A Dr. Seuss Narration of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King

February 18, 2013

A Dr. Seuss Narration of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King

By Robert McManmon

NOTE: Oedi is pronounced Eddy

“A plague is upon us a cruel fate suffer we”

Cried the people of Thebes to their king Oedopee.

“Fear not for your fate, or the fate of your kin,

Or the fate of our land, or the state we are in.

For Creon has spoke with the oracle Delphi,

What we must do now is solve this mystery.

I will go out and find the murder of he,

Or fallen king Laius, dear justice shall be!”

And so our king Oedi in blink of an eye,

With the wave of a hand, a gesture, a sigh

With the might of the land that bowed before thee,

Sent for a prophet who frankly can’t see.

“Tiresias, I ask you to help me my friend,

For the land is in turmoil, our crops they need mend.

And all I need do is answer this quest,

Who killed poor Laius, who put him to rest?”

“I know you see up, you see down you see left,

But how do you not see right through this cruel jest?”

And more spoke Tiresias with a hushed, shaky tone,

“For the one you seek is you, and you alone”

On hearing this Oedipus quickly shoot up from his throne

And lashed back at him, a proclamation of his own.

“How dare you even tease at the notion of me,

Murdering a king, no less the old king of we?!”

Enraged at the audacity of the prophet’s declaration,

Oedipus now blames Creon for conspiring and causation.

As soon as the claim did slip from his mouth,

Creon enraged, began a fare bout,

Upon all this rumble the Queen did awake,

And out to the court yard her voice did she take.

“Now men now men what trouble you so?”

Said Jocasta with a grumble as if ready to blow.

“It’s just this prophet, that Creon sent me,

He claims I’m a murderer, and he conspires with Cre.

For you see this is all just a plot, just a ploy,

Just a way for my brother here to take over with joy!”

“But, my husband,” Jocasta cried, “You can’t possibly believe this?

All the things these men tell you, it is all so amiss.

For a bone of a bird may says this may say that

Next you’ll believe there Cat in a Hat!”

Upon hearing these words Odie’s heart was eased,

Accusations revoked, and Creon was pleased.

Continued Jocasta, adding to her case,

“I’ll show you why prophets are nothing but waste!

See back when our dear Laius was husband of mine,

So too did a prophet proclaim him a sign.

Pulled from the guts of some rat or some toad,

Came the notion that he would be killed on the road.”

“On the road” pondered Oedipus aloud,

“On the road, with a troupe?”

“On the road with crowd?”

Did he travel alone or were men with he?

Did he travel on foot or on noble breed?”

“Yes on the road” Jocasta did reply,

“Yes with three men, and three men with he lie.”

As thoughts rushed madly through Odiepee’s head,

“Could this have anything to do with the men I’ve made dead?”

Jocasta asked Oedipus to explain her his case,

And Oedipus began “It starts with my birthplace.”

“For you see I was born in a land far, far away,

In a land where too a prophet did stay.

And this prophet in the land had a fate bestowed on me,

And was brought to my attention in a moment of glee.

On one cloudy day with nothing to do,

I thought to myself “I’ll go the zoo!”,

But alas it was closed for the rest of the year,

So I said “Well that stinks, I need a beer.”

The bar down the road was a marvelous sight,

So I thought to myself “I’ll stay here all night!”

As I walked in out poured others head over toe ,

Which made me grin a greasy grin and my face start to glow.

All night we spilt beer over table and rug

While the sound of our drinking filled the room with a

Glug!

Glug!

Glug!

Glug!

Then a man to my left gave my shirt a firm pluck

And in a wheat scented voice said “your father has bad luck.”

I asked what he meant with this statement he bid,

He replied “it must suck, to be killed by your kid.”

Anger built inside me as my stomach brewed,

But he said “that’s not all your mothers no prude!”

For you see in your future you two shall be wed,

After all, by then, your father’ll be dead.

In a spit of rage, and bit of furry,

I bludgeoned the man and ran off in a hurry,

With this fate upon me, my home I could no longer see,

So I said to myself “I will not let this fate be!”

To my parents I promised “My best I will do,

To keep this poor fate from myself and you!”

And so he I ran off with a flash, with a bang,

With a crack of a whip, to the back of a Mane,

Off to a new city, I ran far, far from here,

Off to a place where fate I’d not fear.

And so on my way I ran into a man,

who it’s now all too clear was unusually tan,

for upon a chariot at cross roads encounter did we,

and he pushed me aside him and his three.

But I could not take such a disgrace to my travels,

So I drew forth my sword and a battle unraveled.

After our short fought but long winded viscous ol’ brawl,

I had slain the old man and his companions, oh how they’d fallen.

That’s when I arrived in our great city of Thebes,

Made rid of the Sphinx and courted with thee,

But one part of this prophet’s statement remains unclear,

How could my prophecy be so close, so near?”

Jocasta now chimed in, confident as ever,

“My husband you need more proof? Lets speak to a witness.

For a man in the field of our land saw the fight,

he was there on that day, he recalls that plight.”

And so Jocasta sent for the poor man,

Who age had made weak,

The man arrived and spoke,

And his story he did speak.

“Yes I recall what on that road I did see,

But Oedipus I have more relevant information for thee.

You see you and your parents Polybus, and Merope,

Share the same blood no more than myself and the pope.

Yes you were found as a baby by a Sheppard friend of mine,

On a hillside abandoned, your feet were entwined,

He felt for you dearly the Sheppard did so,

And brought you to Corinth to learn and to grow.”

Now Jocasta beginning to see it all a bit to clear,

Said “Oedipus that’s all the information we need my dear.”

“But we’re so close to this mystery solved,”

Oedipus did reply

“We’re both so involved, how can we now turn a blind eye?

And Sheppard, where came this boy, on Cliffside abandoned?”

The Sheppard replied,

“From the house of Laius, was the boy orphaned.

Yes this poor poor infant was fated at birth

To kill his father the king, to spill blood from his girth.

And on hearing this Laius ordered Jocastee

‘See to it the child rid of, for he will try’n kill me!’

So whence receiving the child and his fate made clear

I took him far far away to a land nowhere near.”

With this last little tip, little piece of the puzzle,

Oedipus began going mad like a dog with no muzzle,

With a grizzle, a frizzle, a frazzle, a fruzzle,

With dazzle of schnizzle, and a schnozzle of schnuzzle,

Now complete in his mind, all the pieces in the puzzle,

Oedipus ran to Jocasta to tell how he’d been embuzzled.

He swung open to door to the bedroom, with a BANG!

To see in the center of the room Jocasta did hang.

From her robe Oedi pulled two pins shiny silver,

And raised them to the sky in a feat of fervor,

Raised up high with one in each hand,

With each one an eye ready to be damned.

He cried “Now I see, now I see all is clear!

I have killed my own father, and my wife-mother here!

I have been victim of fate and the bad things she bestows

I have all this upon me this blood on my clothes!”

Then Oedipus ran the shiny silver slivers straight into his eyes,

Blood spewed forth as did moans as did groans, as did sighs,

Pieces of flesh pouring out one by one,

Til’ all he could see his was his fate he had won.

Begging to Creon with his eyes dripping red,

“Please exile me now, for inside I am dead.”

Creon did what he wished and exiled him so,

From there spent our king, all of his days full of woe,

Day on day wondering, no longer blind to his fate,

His own father he murdered, and his mother his mate.

And so I ask you, if you were this man,

if you had fates twists to account in your plan,

if this sort of thing were to happen too you,

Well…

what would you do

if this king was you?

-RCM

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Links for Plato’s “Gorgias”

February 14, 2013

You can find the text several places (there are two translations available online, but they’re posted several places). Anyway, you can find the reading here and here. They’re the same translation, but I think the first one is in a more readable format. However, the first link divides the text into four parts. The first part is is the translators introduction, and the next three are for the text proper. You can also find another translation here, but unfortunately, this particular site has created a separate page for every page of text.

I will also post some reading questions as soon as I write them.


Paper Topics 1, Spring 2013

February 13, 2013

Select ONE of the following paper topics.  Papers are to be 1000-1500 words (about 3-4 pages), double-spaced, with 1 inch margins, and in 12 point, Times New Roman or Garamond font.  Papers are due TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 26, at the beginning of class.  Whenever appropriate, make sure you support your arguments and claims with textual evidence. Don’t over-quote, however; it is often enough to refer to the relevant passage with a parenthetical reference (Sophocles, p. 10) or a footnote. If you have an edition of any book different from the ones listed on the syllabus, make sure you indicate this in a bibliography or a footnote.  Note that, for the purposes of this assignment, the professor’s lectures are considered to be in public domain: you don’t need to cite them. However, when the professor says, “Thucydides thinks blah blah blah,” then you need to cite the appropriate places in Thucydides.

1. In what sense can we understand the tragedy found in “Oedipus the King” as a response to the problem of nihilism?  Be sure to explain what tragedy in general is and how it relates to the problem of nihilism.

2.  What is the tragic conflict in “Antigone” and should we see this conflict as tragic (i.e., as irresolvable and/or inevitable)?  Given your answer, what sorts of consequences follow for the principles that ought to guide forms of political action or engagement? Hint: You may want to draw upon or criticize Bonnie Honig’s article to address this question.

3. In his descriptions of Pericles’ early speeches, Thucydides presents an account of the Athenian virtues. What is this system of values, and how do they compare to the forms of values that the character Antigone represents? Which system of values is more useful for political life? Explain your answer.

4. One common interpretation of the ritual of Greek tragedy (and the Festival of Dionysus in general) is that it functioned as an “exception institution.” The Festival, on this reading, was a specially carved out space and time where the Athenians can encounter, experience, and express emotions that are not permitted in normal polis life. One implication of this idea is that the Festival of Dionysus played a “constructive” role in Athenian democracy, primarily by allowing disruptive ideas and emotions to be vented in safe, harmless, or even socially constructive ways. In this essay, examine Honig’s discussion of Creon’s grief (pp. 27-31). According to Honig, what does Creon’s grief have to tell us about efforts to develop exception institutions to help keep disruptive emotions in check? What implications might this position have for understanding or criticizing the way our own society contains, expresses, or avoids forms of grief?

5. According to Honig, the play “Antigone” “explores the conflict between two economies of mourning and membership…but sides with neither (p. 29). The play illustrates the costs of forcing people into the notions of discipline and interchangeablity found in democratic life while simultaneously acknowledging the limits (e.g., the self-indulgence) of the Homeric/aristocratic mode of mourning and membership. Now, Honig argues that this reading does not simply leave us with an “empty undecidability,” but instead generates a “deep criticality” (p. 26). Do you agree? In other words, does Honig’s reading of the play help sustain a deep and critical engagement with democratic and aristocratic values and ideals, where we both assess the worthiness and the limits of these values? Or does her reading instead generate a form of epistemological/value nihilism, where the lesson of the play is only that we have no way of determining which set of values we ought to embrace? Explain your answer.


Re-Posting Reading questions on Honig’s “Antigone’s Laments, Creon’s Grief”

February 10, 2013

Reading questions on Honig’s “Antigone’s Laments, Creon’s Grief”

(1)  Focus for a moment on Honig’s epigraph. What does the epigraph mean? In what sense is it true?

(2)  What is Honig’s thesis? More specifically, what does she think “Antigone” is about?

(3)  One way to get at this reading is to focus on how Honig interprets some of the main characters: what does the character Antigone represent? What does Creon represent?

(4)  One of Honig’s more unusual claims is that the play is not really about burying Polynices, but is instead about the question of how one should grieve in general (p. 7). Why does she emphasize this point?

(5)  Honig also offers a critique of “dissident” politics (p. 8). What is her critique? You should think of this in two ways: first, you need to be able to explain why dissident politics does not adequately comprehend what is at stake in the play, and second, you need to think about what is possibly wrong with the idea of dissidence in general. Honig’s critique, I must add, moves on both levels.

(6)  How does Honig defend her idea that Creon actually represents democracy? Pay attention, first, to pp. 9-10, but also look to the other evidence she points out throughout the article.

(7)  The first body section of Honig’s article contains a brief overview of traditional burial practices and some of the efforts to reform them. Try not to get too bogged down in details (though you might want to look up “goos” and “threnos”; Honig defines them, but google is also your friend here). What are some of the main features of the traditional burial rituals? What are some of the reforms that were being instituted during the time Sophocles was writing?

(8)  In her second body section (starting on p. 13), Honig begins to make her case that the play is really about the clash between democratic and “Homeric” (or more specifically, aristocratic) burial practices. What is some of the evidence she presents?

(9)  What is Honig’s interpretation of the Antigone’s use of the phrase “son of my mother” to describe Polynices (p. 15)?

(10) What is Honig’s interpretation of Antigone’s famous speech, wherein she declares that she would not have defied Creon’s orders for a son or a husband, because they would be, unlike her brother, replaceable (see pp. 16ff)

(11) Honig points out that Antigone’s reasoning about the irreplaceablity of her brother also cites another story from Herodotus, the story of Intaphrenes’ wife (see pp. 18-19). What is this story and how is it similar and different from Creon and Antigone’s interactions? What conclusion does Honig draw from her comparison of the two stories (p. 19, last two paragraphs, primarily)?

(12) What are some of the critiques of democracy embedded in the play, according to Honig?

(13) What are some of the democratic critiques of aristocracy that are embedded in the play, according to Honig?

(14) How does Honig interpret Eurydice’s death (pp. 22-24)?

(15) What is Honig’s conclusion about the play’s perspective on the rival positions it explores? Pay attention in particular to pp. 25ff.

(16) If the play is about mourning, then how does Creon mourn? Is his mourning more “democratic” or “aristocratic”?


Some thoughts on tragedy and nihilism (re-posted, with updates)

February 3, 2013

I have written on this subject before, and in most respects, this post is simply a re-statement with some minor additions. You can see the original post here.

Let me begin with what I take to be a fairly uncontroversial point: the experience of being alive entails a great many features that are often interpreted as bad, wrong, or even evil. There is suffering, vividly described, for instance, in the chorus we read from Oedipus at Colonus; there is constant change, so that the moments of joy and happiness never last; there are bullies and brutes of all kinds, ignorance and misunderstandings, inconsistent/contradictory feelings, and we often seem to lack the ability to determine what is really true or right.

We might say that nihilism comes in a variety of forms, but I’ll mention two: 1) because of the features I just described, life is not worth living (“not to be born is best of all/ when life is there, the second best by far is to go hence where you came, with the best speed you may,” as the chorus puts it in Oedipus at Colonus). This version of nihilism is a form of despair 2) We don’t know exactly what makes life worth living; that is, our highest values/goals appear to be illusory, in the sense that we do not and cannot know whether they are truly valuable.  This form of nihilism is a form of disorientation, wherein I don’t know what I should do with my life. I focus attention on the first variety, since I think it is most relevant for understanding tragedy.

Now, one common response to the first form of nihilism is to posit a “next world,” in which these values are in fact realized.  The most obvious case of this among Americans is in Christian thinking: life in this world is much as the nihilist describes it; humans are pretty awful and sinful creatures; our institutions are irredeemably flawed and unjust.  But their conclusion is to hold out hope for a final redemption—an act of grace from the supernatural that will help us achieve some final reconciliation. There are other versions of this same motif: Marxism, for instance, does not hope for an act of supernatural salvation, but rather that History will eventually to produce our highest values (freedom, equality, brotherhood), at least in the long run in the long run.  This is also a doctrine found in much contemporary political rhetoric: we always cast the present merely as an incomplete realization of the high ideal to be found in the future (as in, “sure, there are still problems with racism, but we’re making progress”). In short, one common response to nihilism is to develop a vision of “rectilinear” time, wherein there is a definite and identifiable beginning and ending, and that all of the events that occur push us closer to or further away from the end. There is a final state of being at the end of time, which Christians call “salvation,” and others call something else (a just society, for instance), and that the past and present are all pointing toward that point.

Nihilistic despair emerges, then, when we start to doubt the possibility of the realization of this end; perhaps one no longer thinks that the end is possible, or perhaps one thinks that even if it is possible, the end does not actually justify the suffering in the present. I could add that this nihilism often takes two basic forms: “passive nihilism” is a kind of resignation; one realizes that the world is inhospitable to one’s highest values, and so one attempts not to will any longer—to simply endure (often with the aid of many distractions, such as entertainment, alcohol, and so forth).  Active nihilism, by contrast, takes the form of destruction.  Think Lenin here: he realizes that the world, as it is currently organized, is inhospitable to the realization of his highest values, and so he wills its destruction (Lenin, for instance, once decided that he could no longer listen to Beethoven any longer, since the beauty of the music overly reconciled and made him willing to live in it as it is). Active nihilism can take many forms—from Christian millennialism, to various fantasies about the destruction of the earth in an environmental catastrophe, to the fantasies that murdering people in a discothèque will lead to the creation of a new Caliphate or the return of the Twelfth Imam (just to be clear, I want to add that none of these beliefs as such necessarily imply a form of active nihilism; they embody nihilism only when there is an active and destructive desire to transition to an otherworldly or transcendent state–i.e., a state of affairs that represents a totalizing break with the world as it exists). What all of these phenomena share (or more accurately, can share) is a general belief that the world as it exists is evil and must be cleansed in order to achieve “otherworldly” values (e.g., Salvation, Justice, Peace on Earth, andother Ideals with Capital Letters).

But there is another way of understanding nihilism, and this is basically Nietzsche’s conception. From a tragic point of view, the first variety of nihilism emerges primarily because we value the wrong things: we become nihilistic insofar as our highest values include permanence and “being” (rather than flux, impermanence, and “becoming”), rest or completion (as opposed to a struggle to overcome obstacles), and the hope for some sort of final triumph or salvation (rather than an acceptance of the inevitability of failure).  The idea here is that tragedy represents a more or less fully worked out ethical system of values—one that places value primarily on the parenthetical statements above (i.e., it values impermanence and becoming, struggle and the suffering that attends such struggle, and acceptance of the inevitability of ultimate failure).  In this sense, tragedy is a response to nihilism, not an embracing of it.  “Oedipus the King” takes seriously the claim that “not to be born is best of all,” but I think that Oedipus (and by extension the play as a whole) rejects that idea (perhaps Creon does too, since he does not quite “lose himself” at the end of “Antigone,” and he also refuses to commit suicide).

Some of this can be seen in an aspect of tragedy that I have not emphasized but should have.  Tragic narratives often proceed by juxtaposing heterogeneous (or indeed opposite) elements in the same character, event, or object.  These juxtapositions occur throughout “Oedipus the King.”  Oedipus’ actions to avoid his fate are simultaneously the actions that bring it about; his in-sight into the nature of his fate is symbolized by his blindness (and conversely, his inability to understand is represented by his sight in his interactions with the blind-but-seeing Tiresias).  This dimension of tragedy is connected to the basic idea of tragedy as an ethical worldview: when things are represented as X and not-X at the same time, one is drawn to the notions of imperfection, impermanence, and becoming (e.g., one is drawn to one of the essential features of reality as we experience it: the things of this world are transitory, relative, and internally contradictory).  The tragedian invites us neither to deny this, rail against it in anger, nor to despair over it.  Rather, a tragic worldview embraces and affirms these elements of life as the way to embrace life as it is, and perhaps to improve it into what it could be.

One can see a similar motif in the film “Groundhog Day.” I will not go into detail here, but you can see an excellent case made in this discussion. What is of interest is that, by the end of the film, the main character (Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray) endorses the idea of living in the town where he had been trapped for an eternity. One can read this as a kind of affirmation of the small town virtues and naivte that he had originally despised. But I think it’s equally plausible to recognize this as an endorsement of his fate; Phil Connors recognizes that life is in fact a constant repetition and recurrence, that he must give up his hopes of escape and transcendence, but he does so not in a spirit of resignation or resentment. Rather, he fully embraces his fate, and indeed, learns to love it.

I would argue that some of these ideas play roles in “Antigone” and in Thucydides too, though I’ll not focus on him so much here.  In “Antigone,” the conflict is tragic because it appears to be unavoidable; that is, the position of the play appears to be that, whatever is going on between Antigone and Creon, their conflict reveals the fact that, at least in this world, it is sometimes impossible to resolve certain affairs.  That is, the play reveals that there are certain irresolvable dilemmas (e.g., one must mourn and pay allegiance to the irreplaceable individual who dies, but one must also organize citizenship and/or politics in such a way that one sees citizens as replaceable; or put more simply, one is a unique and irreplaceable individual, but also a mere member of a more general community—just one case of a 6 billion other humans). Again, one response to this is not to despair that we cannot resolve this conflict, but to learn how to live with it, to endorse the struggle over how to live with it as meaningful in itself. Thucydides adopts the same sort of point of view, I think; he reveals humans in all of their messy, contradictory, and hypocritical glory. But he does not rail against this or despair over it. Rather, his attitude (particularly if you read the rest of the book) appears to be a kind of bemusement, or ironic detachment, as he juxtaposes these actors’ self-seriousness and declarations of virtue, with their often-ridiculous actions and their self-interest/fear. In this sense, Thucydides presents the Peloponnesian war as a tragedy.


Links to the Readings on Thucydides

February 2, 2013

Next week we are reading excerpts from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. You can find the “Funeral Oration” here, and the “Account of the Plague in Athens” here. We will be reading them for Tuesday. Just for fun, here’s another translation.

The “Melian Dialogue” (to be discussed on Thursday) is here.