Hebraicizing Oedipus

I have become convinced that Freud hijacked the story of Oedipus for his own purposes.

The cover of the author’s commentary on his Oedipus plays (photo credit: KALMAN J. KAPLAN)
The cover of the author’s commentary on his Oedipus plays
(photo credit: KALMAN J. KAPLAN)
As a professor, a practicing clinician and a Jew, I have long pondered the question of why Sigmund Freud, a fellow Jew, was so enamored by ancient Greek narratives, rather than biblical ones. Indeed, I have written or co-written a number of books on this issue, the latest being Biblical Psychotherapy: Reclaiming Scriptural Narratives for Positive Psychology and Suicide Prevention, several of which have been reviewed in The Jerusalem Report.
I have become convinced that Freud hijacked the story of Oedipus for his own purposes. Rather than focusing on the Greek conceptions of fate (moira) and necessity (ananke) emphasized by the great Russian-Jewish philosopher Lev Shestov in Athens and Jerusalem, Freud fixated on the oedipus complex – which was not Sophocles’ focus at all; rather, that the human being cannot escape his fate (moira).
In Sophocles, Oedipus is entrapped by a misleading response from the Oracle of Delphi (The Pythia), when after hearing his lineage questioned at a dinner party in Corinth, he asked her whether the parents who raised him (King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth) were indeed his natural parents. Rather than answering his question, the Pythia chillingly tells him that he is fated to kill his father and marry his mother.
Thinking this prophecy referred to Polybus and Merope, Oedipus flees Corinth to avoid carrying it out and travels to Thebes, where unbeknownst to him, his birth parents (King Laius and Queen Jocasta) reign. Along the way, Oedipus kills an older man on a crossing “where three roads meet” over a dispute over right of way. The older man first strikes Oedipus over the head with a spiked club. This man, unbeknown to Oedipus, was Laius, his natural father.
Continuing to Thebes, Oedipus overcomes a Sphinx, a monster with “the head of a woman, the body of a lion and the wings of a bird,” who devours passers by who cannot answer her riddles.
Oedipus subdues the Sphinx by answering her riddle correctly and is rewarded by being named king of Thebes and is married to the widowed Jocasta, whom he does not realize is his mother. They have four children: Polyneices, Eteocles, Antigone and Ismene, and seem to be quite happy. Somewhat later, a great plague falls upon Thebes and Oedipus is told it is due to the murderer of Laius residing in the city. Oedipus decrees that the murderer should be found and banished from Thebes, not realizing he is the one who has killed his natural father Laius, albeit in self-defense. When Oedipus discovers this, his mother hangs herself and he takes out his eyes.
I have become convinced that Oedipus was entrapped by the Pythia and was absolutely innocent of intentionally killing his father and marrying his mother, when, by fleeing from Corinth, he was trying to avoid doing this. This has led me to write a modern trilogy of three Oedipus plays (“Roll over Sophocles,” to paraphrase Chuck Berry), attempting to view Oedipus through Jewish lenses. They are titled Oedipus in Jerusalem, Oedipus Redeemed: Seeing through Listening and Oedipus the Teacher: A Return to Thebes. All have been published by Wipf and Stock Publishers and the first two have already had public readings at the Greenhouse Theater in Chicago and been videotaped. The third is in preparation, delayed by the plague we are all experiencing. Let me summarize the entire trilogy below. They take poetic license with historical dates. (They can be seen on my website: www.kalmankaplan.com)
Oedipus in Jerusalem: A Play in Two Acts
In my initial play, Oedipus in Jerusalem, I relate the narrative of Nathan, the biblical prophet, encountering the blinded Oedipus wandering alone outside of Thebes. After hearing his story, Nathan becomes convinced that Oedipus is innocent of intentionally killing his father and marrying his mother and was, in fact, trying to avoid committing these acts but was entrapped by misleading answers by the Oracle of Delphi. Nathan brings Oedipus to Jerusalem to be tried at the Jewish Sanhedrin. The Greek playwright Sophocles and the blind soothsayer Teiresias serve as the prosecutors, and Nathan acts as the defense attorney for Oedipus who is convinced he is guilty.
The council of sages of the Sanhedrin acquit Oedipus on both charges because it concludes he is done in by misleading responses, not by the Greek moira, which actually is not something magical at all. Rather his actions are judged to be the result of incomplete information, misleading riddles, and confusing statements, leaving Oedipus without accurate knowledge of his situation, and thus entrapping him in the very actions he is trying to avoid.
A strong dialogue emerges between Nathan and the Oracle of Delphi illustrating this point, The Sanhedrin acquits Oedipus of the charges against him, but indicts Greek thinking as representing an abstract geometrical concoction rather than any organic morality inherent in Biblical thinking. Oedipus is reprimanded for only one action, taking out his eyes, which is expressly forbidden in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish law as prohibited self-mutilation. As he has not been formally accused of this act by the Greek Sophocles or Teiresias, no punishment can be levied, though the Sanhedrin comments on the act as being repulsive.
Oedipus, thoroughly indoctrinated in Greek thinking, emotionally refuses to accept the Sanhedrin’s verdict of innocence, shouting that he is the “worst of the worst,” guilty of the polluting acts of patricide and incest with his mother.
Oedipus Redeemed: Seeing through Listening
This second play, Oedipus Redeemed, begins at this point, and focuses on Nathan and Sophocles combining forces to try to help Oedipus accept his acquittal. Together, they present Oedipus with two dialogues between Greek and biblical characters.
The first dialogue contrasts the suicide of Zeno the Stoic after the minor mishap of wrenching his toe as narrated by the chronicler Diogenes Laertius (Zeno interprets this mishap as “a sign from the gods he should depart”) with the life-affirmation expressed by the biblical Job after monumental losses. Strikingly, Oedipus does not respond in the affirmative when he is pressed with the question of whether he viewed what had befallen him as a “sign from the gods he should depart.” Instead he responds, “Zeno thought so.” This dialogue is designed to uncover the possibility that Oedipus experiences shame rather than guilt. After all, he did not commit suicide after he blinded himself when he would not have seen his natural parents in the next world which he had given as a reason for not killing himself. In the course of this dialogue, the observer Oedipus slowly differentiates himself from Zeno.
In the second dialogue between the biblical prophetess Deborah and the blind Greek seer Teiresias, Nathan and Sophocles focus on the secondary psychological benefit Oedipus has received from insisting on his guilt, and on his coming to terms with the fact that he had blinded himself needlessly if he was innocent.
This dialogue focuses on the biblical story of Samson being betrayed by “following his eyes.” Insight is contrasted with sight, and the biblical sense that hearing can be even more important than seeing.
Subsequently Oedipus’s one surviving child, his daughter Ismene, reunites with Oedipus, telling him she loves and needs him. The play ends with Oedipus’s return to the Sanhedrin, tentatively and tearfully accepting his acquittal.
Oedipus The Teacher: A Return to Thebes
Oedipus Redeemed ends with the Greek Oedipus returning to the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, where he agrees to try to accept emotionally the acquittal he has received with regard to intentionally killing his father and marrying his mother, something he had rejected at the end of the first play of this trilogy, Oedipus in Jerusalem. In Oedipus the Teacher, the third play of this cycle, Oedipus does finally accept his acquittal and returns to Thebes with Nathan and Sophocles and his daughter Ismene.
There, with the help of a Theban assistant named Kallias, Oedipus and Ismene attempt to teach Theban children the biblical lessons. Oedipus has learned in Jerusalem regarding biblical free will as opposed to fatalism (the Greek “moira”) and the negative effect of Greek riddles in contrast to biblical parables. This is complicated by Kallias and Ismene falling in love. Ismene loves Kallias but is unwilling to abandon her father Oedipus. Kallias develops resentful feelings towards Oedipus, whom he sees as psychologically “castrating him” and blocking him in his own development.
Two dialogues are employed to try to untangle the situation, the first involves that between the Greek Hesiod and the prophetess Deborah, comparing the narrative of father-son conflict in Hesiod’s Theogony regarding Cronus cutting off his father’s genitals with that of the biblical Abraham circumcising his son Isaac as a sign of inheritance and later God staying his hand on Mount Moriah as he is about to sacrifice Isaac.
The narrative ends with Oedipus endorsing circumcision as an overcoming of the castration desire of the father towards his son, and as a way of neutralizing and transforming the father’s fear of displacement. Rather, as Oedipus now insists, the father has nothing to fear from his son, and indeed wants his son to surpass him, and sees each generation as a link in the chain to the next.
A second dialogue is employed wherein Deborah tells the story of Naomi and her mother-in-law Ruth after the death of both of their husbands. Ruth pledges loyalty to Naomi and Naomi helps arrange for Ruth to meet and marry her kinsman, Boaz. They marry, and Ruth brings Naomi into her home with Boaz, where she is involved in caring for their son and her grandson, Obed.
This story relieves, if not resolves, the competitive tension between Kallias and Oedipus, who now gives his blessing for Ismene to marry Kallias. Oedipus, like the biblical Naomi, is welcomed into the home of Kallias and Ismene and becomes a doting grandfather to their son, Jason to whom he gives a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures (albeit in Greek translation) which Oedipus had become acquainted with in Jerusalem. The play ends with the announcement that Oedipus’s course has been chosen to be taught throughout Greece, Oedipus exclaims that he is finally happy.
Some concluding observations
We have undertaken the task of developing public readings of these plays, the first two of which have been completed. The reading of the third play is waiting for the devastating plague we have been experiencing to abate.
During the readings of the first two plays I experienced something quite interesting, and I think important for our fractious age. Our cast came from all over the political map, some on the left and others on the right, and some apolitical. The majority of our cast was Jewish, but not all, and included several evangelical Christians and some self-proclaimed agnostics, if not atheists. Our cast included literature professors, attorneys, psychiatrists, psychologists, educators, former tour guides in Israel, Jewish activists, the wife of a rabbi and even a former nun. Some were American, another was French, and others Israeli. What emerged to me, strikingly, was the observation that these plays clarified to our readers that the struggle of our age has not been between Left and Right, but really what it has always been, between Israel and Hellas. This is what these plays are about.
The writer is a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine (www.kalmankaplan.com) and can be reached at kalkap@aol.com