“That Damn Family” Part 2 (of 4) Nthposition, March/April 2008

Part 1 here

Things are a little different from what they say. We all knew the truth about Oedipus, really. Why else do you think we all did our best to hide it from him? We even wheeled out that old buffoon Tireisias to come out with some mumbo-jumbo that sounded obscure enough to be mystical yet straightforward enough to put a man off delving into his roots. Amazingly, it didn’t work. Tireisias came out with some pretty hard stuff. “This day will reveal bring your birth and your destruction” I thought of that one. Still Oedipus kept it up. Tiresias even told him the exact truth. “brother and father both to his children, son and husband both to his mother” Can you get any clearer than that? The old man had no imagination, once he’d used it up on pretending to be half-man, half-woman.

Oedipus looked just like Laius. The very same. Except twenty years younger. Poor Laius! It must have been like being killed by a double of yourself. That cleft chin, those olive-coloured eyes, that stupid cast of the face that fools called self-assurance. The same height even, the same squat build. I can imagine Oedipus – never the calmest chap, so just like Laius in yet another way – going into one of his blind rages at whatever utterly harmless thing Laius’ bodyguards did.

What was Jocasta thinking? She didn’t know, I’m pretty sure. Blinded by love, by gratitude. Besides, don’t women always fall for the same type? It must have seemed quite nice to get a younger, fitter version of Laius… yet I must stop this dreadful train of thought, must stop thinking about that vile, polluted marriage bed. In some perverse way Oedipus in honoured, as that dreadful farce at Colonus showed, yet I am reviled.

People feel a fascination for Oedipus, after all. Maybe his perversion is more common that we think. Or maybe it is a desire common to us all, and Oedipus is a man they are secretly admire. Whatever. When I tell them in a farm who I am, even when they don’t believe me – and they never believe me – they always ask about Oedipus. Oedipus and nothing else. Only the educated ones, or rather the ones who make a great show about education – the likes of you – care about Antigone.

Which, to be honest, is the story I care about most myself, considering my family all died because of that shrill little harpy.

But the story of Oedipus has sex, however perverse and bizarre, while the story of Antigone is about corpses, and the brave Antigone defying the law and the awful Creon. It raises all sorts of issues about authority and who is to rule, and the will of the gods, and all that sort of thing. Oedipus – all murder and sex. We all know what the people really want.

Anyway, back to Oedipus and Laius. Son and Father. Murderer and murderee. Oedipus didn’t know, in fairness to him. But we did. We knew. How could we have let it go? He’d conquered the Sphinx (not that that happened the way they say either) and was, as an administrator, quite good. A wise, judicious leader. Everything a city could long for.

What amazes me is how transformed he was by discovering that he was his mother’s son and his mother’s lover, his children’s father and his children’s brother. Most men would be humbled by this, to put it very mildly. And by gouging out his eyes, it seemed that Oedipus did too.

But the streak of awful sanctimoniousness that infects that family – and which Oedipus had been, aside from a few sharp words when finding out his fate, been very good at suppressing – came to the fore. The silly, shrill Antigone had it in spades, of course. But I don’t blame her for what happened. I did it all myself.

By the time of that business in Colonus, Oedipus was in full pity-me mode. Killing his father and sleeping with his mother – anyone else would have killed themselves, but Oedipus took out his eyes. Always with an eye – if you excuse me – always with an eye for appearances. No, they couldn’t be bothered with running a city anymore. Couldn’t be bothered with the courts, with laws – aside from divine laws, of course, or rather whatever Oedipus and Antigone wanted to do, and to hell with everyone else. Not a concern of them, of course. Leave that sort of thing to Creon. The man who cleans up after the house of Laius. And for my pains? You have, no doubt, heard the well known story.

They say that it was destined by the gods. Don’t believe it. Oedipus, wandering around Greece, could easily have not come across Laius in his caravan. And if I had only reined in my own madness, Antigone would be my irritating daughter-in-law, irritating us all in Thebes with her histrionics. But I didn’t.

And I am as much a descendant of the gods as they were. Ares and Aphrodite were my great-grandparents too, you know. The god of wine is my cousin – well, not quite cousin, but his children would be my second cousins. Does he have any? Who knows? They never call to me, do they? Abandoned by the gods as I am, due to my horrible crimes. And all that.

Not all of them were that bad, really. I liked Ismene. And Etoceles, now that was a loss. Polyneices? A nasty little runt. An unpleasant thug a Even if he hadn’t taken arms against his own city he would have deserved to lie there unburied. Lie there, for the crows and for the dogs. I think I hate him most, looking back. Oh, Oedipus and Antigone, always shouting and standing on their dignity and all that, all very annoying. But they were great. Their greatness wasn’t entirely illusory. Polyneices? He deserved what he got.

Yet it’s hard to talk about Polyneices much. He was a colourless type, really. The other two – well, say what you want about them, and the gods know I can say plenty – they did impress themselves on your memory. They had something beyond the usual human qualities. You would not forget them.

But I go ahead of my story. And I am weary, so weary. Let me sleep tonight, and tomorrow night, over your evening fire, I will tell you the first part of my tale. The awful tale of Oedipus, King of Thebes, his mother’s lover, his father’s killer.



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