Oedipus Wrecked

Laius and Jocasta have a son, Oedipus. A prophet tells them that Oedipus will one day kill his mother and marry his father. Laius and Jocasta ignore the so-called “prophet,” taking him to be a religious fanatic and, therefore, delusional.

Time passes.

When Oedipus is still a boy Laius and Jocasta get a divorce. Oedipus is raised by his father’s parents and has little contact with Laius and Jocasta. By the time he reaches adulthood he is estranged from all his family.

Then one day there is an unfortunate accident. Driving home from his government job in the nation’s capital, Oedipus, in a fit of road rage, causes a three-car pile-up that kills a man. A police investigation later reveals the man’s name to be Joe.

Oedipus enters a rehab center in Arizona to work on his anger management issues.

While there, Oedipus strikes up a friendship with one of the other residents, a woman some years older than himself who goes by the name “Nova.” She and Oedipus begin a relationship that continues after they both leave the rehab center. Eventually they decide to get married.

At their wedding, however, an old friend of Nova’s recognizes Oedipus, and everything that once was dark now comes to light. Oedipus discovers that Nova is his biological father, Laius, who underwent a sex-change operation not long after the divorce from Oedipus’s biological mother, Jocasta. And it seems that Jocasta underwent a similar operation not long before she was tragically killed on a highway near Washington, D.C. After the operation, Jocasta had chosen to be known as “Joe.”

A quick Internet search connects Joe’s death with Oedipus’s fit of road rage.

Thus the fanatic’s prophecy is fulfilled. Oedipus has killed his mother and married his father.

Oedipus and Nova live happily as man and transgender parent/wife.

But Oedipus and Nova’s incestuous marriage, while lawful in the nation’s capital, still remains unlawful in several states. They join the growing movement of those seeking the constitutional right to marry a transgender parent. On the day the Supreme Court finally creates the right, Oedipus and Nova celebrate with the crowd on the Court steps. They post a picture of themselves to their Facebook page.

The tagline of the post reads: #LoveWins.

“Oedipus Explains the Riddle of the Sphinx” by J-A-D Ingres, c. 1805
“Oedipus Explains the Riddle of the Sphinx” by J-A-D Ingres, c. 1805

*         *         *

In tragedy, a hero or heroine is crushed, either by a kind of fate, or by bad luck, or by a horrible train of choices. Whatever the causal mechanism that springs the tragedy, the point of the drama is to show the humbling of the protagonist. As the Chorus laments at the end of Sophocles’ great play, Oedipus the King:

Behold this Oedipus—
Him who knew the famous riddles and was a man most
not a citizen who did not look with envy on his lot—
see him now and see the breakers of misfortune
swallow him!
Look upon that last day always. Count no mortal happy
till he has passed the final limit of his life secure from pain.

The humbling of the tragic protagonist, however, is only possible if there are moral prohibitions that define the happiness and good fortune of human beings. Take away the prohibitions against murder and incest, and Oedipus the King would be inconceivable.

As would be that other great tragedy by Sophocles, Antigone, if there were no natural law for Antigone to appeal to in her claiming the right to bury her brother.

As would be Macbeth if regicide and other kinds of murder were morally neutral acts.

Take away the moral law, make it a mere matter of preference and custom, and tragedy becomes something else. Just as gay “marriage” isn’t really marriage, so too a “tragedy” isn’t really a tragedy if there are no absolutes binding the will. To steal a pun from Woody Allen, Oedipus is wrecked.

And it’s not just tragedy that suffers when the moral backdrop is changed. Comedy, in its own way the humbling of a protagonist, becomes something else than what it was for Jane Austen and P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and Flannery O’Connor, when there is no moral standard for the comic hero or heroine to fall short of. If fecklessness were not a moral defect, who would laugh at Bertie Wooster?

The redefinition of literary genres I speak of is not hypothetical. Modern storytellers, whether in the uptown market of literature or the downtown market of movies and television, opt more and more for “trans-genre” operations. So tragedy morphs into brooding flirtations with nihilism and comedy becomes crassness tempered by gross sentimentality.

We are coming to a point, in fact, where we will have trouble recognizing real tragedy or appreciating real satire. Before too long audiences will view Oedipus the King and think, “Well, the murder might have been too much, but if he really loved the woman he married, why does it matter if she’s his mother?”

The point of all this is not simply to observe the interesting genealogy of narrative art. The deep changes we’re seeing in the genres of storytelling, the result of the moral changes roiling our culture, are having a dire effect upon our self-understanding as human beings.

When we see a tragedy or comedy, we are looking at, and becoming emotionally engaged with, a picture of what it means to be a human being. This is not mere entertainment. Because our knowledge of everything, including ourselves, begins in the senses and involves the imagination, we require such pictures to help us discover who we are. So when the pictures change, self-knowledge is impacted.

Our situation today is not unlike that of Oedipus at the beginning of Sophocles’ play. We believe ourselves to be men most masterful, but are actually blind to what it means to be a human being under God’s eye. If we are to learn the humility that will let us see ourselves as we really are, then real tragedy and real comedy must be important factors in the transformation.

Daniel McInerny

Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at danielmcinerny.com.

  • givelifeachance2

    Beautifully put. And you haven’t even touched the ironies that abound for Oedipus and Nova’s necessarily procured children.

  • Michael Dowd

    Excellent column Mr. McInerny. I think what you are talking about is definitional and moral indifferentism that has the effect of abrogating reality , e.g., male/female is only a mental construct; good and evil are seen as differences not qualities all in the interests of not be judgmental. Reality becomes what we say it is, not what is. This is the road to chaos, the road to insanity.

  • monica

    Thank you for writing this article. It explains a very important truth about culture in a very clear way. We have moved very far from expecting art and literature to uplift us and exhort us on our way to Truth, Beauty and Goodness. Here we see why people will spend endless hours watching and reading sinful behavior being rewarded and celebrated. It just doesn’t seem sinful to them anymore. The writers keep moving to ever more sinful behavior to get their audience engaged. The audience doesn’t realize what a deep impact this is having on their own inner being. Clean living and high thinking is a phrase we just don’t hear anymore.

  • Francis Miller

    Great article that gives the issue clarity. “Before too long audiences will view Oedipus the King and think, ‘Well, the murder might have been too much, but if he really loved the woman he married, why does it matter if she’s his mother?’” We understand the nature of the ‘slippery slope’, that is, if we allow too much counter to reason, good judgment and moral goodness; we will soon be too flexible to withstand greater attacks against mankind and God. However, the slope implies a horizontal reference. We do not see the slope because the entire culture tilted and what was level, true and moral now only looks extreme, untrue and tangential.

    • Tamsin

      we will soon be too flexible to withstand greater attacks against mankind and God.

      Yes. Too flexible. Too forgetful.

      I am not temperamentally equipped to go on the offensive with words, so I have to defensively lash myself to the mast with words. With the Word, I hope. I literally repeat simple biological truths to myself, and to my kids, so as not to forget the Word, e.g. “sex makes babies”.

  • Tad

    This is brilliant. Thank you.

  • CadaveraVeroInnumero

    Perfect. Almost beautiful.

    Yet sad. Far too many, these days, would not even know how to perform a proper text-source analyses in order to locate the essay’s anchorage in its background story.

    S. Freud may come to mind; yet, again, how many could outline how Dr. F. made use of it.

    Still, thanks – for the (near) prophesy!

  • Kathy

    “. . . if he really loved the woman he married, why does it matter if she’s his mother?” Wow – doesn’t this sum up our world right now? It’s all about the end justifying the means. What does it matter as long as everyone’s ‘happy’? What does it matter if we dismember unborn children and sell their organs as long as research benefits? God help us!

  • Poor Sinner

    “I believe that one soul may save a thousand others, if his will be good.” – Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonnus

    Great article! If you lose the moral, the story is sure to follow.

  • cminca

    You are claiming that the tragic flaw in Oedipus Rex is the breaking of “natural law”. That is not now, or has it ever been, the tragic flaw.
    Excessive pride–hubris–was Oedipus Rex’s flaw.