Abraham and Oedipus: paradigms of comedic and tragic belief.
After the brief genealogy closing Genesis 11 establishes a minimal context for Abram (father, brothers, wife, lesser relations), Genesis 12 opens abruptly with the Lord's call to Abram, fusing an imperative and a promise:
Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (12.1-3, NIV)
The crucial terms of Abrahamic belief are already present. The person to be believed is the Lord, who, as Eric Auerbach observed, receives no context; he simply is (8-9). From out of his unfathomed depths, the Lord speaks, and Abram listens--and obeys. The message to be believed is somewhat specific on two points and immeasurably broad on a third. The Lord promises land and progeny, as he will each time he restates and develops the blessing, but also he promises, simply, "blessing," barak, essentially an assurance that things will go well. The text here makes no direct statement on the faithfulness of Abram's response, but the terseness of the narrative implies a surprisingly modern understanding, one I term "Jamesian belief," with reference both to the New Testament epistle and to the modern psychologist. Citing later Abrahamic passages, a jeweled verse from Genesis 15 (that Paul would also privilege) and the whole of Genesis 22 (the binding of Isaac), the epistle of James argues that faith and works are inseparable (2.18). The story illustrates the epistle's point, because that which Abram does is the expression of his faith. In Genesis, the Lord says, "Go forth from your land" (12.1), and the text answers (Abram does not even speak it for himself), "And Abram went forth as the Lord had spoken" (12.4).
As though elaborating on his namesake's epistle, William James begins his seminal essay "The Will to Believe" as if he were about to preach yet another "sermon on justification by faith," the famous Pauline phrase (cf. Romans 4-5.1) Abrahamic at its core. But James quickly swerves to his real subject (to the partial relief, one imagines, of his original audience in late nineteenth-century New Haven), the "justification of faith," that is, "a defence of our right to accept a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical mind may not have been coerced" (13). The relevance to Abraham goes well beyond one clever allusion. Jamesian faith not only tolerates uncertainty, but a "live hypothesis" requires a good deal of it, initially at least, as an opportunity to exercise belief. For James belief is indeed an exercise, an action, then a whole series of actions. When we believe in some truly "momentous" matter, "we act, taking our life in our hands," and what is acted on earth acts upon heaven (33). For a believer (and such is Abraham), "faith acts on the powers above him as a claim, and creates its own verification" (28-29). James pauses on that telling etymology, veri-fication, the making of truth. James seems to allow the individual believer more initiative than does Genesis, with its leading Lord, but that may just be a concession to his audience and the times. Yet even for the modern philosopher and psychologist, as once for Genesis or the traditional theologian, the question of belief at its most urgent remains nonetheless religious, and in such belief, "The universe is no longer a mere It to us, but a Thou, if we are religious; and any relation that may be possible from person to person might be possible here" (31). In Genesis, the Lord calls, Abraham responds; together they participate in a succession of marvelous events, and in the process they create--perhaps the ultimate outcome of faith--their intimate relationship.
Though exemplary, as it is human, Abra(ha)m's faith is not always praiseworthy. The simplicity of Abram's initial faith, the unicity of what he believes and what he does, is quickly complicated by the descent into Egypt. It is not clear if the decision to go to Egypt is divinely directed or not. Better than the serpent, we might legitimately ask, Did God really say to go down to Egypt? The text itself is silent, giving no indication whether Abram's Egyptian sojourn continues from the prior command to "go now" (12.1) or already belongs to the lapse of faith and morals that soon follows. Abram's sojourn clearly foreshadows the later descent of Joseph and then his brothers into Egypt, but that is not unequivocally directed by God either, redeemed, certainly, but not explicitly commanded. Regardless, once in Egypt, Abram's characteristic eagerness to do something, anything, even to pretend Abram and Sarai are not married and allow Pharaoh to take her as wife, transmogrifies into a mess of moral failings, cowardice and false witness close enough to pandering and adultery to provoke plague (the moral bane of Thebes as well), all sullied by a kind of faithlessness, a misdoubting of the promise to bless that the Lord had so recently sworn. Abram still believes, but that belief stumbles as God's unbounded blessing confounds the capacity of Abram's imagination, which seeks the smaller, easier assurances afforded by Pharaoh. Irony passes judgment upon the hero: in fear Abram has misread pagan Pharaoh who upholds a holier sexual ethos than does Abram, the chosen one.
Abram has faltered, but clearly he still believes in the Lord and his promise, and the Lord still blesses. Abram leaves Egypt "wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold" (13.2), though these are hardly the prime measures of blessing. It is when Abram parts from Lot to live in Canaan that the Lord confirms the far greater blessing of his first promise: "All the land that you see 1 will give to you and your offspring forever" (13.15). It would seem one half of the promise, the land, has already been fulfilled, or at least begun to be fulfilled. The land is given and re-given as often as Abram's faith is prompted and refined. The harder half of the promise, progeny, remains bafflingly unrealized. The two halves of the promise, land and people, are linked by a natural logic--together they define "nation"--as well as deep metaphor: "I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted" (13.16), suggestive of a Circle of Life, or even a Circle of Dust. And the land is given an intimate connection to Abram's body, first visually, "Lift up thine eyes ... all the land you can see" (13.14-15). Then, in language recalling the Lord's first words to Abram, the Lord engages the whole body: "Go, walk through the whole breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you" (13.17). Without a word Abram responds immediately, re-establishing the Jamesian integrity of his belief.
When the Lord next speaks with Abram, after the text has taken an excursus through ancient politics and battle narrative, the covenant is confirmed and greatly developed, both in the physical detail of the encounter and the psychological complexity of Abram's belief. The Lord's phrase of intrusion, "Fear not," suggests the depth of Abram's faith, large enough to include and overcome its antithesis. But what is it that Abram is inclined to fear? Any encounter with the divine tends to arouse tear, and presumably that general fear of God's imposing presence is operative here, but curiously, Abram has never been bolder. For the first time on record he speaks back to the Lord, registering both a complaint and a question indicating a very specific focus to his fear. Childless, Abram wonders who will be his heir. The Lord answers with not only a verbal reassurance of a son but again an active demonstration to engage the body and challenge the imagination: Go outside, look up at the heavens, count the stars--if you can--"so shall your offspring be" (15.5). The stars parallel the imagery of the uncountable dust, now in terms of heaven rather than earth, the imagery at once darker and brighter. This text of many styles responds with one of its earliest bits of true theology (how different from the politics and battle just finished): "Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness" (15.6). Paul and the biblical James would later contest the precise application of the second clause, but the first clause is startling itself in its simplicity: "Abram believed the Lord."
Though already a paragon of faith expressed with sublime simplicity, Abram and his belief still harbor ample doubt. When the Lord reiterates his promise to give the land, Abram gropes in uncertainty, "How can I know?" (15.8). The answer comes in brooding imagery of carcasses split and laid in sacrifice, threatening birds of prey, a setting sun, deep sleep, dreadful darkness, and a mysterious flame. The encounter turns to foreshadowings of personal and national matters, first, physically, the sacrifice of Isaac, then, verbally, the later descent into Egypt, exodus, and reentry into Canaan. And remarkably, after this profound experience, Abram almost entirely misunderstands the Lord's most solemn assurances.
As in the mishap with Sarai and Pharaoh, the Lord's promises exceed the capacity of Abram's imagination. As we shall see between Oedipus and Jocasta, the deficiencies of Abram's faith are compounded in his spouse's misbelief. Together the biblical couple shares an inability to grasp the implausible goodness of the Lord's providence. Sarai's first reported speech could hardly be more benighted: "The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her" (16.2). She twists providence into blame, the Lord's open promise into a negation. She fixates upon a dubious technicality, that it was said that a son will come from Abram's "own body," not necessarily from hers. The ill-conceived and misconceiving plan has no more certainty than her own desperate "perhaps." Her plan does achieve its preliminary objectives, surrogate sex and pregnancy, and yet it still fails in providing any sort of solution. Rather, Sarai squabbles with Abram and resents Hagar, while the latter two have committed adultery, not yet proscribed by codified law, but nonetheless condemned by the general narrative. The angel of the Lord must intervene to salvage the lives of Hagar and her unborn child, sweetened with a promise--"descendants too numerous to count"--to accentuate the lapse of Abram and Sarai's faith to trust in just such a blessing. Sarai, playing the Abramic role of anxious action, is the principal misbeliever here, while Abram, hardly standing as the exemplary "Master" of the household (18.2, cf. I Peter 3.6), submits his faith to her fears, "Do ... whatever you think best" (16.6).
The Lord responds to this mess with another visit to reaffirm the covenant and blessing, not in any reward for faith but in recognition of its weakness. As something new is added each time the chorus is sung in a well made song, the Lord deepens and develops his promise with each repetition. New names accompany the new details and dignify the characters and moment with ceremony. Sarai becomes Sarah, the same root varied by a minor suffix, a "princess" either way, but the Lord uses the occasion of renaming to clarity that the son will be born to Sarah, effectively dismissing her misconceived surrogacy as not only desperately contrived but completely unnecessary. Abram becomes Abraham, likewise the same root only slightly inflected from "exalted father" to "father of many," but even that is old news (cf. 12.2, 13.6, 14.5). In their new names Sarah and Abraham become more clearly what they already are. His new name accompanies the new rite of circumcision. While it may be rationalized as a common enough ritual in the ancient Middle East, this is the first mention in Genesis, and it seems to have been intended to be strange and shocking. Though a culture may become inured to and unthinking toward the custom, circumcision entails intimacy, vulnerability, blood, pain and loss. It is a figure of death, and as such it serves as another symbol of sacrifice, bridging the distance between the sacrifice of beasts in Genesis 15 and the sacrifice of the beloved son to come. The Lord, too, receives a new name, El Shaddai, perhaps "God, Mountain One," which also projects towards Mt. Moriah already looming in the background as the place of sacrifice. Abraham responds as a paragon of faith should. The text does not even need to delineate that "Abra[ha]m believed," as it had in the previous divine encounter (15.6). Here, his obedience is the purer expression of his belief, as "on that very day" (17.23) Abraham and his entire household readily embrace the bloody rite of circumcision.
Abrahamic belief, it would seem, is a Jamesian commitment of the will to determined and determining action in an otherwise uncertain world. This same encounter between the Lord and Abraham, however, also harbors a counter-understanding of faith, one that seems perhaps even more true to the mysteries of visceral belief. When the Lord promises the son through Sarah, "Abraham fell face down; he laughed" (17.7). This laughter is a spontaneous unwilled expression of a certain disbelief. And yet Abraham, especially now as he wears his new name, is the paradigm of biblical faith. Such faith, then, must be dynamic, changeable, fluctuating, faltering at times but growing to something of great constancy. After he erupts in laughter, Abraham goes on to articulate exactly what he disbelieves: that he would be a father again, that Sarah would be a mother at all. His thoughts retreat to a more plausible and modest hope for Ishmael, though one of the major points of the Lord's visitation has been to correct that very misunderstanding. In the naming of the prophesied son, Isaac, meaning "he laughed," the Lord enfolds Abraham's seeming disbelief into his own marvelous promise. This laughter centers the ensuing chapters, from the visitation at Mature, through the birth of the son, even to the binding on Moriah. Thereafter. this laughter echoes through the rest of Genesis and indeed the whole of Scripture. To invert Nietchze's phrase, Abraham's spontaneous laughter is "the birth of comedy," as the Lord makes--and keeps--promises that vastly exceed the imagination of his beloved.
Homer's Odysseus and Penelope have been much admired as a couple for their like-mindedness, homophrosyne in the Greek, most notably their cleverness in socially complicated and often hostile situations. In Genesis, Abraham and Sarah often exhibit their own homophrosyne. When in a one-on-one conversation the Lord promises the son through Sarah, Abraham laughs. A chapter later, when Sarah overhears the same promise from the Lord, now developed to a firm timeline, Sarah laughs, and then goes on to lie to the Lord's face and deny her laughter. Neither husband nor wife can believe what the Lord is doing. Despite their disbelief, compounded by fear and dissembling, this is a comedic laughter, as her own visceral response blends into the very delight her logical mind resists: "After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?" (18.12). Certainly there are myriad varieties of laughter, and the Bible well knows its darker tones--foolish, cynical, malicious, damned--but these are not operative here (at least not until 21.9 when young Ishmael taunts younger Isaac). Even as Sarah would complicate her laughter with a lie, the Lord enlarges her spontaneous delight to a broader sense of divine comedy: "Is anything too hard for the Lord'?" (18.14). Both questions, Sarah's and the Lord's, are left open-ended, suggestive of the limitlessness of God's goodness and power, so much greater than any specific outcome that Abraham and Sarah could petition or imagine. And later in this same dialogue, now concerning the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham finds himself resituated on the other side of the same rhetoric, as it is now his turn to ask yet another open-ended question, the chapter's third: "Will not the judge of all the earth do right?" (18.25). The answers to these disparate questions are, respectively, yes, no, yes; their common solution is to trust the Lord.
Much intervenes between the promise and its fulfillment, between the laughter of disbelief and that of satisfaction. Sodom and Gomorrah rage and are destroyed; Lot's own misdoubting wife perishes as well. In drunken incest Lot and his daughters make their own poor decisions born of weak faith. And Abraham, God's esteemed "prophet" (20.7), reprises his cowardice before Pharaoh while managing to commit still greater offense as he gives up his wife, now pregnant, to ingratiate himself with Abimelech. Yet Abraham, who speaks with God as with a friend, is strangely saved by a heathen's admonitory dream and strict moral code. Tragedy averted in the Negev, "Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised" (21.1). Circumscribed by death and sin, and so marked by circumcision, life and laughter reign. The son is indeed named Isaac, and Sarah herself marvels how God transforms incredulity into comedy: "God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me" (21.6). Just as Abraham is the first recipient and then the general conduit of the Lord's immeasurable blessings, Sarah receives a most specific joy and irradiates a general laughter extending in space and time to all who receive her story. She has given birth to Isaac: the narrative, to comedy.
Following hard upon this familial happiness, the binding of Isaac tests Abraham and tempers this concept of comedy. The dialogue is spare yet excruciating in its few details. God commands Abraham, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about" (22.2). The accumulating appositives recall the long unlikely narrative of even having this son. The mention of Isaac by name, here and below (22.6-7), laces the story with "laughter"--in a late and cruel twist of irony, it would seem, unless Abraham and Sarah's initial disbelief and subsequent joy are somehow to be absorbed into some still larger comedy. Abraham says nothing in reply. His unquestioning obedience. "early the next morning" even (22.3), speaks for him. Abraham had debated at length the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah with the Lord; here, with so much more at stake personally, Abraham simply obeys and seemingly believes that "the judge of all the earth" will once again "do right" (18.25). As in the earlier episode at Mamre, Abraham finds himself maneuvered to the other side of the dialogue. Here it is Isaac who modestly asks the reasonable question, "The fire and wood are here ... but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" (22.7). Taking the dialogic position opposite to that he once held, Abraham gives the terse yet enormous answer, "God himself will provide" (22.8). Like the spare dialogue, the images are elemental: fire, wood, altar, knife, and finally the providential ram. Surrogacy, which had created such a mess in sex and generation, is of course the very point of sacrifice, and at the very brink of tragedy the surrogate ram affirms a comedy that can withstand any predicament. "Isaac" lives.
Deflecting tragedy to comedy, the akedah turns and turns again upon Abraham who successively answers "here I am" to God commanding, to Isaac questioning, to the angel saving. Not yet sure how their adventure will resolve itself, Abraham assures his son that God will provide. Once father and son have emerged from the crisis, Abraham turns this same conviction back upon the Lord, and now Abraham is the one empowered to give names and ceremonialize new understandings. Yahweh-yireh, "the Lord will provide, complements the earlier El Shaddai, together yielding, "On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided" (22.14). The Lord, through his angel, responds with one last iteration of the familiar terms of the promise: descendants countless as both stars and sand to people the land, and beyond these particulars, the broader blessing that God will do marvelous things exceeding not only Abraham's logical mind but the breadth and height of his imagination.
This unbounded blessing sent shimmering into the world entails a certain kind of faith, and Abraham is its paradigm. In James's epistle, the binding of Isaac is the defining moment of biblical faith, as his reading compresses the span of eight chapters, and then transposes the order between Genesis 15.6, "Abraham believed God," and Genesis 22, "what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar" (James 2.23, 21). Amid a litany of godly believers, Hebrews adduces Abraham as its most prominent example of scriptural faith and completes a thematic summary of his career by blurring the distinction between the binding of and the blessing through "his one and only son" (Hebrews 11.18). In Romans, Paul proves a stickler for the order of narrative. So that salvation may not be thought a thing earned by human effort, he insists that that touchstone verse, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15.6, Romans 4.3, cf. James 2.23), significantly precedes circumcision (Genesis 17) let alone the offering of Isaac (Genesis 22). Yet regardless of sequence, some of Paul's most penetrating insights into the psychology of Abrahamic belief, such as "Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed" (Romans 4.18), could apply to any moment in Abraham's implausible life. And in Galatians 3 Paul himself compresses the distance between Abraham's inchoate and yet efficacious faith in Genesis 15 (again adducing that same prized verse) and the expansive blessing fully realized on Mount Moriah, "All nations will be blessed through you ... the man of faith" (Gal 3.6-9, cf. Gen 12.3, 18.8, 22.18). Abraham, no doubt, is the face and name of biblical faith, and with Sarah, he is the parent of Isaac and biblical comedy.
SOPHOCLES'S Oedipus the King has been variously categorized as a tragedy of fate, of incest, of ignorance and knowing. The play certainly engages all these interests, but read beside Genesis, Oedipus emerges as a tragedy of belief. Nearly 2500 years since its first performance on the Acropolis, the dynamic of belief still invigorates the drama, and it is in the pathos of his belief that Oedipus wins sympathy and breaks hearts. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud dismisses the irony of fate as in itself uncompelling and emphasizes the contentious incest (261-64). Twenty years of teaching the play, however, have impressed upon me that Freud has greatly overstated a man's desire to kill his father and sleep with his mother, even if he has truly measured the common revulsion toward the same complex, a revulsion that pervades the play itself. Neither fate nor incest in itself makes the play the classic it remains, but rather, what captivates is Oedipus's response, his willful assertion of belief against both fate in general and its appalling particulars. And it is this same belief that plays so hauntingly upon the several cords pulled taut between ignorance and knowing.
Tragic belief, or rather, attempted disbelief, broods under two different yet continuous scenarios. In the present tense of the play, on the same day Jocasta will hang herself and Oedipus will blind himself, they exert their disbelief against accomplished fact. In the recounting of older actions, however, they re-present an earlier stage of disbelief that strove to resist and even preempt, if it could, prophecy that had not yet hardened into fact. Here, within these older responses imbedded in their narratives, first Jocasta's, then Oedipus's, the tragedy of belief grows side by side the tragedy of fate.
In Jocasta's retrospective, one measure of the universal revulsion toward the Oedipal conflict can be surmised in her readiness to confess to the lesser crime of infanticide, as she recounts how more than a generation earlier she and Laius had tried to defuse the original prophecy by putting their infant son out to die. Though morally vexed, their drastic action is justified by the fate--and this, so far, only half the full scandal --it would preclude. Infanticide, Jocasta assumes, then and now, is a lesser offense than parricide and regicide. But to keep the solution from being so final and murderous, the king and queen leave an opening for chance to intervene: a hired hand will do the actual dirty work of setting out the child, who in turn will be somehow "done away" (1174) by nature. What begins as a small loophole for conscience's sake, however, is soon enlarged by pity, compassion, and even parental affection as the infant is passed from Jocasta to one shepherd, then another, then finally to Polybus and Merope of Corinth, perversely enabling the very conditions that will lead to the fate Laius and Jocasta sought to avoid--parricide and regicide, with incest lurking. As Jocasta narrates the oldest strand of action essential to the tragedy, she asserts her belief in disbelief, boasting how the oracle "failed," "proved false," and "never came to pass" (720-24), even as audience and reader already know better.
Jocasta's recollection belongs to the sustained and intimate exchange between husband and wife, mother and son, that literally centers the play (699-833). The chorus steps aside to allow them 34 devoted exchanges, half-a-dozen questions by Jocasta, a full dozen by befuddled Oedipus. Jocasta having delved into her past, Oedipus exhumes his own as the play's longest single speech recounts his reaction years ago upon receiving his oracle, this time the full complex of parricide and incest. Who would not try to disbelieve such a prophecy and preempt such a fate? So Oedipus flees Corinth and, he thinks, flees his father and mother only to run into the very late he sought to escape. This tragedy of fate reverberates at the core of the play, but numerically--whether measured in lines or years--it amounts to only a small fraction of the drama's psychic space. Once Oedipus has defeated the Sphinx, entered kingless Thebes, assumed the throne, married the queen, and shared her bed, the tragedy of fate has already been completed and morphs into its next stage, which many readers, such as Laslo Vers6nyi, prefer to privilege: "The subject of Oedipus Tyrannus is not so much divine prophecy as human search: the quest and discovery, ignorance and knowledge of Oedipus" (221). But one need not renounce the former to recognize the latter. Versenyi emphasizes, "The play is a tragedy not of divine fate but of human knowing" (230), but if we acknowledge past and present and integrate them as Sophocles himself has done, then the play in its fullness is a tragedy of belief mediating between divine fate and human knowing.
For Vernant, this cruel fate and these sundry facts enable tragic consciousness:
For the tragic consciousness to operate, the human and divine levels must in effect be sufficiently distinct to stand in opposition, but on the other hand they must appear as inseparable. The tragic sense of responsibility emerges when human action has already become an object of reflection, of internal debate, but has not yet acquired sufficient autonomy to be fully self-sufficient. Tragedy's true domain is that border zone where human actions are intermeshed with divine powers and reveal their true meaning. (92)
This reflection upon self, the divine, and their relationship constitutes belief, and the extension to action suggests an essentially Jamesian belief. Charles Segal, discussing "the paradoxes of tragic knowledge," would seem to concur: the play explores "a kind of knowledge in which clarity and dimness coexist and our knowing of ourselves includes at its center a core of ignorance, the shadowy conjunction at our origins whose mystery we can never fully penetrate" (148). That is, Jocasta and Oedipus are forced to Venture into belief, and, as Segal's pronouns presume, audience and reader follow.
Whether recounting the distant past or rapidly evolving in the present, Oedipus the King remains a tragedy of belief, even as the conditions of that belief change over time. Each having disbelieved horrific prophecy and striven to prevent it, Jocasta and Oedipus then join forces doubly to strive against prophecy that has already materialized as fact. Their shared disbelief is itself symptomatic of their incest. In resisting the initial oracle Laius and Jocasta responded collectively as husband and wife, as father and mother to their child. Poor Oedipus, when he first confronts the oracle in his own time, must suffer and strive alone--until he comes to Thebes. There he assumes not only his father's throne and bed but also his father's complicity in Jocasta's wishful thinking. She bonds with Oedipus, as she had with Laius, in a faith so intimate it goes unspoken as if already understood, and understood that it must not be spoken. Thus, for two decades or so, until this late last day of crisis, neither shares their crucial stories and complementary oracles. They have lived well enough under the banner "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," or as Jocasta advises, "Best to live lightly, as one can, unthinkingly" (979).
Like Abraham and Sarah, Oedipus and Jocasta bond in their belief. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, the latter is the deeper relationship, certainly the more co-dependent. While Abraham believes with Sarah, he believes in the Lord, and this latter relationship is the more central one to Genesis. Oedipus and Jocasta, however, nurture one another's disbelief in the oracles and thus cannot develop that divine-human, I-Thou relationship that leads Abraham onward. So rather than intersecting and integrating two relationships, as Abraham does, Oedipus and Jocasta are exclusively invested in each other. Their spousal relationship appropriates what otherwise would be devoted to the divine. They urge one another on in disbelief. To Tiresias's accusation that Oedipus is the murderer, Jocasta soothes,
Do not concern yourself about this matter; Listen to me and learn that human beings have no part in the craft of prophecy. (707-09)
To the messenger's news that Polybus has died, Oedipus in turn gloats,
Ha! Ha! O dear Jocasta, why should one look to the Pythian hearth? Why should one look to the birds screaming overhead? They prophesied that I should kill my father! But he's dead, and hidden deep in earth, and I stand here who never laid a hand on spear against him .... ... But they, the oracles, as they stand--he's taken them away with him, they're dead as he himself is, and worthless. (964-73)
Husband and wife don't merely doubt the oracles; they dismiss and disparage them to each other. When Oedipus then wonders, "But surely I must fear my mother's bed?" it is Jocasta, that mother, risen from their bed, who would quell those doubts: "Why should man fear since chance is all in all / for him, and he can clearly foreknow nothing?" (976-78).
The belief of Genesis and the disbelief of Oedipus the King stand inversely to one another, as comedy to tragedy. While Abraham and Sarah struggle to overcome doubts, Jocasta and Oedipus strive to disbelieve against their fears that the oracles are true, that fate cannot be averted, that the gods are cruel. While Sarah and especially Abraham grow through their belief, however flawed, into an intimate relationship with the Lord, Jocasta and Oedipus can only believe in their disbelief, which denies its natural object. When Aristotle delineates fear (even before pity) as the defining emotion of tragedy, he has the experience of the audience foremost in mind, but fittingly he chooses Oedipus the King as his prime example. The play itself is riddled with fear from the Chorus's first stasimon onward, and no one feels it more intensely than Oedipus: "O dear Jocasta, I am full of fear" (767). Like the incestuous doubling of mother and wife, husband and son, the object of his fear and the source of his solace are confoundingly the same.
Oedipus's willful disbelief struggles against his natural respect for the oracular and the divine. As a young man in Corinth, he goes to Delphi to clarify his doubts about his parentage. When he receives instead the prophecy that he will kill his father and couple with his mother, he runs away, ambivalently, in tear that the oracle will prove true, in hope that it will not. Years later, it is respectful Oedipus who actually sends Creon to Delphi to inquire about the plague, and when Creon returns with the message that the long unpunished murder of Laius is the cause of the plague, Oedipus accepts the oracle with no reservations and dedicates himself--"I'll do everything" (145), he promises--to solving the crime, satisfying justice, and saving Thebes. His conflicted attitude generates the ironies he utters, even seems to believe (and why not? they prove true), but cannot fathom:
Upon the murderer I invoke this curse-- whether he is one man and all unknown, or one of many--may he wear out his life in misery to miserable doom! (246-49)
Indeed. In the same speech he goes on to observe how Laius and he are linked by the "bed and wife that once was his" and yet he would "fight in his defence as for my father" (260, 264). Yet when Tiresias subsequently names Oedipus as the murderer, he once again challenges the validity of prophecy. He may be wracked by contradiction, but he is consistent in that contradiction. Just as he did years ago in Corinth, Oedipus honors prophecy, broadly, but rejects it when it points to himself.
Jocasta renounces prophecy still more insistently though not quite consistently. Years ago she feared the power of the oracle enough to devise the death (failing, of course) of her infant son. On the day of crisis, she dismisses Apollo, Tiresias, dreams, collective intuition, and, it seems, any possibility of prescience. Her willful disbelief works just well enough to persuade herself. Astonishingly, she describes Laius to troubled Oedipus, "He was a tall man and his hair was grizzled / already--nearly white--and in his form / not unlike you" (742-44). For both mother and son their infamous ironies constitute one measure of their misbelief. With confidence she is the one who brings up that "in dreams too, as well as oracles, / many a man has lain with his own mother" (981-82, understandably, the lines that Freud most prizes), only to scorn both dreams and oracles. But as one who has protested too much, she quickly succumbs to the converging facts and surrenders well before Oedipus to the resurgent power of prophecy, once foretold, now fulfilled. Even so, she would (as loving wife? as sheltering mother?) sustain his belief even after hers has failed: "O Oedipus, God help you! / God keep you from the knowledge of who you are!" (1067-68).
No mere expletive, Jocasta's attempted blessing, "God keep you," calls upon the divine will whose word they have been fighting all the way. Not surprisingly, her conflicted wish fails. Success and failure suggest a pragmatic consideration of belief and return us to William James. In defending the proper right, will, and power to believe, James sought to distance himself from the sort of "Faith ... when you believe something you know ain't true" (32). But such is Jocasta's faith. In her desperation, she would have Oedipus believe something she knows "ain't" true. And in her faith so quickly toppled, the reader may well wonder how long she had been believing something she knew was not true. In carefully delineating the necessary conditions of the "live hypothesis," James, it would seem, has distinguished and defended valid faith from such travesties as Jocasta's parting prayer.
Sophocles, however, has already put Jocasta and Oedipus through a tragic misadventure of faith that challenges James's best conditions for exercising the will to believe. On the day of crisis, their faith finally succumbs to the facts, the unchangeable past, the undeniable present. But long ago they faced real live hypotheses, a future yet undetermined toward which the believer could reasonably favor one outcome over another and act toward its realization. James reasons, "In truths dependent on our personal action, then faith based on desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensable thing" (29), and rhapsodizes, "The desire for a certain kind of truth ... brings about that truth's existence" (28). Contra James, however, Laius, Jocasta, and Oedipus had done just that, and failed miserably. Presented with the oracle hovering over their infant son, Laius and Jocasta disbelieved the prophecy and acted decisively, just short of absolute certainty, toward a different outcome. Upon hearing the complementary oracle for himself at Delphi, young Oedipus exercised his will to believe otherwise, and he too acted strongly according to his deep desire. Parents and child have done exactly as James would allow them, and yet their active faiths have no power to shape their world, and still worse, their several actions twist and conspire to bring about the very thing they determined to avoid.
As a holistic gesture to his original audience in 1896, James begins and ends "The Will to Believe" under the rubric of Fitzjames Stephen, the Victorian jurist, rationalist, and yet positive thinker whom James had been reading at the time. Upon closer scrutiny as an essay, however, "The Will to Believe" reveals in its opening and closing a deeper correspondence. Aptly enough, James begins in allusion to Abraham, the father of faith, who ventured into the uncertain world to achieve the life his Lord and his own self desired. More strangely, James quotes Stephen to conclude in glancing allusion to Oedipus:
"What do you think of yourself? What do you think of the world? ... These are questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them. They are the riddles of the Sphinx....What must we do? 'Be strong and of good courage.' Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes....If death ends all, we cannot meet death better." (33)
It is Oedipus, of course, who solved the riddle of the Sphinx, but once his specter rises from the depths of the text, his example severely challenges James's justification of faith. Oedipus did indeed hope and act for the best, and, alas, he took what came. The half-buried allusion may be James's way of confessing the limits of belief. The subtle admission keeps James from becoming another Jocasta, believing something she knows "ain't" true, or advocating something he knows is not always true.
Yet Jocasta is not simply naive. That parting wish for her husband and son is not quite her final utterance. Rather, in her last words on stage she confronts what James can only intimate, the name of Oedipus and all that it signifies:
O Oedipus, unhappy Oedipus! that is all I can call you, and the last thing that I shall ever call you. (1071-73)
Jocasta gone, Oedipus stands before Chorus, audience, and reader, still clinging to his disbelief, epitomizing the failure of the will to believe. The strength and weakness of Jamesian belief are, as they should be, the pragmatic results of willful believing. Thousands of studies and millions of lives testify to the power of positive thinking that James espouses. But experience also teaches that against wishes, prayers, and deliberate action, loved ones get sick and die, sometimes the most selfless loves go unrequited, aspirations that demand one's whole life come to naught, countless dreams wither unfulfilled and break their dreamers' hearts. However unpleasant the negative outcome may be in itself, the frustration of belief strikes still deeper, seemingly betraying what it means to be human in the presence of God. Oedipus intensifies the universal experience of futility and frustration to an emblematic horror provoking fear and pity. As such, "Oedipus, unhappy Oedipus," is the father of tragic belief.
TENNYSON'S aging Ulysses reflects, "I am become a name." So have Abraham and Oedipus. Like Jocasta, the Chorus dwells upon the sound of Oedipus, and would even theorize toward a "pattern" or paradigm ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]):
What man, what man on earth wins more of happiness than a seeming and after that turning away? Oedipus, you are my pattern of this, Oedipus, you and your fate! Luckless Oedipus, whom of all men I envy not at all. (1190-96)
Oedipus stands out, literally, on stage, as an extraordinary case yet nonetheless representative of the human condition. Of what exactly is he the pattern, the paradigm? And what of Abraham? In the Poetics, Aristotle's primary distinction between tragedy and comedy is oddly simplistic and uncompelling: that the former concerns good men, the latter, bad or ridiculous men (sections 2, 4, 5). Elsewhere Aristotle observes different dramatic arcs, from good to bad fortune, from bad to good, but he does not use this difference to distinguish definitively between tragedy and comedy (section 7). Over the centuries many of the conventions as well as the deeper senses of tragedy and comedy, such as Dante's, have drifted away from Aristotle's distinctions. But if we keep Aristotle's exemplar of tragedy, Sophocles's Oedipus, and side by side consider Abraham, the exemplar of his own tradition, contrasting paradigms emerge and become clarified. In the tragedy of belief, a good but flawed man strives to disbelieve prophecy of a terrible fate, yet despite his earnest belief and best effort, all he fears comes true. In the comedy of belief, a flawed but good man struggles to believe marvelous prophecy, and despite his doubts and bumblings, his faith grows in action and God brings to pass a joyously beautiful world.
Oedipal fear and Abrahamic faith operate in diametric opposition, yet like any antitheses, they seem to need each other. Thus, "The Will to Believe" proceeds under the banner of Abraham, yet Oedipus stows along. Similarly Genesis, with no awareness of the Oedipal myth proper, nonetheless includes two versions of the most notorious element of the so-called "Oedipal Complex," parent-child incest. The first, between Lot and his daughters, is every bit as grotesque as the Greek myth, and in tact, more brutal, lacking dramatic tension and psychological intrigue. After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his two daughters have escaped to a cave. Thinking they are the lone survivors in a post-apocalyptic world, the daughters get Lot drunk and sleep with him on successive nights. Do they do it merely for sex ("there is no man around here to lie with us," 19.31)? Or to perpetuate the human race ("and preserve our family line through our father," 19.32)? If they commit the incest for progeny, it is an anxious, premature, and grasping response, reminiscent of Abram and Hagar. There was no need for desperate sex, as beyond their narrow cave and the desolate plain, the world is alive and teeming. Indeed, a chapter later, Isaac, who laughs, is born.
Isaac himself has his own brush with the Oedipal Complex only to resolve it in love and life. After Sarah has died, aged Abraham wants to secure a good wife for his son and so sends a messenger from Canaan to his relations back in Nahor. There the messenger meets Rebekah, the two share water at the well, and all parties agree on a marriage: "This is from the Lord" (24.50). (Compare this messenger to that of Sophocles: each, like little pieces of their holograms, implies the whole difference between tragedy and comedy.) Rebekah then journeys to Canaan to marry Isaac, as Abraham hoped, as "the Lord has directed" (24.51). All the major
Oedipal elements are present but rendered benign, even beautiful, as the episode concludes: "Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother's death" (24.67). Sarah's tent has become the bridal chamber; the wife has taken the place of the mother; death gives way to comfort and, soon after, new life. The father who once nearly took his son's life on the mountain has now provided for that same son who honors and succeeds his father. The ensuing passage recounts how Abraham is "gathered to his people" in a good death capable of reconciling Isaac and Ishmael. "Abraham was buried with his wife Sarah. After Abraham's death, God blessed his son Isaac" (25.10-11). Though tinged with death and sorrow, this is deeply felt and enlightened comedy.
Oedipal fear and Abrahamic faith animate countless stories; a few manage to combine these paradigms which spark as they scrape past one another. In the Odyssey, the worst characters, the suitors primarily but others as well, are repeatedly warned, by the established moral code, theophanies, prophets, the flight of birds, even Odysseus himself, that what they are doing is wrong and they will face judgment, but they continue to eat and drink and wishfully believe that no such fate will come to pass. Their misbelief blinds them much as it blinded Jocasta and Oedipus, and their fate, so long postponed, comes at last in a violent rush. Meanwhile the protagonists--Telemachus, Penelope, the swineherd, Odysseus himself --are repeatedly promised that Odysseus will return and all will be made well. Their response? Disbelief every bit as ironic as the suitors' failure to see, but comedic rather than tragic. When Odysseus disguised as a beggar assures Penelope that "Odysseus will come," she answers, "Ah, stranger, / if what you say could ever happen!... But my heart tells me what must be. / Odysseus will not come to me" (19.335-41). The beauty of the truth exceeds her ability to believe or even see what is right in front of her. Penelope is just as blind as Antinoos; he cannot see his doom, she, her joy. While Odysseus alone is capable of stringing his double-torsion bow and winning Penelope as wife (though in another wink at the Oedipal complex, Telemachus comes close), Homer has pulled taut his own double-torsion narrative of wishful fear and fumbling faith and heightened its tension for over twenty books before finally discharging all his arrows.
These paradigms of fear and faith are antithetical, but in their strongest expressions they are inseparable. Sons of Abraham and heirs of Genesis, the Hebrew prophets preached two fundamental messages: the first, that sinful behavior has provoked terrible consequences, a grim message the audience usually manages to disbelieve and ignore. Yet when the individual or whole nation suffers the belated consequences of that sin, the prophets preach grace and mercy, a joyful message the people also typically misbelieve and fail to grasp fully. Even more intensely than for Odysseus at his homecoming and anagnorisis, these paradigms of misbelieving fear and faith meet in the passion of Jesus. Like Isaac, like Oedipus, Jesus is bound by his father's will and set upon a hillside to die, and this time the son actually does die, to astonishing horror, to confounding joy. Christians have theologized for millennia how Jesus in his passion completes the typology of Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah. It has been less commonly observed how much Oedipus and Jesus have in common, as bloody spectacle.
To satisfy the cold case of Laius's murder and cure the plague cursing Thebes, the oracle calls for "expiation of/blood by blood" (100-01). In his initial zeal to save his city, Oedipus accepts this commission, little knowing that the fresh blood would be his:
[his] bleeding eyeballs gushed and stained his beard--no sluggish oozing drops but a black rain and bloody hail poured down. (1276-78)
The Chorus inflicts the horror of Oedipus as the final ecce homo image of the play: "Behold this Oedipus ... see him now ... Look upon that last day always" (1525-29). A few moments earlier, the Chorus cringed, "This is a terrible sight for man to see! / I never found a worse" (1298-99). Jesus, in his passion, may be the worse sight the Chorus sought in comparison. With Sophoclean stagecraft Pilate presents Jesus whipped, beaten, crowned in thorns, mocked in purple: "Behold the man!" (John 19.4). And the cross is still to come where Jesus becomes an even bloodier spectacle, like Oedipus, the very image of tragedy, it would seem, yet not without some grisly satisfaction. For both, the awful truth no longer needs to be disbelieved or feared--it has been realized and intimately embraced.
To many a disinterested reader, the Old Testament would present a more appealing religion if it were not so bloody. Yet strangely enough, with a unique opportunity to refashion the old religion, the New Testament seeks out that very trail of blood (Mt. Moriah, Passover, Temple sacrifice) and follows it all the way to the cross. So Paul, in his disturbing metonymy for the gospel, determines to preach to the Corinthians "nothing ... except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (I Cor 2.2). The strategy may seem counterintuitive, even bizarre, but it is one that Sophocles and Aristotle would respect. And yet the cross, like the binding of Isaac, becomes the locus of blessing and comedy. From nothing but Christ crucified, a few verses later Paul extracts, with the help of Isaiah, a blessing so expansive and confounding even a true believer could not foresee it:
No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him. (I Cor 2.9, cf. Isaiah 64.4)
Such comedic resolution is almost beyond belief--almost--and the very genesis of it.
Judeo-Christian comedy turns upon vicarious substitution. Consider once again Mt. Moriah, the Passover, Temple sacrifice, the crucifixion. Intriguingly, Aristotle attributed the power of Greek tragedy to vicarious experience: the terror and fear of the protagonist provoking fear and pity in the audience, and then a kind of purgation. For Aristotle, in his rationalism of the late fourth century B.C., this cleansing is largely aesthetic, emotional and psychological. Writing much later, however, Rene Girard would not separate the art from the blood, no matter how barbaric this may seem: the violence belongs to the sacrificial ritual at the primal center of tragedy. Girard's understanding may seem regressive, but he is emboldened to value the blood of Greek tragedy by the Judeo-Christian parallel where the substitution is not merely aesthetic and psychological. Isaac from one direction, Jesus from the other, experience a substitution that is moral, soteriological and yet quite literal. That Oedipus, Sophocles, and Aristotle cannot see, each to his own degree of blindness, the deep comedy awaiting just a bit further ahead in the same direction, intensifies that tragedy yet also confirms the paradigm of the comedy. No one can fully comprehend what lies ahead--one is drawn into it only by believing.
Aristotle. Poetics. The Complete Works of Aristotle. Ed. Jonathan Barnes. Vol. 2. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1984.
Auerbach, Eric. Mimesis: The Representations of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard Trask. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1953.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey. Vol. 4. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1975.
Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1975.
Holy Bible, New International Version. International Bible Society. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1973, 1978, 1984.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
James, William. "The Will to Believe." The Will to Believe and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1979.
Segal, Charles. Sophocles' Tragic World: Divinity, Nature, Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995.
Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Ed. R. D. Dawe. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.
--. Sophocles I. Oedipus the King. Trans. David Greene. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.
Tennyson, Alfred. "Ulysses." The Major Works. Ed. Adam Roberts. New York: Oxford UP, 2000.
Vernant, Jean-Pierre. Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece. Trans. Janet Lloyd. New York: Zone Books, 1988.
Versdnyi, Laslo. "Oedipus Without the Complex." Man's Measure: A Study of the Greek Image of Man from Homer to Sophocles. Albany, NY: U of New York P. 1974.
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|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2013|
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