2015 – Benjamin Oldani para el Centro de Estudios Católicos – CEC