'With What Eyes': Learning to See Tragically at Colonus
Socrates asks us to consider two states of the soul that look the same to those who see someone in them, and that feel the same for someone experiencing them. A person stumbles and gropes about, because the eyes the soul are bewildered and can find no familiar object on which to focus, no anchor of safety on which to rest. It may be that one has stepped down from the light into darkness. Or it may be that, 'having turned from darkness to day [one] is dazzled by excess of light' (Republic 7.518). Genuine learning does not happen without disorientation. As one takes the first steps out into a fuller, bigger, brighter, realer reality, things turn out not to be what and where you always thought they were; things that you thought were solid give way when you lean on them; you bump into objects you didn't know were there, you stumble about in 'a region of unlikeness'. In extreme cases—which we all may be headed for—the very ground seems to give way beneath our feet, and we are suspended flailing in a horrifying free-fall. If we can bear this state of disorientation, suffer through it, then, slowly, a new and deeper ground will rise out of the darkness to support us, things will come into new focus, we will live a different life, conversant with mysterious realities. We will draw near to sources of blessing and power to which many are oblivious.
Think of Oedipus at the beginnings and ends of his two tragedies. At the beginning of Oedipus Rex he appears an almost god-like figure, hearing the cries of his people with great-hearted sympathy, poised to become their savior for a second time. At the end of the play, the ground has been swept out from under his feet—his life, as he has now discovered, is not the life he thought it was. The most familiar and basic realities—mother, father, marriage, home, city, daughters, sons—turn a countenance of horror toward him which bansishes all comfort, all stability, all peace from his world. For his relationship to each of these basic human realities has concealed a horrible, perverting secret. Most horrible of all, that secret is somehow he himself, who he is, what he is—and there is nowhere he can go to escape it. We leave him at the end of the play cast down from his former serene authority, flailing about in the face of his fate, his eyes bleeding from self-inflicted wounds—wanting to look upon the world no longer. Though in an agony more excruciating than despair, he does 'not choose not to be'. He does not despair. There is something of the proud and great-hearted king still in him, something that cannot be beaten into quiet submission and despair. He suffers a rapture of agony and disorientation, humiliation and shame, but he goes on. He does not choose not to be. It looks like he has been plunged in darkness, but could it be he is taking the first steps 'from darkness to day, dazzled by excess of light'?
At the opening of Oedipus at Colonus, we see an old man, beggar, vagabond, with no home or city to call his own, an oucast 'from whom men shrink,' polluted as he is by incest and parricide. He has suffered twenty years of hunger, weather, sleeping out of doors—relying on the charity of strangers—consoled only by the presence of his loving daughter, on whom he must lean for support and guidance. Instead of eyes, uncanny pitted hollows gape upon his face. And yet he is unbowed by all his calamities. In the slow passage of time, he has achieved an inner quiet in which he takes pride; “suffering and time, / vast time, have been instructors in contentment, / which kingliness teaches too,” he says (Colonus, 6-8). At the end of the play, he exits, not guided or leaning on others, but leading them (as far as they can follow), by means of an inspired second sight, into the sacred darkness at the heart of the cosmos, crossing the threshold of mystery to a place of blessedness, honor, and power into which heaven or earth, opening with love, receives him. He now sees aright. He is no longer dazzled by the darkness or excessive light of reality, but moves through its dimensions with a marvelous liberty and assurance.
How has he arrived at this almost god-like condition, so different from that which he seems to possess at the beginning of Oedipus Rex? I want to return briefly to what seems to me a crucial turning point in the first play, one without which the events of the second play could never have happened. Having realized the full horror of his actions, Oedipus rushes with wild frenzy into the house, where he finds his wife Jocasta—whom he now knows as his mother also—swaying dead from the roof beam. His drawn sword is in his hand. But instead of taking his life, he drives Jocasta's brooches into first one eye, then his other. The chorus of Thebes' old men does not understand or approve: “I cannot say your remedy was good.” they say, “You would be better dead than blind” (Rex, 1368). But Oedipus defends his action, protesting, “What I have done here was best done—don't tell me otherwise, do not give further counsel. I do not know with what eyes I could look upon my father, when I die and go under the earth, nor yet my wretched mother ...” (Rex, 1370 ff.). This is a sublime response. For one thing, we see that Oedipus is thinking of the afterlife, the otherworld. Unlike the chorus who only want to rid the city of pollution, put it away, put it out of sight, out of mind as fast as possible, Oedipus knows that realities, the truth of things, cannot simply be dismissed. “I do not know with what eyes I could look upon my father ...” “With what eyes?” Not with these eyes that have deceived me, luring me on to think that evils were goods, that the monstrous horrors in which I have in fact been snared were comforting, sweet, and noble relationships. With what eyes, then?
Oedipus's act of self-mutilation, in fact, is a cry to the gods to grant him an entirely new way of seeing, a resurrected sight that has passed through destruction and calamity. In the midst of his darkness, he grasps upon the seemingly flimsly hope, yet hope nonetheless, that one day—in the underworld—he will encounter his mother and father, his children, and be able to see and love them rightly, though up to now everything has been wrong, wrong, wrong. Moments later he says, “Yet I know this much: … I would not have been spared from death, if not for some strange ... fate. Well, let my fate go where it will” (Rex, 1455).
In our play for today, Oedipus at Colonus, the Tragic poet Sophocles, himself at the end of his life, returns to his most famous and total Tragedy to see it anew, and reflect on what Tragedy—the work of his life—most really and fully means. What is it for? In the play, we see various ways of undergoing tragedy represented by Antigone, Polyneices, and, of course, Oedipus himself—as well as patterns of witnessing Tragedy, in the responses of the citizens of Colonus, and the hero Theseus. Creon falls into both categories, because he thinks he is witnessing a Tragedy when in fact, through his unfeeling pride, he is falling into one of his own making (a dire warning for us).
Like Sophocles, Oedipus has been reflecting on Tragedy. For twenty years he has been wandering through Greece, in his own inner darkness, led on by a fate that—as he recognized in the earlier play, “goes where it will”—all the while reflecting on the Tragic experiences of his life. As any tired beggar might, the old king sits down to rest on a kind of natural park bench made of stone within a cool, dark grove. He does not know that he has stumbled on the grove of the Furies.
Who are these august, terrible ladies whose sacred grove he seems to have violated? They are ancient, primordial goddesses, older than the Olympians, daughters of that original Night that is at the beginning of all things. The Night from which light and all things first came into being, a night pregnant with possibility and mystery, the night of creation and generation, but also the night of unmaking and annihliation—a night that remains in background and waits to engulf us all. The special domain of the Furies, the all-seeing ones, is to haunt and pursue with calamity those who have committed sacreligous violations, oath-breach, kin-slaughter, parricide, infanticide, incest, cannabalism—Oedipus's own life has been well acquainted with the Furies. Yet they are also called 'the Holy Ones', 'the Kindly Ones'. In part, these are euphemisms, we call them 'the kindly ones' because we hope they will be 'kindly' to us. But it's more than that; for to those who regard them wisely and uprightly (to those who dwell in sober recognition of possibilities terrible, as well as possibilities deeply happy), they grant blessings: friendships and homes and marriages with a fruitful and rich inner life, cities capable of courageous action and self-defense, reverent communities who stand in right relation to the divine. These blessings are represented by the inhabitants of the Furies' grove: in this space of shelter, protected from the sun, and immune to weather, dwell clear-running water, blooming flowers, the singing nightingale, the rooted olive tree 'planted by running streams,' the threshold of the otherworld, and, in the end, Oedipus' himself.
Oedipus' life has prepared him to receive the blessings of the Furies. When he learns from the scandalized citizen of Colonus that he has stumbled on the Furies' grove, he recognizes a providence in the action: “May they be gentle to the suppliant. / For I shall never leave this place” (Colonus, 44-5). This recognition is explained a few lines later in his prayer to the Furies to let him remain in their covert: “For when [Apollo] gave me oracles of evil,” he says “he also spoke of this: a resting place, / after long years, in the last country, where / I should find a home among the sacred Furies” (Colonus, 87 ff.). His whole life has been leading to this end, as he now sees. In that very oracle which before seemed to have foretold him only unspeakable horrors, he finds, after long reflection, a promise of blessedness. And to the people, the audience that can rightly receive him and his story—to those who can receive his Tragic wisdom—he will become a transmitter, a conduit and conductor, of the Furies' blessings. If we (the audience) reflect on his sufferings with openness and generosity, with pity and fear and growing understanding, his sufferings will deepen, strengthen, and bless our lives.
How then do we receive these blessed influences? In the citizens of Colonus and in Theseus, their king, we find a pattern of how to respond to the Tragic figure. When he first appears in Colonus, Oedipus seems to the citizens little more than a vagabond, the refuse of the earth—possibly a petty threat, likely harmless. Nevertheless, such people, beggars, outcasts, unexpected guests are protected by the gods—and a good city must try to do what it can for them. The lone stranger who first meets him challenges him for tresspassing, yet is courteous and informative, clearly proud of his little city and Theseus its Athenian King. He is interested in the stranger and recognizes that there is something out of the ordinary about him, “You're clearly well-born,” he says, “though obviously unfortunate” (Colonus, 76). Aristotle tells us that the tragic hero is someone “better than the average man, though not preeminently good,” and a person who suffers a terrible reversal of fortune. While not knowing his story, this citizen bypasser already senses Oedipus's tragic stature.
Perhaps because they appear in numbers—and a crowd is never as intelligent as its individual members—when the whole chorus of the townsfolk appear their response to the stranger is far more extreme, “Impious, blasphemous, shameless! / ... Not of our land!” they cry, “... Vagabond! Vagabond!” (Colonus, 120 ff.) They are indignant at his trespass, but they dread the inhabitants of the grove that he has made his own, and so fear to remove him forcibly. When they see him, they are initially struck with pity by his blindness, and ask him to come down from the grove to give an account. But, since they fear that he will contaminate them, they make him remain at a distance, still half in the grove, to speak with them. They are both attracted by pity and repelled by fear. His very presence makes them experience contradictory emotions.
But when they discover who he is, their repulsion is visceral and total. This is not just fear, but horror. And remember that Oedipus is horrible. He is polluted, unclean, 'one from whom men shrink'. Not only does he have monstrous hollows in place of eyes, he married and lay with his mother in love, re-entering the womb where his father, whose blood was on his hands, begot him; his sons are his brothers, his sisters are his daughters--”Away with you! Out with you! Leave our country!” “Wind not further your clinging evil upon us!” (Colonus, 226, 235-4)
Only the beautiful and faithful daughter Antigone, Oedipus' fellow sufferer, who has given up her life to care for him, manages to waken their pity again—she pleads with them and helps them see Oedipus not as grotesque monster, but a helpless man in need. Her eyes of love intercede with them to have pity on the eyeless father whom she has loved so selflessly. Such things as happened to Oedipus could come upon all of us, she says, “You will never see a man in all the world whom God has led to escape his destiny!” (Colonus, 237-50). This is a fellow human being like you and me—and what happened to him, could happen to you. The young Saint Francis could not bear to look upon, much less touch a leper, whose face and flesh were so horribly disfigured. When he learned to see a fellow human being in the leper, he took the first steps in the love of God. When he kissed him, he was flooded with peace and consolation and a new unshakable stability—and in the end he came to see, in the face of leper, the face of Christ. Tragedy makes us look at horrors that overtake and disfigure human life, things we recoil from, would prefer not to look, possibilities we would prefer not think about. It is okay, it is natural to feel revulsion (if you haven't felt it, that means you're repressing it—you will feel it eventually), but we must overcome that initial reaction and learn to look on monstrous suffering with kindness and a desire to understand.
Now the citizen-chorus is evenly poised between pity, fear, and horror—they can do nothing but listen, while Oedipus tells his story. He has gained new insight in twenty years, and now he can boldly insist on his innocence—he did horrible things, but he thought he was doing good and noble things—how could he have known otherwise? His horrible acts were things he suffered, not things he willed and performed. If the citizens of Colonus should add to his suffering by rejecting him (as the citizens of Thebes have done), they would commit a great injustice. Gesturing to the dark grove that looms ominously behind himself, he says, “In reverence to your gods, grant me this shelter. … Think, their eyes are fixed upon the just, fixed on the unjust, too” (Colonus, 275 ff.). With the Furies behind him, he warns them, “that he is one endowed with powers beyond nature” (Colonus, 287-6). Hearing this, the chorus allow that his is a weighty case, one that they are in no position to judge; they are content to wait until their King arrives.
As they wait, sitting and watching the blind Oedipus, their wonder and their curiosity grows. Though still in horror, they are no longer in shock—and their horror has been softened a bit by pity and awe. After a long silence, they address Oedipus again, with gently probing curiosity, “What evil things have slept since long ago, It is not sweet to awaken, and yet I long to be told ...” (Colonus, 510 ff.) Line by line, they draw his story out from him. This exchange is painful for him, and he suffers the old pain again in having it teased out in the open like this. And yet, to share it with a sympathetic audience is also healing. “You suffered” “Yes unspeakbaly” “You sinned!” “No! I did not sin! … Before the law—before God!--I am innocent!” We would like the sufferer to be guilty, because then we could separate himself off from us in our minds and hearts—we could pity him, yes, but from a position of superiority and immunity, in which we do not really enter into his fate with genuine compassion. Yet, bit by bit, these defences we throw up to seal ourselves off from the suffering creature, must be worn away, undermined, and we must see feelingly that we too are vulnerable to Tragedy. If we do not, we can neither truly see our world, or love each other genuinely, or act in it effectively—we will always be shying away from, resisting the truth of our lives. If you hide from the truth, the eyes of your soul will grow blind, your world will grow dim; within its blankets of self-protection, your heart will slowly, surely die. Watching a tragedy helps us be vulnerable and open to the action of the truth. And the truth will set you free.
The chorus is opening itself to this truth when Theseus appears to show and teach them (and us) how finally to respond to the Tragic hero. Theseus himself is a hero, he has battled down bandits, robbers, and cruel outlaws. Though he himself was born in another city, he freely took Athens' curse upon himself, delivered himself up into the labyrinth, did battle with the horrifying Minotaur in the darkness, prevailed, and so saved the city. Such a man has undergone himself the depths of privation and uncertainty. Such a man fears nothing. Nothing can unsettle him beacause he has given himself to his mission so totally. He has left behind natural, self-protective impulses and has made a venture, a gift of himself. He knows there are dangers, and that victory and hapinness are not certain in our mortal life. Because he does not hide from reality, he can act in accord with it. He sees right. He acts decisively.
Even if on my way I was not informed,
I'd recognize you, son of Laius. The garments
and the tortured face make plain your identity.
I am sorry for you. And I should like to know what favor here
you hope for from the city and from me. …
Tell me. It would be something dire indeed
To make me leave you comfortless, for I
too was an exile. I grew up abroad,
And in strange lands I fought as few men have
with danger and with death.
Therefore no wanderer shall come, as you do,
and be denied my audience and aid.
I know I am only a man; I have no more
To hope for in the end than you have. (Colonus, 553 ff.)
Theseus alone will see the mysterious end of Oedipus. It takes place off-stage and neither we nor the citizens of Colonus (who stand in for us in the play) are given this final vision. Yet we hear something of it, and can receive something of its mysterious blessing.
But in what manner
Oedipus perished, no one of mortal men
Could tell but Theseus. It was not lightning
Bearing its fire from God, that took him off;
No hurricane was blowing.
But some attendant from the train of Heaven
Came for him; or else the underworld
Opened in love the unlit door of Earth.
For he was taken without lamentation,
Illness or suffering; indeed his end
Was wonderful if mortal’s ever was. (Colonus, 1655 ff.)
Even Theseus, who alone beholds this mystery, shades his eyes 'as if from something awful, fearful and unendurable to see' (1650 ff.). If we want to be prepared for an experience of the-more-than-human, the more-than-natural, if we want to have hearts open to God, we must be open to the wisdom of tragedy, we must create a place within our minds, hearts, and cities to behold and dwell upon imgaes of the utmost suffering to which our human state is vulnerable. We must learn to see with clear and steady eyes of compassion. We must love the sufferer that we meet even as we love ourselves, and in doing so, we will recognize that we too are balanced precariously over an abyss of possiblities, terrible, horrible some of them, and some of them filled with divine blessing beyond what our minds can conceive.
Let us retrace the reactions and responses of the people of Colonus to the Tragic figure of Oedipus, and internalize their succession and pattern, so that we can receive the same education in Tragedy that they do.
We challenge the stranger courteously, and see that he seems like a noble man who has undergone some nameless misfortune. Since he trespasses in places that we would fear to tread, we are indignant and afraid of him—we would like to write him off as a trespassing vagabond, and get the proper authorities to take him away. But when we are reminded, by one who loves and cares for him, that he is suffering something that we could suffer too, we feel pity once more, and sit to hear the story. Yet when we recognize the deep horror of his experience, we recoil once more and more deeply, frantically wishing that this monster be removed from our experience, yet dreading to do so ourselves for fear of becoming contaminated or committing a terrible injustice. So we sit and wait, helplessly poised between pity, fear, horror, and an almost religious awe, and as we sit, we eventually grow quiet within, and quietly looking on, we see another human being once more, and are moved by curiosity and wonder, ready now to hear and imagine his story more inwardly, putting ourselves in his place, acknowledging that we are no position either to judge the suffferer or to seal off our world from his. Suddenly, the possibilties of our world are opened, deepened—life is more dangerous but also resonates with divine voices. Now, we are ready to follow Theseus, the hero who generously makes the lot of suffering humanity his business, and receives the blessing of Oedipus for himself and his people.