My father, the author of the name that stands in ironic counterpoint to my olive-skinned, decidedly Mediterranean face, the Hennessy in all of my colonial and cosmological confusion and a devout non-believer himself, was studying psychology through out my childhood. By the time he got his Ph.D., just as I was leaving for college, my mother had also taken up the couch and eventually they were both studying down in the mines at the New York Psychoanalytical Institute. The complete works of Sigmund Freud, and next to them the complete works of daughter Anna, occupied the most prominent spot in the house, the mantel over a useless fireplace. We all grew up knowing very well how we "felt" about everything—even before we actually felt it. There was no way we could march unconsciously through all of those Oedipal dramas, my four sisters—each an Electra—and I. We were steeped in myth.
Your ancestors may not have spent time on quite the same merry-go-round of religious belief as my Sicilian forebears (see yesterday’s post,The Moody Temple), but we’ve all grown up with Freud on the mantel. Oedipal is prominent in our lexicon.
My favorite character from mythology is Pan, the Falstaff of the ancient world. Despite his great comic timing, you could say that Pan was a bit of an Oedipal wreck. Funny, though, to say that Pan had Oedipal problems: Oedipal, that is, in the contemporary shorthand. But he didn’t want to kill his father, Hermes, and there was no danger of his sleeping with his mother, Dryope—she wouldn’t let him anywhere near her.
Hermes had tricked the mortal shepherdess Dryope into marrying him: after she refused him when he came to her as a god, he transformed himself into a goatherd and seduced her that way. Pan’s “birth-defects,” the goat-legs, wonky ears, and horns, were a cosmic joke—retribution for Hermes’ cunning. Pan had a face that even a mother couldn’t love, and Dryope skipped out, furious at Hermes, disgusted by her son. If nothing else, Hermes had a sense of humor. He found the baby Pan delightful. He gave the boy music lessons and launched his career as a solo artist.
So why call Pan’s problems Oedipal?
According to Freud, “(Oedipus’) destiny moves us only because it might have been ours—because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that that is so” (4:262; Vol. 4 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Hogarth Press). But Freud butchers the myth of Oedipus here. This wasn’t Oedipus’s fate at all. Even my father the Freudian would agree.
About ten years ago he and I had an interesting conversation. I was teaching a class called “Metamorphoses: Myths and Modern Literature” at Boston University; the next day I was going to begin our discussion comparing Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Greek, a late-twentieth century revision by the playwright Steven Berkoff. At the end of Berkoff’s version, full of wild and ranting Cockney logomania, Eddy and Wife (Jocasta) decide to stay together. As for blinding and exiling himself, Eddy says, “Bollocks to all that. I’d rather run all the way back and pull back the sheets, witness my golden-bodied wife and climb into her sanctuary, climb all the way in right up to my head…”
Dad clucked at that, calling it the obvious irony.
But for the nihilistic anti-hero Eddy, buzzing and fucking his way through working-class London, that ending is inevitable.
So Dad, I hedged, I keep laughing at the way we were taught Oedipus in high school: the tragic hero, hubris the fatal flaw. It’s wrong to say that it was Oedipus’ pride or temper that put him on the road to Thebes. It was love for his parents—or at least the people he thought were his parents.
Oh, absolutely, Dad agreed. That reading’s totally unfair. His real parents tried to kill him. In fact, I’d say that what we call the Oedipus complex is as much—no, more—
about the parents than the kids.
Dad was right. Poor Oedipus. Laius and Jocasta, his birth parents, were monsters. But everything Oedipus did was honorable. When he learned, as an adult, the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, he took appropriate steps to try to avoid this fate. He gave up the kingdom he was in line for and left town. That isn’t hubris; that’s filial love and duty—who wouldn’t do the same?
And Oedipus didn’t fall in love with his mother and kill his father as a rival. In fact the order of actions is the reverse. Love had nothing to do with Laius’ murder. Sexual desire, competition for affection and attention? No. It was hot-tempered fury, pure ancient road-rage: Oedipus was minding his own business when Laius tried to knock him off the path. For the second time in Oedipus’ life, Laius met him with violence.
It was the community of Thebes, the people, who conspired to fix Oedipus up with his mother. Hey, great, you killed the Sphinx? Well, look, we’re going to reward you with our kingdom and this well-preserved, widowed queen. At worst, Oedipus seems to be a dupe.
But Oedipus was a hero. And no understanding of the myth of Oedipus can be complete without taking into account the hero’s entire life story (don’t make any conclusions about a person’s time on earth until he’s lived through it all is one of the often-voiced themes of the plays)—and especially the story of his death as Sophocles reports it in Oedipus at Colonus. We must read Oedipus the way Elaine Pagels, in The Origin of Satan, reads Job (“Satan” as ennobling “obstacle,” not “enemy”; cosmic tool and helper, not antagonist)—that his misfortunes were a trial to bring him closer to the divine. Oedipus was no cosmic victim, in the end. After years of exile—attended by his sister/daughters—he refused to take sides in the civil war being waged between his two sons. Instead of blessing Thebes with the burial of his body there, he cursed his boys. He said goodbye to his daughters and prepared for his death, a kind of physical assumption leaving no corpse behind. (In Robert Bagg’s excellent new translation just out from Harper Perennial ) Sophocles writes,
…It was either a god spiriting him away, or else the Earth’s lower world—
her deep foundations—opening to him,
for he felt nothing but welcoming kindness.
When this man vanished, there was no sorrow.
He suffered no sickness. His death, like no
other man’s, was a cause for wonder. (ll. 1817-1823)
It’s interesting to note that I was a father myself when this discussion with my father took place. If I were cynical I’d say, sure, change the rules now, why don’t you? Blame the parents—now that I’m one, now that I have a son. But I’m not cynical. It was a discussion that, for a while, at least, eradicated the limits of our father-son relationship. We were peers, mutual in experience, both fathers of sons.
And my oldest son is a student of mythology. When he was five and a half, he and his toddler brother received a belated baptism into the Roman Catholic Church. In an interview before the ceremony he told his ex-Jesuit grandfather, my beloved father-in-law, that he was good with Jesus. But, he said, he also believed in “the gods of ancient Greece and Rome.” It’s a big and very old block, isn’t it?
—for a brief discussion of the Greek economy and current political situation (including links) go here.
—for Sifnos and The Moody Temple go here.
Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke is a leading Greek poet whose work has been translated into many languages, including English. I’ve been reading her New and Selected Poems, The Scattered Papers of Penelope (Graywolf) edited by Karen Van Dyck, on Sifnos this summer and here is a selection:
THE OTHER PENELOPE
Penelope emerges from the olive trees
her hair more or less tidy
her dress from the neighborhood market
navy blue with white flowers.
She tells us it wasn’t obsession
with the idea of “Odysseus”
that pressed her to let the suitors
wait for years in the forecourts
of her body’s secret habits.
There in the island’s palace—
with the fake horizons
of a saccharine love
and only the bird in the window
comprehending the infinite—
she had painted with nature’s colors
the portrait of love.
Seated, one leg crossed over the other,
holding a cup of coffee
up early, a little grumpy, smiling a little
he emerges warm from the down of sleep.
His shadow on the wall:
trace of a piece of furniture just taken away
blood of an ancient murder
a lone performance of Karaghiozi
on the screen, pain always behind him.
Love and pain indivisible
like the pail and the child
on the sandy beach
the ah! and a crystal glass that slipped from one’s hand
the green fly and the slaughtered animal
the soil and the shovel
the naked body and the single sheet in July.
And Penelope who now hears
the evocative music of fear
the cymbals of resignation
the sweet song of a quiet day
without sudden changes of weather and tone
the complex chords
of an infinite gratitude
for what did not happen, was not said, cannot be uttered
now signals no, no, no more loving
no more words and whispers
caresses and bites
small cries in the darkness
scent of flesh that burns in the light.
Pain was the most exquisite suitor
and she slammed the door on him.
Translated by Edmund and Mary Keeley