Sunday, August 22, 2021

A Lesson from Oedipus: Learning To See

The Sphinx of Greek mythology.
"You can only paint truthfully what you can truthfully see," is one of the maxims of the Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art. Unless we're totally blind, seeing is something we all do every day, and something we fail to do well because we take it for grated. Hence, a critical lesson is learning how to truly and truthfully see. Though particularly pertinent for painters, this lesson applies to all our life experiences.

The other night as I watched The Third Man I was surprised to still see things I had not noticed before, even though I'd watched it at least five times or more. 

In Greek mythology, Oedipus was the king of Thebes and the central character in the Greek tragedy by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex. When he was born there was a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. 

According to the legend, retold by Sophocles, his parents were King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. In order to thwart the prophecy, King Lauis instructed a shepherd to take the infant and leave him on a hillside to die. The shepherd didn't have the heart to leave the infant to die, so he handed him off to another shepherd so that Oedipus ended up being raised by another king and queen (Polybus and Merope) who raised him as their own.

When Oedipus grew up, while serving in the court of Polybus and Merope, he goes to consult the Oracle at Delphi regarding his life. He learns about the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. (In Andre Gide's retelling, in Two Legends, it is a soothsayer visiting the kingdom who privately tells Oedipus his future.)

Oedipus decides to banish himself from the Kingdom where he was raised to set out for a new life. At this point, King Polybus steps in and reveals to the young man that Polybus is not really his father, and shares the story of how he came to live as if he were the king's son. "There is nothing to worry about. I'm not your father."

What is it like to believe one thing all your life only to discover later that things were not as they appeared? I know many of such stories, including my own.

Oedipus decides to depart anyways. On the road near Thebes he gets into an altercation with an older man. Their quarrel escalates to such a degree that Oedipus kills the man. Continuing on his way he reaches Thebes only to discover it is under a curse from the Sphinx and that the king of the city is dead. 

From 5th century B.C., Nola, Italy
The Sphinx is a mythical creature with the head of a woman, haunches of a lion and the wings of a falcon that stood guard at the gate of the city. The Sphinx would ask riddles to travelers who it would strangle and destroy if they failed to correctly answer. The question the Sphinx asked Oedipus is one of the most famous riddles in history, of which we are all familiar now but was a mystery then: 
Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?"

Oedipus correctly answers the Sphinx and as his reward he is given the throne, thereby becoming King of Thebes and marrying the king's widow. Naturally both are oblivious to one another's identities.

When Laius had been killed the Sphinx released a plague upon the land. When the plague continued unabated, he set out to find the root cause of this curse. His idealism set in motion the quest but there were warnings that it may be best to abandon this fool's errand.

In the end, he learns that he killed his father and Jocasta discovers she married her son. Blinded by these revelations, Jocasta hangs herself, and a Oedipus punctures his eyes with pins from Jocasta's dress. 

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I realize this is a very different story from the opening paragraph about painting, but the concept is similar. We take so much for granted. 

"Know Thyself" are the words carved above the entrance to Apollo's temple at Delphi. The theme has been echoed throughout history in philosophy and literature.  

I think here of "To thine own self be true" in Hamlet. How can we be true to ourselves--our values and core being--if we do not know who we are. And of course The Lion King is a great illustration of this latter principle. If you are called to be a king, why are you wasting your life thrashing about in a fantasy land? When Simba's eyes were opened, he realized it was time to grow up, and to stop beating himself up for something he didn't do. (He believed his killed his father, and it warped him, an interesting twist on Oedipus, yes? 

* * * 
In The Third Man, it is the writer Holly Martens (Joseph Cotten) who has his eyes opened when he discovers his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) isn't the man he thought he was. (See: A Film Noir Favorite, The Third Man)  
To quote the Apostle Paul, "We see through a glass dimly."

Life is full of mysteries. I think that's part of what makes it so interesting. What have you learned on your journey? What riddles are your striving to resolve today?

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