My "Search for Values" class began our section on tragedy at the end of this week with Oedipus Rex. (We'll read Antigone next week.) Sophocles' "trilogy" is one of those works of literature that I always need to read again to remember how great it is. Part of that, I think, is due to the almost-ubiquitous use of Oedipus as a reference in academia, which makes the character and his story seem banal to me most of the time. Another part of that is my latent distaste for psychoanalysis, an ideological prejudice that I have been working to overcome for years now. Nevertheless, every time I read Sophocles' plays I am, in the parlance of Aristotle, struck with pity and fear... and then, ultimately, edified by the subsequent cartharsis.
My students, like most first-time-readers of Oedipus Rex, initially viewed the major conflict of the play as one between fate and free will. Of course, there was no real concept of "free will" when Sophocles wrote the play, but we all know that not having a philosophical concept for something certainly does not preclude human beings from experiencing it. Still, our discussion in class quickly boiled down to a question about the nature and extent of Oedipus' "freedom," such that it was. What, exactly, was Oedipus 'free' to do?
I like the way Robert Fagles (whose translation of Sophocles I use) answers this question in his introduction to Oedipus Rex. In the spirit of Aristotle, Fagles argues that Oedipus was "free" to know (or not to know) the truth. Sophocles was writing his plays just as philosophy was being born, and the not-so-subtle tension between the truth of the philosopher and the truth of the oracle is written all over Oedipus' story. I agree with Fagles that this is what draws us to the play; this is what "we" see in Oedipus' story that we also recognize in ourselves.
As much as I want to resist my own tendency to over-intellectualize the play or to settle in an interpretation that seems, well, disembodied, I just have a hard time reading Oedipus Rex along with Freud and his followers, who want to see in this story an archetype of human sexual desire, human aggression, and the specific targets at which those drives are directed. But I'm still open to hearing arguments in favor of a psychoanalytic reading of this (or any other) text.
Why isn't this story one of mind over mater?