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  • Writer's pictureBrian Keeler

Oedipus (Hex?)

Updated: May 5, 2020

An hour of reckoning- maybe - Thoughts on plague, politics, art and renewal- An essay by Brian Keeler

The ancient Greek city of Thebes is suffering under a curse, a plague that has stricken the populus in Sophocles play Oedipus Rex. This curse is referred to as "the pollution" and in order for the curse to be lifted, the source of the pollution, which is in the city must be removed. It is a tragic story with complicated plot and a bad ending for Oedipus. Oedipus is ultimately the source of the pollution as he has unwittingly killed his father and slept with his mother. In an act of ancient road rage during his journey between Corinth and Thebes, at three way stop Oedipus becomes enraged because the others will not yield right of way. The others include Oedipus' real father, Laius, and Oedipus subsequently slays Laius. Oedipus was attempting to escape this very thing- as prophesized by the blind soothsayer, Tiresias.

The French 19th century painter, Charles Francois Jalabert has given us the image of Oedipus and his daughter Antigone titled, "The Plague of Thebes." The original is in the Musee de Beaux Arts in Marseille, France.

A story like this of plague and transgression gets our attention immediately today. Whether it is from 1348 in Italy, ancient Athens in 500 BC or Philadelphia in 1918 or even Biblical pestilence as the scourge of a vindictive God or as retribution to evil doers, these tales and records of plague have particular poignancy today in the time of pandemic. The tendency to draw parallels to today is very convenient but not unwarranted as it still often holds some valuable lessons. As a point of levity however, I love the cartoon that is circulating on Facebook with Groucho Marx and a woman conversing. The speech balloon from the woman says something like we'd hear today from a fundamentalist Christian; “God has sent us Trump” to which Groucho replies; “Why, did he run out of Locusts?”

Right wing evangelicals are always blabbing about certain misfortunes and horrific calamities being acts of God to punish people for their sexual orientation. These current-day evangelicals have no class or even a modicum of respect, as they’ll even take mass shootings as fodder to broadcast their twisted religious views. Today's COVID-19 is no exception to their hip-shooting acts of reckless Biblical holier than though proclamations.

Well Oedipus’ horror when he discovers the full extent of the story, is to claim himself to be an ungodly pollution. The only way for Thebes to be cleansed according to an oracle is for Oedipus to leave. Will we ever be rid of our pollution? Of course I am referring to Trump, as he is one vile and loathsome fellow- as close to a one-man-pestilence that we’ll likely get. The DT, who is known for his removing environmental safeguards as the “Raw Sewage and Pollution in our Streams POTUS” at least, by myself and probably many others who care about rivers. But geeze, who in their right mind would want the fouling of our drinking water?

Oedipus consults the oracle in this ancient Greek vase painting.

Anyway, to turn the tables on those who would assert their voice to be that of God’s and claim an evangelical triumph for anything that suits their pet peve at the moment, we can certainly wonder about divine intervention now. In other words, is our current president so defiled and utterly full of hubris and blasphemy that a pandemic is his just dessert and perhaps our salvation? Maybe there is a silver lining. The lesson, if Sophocles play can be applied to our global pandemic, is that the source of the pollution has to be removed. We are under an Oedipus “Hex” in other words, and resulting from a wannabe Rex. Even without incest or patricide we are offered dozens of transgressions on almost daily basis that would be impeachable during any normal period in US history. As Freud popularized the Oedipus Rex profile and penchant to ascribe ancient myth and theatre into psychology, we are familiar with the idea of revenge of son to father. Yet those readings seems rather quaint and overstated today. Still, the unconscious drives shown in continuous unbridled animus from the DT, seem somehow perverted in a fellow whom many Freudian psychoanalytic experts regard as deranged or in need of serious couch time.

The historical aspects of national identity are fascinating but the disturbing part in today's iteration is clear too; twitter rampages daily, gross distortions, rumor mongering, reviling or firing war heroes and naval commanders. The naval hero of recent days is Captain Crozier who was trying to save American sailors from being infected en masse. Or how about how any cockamamie idea is promulgated by the DT to suit his needs. His lies and half-baked ideas or completely fraudulent bluster does not cease, even now. His latest gaff, this self-created constitutional crisis over state rights begs commentary and has been receiving it in spades. For instance, in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal and op-ed piece by William Galston proclaimed in the headline; “Trump Flunks Federalism 101.” This is the president of the United States up there daily, as a blathering imbecile spouting dangerous and false nonsense in a crisis. Sowing discord everywhere, in the one time when a national vision is most needed, Trump continues with his M.O. that we’ve observed for these past three years. Now he's reversed this blather, to allow states to attempt a pandemic remedy and then to incite his followers to protest state governors he just endorsed! Whew!

To sum up the DT's paltry pandemic response, Governor Angus King of Maine called the president's move to shirk leadership a dangerous abdication of federal responsibility. In other words our country is leaderless when it needs it most and only exerting leadership to deconstruct our strengths. Baffling huh?

The inconsistency with the gripes of his republican comrades over the years is glaring too. They’ve been bellyaching about big government and the feds for years in favor of states rights. Opportunistic or just plain chaotic and incoherent, this posturing for executive privilege is merely another example of a lack of leadership and a vacuity of wisdom. With William Barr and the group of yes men surrounding the DT to strengthen the presidency, it must come as a strange irony to see the white house act in a way of mealy mouth ineffectuality.

Worse yet, his act of vandalism to the World Health Organization is a travesty, and again at time when a global pandemic sorely needs the unified voice of experts in medicine. All this could be grouped under the jackass and the barn parable, as any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one.

Even more astounding is how oblivious and sycophantic his base is. We get hints of this on social media feeds and letters to the editors etc., and of course Fox news, which fortunately I’ve only clicked on a few times in hotels.

For Example, one letter in my hometown paper in Wyalusing, PA opined that the DT was doing everything possible to combat the pandemic. Say what? What kind of a bubble do these people live in for crying out loud? Just last week, the front page story in the NY Times was how the lax response and inadequate protections by the White House had allowed over 400,000 people to take direct flights from China to US cities. Does that sound like the policy of a president who is doing his job? Well, I guess he was still believing his own spin that the entire Covid-19 pandemic was a hoax and just a bad flu wave that would pass.

Oedipus has the hubris to think he can out maneuver the Gods and it is this combination of overarching ego, thin skin and anger that are the sins and that is the pollution that causes the malaise in Thebes. Are there corollaries to the belligerent and combative insultarion–in-chief? Of course there are. Will we overcome COVID-19? Probably, but removing our polluter and defiler in orange has proven much more problematic. As apropos as the corollaries to ancient myth and even Shakespeare's tyrants are- they are in the final analysis too charitable, as the DT is much too petty to be compared in such light of great works of art. Hopefully though, such contemplations will give us some perspective.

From the movie "Duck Soup" with Groucho Marx.

The Delphic Oracle or the Pythia, the most powerful priestess in the ancient world is usually depicted on her tripod stool. At the entrance to the temple were carved, "nothing in excess" and "Know thyself." This painting from 1880 is by the Italian painter Camillo Miola. .

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