Posted by: Harold Knight | 09/20/2010

Oedipus Rex, Gay Teachers, and Counting No Mortal “Happy”

(Note: Please see my posting for February 24 for more on this subject.)

Therefore wait to see life’s ending ere thou count one mortal blest;
Wait till free from pain and sorrow he has gained his final rest.
Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, final lines *

Oedipus

Oedipus

As high school seniors we were required to write an essay on Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Dr. Rice was an odd man for a high school English teacher. Especially for 1963. Gay, not out but flamboyant, and—yes, Doctor Rice—University of Chicago, I think. (Mike S. can correct me if I’m wrong.) He lived with his mother across the alleyway from the parsonage of the First Baptist Church in an old-money part of Omaha. The pastor’s wife, Mrs. Smith, told my mother once in my presence (I suppose when she found out Dr. Rice was my teacher) that he was very strange—he would lie out in the sun in his back yard in nothing but an immodest swimsuit to get a tan, among other oddities. I always wondered why and how she knew so much about him, but that’s another story (read about “conservatives” and sex here). He told us he went such places as Ft. Lauderdale (as I recall) for vacations (even Christmas). That, of course, is why he needed a tan. Dr. Rice obviously recruited me to being gay.

Of all the essays we had to write for AP English with Dr. Rice, the one I remember best is the one explaining Oedipus Rex. Because he put an “F” on my paper. It was not for want of good writing or even for lack of understanding. He thought my essay was a failure because I ran with the last two lines. The translation we were using said “count no mortal  happy until he has crossed life’s boundary free from pain,” or something like that. I’m certain the word was “happy” and not “blest.” In my Baptist thinking, I glommed onto that phrase and ran with it straight to heaven, I suppose.

I wish I had that essay because I can scarcely believe that’s what I wrote although it must somehow be true (I can scarcely believe it because my favorite work of that year was Archibald MacLeish’s JB, which had recently been published and is decidedly not fare for a Baptist kid to love). Or Dr. Rice knew I was a Baptist preacher’s son and assumed that’s what I meant.

One other incident of my student/mentor relationship with Dr. Rice is interesting enough to write here. I’m not sure I’ve ever written about it although I often use it as an example for my students (especially the SMU students from Dallas). I was talking with Dr. Rice after school one day at the time I was trying to decide where to go to college. I’d been accepted at three schools. He said outright that going to the University of Nebraska was a disastrous idea. He found a piece of string and went to the ubiquitous map of America on the wall. He put one end of the string on Omaha and the other first on one college and then on the other. The University of Redlands was farther from home. He said, “That’s where you will go.” That conversation is one for which I will be (eternally?) grateful. My decision was made. (Recruitment?)

Those last two lines of Oedipus Rex are etched in my mind both as poetry and as an unresolved issue with my favorite high school teacher. (By the way, to set the record straight: Dr. Rice never once mentioned sex to me or, I believe, to any student. He was totally above reproach except that none of us understood his great good humor and flamboyance. I knew I was a “homosexual” long before I met him.) By the time I was a senior in high school, I had already forsaken much of my religious upbringing. I was awarded a large scholarship because, as one of the judges told me later, I wrote on the application essay that I thought Christianity was not a religion but a way of life.

Oedipus Rex was already etched in my consciousness before high school. When I was in junior high school, I attended a concert version of the Stravinsky. I still have the visual memory of Oedipus’ bloody mask.

Now, at age 65, I am able to think about those lines of Oedipus Rex not as the subject for an essay (that’s not what this is, of course) but as (almost) absolute truth.

“Count no mortal happy.” I don’t know if the Greek says “happy” or “blest” (I’ve been taught since high school that the Greek the KJV of the Bible translates in the Beatitudes as “blessed” really means “happy,” so I must admit confusion. Even the word “happy” is a bit confusing. It’s been around only since the mid-fourteenth century, so it would be a fairly modern translation for the Greek.

happy
mid-14c, “lucky,” from hap, chance, fortune;” sense of “very glad” first recoded late 14c. Hap is from c.1200, meaning “chance, luck,” from Old Norse happ, “chance, good luck. (1)

Never mind. Whether it’s “happy” or “blest,” I for sure had an understanding of the concept of counting no mortal either one until she has gained her final rest. Some musicians have the Beethoven piano sonatas rattling around in their heads (I have a friend who can play any movement of any one of the thirty-two of them from memory upon request). Some have the Brahms Zigeunerlieder indelibly etched in their memory (I have another friend who can sing all of them). What roams around in my brain without ceasing are hymntunes such as “Assurance,” by Phoebe Knapp, a perfectly banal 19th-century parlor song. But the words. Ah! the words. “Blessed Assurance. . .Perfect submission, all is at rest; I in my Savior am happy and blest!” Both “happy” and “blessed” (2).

I’m not being sarcastic. I, like Garrison Keillor and many of my friends, still take great comfort (rather, have returned to taking comfort after many years of derision) in those—admit it—sloppy and sentimental words (the tune fits the banality of the words). The question for me is, why are we so fixated on “happiness,” and what’s this business of waiting until “he has gained his final rest” to achieve it if it’s so darned important. And why do those 19th-century hymns mean something when I don’t (perhaps) believe any of it?

Oedipus in black and white

Oedipus in black and white

I have no answer. In an essay on the goal of happiness, using the Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses as his evidence, Alexander Welsh (who, by the way wrote an article for the Christian Century in 1963—the year I was writing for Dr. Rice—titled “The Religion of Life Insurance”–what a great title!) tells us to

Say unhappiness if you mean to complain of it, for who can fault happiness? But the word is also ambiguous in a deeper, related sense. Should we sapient beings think of happiness as a transient experience or the very goal of life? (3)

Perhaps someone reading this has an answer to that question.­­­­­­­­­­­­­
______________
* This translation is online at
http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/bl_text_sophocles_oedipusrex.htm

(1) “happy.” Harper, Douglas. Online Etymology Dictionary. 2001-2010. Web. 20 Sept. 2010.
(2) In case you don’t know the hymn, you can find it in every 19th-century American hymnal, and in some very current ones: “Blessed Assurance.” Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006. Number 638.
(3)Welsh, Alexander. “Living happily however after.” Social Research 77.2 (2010): 491+.

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  1. […] Oedipus Rex, a remarkably daring work for Western Nebraska in the ‘50s. (See my writing about it here.) It was one of the authentic formative moments of my life. I remember the music to this […]

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