Self-deception is a part of the human condition. Tragedy is not just terrible luck, but our capacity to knowingly/unknowingly deceive ourselves into doing the very things we wanted to avoid. This aspect of human agency, our reluctance to sometimes see the things that are right in front of us, is fundamental to understanding Sophocles’ Greek tragedy ‘Oedipus the King’, but also, ultimately, understanding ourselves, writes Simon Critchley.
We usually think of tragedy as a misfortune that simply befalls a person (an accident, a fatal disease) or a polity (a natural disaster, like a tsunami, or a terrorist attack like 9/11) and that is outside their control. But if “tragedy” is understood as misfortune, then this is a significant misunderstanding of tragedy. What the thirty-one extant Greek tragedies enact over and over again is not a misfortune that is outside our control. Rather, they show the way in which we collude, seemingly unknowingly, with the calamity that befalls us.
Tragedy requires some degree of complicity on our part in the disaster that destroys us. It is not simply a question of the malevolent activity of fate, a dark prophecy that flows from the inscrutable but often questionable will of the gods. Tragedy requires our collusion with that fate. In other words, it requires no small measure of freedom. It is in this way that we can understand the tragedy of Oedipus. With merciless irony (the first two syllables of the name Oedipus, “swollen-foot,” also mean “I know,” oida), we watch someone move from a position of seeming knowledge—“I, Oedipus, whom all men call great. I solve riddles; now, Citizens, what seems to be the problem?” (I paraphrase)—to a deeper truth that it would appear that Oedipus knew nothing about: he is a parricide and a perpetrator of incest. On this reading, which Aristotle endorses, the tragedy of Oedipus consists in the recognition that allows him to pass from ignorance to knowledge.
Tragedy requires some degree of complicity on our part in the disaster that destroys us
But things are more complex than that as there’s a backstory that needs to be recalled. Oedipus turned up in Thebes and solved the Sphinx’s riddle after refusing to return to what he believed was his native Corinth because he had just been told the prophecy about himself by the oracle at Pytho, namely that he would kill his father and have sex with his mother.
Oedipus knew his curse. And, of course, it is on the way back from the oracle that he meets an older man who actually looks a lot like him, as Jocasta inadvertently and almost comically admits later in the play (line 742), who refuses to give way at a crossroads and whom he kills in a fine example of ancient road rage. One might have thought that, given the awful news from the oracle, and given his uncertainty about the identity of his father (Oedipus is called a bastard by a drunk at a banquet in Corinth, which is what first infects his mind with doubt), he might have exercised caution before deciding to kill an older man who seems to have resembled him.
One lesson of tragedy, then, is that we conspire with our fate. That is, fate requires our freedom in order to bring our destiny down upon us. The core contradiction of tragedy is that we both know and we don’t know at one and the same time and are destroyed in the process. It is a difficult, indeed, intolerable thought: How can we both know and not know?
Such is the complex function of prophecy in tragedy. In the tragedy of Oedipus, we watch someone who believes they possess an unencumbered sense of freedom become undone and destroyed by the force of fate. What is so delicate in Oedipus’s experience is that his being is not simply causally determined by fate, by necessity. No, fate requires Oedipus’s partially conscious complicity in order to bring about its truth. Characters in tragedy are not robots or preprogrammed puppets. In its movement from a delusional self-knowledge and the fantasy of an unencumbered freedom to an experience of an insight into truth that costs us our eyes, tragedy gives voice to an experience of agency that is partial and very often painful. It shows the limits of our attempted self-sufficiency and what we might think of as our autonomy. It shows our heteronomy, our profound dependency. Tragedy gives voice to the complex relations between freedom and necessity that define our being. Our freedom is constantly compromised by that which catches us in the nets of the past, in the determination of our past and future being by fate. Tragedy enacts that which snags at our being and pulls us back to a past that we disavow in our constant thirst for the short-term future. Such is the weight of the past that entangles the tragic protagonist (and us) in its meshes. As Rita Felski says, “The weight of what has gone before bears down ineluctably on what is yet to come.” To disavow the past is to be destroyed by it—such is tragedy’s instruction.
In tragedy, time is out of joint and the linear conception of time as a teleological flow from the past to the future is thrown into reverse. The past is not past, the future folds back upon itself, and the present is shot through with fluxions of past and future that destabilize it. Time flexes and twists in tragedy. Its script is you and me, as David Bowie said. Tragedy is the art form of between times, usually between an old world that is passing away and a new world that is coming into being. This is true of Greek tragedy, of Elizabethan tragedy, and perhaps the tragedy of our times. In tragedy, time is always out of joint. Its conjunction is disjunction.
Tragedy has a kind of boomerang structure where the action that we throw out into the world returns to us with a potentially fatal velocity. Oedipus, the solver of riddles, becomes the riddle himself. Sophocles’ play shows him engaged in a relentless inquiry into the pollution that is destroying the political order, poisoning the wells, and producing infant mortality. But he is that pollution.
The tyrant doesn’t hear what is said to him and doesn’t see what is in front of his eyes. But we are tyrants too. We look, but we see nothing. Someone speaks to us, but we hear nothing.
The deeper truth is that Oedipus knows something of this from the get-go, but he refuses to see and hear what is said to him. Very early in the play, blind Tiresias tells him to his face that he is the perpetrator of the pollution that he seeks to eradicate. But Oedipus just doesn’t hear Tiresias. This is one way of interpreting the word “tyrant” in Sophocles’ original Greek title: Oidipous Tyrannos. The tyrant doesn’t hear what is said to him and doesn’t see what is in front of his eyes.
But we are tyrants too. We look, but we see nothing. Someone speaks to us, but we hear nothing. And we go on in our endlessly narcissistic self-justification, adding Facebook updates and posting on Instagram. Tragedy is about many things, but it is centrally concerned with the conditions for actually seeing and actually hearing. In making us blind, we might finally achieve insight, unblock our ears, and stop the droning surf of the endless song of ourselves: me, me, me, this is all for me (really?).
There is a wonderful Greek expression recalled by Anne Carson, “Shame lies on the eyelids.” The point is that the tyrant (and we could list many recent examples) experiences no shame. But we also have no shame. We are also little, shameless tyrants, especially when it comes to our relations to those we think of as our parents and our children. I think of Walter White from Breaking Bad, who insisted until almost the end of the final episode of that long show that he did everything, everything, for his family and not for himself. This is tyranny and this is perversion. Finally, his wife gets him to admit that he also became the meth king of New Mexico, the Heisenberg of the southwestern United States, because he enjoyed it. That’s a start. At least he is acknowledging a desire, a perverse desire.
Greek tragedy provides lessons in shame. When we learn that lesson and finally achieve some insight, as Oedipus does, then it might cost us our sight and we might pluck out our eyes—for shame. The political world is stuffed overfull with sham shame, ham humility, and carefully staged tearful apologies: I’m so sorry; I’m so, so sorry. But true shame is something else.
*A version of this essay was originally published in Simon Critchley’s book Tragedy, The Greeks and Us, under the title “Knowing and Not Knowing: How Oedipus Brings Down Fate”. Published with the author’s permission.