11. Accursed from Birth*

Enigma and enigmatization

The plot of Oedipus Tyrannus is the story of an unveiling, a “tragic analysis,” as Schiller calls it, [1] but the dénouement discloses that the play’s story has a prehistory in the form of a “myth”: the myth of the Labdacid family.
Now, the dramatic unfolding contains gaps. Why did Laius first consult Apollo (“an oracle once came to Laius,” 711)? [2] What led to the king’s last trip, in which he seemed to be heading to Delphi (“He left to go to Delphi, as he said, and never returned,” 113–114)? What caused the Sphinx to appear (130)? Why was Laius condemned (713–714)? And by what stratagem did Oedipus’ intelligence triumph over the monster (35–39, or 1525)?
The riddle of the Sphinx referred to in the drama, the secret to be discovered, has a homology in the textual or dramaturgical enigmatization.
The very phrasing of the riddle (in hexameters according to the historian Asclepiades of Tragilos, [3] to whom we owe its transmission), seemingly so clear, masks its enigmatic power: failure to decipher it can, according to the legend, lead to death. Here is the paradox, in the obscurity created by such simple material:
On earth there is a two-footed and four-footed creature,
          whose voice is one.
It is also three-footed. It alone changes its nature
          of all the creatures
Who move creeping along the earth, through the sky
          or on the sea.
But when it walks relying on the most feet,
That is when the speed in its limbs is most feeble. [4]
A great deal of inherited information constitutes the background for the play, an accompaniment and gloss that the original audience managed to decipher. As for us, despite information provided in particular by other dramatic authors of the day, we shall probably never fill in the gaps created by the passage of time. Sophocles himself did not supply the missing information in other plays, for nothing has been lost; Oedipus Tyrannus, unlike Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, is not part of a trilogy. What we do not know entails two elements: the gaps as such, and the reasons for them. Thus ellipsis itself gives rise to answers and leads to meaning.

The fault that cannot be found

First, the origins of the drama are missing: the story of Laius and his “impiety” is left out. Yet what befalls Oedipus is a direct consequence of that story (he is “the child of unholy parents,” 1360). Modern critics, whatever methods they use and whatever conclusions they reach, always focus on the figure of the tragic hero. They retain the gap, ignoring what it hides. Oedipus’ error, the one that would account for his misfortune, cannot be found, and in fact his deed was not deliberate (1213). When we look farther back, as we must, toward Oedipus’ father and mother, the error is not revealed there either. It is not part of some other myth centered on Laius, nor does it stem from some doctrine of abstinence that might have motivated the proscription. Laius’ story is not told in the play; when we reconstruct it, we lack the main point, the reason for the tragedy, or its origin. While Voltaire’s Oedipus accuses the gods, supplying a cause for the action that Cocteau adopts as well, [5] in Corneille’s play (the version that Cocteau was reshaping and correcting), Oedipus suffers anguish though he is not guilty, expiates a sin he has not committed, and accepts responsibility for “the crimes of heaven.” [6] We could read this version as a deepening of the Christian interpretation, if anguish had not already been a motif in Seneca’s Oedipus, which probably served as Corneille’s model.

A necessary rupture

The marriage was not supposed to happen, or if it did it was to end badly. About Laius, Jocasta reports that “it would be his fate to die at the hands of the son who should be the child of him and me” (713–714). [7] The couple’s sterility is not mentioned (as it is by Euripides in his Phoenician Women, 13–14) as a motive for consulting the oracle. The couple was to have a son; that son was to kill his father. When Oedipus asks the oracle about his parents’ identity, Apollo’s answer conveys the same necessity (788–793). It is too late for Oedipus, as it was for Laius: the time for warning is past. Enigmatization, in this instance, makes the accident that befell Laius the Labdacid a necessity. The transgression had already taken place.
What, then, was the proscription that weighed on the marriage between Laius and Jocasta? Or can the answer be generalized? Is procreation itself wrong? Though tempting, this generalization must be dismissed out of hand: it runs counter to the genre. Tragedy is too genealogical, too concerned with generational conflicts, to be preoccupied with the question of families or engendering in general. The cause of the drama must be sought in the particular history of a lineage. It is the malady of a family; a malady so intimately linked to the family’s existence that it is presented as self-evident. A dynasty can be doomed because it has built up strength so great that it can only break apart. Nothing else seems to explain why Laius is accursed.

The tragic contradiction

If the race of Cadmus and Harmonia is doomed owing to its very plenitude, and if, in the absence of internal conflicts, violence arises from expansion, then there is no reason to seek Laius’ fault, at least in Sophocles’ version, except in the fault of being born—not being born in the absolute sense, but being born and procreating in this particular line of descent. It is with Laius that the breaking point is reached, the point where the genos has expanded at the expense of another (or several others), exceeding all tolerable limits. In Euripides’ version, Laius contravenes the proscription under the influence of wine (Phoenician Women 21–22). Aeschylus attributes the child to a natural tendency to stray, to give in to lust (Seven Against Thebes 750). In Oedipus Tyrannus, the “error” is unexplained.
In the house of Atreus, violence takes place within the family, between brothers, between husband and wife, between mother and son. The principle of justice is satisfied in the sequence of crimes that follows the natural succession of generations; the concentration of wealth is counterbalanced, canceled out, as it were, by an irreparable tearing apart. In the house of the Labdacids, in contrast, the family perishes as such. In a way, the generational conflict is indirect: Oedipus loves the father he kills, and he does not know that he is killing him. It took Apollo’s hand to guide his (1329).
The tragic element in Greek drama is not manifested in the action of the play, nor is it manifested in pure contradiction. [8] A contradiction is woven over time. The past is illuminated by what it has produced. The hubristic stage of unbridled abundance had been reached before Laius came along, even if it was with Laius that engendering led to disaster. His only alternative was to give it up or give in to it. He was the last in his dynasty, although he did not want to be. Had he not produced a child, his line would have died out without tragedy. But because the powerful lineage that had built itself up could not detach itself from the basis of its power, it was fatally hurtled into self-perpetuation, and hence to ruin.

The legacy of transgression

The hypertrophy of the family responsible for the fracture revealed by the god Apollo is confirmed by Oedipus’ birth; this birth was Laius’ sole transgression. The “sacrilege” lay not in the decision to kill the child but in the birth itself; exposure of the child to the elements was an attempt to neutralize that birth. [9]
The transgression, which was first of all that of the lineage, was concentrated in a single individual, Laius. The overabundance that the genos no longer restrained accounts for both the power and the ruin of the accursed son, Oedipus, whose individual story reproduces that of the Cadmeans up to their extinction. Oedipus’ success brings the Labdacid family to the pinnacle of Theban glory, and his undoing is also that of his lineage. With Oedipus, the power that has been building up since the beginning turns against itself, taking the shape of brilliant success to achieve its own destruction. Oedipus lives out the hubris and the unbridled thirst for more that led to his birth.

A repetitive structure

Reticence, a formal figure of dramatic economy, thus leads to a self-sufficient explanation of the plot, and to an examination of the play on its own. This analysis of its content leads, in turn, to a more categorical avoidance of any material foreign to the play. [10]
Oedipus’ story subsumes all previous history. This principle must be followed to its ultimate consequences: Oedipus’ accursed union with Jocasta reproduces Laius’ infeasible marriage; his unviable children bear the mark of his own birth. His daughters are born of a father who “killed his father; he had issue of his mother, from whom he himself had sprung, and begot [his offspring] from the source of his own being” (1492–1494). Laius and Jocasta committed one act of incest, and are thus responsible for the next. The homology between the two epochs is pushed so far that Laius’ fatal trip to Delphi reproduces the one he had undertaken before his son’s birth. Hence the mystery that surrounds it: the repetition subsumes the first event. The first voyage condemned Laius; the second kills him. In fact, Laius sets out for Delphi at the very moment his son is returning from there. Euripides provides an explanation for Laius’ trip: he wished “to learn whether the exposed child was still alive” (Phoenician Women 36–37 [11] ). In the prologue to Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, on the other hand, the absence of justification for the drama, and by the same token the absence of any details about the circumstances, however useful these might have been for the dramatic logic (114–119), has broader value: the gaps transform Laius’ undertaking into an almost organic outcome. To Laius’ unformulated question, the oracle responds only by an act—it answers without answering—and thus demonstrates the symbolic character of the divine name of the Oblique (Loxias), the act being the necessary result of a previous act. Laius is going to meet a fate he has made for himself.
The play, in which the catastrophe becomes clear in the course of a single day, produces a homologous past, as it progresses and makes that past comprehensible. Analysis is not only, and not even in the first place, one of the perfect forms of theatrical art (Schiller); it is a necessary expression of the way time turns back on itself within Oedipus’ own life. By returning to his past, Oedipus goes back to the very origins of the lineage that has banned him.

Arbitrary division of the subject matter

As we know, the restoration of the disrupted order does not come about, in this story, through a confrontation between opposing interests (Greeks and Trojans, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra). This difference is echoed in the analytical structure: the significance of the action is revealed when that action has reached its end point; it has to be uncovered, and not because the misfortune one party has experienced through the fault of another leads to a retrospective understanding of the chain of events that prepared the way. The evil that Oedipus is led to commit needs no external adversity for it to be recognized. He inflicts it upon himself, during the course of an existence orchestrated as a “return,” from beginning to end, from birth to blindness. He himself is the adversity that befalls Laius, the enemy of his own people to whom Tiresias pointed (“you are unaware of being an enemy to your own [stock]” [415–416]). The lines expressing execration (“the two-pronged curse that comes from your mother and your father with deadly step shall one day drive you from this land; now you have sight, then shall you look on darkness” [417-419]) apply wholly to himself. Before becoming the prototype of a detective story (according to Ernst Bloch and others), [12] the clarification of the mystery that we witness during the play has first been developed by divine governance. Yet Oedipus’ opponent is not even Apollo, but rather the order of things, of which the god is the manager and to which Oedipus conforms.
If we fail to view Oedipus’ life as a regression and fail to see that Laius’ error is not included in the play, we end up misunderstanding the role of the gods: they do not intervene to fix things, but rather manifest their power in an incomprehensible way by toying with Oedipus. The aporia in this interpretation comes from the fact that one of the elements, Oedipus’ prehistory, is not taken into account, and the heroic figure is isolated. This aporia has influenced the critics and opened the door to ideological prejudices. Without Laius as a counterpart, the punishment strikes, deprived of the correlated fault, and the hero falls victim to meaningless terror. It is this scandal that becomes significant in the context of a conflict between men and gods: paradoxically, Oedipus commits crimes and becomes guilty without being guilty; he is invested with a mission so that the gods, thanks to his sacrifice, will be able to establish their power. The play turns into a “mystery,” a staging of a Greek “passion play.” [13]

Phases of maturation

Having been born after the gods had cursed the house of Laius, Oedipus was born to abolish his own birth—that is, his lineage. Instead of being the heir in his own household, he is thrust out into the wilderness, his “nurse and mother” (1091), where he experiences a second birth. The three three-month seasons of two shepherds, a Corinthian and a Theban, bear the child in a second gestation towards his fate of exteriority (1136–1140); “[Fortune] is my mother; and the months that are my kin have determined my smallness and my greatness” (1082–1083). A time of unrestrained violence opens up to Oedipus, mirroring the transgression responsible for his birth. The familial overabundance that could not be moderated is deposited in and concentrated on its offspring, feeding a force that turns against it. Oedipus does not know it, but he himself is the violent king of whom the Chorus speaks, without naming him, in the foreboding parable of the Second Stasimon (873–879 and 883–891). He takes on the garb of excess. And even the act of legitimate self-defense, which he performs out of concern for his own life (889), and which leads him to jostle—or strike—someone who is jostling him, is an act of violence. Oedipus draws his strength from the unlimited excess in which he moves.
The evil matures in two stages. The splendor of the Corinthian palace announces the splendor of the Theban conquest. Childhood sows the seed of his “secret sickness” (1396). Oedipus is sheltered in a first phase of artificial plenitude, until the words of a stranger with fateful powers disrupt the intoxication of a feast (779–781). But the time of conquests (Laius’ murder, victory over the Sphinx, establishment in Thebes) also shines with incredible excess: it is like a fully extended spring snapping back on itself, like a taut bowstring launching an arrow. This tension is the outcome of the Labdacids’ story, in Laius. The early stages of Oedipus’ life, in their glorious unfolding up to the day of the tragedy, reproduce the ascension of his lineage. At the fatal crossroads, he kills with the multiple arms of a superhuman hero (122–123; cf. 813).

The fulfillment

For the Thebans, Oedipus is the “savior.” He had come before to save them from death. At the time the play unfolds, a new disaster weighs on them, and they beg him to prevent their destruction once again (first in the supplication [31–45]; then after his public action as king [690–696]). The illusory analogy between the two situations (with the terrible “now again may you waft [the country] to safety!” [696]) brings together the terms of the contradiction in a logic of reparation, a logic that transcends the unexpiated murder.
To triumph over the Sphinx, Oedipus has come to Thebes in place of the king who has not come back. The newcomer bears a heightened power, astonishing on the part of a foreigner. He can hold this power only because he is the successor, the son substituted for the father by a murder. Just as the gods are demanding payment of his debt on earth, Oedipus reaches the end of the action that has fallen to him. He has ceased to play the role of super-Laius that murder had initially attributed to him; he is now simply Oedipus, the agent of ruin, who has inherited nothing but misfortune. His ascent masked what was lacking, but it has led to a fall into the abyss (876–79). The murdered king could not be avenged at the time of the killing (126–131). In this story, the lex talionis, the law of retaliation, concerns more than a single individual. The killing of Laius did not suffice to expiate his transgression—was he himself not the victim of an earlier error?—nor did it suffice that his murderer be punished for a crime that he was destined to commit, and that he did not know he was committing at the time of the killing. The aim is much broader. For the “good” to be re-established, a murder has to be carried out and the murderer has to turn against himself.

Oedipus’ Sphinx

The commentators (both ancient and modern) have offered divergent conjectures about just when the Sphinx appeared: before Laius’ trip (as a scholium of Pisandrus suggests) [14] or after? Before or after his murder? The question remains open, for at first glance Sophocles’ text spells nothing out.
The struggle with the Sphinx opens the gates of the city to Oedipus. This struggle is associated with the salvation of Thebes. After Laius’ death, the Sphinx’s action prevented the Thebans from avenging their king’s murder; we can deduce that her appearance was connected with that murder. Yet the monster does not act as an Erinys on behalf of the victim, intervening to obtain retribution, as the plague does in the course of the tragedy, because Laius’ murder has not been avenged and the earth suffers the stain of an unpunished crime. The presence of the Sphinx points rather to the king’s absence, his failure to return, as a residual peril that irrupts when the city’s defenses have collapsed. The Sphinx is timeless. Now, the Thebans are bereft without their king, since all power was concentrated in the royal family. Oedipus is the custodian of the power they are missing.
The Sphinx poses more than one enigma: not only the moment but also the place of her appearance, her movements, her very being constitute riddles. Hence the uncertainty—one of the uncertainties—on the part of the critics. Was the enigma the subject of Laius’ consultation? Was she an Erinys sprung from Laius’ blood? Or the foreshadowing of a monstrous marriage? These uncertainties make the absence of information meaningful in itself.
The origins of the figure of the Sphinx, whether Mesopotamian or Egyptian, do not exhaust her meaning. Whatever her function (probably funereal) in Greece or elsewhere, the myth closely couples the Sphinx with the figure of Oedipus, and not in Sophocles’ version alone. She is Oedipus’ Sphinx. On archaic or contemporary vases, the representation of these linked figures suffices to recall the whole story. In his Thebanische Heldenlieder (Theban Heroic Songs), the Homeric critic Erich Bethe (1891) opined that a man-eating monster was not likely to ask subtle questions: the enigma in the myth was therefore secondary to the physical combat in which Oedipus overcame the Sphinx. In his Oidipus, the archaeologist Carl Robert (1915) concurred. The motif of the virgin must not have been in the original myth. A more archaic, less intellectual element was sought. Yet the figurative representations showed that the enigma predated the combat; we can see the enigma in Stuttgart on an amphora from 530–520 BCE, a hundred years prior to Oedipus Tyrannus. On more recent representations, we see that the two themes could be combined: Oedipus solves the riddle and kills the Sphinx. More often, the Sphinx throws herself down to her death. For a long time, then, victory has been attributed to knowledge. In order to understand Sophocles, it is important to ask what meaning Oedipus’ superior knowledge takes on in the story. The scene of confrontation, the most heroic of all, stands out in the background to the tragedy, as the sign of an election.
In Oedipus Tyrannus, the virgin is represented as an animal and a musician (36, 130, 391, 507, 1198–1199). As a bitch, she is hard and wicked; as a bird with wings and talons, she sings. She is sterile and she kills. The virtuosity of her siren-like voice mirrors her polymorphism. Her aspect is elusive, she changes shape, she modulates her song: she is a bard, a rhapsode, an oracle, a master of variation. If composite, heterogeneous elements contribute to her “role” as an “absent” female presence, it is because she stands for flight, she is a hyperbole for becoming. [15] The solution to the “riddle” that she constitutes is the abandonment, the rout of the Thebans deprived of their king, the hiatus produced by Laius’ departure and death (“He left to go to Delphi, as he said, and never returned home from his journey,” 115–116). Deprived of his protection, the Thebans are no longer able to defend themselves against fate and death. The monster’s ravages fall within the logic of the history of the Labdacids, of the excessive expansion of a lineage, doomed by its own proliferation and abundance. And if Oedipus stands up in the absence of power like “a wall keeping off death” (1201), it is because, in order to succeed in his exploit, he has been invested with sovereignty in the logic of a power that turns back on itself in order to self-destruct. He has the royal power of integration of his late father, but, because he has won it from the outside, that power is not his own. It enables him to say and to show that he has it; he uses it to triumph over the Sphinx. What he is facing is no game, not even a fight, but a kind of ordeal in which a truth comes to light. To tell the ages of life is to tell of mastery over life.
In triumphing, then, Oedipus governs time and its stages, from childhood to old age, from the “cruel fetter of [his] feet” on Mount Cithaeron (1349–1350) to the beggar’s staff (456). The “foot,” common to all episodes, is a speaking anagram of the unspoken riddle. The famous enigma on which all the Thebans stumbled has the simplicity and self-evidence of statements that everyone can make: the animal that has four, two, then three feet is a man—child, adult, old man. Knowing the answer is not enough, one has to be invested with the power that authorizes its formulation.

Double parricide

The city is not the prize for Oedipus’ victory—as if the city could be anything but the power that won it for him. In the very act of freeing the Thebans from the scourge, Oedipus demonstrated his kingship. “Because of that are you called king, and you received the greatest honours, ruling in mighty Thebes” (1202–1204). And he challenges the seer: “Yes, taunt me in matters in which you shall find me great!” (441).
Similarly, Oedipus did not win his wife in a competition, as he does according to the ritualist schema analyzed by Marie Delcourt (1944:163). The familiar motif is used, but in a way that does not yield its meaning. Oedipus could not become king except by inheriting the wife (and the brother-in-law) of his predecessor, because in this case the nub of the myth lay in the excessive concentration of a single family. The marriage was necessary. The power that the Thebans had to offer the newcomer was located in the exclusive space of the palace and the bed. The succession went from the absent king to his substitute, from husband to husband. Incest was required for civic and political reasons. Jocasta was the designated site of the power that the hero demonstrated; more than simply Oedipus’ wife-mother, she was wife and mother to the Labdacids.
To oppose the winged virgin to the mother and then to unite them in a common femininity is to cancel out a more essential commonality: both the Sphinx and the queen symbolize the city, the former in her dislocation, the latter in her plenitude. Incest is thus a consequence and a reproduction of parricide—the retrospective passage in Oedipus’ monologue explicitly links them (1401–1403). Laius left the city to leave room for another, and the person who came to take his place was legitimized as another Laius, a perfect homology. In this political identification, Oedipus kills Laius through a symbolic murder, by substituting himself for his father in the act of procreating, by annulling his paternity. This confusion is a blood crime: “fathers who were brothers, children who were fruit of incest” (1406). These relatives kill one another in festivities worthy of Atreus, just as men kill by sacrificing living brothers in Empedocles’ Purifications.
These elements do not support interpreting the incestuous union as the satisfaction of a parental desire. Jocasta’s fantasy of love turned towards the mother is a sophistic argument in the plot (980–983). The underlying thinking is different. Incestuous procreation spills the blood of the father, while reincarnating him through the act of procreation.
The recurrent formulas rigorously exhaust the analysis of the mutual slaughter, variations on the theme of the primal scene of the tragic banquet, adapted to the situation of the play (424–425, 457–460, 1207–1209, 1214–1215, 1246–1250, 1256–1257, 1360–1361, 1403–1408, 1497–1499). Oedipus’ children are condemned by their father’s defection: he conceived them “from the source of his own being” (1494). His parents, Laius and Jocasta, are deposed because they have procreated only a father who “equals” them, and his children are stripped of their status as successors, on an “equal” basis with their progenitor from birth (1481). In uniting with Jocasta, Oedipus is the agent of his father’s death as he deprives his children of their lives. He is the middle term of a destitution that affects both the past and the future (1498–1499).
Oedipus, the survivor of Mount Cithaeron, is indeed a living dead man. He is reborn from death, like a shaman. Lévi-Strauss, comparing the legend with an Iroquois myth, writes about “the double identity of Oedipus, thought dead and yet alive, condemned child and triumphant hero.” [16] The unity may be even more fundamental. By killing his father, Oedipus borrowed the dead man’s identity, became his father; when he arrived in Thebes, he acted in the other’s place, and by taking on his identity he killed his father once again.

Public and private domains

The two domains are often confused, but the pollution that had to be purged, according to the oracle mentioned by Creon at the beginning of the play, does not lie in the incest, nor even in the parricide. The action begins with an investigation into a regicide, and a conclusion is reached at the end of the Second Episode, after the conversation with Jocasta, when Oedipus recognizes himself—or almost: he awaits confirmation as to the number of attackers—in Laius’ murderer: “Alas! now all is crystal clear!” (754; see also 738, when Oedipus recalls the seer’s insight and thinks only about the king: it is the man targeted by execration who obsesses him). The plague that has struck Thebes arises from the unavenged death of Laius, the lord of the land. When the god is questioned about the plague, the real question concerns this evil.
In the Second Stasimon, which follows, the theme of violence is addressed in the context of a political reflection on the disorder created by the agency charged with maintaining order.
The stain nevertheless hints at parricide. It is not just through a dramatic artifice that the shepherd connects the two parts of an action that could be separated (839–840 and 1051–1053): the country is struck because the victim had no son to defend him. The lack of descendants is part of the curse. Laius, an infanticide, has to expose his own son, anticipating the parricide: he has killed his own paternal self. When Oedipus commits murder, he echoes his father’s action. Thus the execration of the king’s assassin is proclaimed in absentia, the accused having been eliminated by his victim.
Laius’ murder draws the king of Thebes into a public action that dominates the play until its midpoint, when Jocasta enters: “Will you not go indoors, and you, Creon, to your house … ?” (638). The Chorus, after Creon’s exit, insists further: “Lady, why do you delay to conduct him inside?” (679). But no one goes into the house yet; it is still public action that, for Oedipus, remains in the foreground, with Jocasta, until the end of the scene, when the same invitation leads him to cross a second threshold, as it were: “But let us go into the house” (861).
Once the foreigner has dispelled the illusion of a Corinthian heritage, the regicide designated by the god and by the king’s action disappears in a blending of parricide and incest. Only then do Jocasta’s revelations to Oedipus, and his to her, and the two oracles, the father’s and the son’s, acquire their terrifying meaning. The uncertainty that had been maintained as to the author of the political crime, and that had been based on the long-standing ambivalence of the witness’s testimony (841–847), allows the action to shift toward another uncertainty, which absorbs the first. If this indication is no longer highlighted, it is because it is no longer of interest. When Oedipus discovers that he is Laius’ son (after having been fatherless [1019] and then a child of Fortune [1080]), he is the murderer designated by the god’s first oracle, and the shepherd’s testimony regarding the crime needs no refutation. The city was searching for the man who had killed its king, but the king had killed himself in the parricide that had to be carried out. In Oedipus’ story, the symbolic role of the king overshadows that of the father.

Hatred in action

The condemnation of Laius is thus accomplished through the act of avenging him. The son, his murderer, will act on his own and bring his race to an end. Two movements, from prehistory to culmination: one that leads to the death of the father at the hands of his other self, unknown to him, and the other in which Oedipus destroys himself, upon discovering that he is not the “other” he thought he was—namely, his father’s son. The foreigner (from Thebes or from elsewhere) whom he was pursuing is at once “impure and of the race of Laius” (1383).
In order to accomplish his deed, Oedipus had to transit through another identity, make a detour through otherness. As a child, he experienced exposure in a wilderness, in the absolute outside, far from fields and cities. He was born to exteriority. Taken in, in Corinth, he had a place elsewhere that was not his. Driven away by doubt, he went into exile. He entered Thebes, his homeland, through “three roads” (1399)—a murder, a riddle, and a bed; he was projected into his own world as a foreigner, like a god fallen into a vale of ignorance and oblivion (the meadow of misfortune in Empedocles’ Purifications, frag. 121 D-K [17] ), like Orestes sent by Apollo in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, whose arrival Cassandra announced (1282): “he who is now a wandering exile, a stranger to this land [Argos, his homeland] will return …” [18]
The detective-story plot, in which the judge turns out to be the murderer, takes on significance. Oedipus is his own opponent, the adversary of Laius’ son, who he is. It cannot be otherwise: to undo the wrong, he is the substance of a self-targeting hatred. An enemy to his own kin (415–419), he is his own enemy. Hatred puts on the mask of alienation, at first a mask of anger, in the scenes with Tiresias where Oedipus is the artisan of his own undoing as king, and then as citizen, with Creon. His outburst is not a “fault,” nor a weakness, a sin, or a mistake; [19] it is the expression of the force that inhabits and drives him. Anger is but the mask of a basic drive.
Violence is nourished from the outside (192–197, 215). Even the blow struck at Oedipus from afar is a shock provoked by Strife: “Who is the god that with a leap longer than the longest has sprung upon your miserable fate?” (1300–1302; cf. 1311). Here again, the vocabulary is Empedoclean, and this helps us understand the representation—though it is by no means a sign of doctrinal influence. Oedipus, in his delirium, armed with a useless sword, performs a staging of hatred, acting as the firebrand of revenge, a dissociating power from abroad; his exteriority is external to itself.

The meaning of the mutilation

In his self-destruction, Oedipus is remote from himself in the execration, but close to himself in the mutilation; it is the destroyer whom he strikes. Through Oedipus’ own central agency, standing at the center, the succession of generations overlaps and breaks down. Mother and father alike have lost their lives because of him. He kills them a second time, in advance, with the monstrous reproduction of his forbidden birth. His sons are his brothers, and they multiply him (425). The act of procreation is condemned both in the progenitors and in the offspring, and Oedipus is the mediator. He is a father like his father and a son like his children.
Thus his self-mutilation is first of all an extension of the parricide. The hands that carry out the act, ripping out along with the eyes the symbols of paternal authority, the father’s crown, thus attain the status of children, in the wounding and abasement of the progenitor: “Children, where are you? Come here! Come to these hands that are your brother’s, which have done their duty of the eyes of the father who begat you, once so bright” (1480–1483).
Allowing Oedipus to live, this act of self-destruction strengthens his role as a righter of wrongs. By striking himself, he wins the autonomy of a subject. No one else has committed the deed: he himself is the “outside” that has accomplished it. The “daimon” in question, when it bears the name of destruction, is called Apollo. Oedipus responds to the Chorus: “It was Apollo, Apollo, my friends, who accomplished these cruel, cruel sufferings of mine!” (1329–1330); but he does not view himself as the god’s victim. Nor does he accuse the god. By designating Apollo, Oedipus does more than merely acknowledge the superiority of the force that overcame him. According to nineteenth-century (and twentieth-century) criticism, he could not be incriminating his own action in this passage, because he was not guilty. [20] For these critics, Apollo was the master who had set Oedipus’ destiny, but the god did not embody divine justice, either; it would have been necessary to accept his jurisdiction, to which there was no reason for the hero to submit. The god had made all the decisions, but outside any system of justice.
Nevertheless, it is Apollo who symbolizes, from beginning to end, the restoration of justice, through his successive oracles, even before Oedipus’ birth. Mutilation itself is an Apollonian deed, that is, a deed of death, in keeping with one of the “etymologies” of the god’s name, which characterizes him as the Destroyer, even though the hand that strikes the blow belongs to Oedipus. This inhuman rebalancing, which restores the players to their places, has a logic that cannot be found within the bounds of an individual life.

The subject returns

In the Exodos, as he hurls himself into abjection, Oedipus calls at least—and at most—for an outside. While he returns to his origins, in the play, at the end of a life lived backwards, in a way he reaches a naked exteriority beyond that of violence. This long final section has proved hard to accept; it has been viewed as a sort of “passion,” a catharsis, a sentimental drama.
The messenger’s tale delivers the hero over to madness: he first goes around in circles (1254), then walks straight on, with purpose and resolve. The god prevents him from killing, but he turns Jocasta’s weapon, the brooches from her dress, against himself. In mutilation, Oedipus dies and survives; he lives Jocasta’s death: this was not the disaster of an individual, but a disaster that befell man and woman alike (1280–1283). When he staggers back in the night and meets the people of the city after his deranged act, he is elsewhere, very far from the world. We see him fighting against the daimon, who is winning. Oedipus recovers an identity only through communication, thanks to the Chorus. Speech, daughter of Apollo, slips away from the god to speak. But when he recovers his lucidity, Oedipus takes leave of the Thebans and the world, taking ownership of his deed, and then of his past, as he reconstructs the stages of his life. The strength that makes him assume responsibility separates him from the others. The monologue ends with his claim to transcendence. Untouchable, he may yet be touched, because he belongs to a different species: “Come, condescend to touch a man accursed! Do as I say, do not be afraid! For there is no human being who can bear my woes but I” (1413–1415). The exile the hero calls for, in compliance with the anathema, is the path toward the abyss, even if the hero has mastery over it because he is the author of his own exclusion. His daughters, who belong to the palace and have no existence outside it, share in the excommunication of the lineage.

The dénouement or the distancing of the tragedy

The tragedy thus avoids ending in bloodshed. On the contrary: Oedipus’ distinctive attribute is his persistence in a hereafter, between life and death. [21] If he had killed himself, he would have met his parents in death; he would have been united with them as they looked upon one another (1371–1373). But he could not go on living, either; that is, he could not go on perceiving, perception being one of the definitions of life. So the righter of wrongs closes his eyes upon darkness, gives up the gaze that had looked outward as Apollo’s sun does, and enters, living, into the realm of death: “we two … have perished” (1504–1505). Nor can the tragedy settle for making him one of the living dead, a sort of shaman. [22] Oedipus survives both his life and his death. He will have to have a second death.
Exile is the figure of a non-being that was Oedipus’ lot since birth—he was not supposed to be. His passage by way of the mountain doubled him, gave him another self, foreign to him, to carry out the act he was “charged with” accomplishing against his own lineage. The fallen daimon serves as a model. The play features no Pythagorean thesis, for such a thesis would not befit the stage. But philosophy and theatre share the same spatial organization and cosmology, as we see at the end of the Parodos (203–215) and the beginning of the Second Stasimon (865–868). The two exiles match: from Mount Cithaeron to Mount Cithaeron, from birth to grave (1451–1454). Even the splendor Oedipus knew in Corinth and saw again in Thebes is foreign to him (1394–1396). The appearance of beauty is twice shattered by a brutal intervention from the outside, a stroke of fate, or a coup de théâtre: during the banquet, there is the insult (779–780); in Thebes, even more than the plague, there is the arrival of the Corinthian, which puts an end to the illusion of Oedipus’ foreign citizenship and reveals his true nature.
But the “savior” is not saved. His acts, the ordeals to which he is subjected and of which he is the author, bear their own end. This is why he walks away. The tragedy concludes with his distancing. The tragic event is unveiled in his blind gaze. An outsider, he knows. Not the inverse: it is not that he removes himself because he knows, not that he is purified. Had he been purified, the ending would not be tragic. [23]

Works Cited

Bethe, E. 1891. Thebanische Heldenlieder. Leipzig.
Blanchot, M. 1993. The Infinite Conversation. Trans. S. Hanson. Minneapolis, MN. Orig. pub. 1969.
Bloch, E. 1965. “Philosophische Ansicht des Detektivromans.” In Literarische Aufsätze, Gesamtausgabe 9:242–263. Frankfurt.
Bollack, J. 1995. La naissance d’Oedipe: traduction et commentaires d’Oedipe roi. Paris.
———. 2003. Les Purifications: un projet de paix universelle. Paris.
Delcourt, M. 1944. Oedipe ou la légende du conquérant. Bibliothèque de la Faculté de Lettres de l’Université de Liège, fasc. 104. Liège.
Goethe, J. W. 1994. Correspondence between Goethe and Schiller. Trans. L. Dieckmann. New York.
Lévi-Strauss, C. 1976. Structural Anthropology II. Trans. C. Jacobson and B. Grundfest Schoepf. New York. Orig. pub. 1973.
Robert, L. 1915. Oidipus: Geschichte eines poetischen Stoffs in griechischen Altertum. Berlin.
Scherer, J. 1987. Dramaturgies d’Œdipe. Paris.
Szondi, P. 2002. Essay on the Tragic. Trans. P. Fleming. Stanford.


[ back ] * Originally published as “Né damné,” in: Jean Bollack, La naissance d’Œdipe: traduction et commentaires d’Œdipe roi (Paris, 1995), pp. 217–237.
[ back ] 1. Letter from Schiller to Goethe, 2 October 1797, in Goethe 1994:230: “Oedipus is, as it were, a tragic analysis. Everything is already there, it is only being unfolded.” See “Le fils de l’homme,” in Bollack 1995:282–321.
[ back ] 2. [TN: Translations from Oedipus Tyrannus are by H. Lloyd-Jones, in Sophocles: Ajax; Electra; Oedipus Tyrannus (Cambridge, MA, 1994). All further translations of Oedipus Tyrannus are from this volume; line numbers refer to the Greek text.]
[ back ] 3. [TN: This writer from the fourth century BCE produced an account of Greek mythology based on fifth-century Attic tragedy. His work, largely lost, is known to us through various scholiasts.]
[ back ] 4. [TN: “The Riddle of the Sphinx” is found at Athenaeus Deipnosophists 10.456B; trans. D. Mulroy, Oedipus Rex (Madison, WI, 2011), p. 91.]
[ back ] 5. “A man at the pinnacle of good fortune discovers one day that he has been tricked by the heartless gods” (J. Cocteau, Oedipe roi, Roméo et Juliette [Paris, 1928], 9).
[ back ] 6. See Scherer 1987:166–168.
[ back ] 7. [TN: In Electra, Phoenician Women, Bacchae, Iphigenia at Aulis, trans. C. E. Luschnig and P. Woodruff (Indianapolis, 2011). Further citations of Phoenician Women are from this volume.]
[ back ] 8. On Hegel’s conception of the tragic, and on the specific significance of Antigone in shaping the model of the dual morality according to which, in the Phenomenology of Spirit, the world of love advocated by Antigone opposes Creon’s law, see Szondi 2002, esp. 15–22. Oedipus Tyrannus remains in the background of Hegel’s analysis; it is hard to see what principle might represent Oedipus and what the opposing principle might be.
[ back ] 9. See Bollack 1995:266.
[ back ] 10. Cf. Bollack 1995:257.
[ back ] 11. Trans. D. Kovacs, Euripides: Helen, Phoenician Women, Orestes (Cambridge, MA, 2002).
[ back ] 12. Bloch 1965, esp. 255.
[ back ] 13. Bollack 1995:291, 303.
[ back ] 14. Ad Euripides Phoenician Women 1760.
[ back ] 15. On these characteristics, see Bollack 1995:128.
[ back ] 16. Lévi-Strauss 1976:22.
[ back ] 17. Bollack 2003.
[ back ] 18. Trans. W. Goodwin, Aeschylus Agamemnon (Boston, 1906).
[ back ] 19. See Bollack 1995:329–330.
[ back ] 20. See Bollack 1995:248 and 253, 282–283.
[ back ] 21. See Bollack 1995:101–102.
[ back ] 22. See above, p. 147.
[ back ] 23. Blanchot (1993:438n2) makes a distinction between Tiresias’ words and Oedipus’. Tiresias leaves the facts obscure, whereas Oedipus’ insistence on clarity serves to mask the horror of things. We recognize, orienting this presentation, the pendulum of the Heideggerian Being, swinging back and forth between assertiveness and concealment. In short, Tiresias does not disclose what he knows because the truth relates to Oedipus.

When with “luminous universality” Oedipus makes the answer to the riddle clear, he seems to “keep for himself alone … the obscure horror that escapes revelation—as though in reserving being Oedipus for himself, he authorized us henceforth to be tranquilly ‘men’” (Blanchot 1993:438n2). This interpretation is open to two objections. First, the story is a particular story; it does not involve humanity in general. Second, like the psychoanalysts, Blanchot correlates the Sphinx’s appearance and her riddle with Oedipus’ parricide. Yet the Sphinx made her appearance in the interregnum following the king’s death. If Oedipus speaks clearly, it is because he has the power to do so as the legitimate heir. His words concern the life of the city-state, and the men in question are the Thebans being devoured by the Sphinx. Tiresias has the advantage over Oedipus of knowing what bond unites political control with the individual circumstances that make such control possible. His knowledge is situated in a context that sheds light on it.