To navigate the two: literary and psychic doubling in Oedipus the King

co-written with jimmy cooper

Oedipus the King has been a subject of near-constant interpretation and renewal since its writing. It is a text that compels. Indeed, psychoanalysis, one of the largest schools of thought to come out of the twentieth century, takes Oedipus’s predicament as the basis of the human psychosexual structure––although the play’s reach is not relegated to the psychoanalytic, of course. What makes Oedipus compel lies behind or beyond the text, on a dynamic level, in the painful, inexpressible truth he carries. However, textual moments of duality build the tension of Oedipus’s own duality: the growing conflict between his thought and non-thought. Jacques Rancière’s notion of the sensibility of language and materiality of expression implicates the spectator, too, extending a confrontation of duality into the non-diegetic world. Ultimately, two-sidedness completely contaminates Oedipus the King, and following a Freudian understanding of repetition as a mechanism to self-soothe, Oedipus routinely finds unconscious comfort in repressive repetition and confining himself to the space between thought and non-thought. This fixation on the dual then becomes a priority in the psyche of Oedipus and in the material of the text. In essence, Sophocles builds Oedipus the King with a textual fixation on duality as a simulation of Oedipus’s internal and unconscious navigation of thought versus non-thought, dual-culpability, and repetition compulsion.

First, from a technical standpoint, the text involves duality frequently and intricately to establish a sort of literary repetition compulsion that welcomes Freudian contemplation of Oedipus’s repressed culpability. The text commences its fixation on two immediately, identifying double doors that “dominate the facade” of the royal house of Thebes––doors which also eventually open to present the blind Oedipus (Sophocles 159, 238). This trajectory––where the structure’s double doors accompany Oedipus upon the play’s start and end––illustrates the loop of his attachment to duality. In the play’s opening line lives another vision: Oedipus professes, “Oh my children, the new blood of ancient Thebes,” identifying his Thebes as a land of duality and contradiction, of the old and the new. Sophocles also identifies Oedipus as a figure of double-exile early on in the play, as Oedipus is rated “first of men” but “cannot equal the gods,” trapping him outside of the common man at the cost of being both above the men and below the gods (159, 161). A steady contrast and duality continues in the very detail that Sophocles often grants Oedipus pages upon pages of speech, contrasting the reality that his declarations and words are inherently invalid, since he himself embodies the villain he seeks to unearth. Ultimately, it is this collection of mini-dualities that instill in Oedipus the King a deep-rooted fixation on the navigation of two: a fixation which foreshadows Oedipus’s navigation of thought and non-thought and relates directly to his dual-culpability.

A symptom of duality is repetition, and Freud’s “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through” offers assistance in comprehending Oedipus’s repetitive re-immersions into his trauma, as well as the textual duality at play. Dominant in the process of revelation––where unconscious material becomes conscious––is the psychic compulsion to repeat the very trauma that has been repressed. In Freud’s words, “[T]he patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out” (150). Oedipus remembers neither his removal from his birth parents nor the killing of his father, but repeats almost compulsively his desire to know his parents under the guise of revealing the truth of who killed (the man he doesn’t know is) his father. Ironically, it is by this very repetition that the truth of his patricide and incest, hardly the object of his search, are revealed. “Repeating,” after all, “implies conjuring up a piece of real life,” if necessarily under the guise of something else, “and for that reason cannot always be harmless and unobjectionable” (Freud 152). While the knowledge being repeated is present all along, it is disguised in its dynamic repetition to prevent its repetition as revelation. For critics of Oedipus the King, “[t]he Sophoclean schema of the revelation is defective in that it shows too clearly what should only be said” (Rancière 13). For Freud, this is only natural. The showing is the saying, it is the non-thought at work, protecting itself from being said, from becoming thought.

Oedipus’s initial confrontation with Tiresias begins the break between his thought and non-thought that will ultimately lead to his revelation, but undertones of duality in the text emphasize his psychological immobility in the space between thought and non-thought. To cope, Oedipus repeats the trauma of his unknowing as he refuses Tiresias’s divine, indisputable, and ultimately correct sight. Repetition serves both as a means of resistance to and part of the process of remembering a traumatic event relegated to the unconscious (Freud 151). As Freud would have it, “[t]he greater the resistance, the more extensively will acting out (repetition) replace remembering…he repeats everything that has already made its way from the sources of the repressed into his manifest personality” (151). The origin of Oedipus’s desire to know and its existentially savage—rageful, damaging—character here becomes clear (Rancière 22). It goes something like this: he knows he does not know (his parentage, who he is really sharing his bed with, etc), he just does not know that he knows it, and so he searches ever harder, ever more undone by it. Rancière says as much. “Oedipus is proof of…a definition of knowing not as the subjective act of grasping an objective ideality but as the affection, passion, or even sickness of a living being… Oedipus is he who knows and does not know, who is absolutely active and absolutely passive,” tyrant of seeking but absolutely helpless to know even as it is revealed to him (22-3). A moment of this refusal to know manifests itself when Oedipus asks Tiresias, “You know and you won’t tell? / You’re bent on betraying us, destroying Thebes?” to which Tiresias responds, “I’d rather not cause pain for you or me. / So why this … useless interrogation? You’ll get nothing from me” (Sophocles 177). In Tiresias’ response, he identifies the pain of the truth as a pain for both himself and Oedipus; perhaps it is, in part, this communication to Oedipus that his potential pain is shared or dual––not individual––that encourages him to continue on in his obsession. Tiresias, in essence, initiates some sort of repetition of the pain, which brings comfort to Oedipus, for whom repetition is both coping and the failure to cope.

The culmination of Oedipus’s repression––actualized in the decision to gouge out his eyes––is, in a literary sense, appropriated by others, suggesting that Oedipus’s gouging does not resolve his repressed culpability, but rather continues his failure to know, his existence in the liminal space between thought and non-thought, and his repetition of his trauma. Specifically, the narration of his gouging falls into the hands of the messenger: an inherently secondary figure whose generic identity harshly contrasts the iconic legacy of Oedipus. A nameless, replaceable figure then claims narrative ownership of Oedipus’s gouging, communicating that he remains far from self-acceptance and genuine confrontation of his repressed pain. Further, Oedipus elects Jocasta’s brooches as his weapons, involving her in the expulsion of his sight, too, even while she is hanging, dead, and unable to actually offer companionship. Oedipus suggests nothing below devastation in this avoidance of loneliness. In addition, after recounting Oedipus’s infliction, the messenger explains, “These are the griefs that burst upon them both, / coupling man and woman. The joy they had so lately, / the fortune of their old ancestral house / was deep joy indeed. Now, in this one day, / wailing, madness and doom, death, disgrace, / [...] / all are theirs forever” (Sophocles 237). Here, the messenger asserts a notion of bliss in the vision of twos: coupling comes with deep joy and fortune; however, “in this one day,” that coupling becomes dominated by horror. In singularity––in one day––their downfall presents itself. In addition, even though Sophocles prevents Oedipus from narrating his own gouging, the messenger employs and continues Oedipus’s fixation on the dual on his behalf, conveying the very depth of his unconscious. Literary incorporation of others in Oedipus’s confrontation of his individual wrongdoings––concerning both the messenger’s narration and Jocasta’s brooches––reflects his dependence on duality or on avoiding singularity and himself. On its surface, the gouging appears to grapple with his crimes, but in reality, the climax only pushes him further into self-rejection and repression.

Oedipus the King targets its reader or audience member as a subject for analysis, just as it begs for a reading of Oedipus himself, and the sensibility of language warrants credit for this larger-scale duality. Specifically, Sophocles’ practice of lacing the work with presentations of two, both obvious and wholly discrete, culminates a beyond-diegetic overwhelm that asks the spectator to check-in with their own psyche. Perhaps this effect, where Oedipus’s contradictions inspire the spectator to dwell on their own, is even the ultimate duality of the play. However, Oedipus has already effectively infused himself into the world outside of Oedipus the King––beyond creeping into the brains of readers and audience members––per psychoanalysis. Although, rather interestingly, it is the content of Oedipus’s repression that inspires Freud: it is patricide and incest that provides Freud with a basis for psychosexual development. A sort of resolution arrives, then, as Oedipus becomes of service in psychoanalytic treatment when Freud confronts and embraces Oedipus’s guilt for him. Regardless, the way in which Oedipus and his infamous life of duality lives on––with or without a sense of resolution––germinates in a textual obsession with duality as a metaliterary, narrative, and dictive tool.