Posted by: Harold Knight | 02/24/2011

“living in a fever of love”

Oedipus answers the Sphinx

Oedipus answers the Sphinx

When I was in junior high school the Community Concert Association of our little city brought an orchestra and choral group to play a concert. They presented one act of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, a remarkably daring work for Western Nebraska in the ‘50s. (See my writing about and it here) It was one of the authentic formative moments of my life. I remember the music to this day.

Later in high school when we read Oedipus Rex, I was deeply fascinated. I read the Sophocles Oedipus trilogy and pronounced it to myself appallingly and grotesquely mesmerizing. I certainly understood in my own way the horror Freud seemed to attach to it. Like nearly everyone else, I thought of Oedipus as wicked, perverted, disgusting. The thought that one might kill one’s father and marry one’s mother—well, at best it’s the sordid life of the deep unconscious minds of very abnormal people. The Oedipus Complex.

There is, however, another way to think about Oedipus than the one Freud foisted off on us. “Whereas Freud pointed an accusing finger at the young Oedipus, more recent commentators have reminded us that the tragedy is set in motion by his father, King Laius” (1). Thomas Cole points out what we often forget—that Laius, Oedipus’s father, set the story in motion by attempting to outsmart the oracle and rid himself of the son who was prophesied would kill him.

Let’s not argue about father’s guilt or son’s guilt but think about our common desire to cheat death. Old King Laius was trying to do what we’d all like to do: prevent our deaths, or at least postpone them as long as possible. We all understand to some extent that urge to immortality although I’ve never actually heard anyone say she wants to live forever on this earth. Unless, of course, she’s in a musical.

The chief obstacle to following the example of King Laius is that we all know

Life forces us to give [ourselves] a specific form, that is, an existential configuration of ourselves. We must continuously bring about this form in youth and old age on a daily basis (2).

No matter how long we could manage to live, we would always be in the process of building our own lives. We are

discrete, physically constituted beings with the feature of uniqueness, that is, a factual irreplaceability and distinctiveness. We are always working on shaping this unique totality that we already are in our lives. Our life is first and foremost, whether we like it or not, the process of forming that singular totality we ourselves are (3).

Back to Oedipus. Does allowing the possibility that his life was predetermined by his father’s attempt to cheat death, that Oedipus was in fact living out his father’s destiny, absolve him of responsibility? We would probably uniformly hasten to say, “Not at all.” We would reject with Judge Caverly in the 1924 Leopold and Loeb trial Clarence Darrow’s defense that, “Man is in no sense the maker of himself and has no more power than any other machine to escape the law of cause and effect (4).

The question of guilt is perhaps secondary to the real question. How did Oedipus (how does one?) “shape [this] unique totality that we already are” from the beginning of our lives? Oedipus shaped his life in the only way he could, and as a blind old man at Colonus, he declared

No, I will not be called evil on account of . . . the slaying of my father, which you charge me with again and again in bitter insult. Answer just one thing of those I ask. If, here and now, someone should come up and try to murder you—you, the just one—would you ask if the murderer was your father, or would you revenge yourself on him straightaway? (5).

It took him a lifetime to understand the unique totality, “the meaning of his own story,” and when he understood, “he had acquired an existential knowledge that cannot be replaced by intellectual prowess” (6).

And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Now a sharp turn. When we understand the “process of forming that singular totality we ourselves are,” we might (I cannot say for sure, because I am not close to understanding my singular totality) be near Cole’s description of Oedipus as an old man who knew the meaning of his own story.

The acquisition of self-knowledge, then, is central to the fulfillment of the aged hero’s destiny. Personal knowledge, which includes knowledge of his own fatedness, allows the hero to come to a new appreciation of love and community (7).

Knowing the meaning of one’s own story prepares one, according to Cole, to appreciate love and community. Micah Sadigh asks what our lives might be like

. . . after we discover our individuality, our possibilities in our brief existence, when we realize our need to respond to our world passionately and authentically? Should we take to our graves such new discoveries? (8).

His answer is that

Those who gain some understanding about who they are, perhaps find it most compelling to somehow share such realizations with others . . . in a way that is not limited by death, in a way that transcends time and space (9).

My reading, thinking, and writing is prompted today by contemplating and watching what seems to me to be my 96-year-old father’s decline from a life in which he understood that “The call to authenticity is not simply a call to individual authenticity. It is also a call to humans in community” (10).  Watching the apparent reversal of my father’s “process of forming that singular totality we ourselves are” is almost more painful than we who love him can bear. For so many years he held together the community of our family, and his individual authenticity guided and molded other extended communities.

That I began with Oedipus is almost accidental. I am making no connections between those of us who are living in this moment and the Greek king’s family except my preoccupation with “end-of-life” issues (how pedestrian that sounds!). And with my father’s long and, until the last two or three years, productive life in community. My siblings and I, of course, came into his life when he was already well into “shaping the unique totality that he already was.” But we watched him continue the process and learned from him to continue our own processes with (we hope) authenticity.

He is now in a place we cannot yet go, but it is a place where “those you love will live in a fever of love” as Anne Sexton wrote in The Awful Rowing Toward God. Our family is living in a fever of love. Waiting.

Oedipus at Colonus

Oedipus at Colonus

I have no idea where this writing needs to go to conclude. I will simply stop. And let Thomas Rentsch say the end better than I can.

We become acquainted with certain natural forms of life–daughter or son, mother or father, sister or brother, grandparents. We are irreplaceable in these forms. We must therefore grasp the internal complexity and nuances of the unique totality of life in the course of life.
(1) Cole, Thomas R. “Oedipus & the meaning of aging: Personal reflections & historical perspectives.” Generations 14.4 (1990): 29.
(2) Rentsch, Thomas. “Aging as becoming oneself: A philosophical ethics of late life.” Journal of Aging Studies 11.4 (1997): 263. (3) Rentsch, Ibid.
(4) Darrow, Clarence. Crime: Its Cause and Treatment. Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith, 1922, reprint 1972: 274.
(5) Sophocles. Oedipus at Colonus. Sir Richard Jebb, Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,  1889.  Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University. 2011. Web. 24 Feb. 2011.
(6) Cole. Ibid.
(7) Cole. Ibid.
(8) Sadigh, Micah. “The Foundation of Existentialism in the Oldest Story Ever Told, The Epic of Gilgamesh.” Existential Analysis 21.1: (January 2010): 76.
(9) Sadigh, Ibid.
(10) Johnson, Patricia Altenbernd. On Heidegger. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000. Quoted in Sadigh.


  1. […] Please see my posting for February 24 for more on this […]


  2. […] Association season in Scottsbluff, NE. A couple of years later, the CCA brought a company that sang Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex in a concert version (pretty wild stuff for Scottsbluff, but I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to […]



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