Favourite reads of 2019 (1)

As it’s the end of the year, a number of people have started to list their favourite reads of the past 12 months. I thought I’d do the same – mainly because I’ve read some great books this year – though with the caveat that none of these books was actually published in 2019… I will have to do better at staying up to date by this time next year.
10. Christopher Stray, Living Word: WHD Rouse and the Crisis of the Classics in Edwardian England
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A fascinating portrayal of the life and career of an Edwardian classicist and headmaster (of the Perse school, Cambridge), it’s a quick read. For me, there was also the interesting connection that Rouse, who pioneered the Direct Method of teaching Latin, worked earlier in his career at Bedford school (where I worked myself until this past term).
9. Russell Jacoby, The Last intellectuals: American culture in the age of academe
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For anyone interested in academic life and campus culture changes (and disputes… I want to avoid the word ‘wars’…) in recent decades, this should prove a thought-provoking read. Jacoby’s is a sane, interesting voice in a debate where all too often the only arguments in town are either from the reactionary corner or the extreme left.
8. Keith Thomas, In Pursuit of Civility: Manners & civilisation in early modern England
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I’ve tried one of Keith Thomas’ books – Religion and the Decline of Magic – before, but couldn’t get into it. This was a different story altogether. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the moral world of everyday social interactions and ideas of civility (and politeness) in 18th century England. Thomas was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour in this year’s new year’s honours list.
7. Horace, Satires 1 (w commentary by Emily Gowers)
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I first read Horace as a teenager and it’s been great spending some time with him again in recent months. In the Satires, I like his social commentary and his complex literary persona, but also his humanity. Emily Gowers’ commentary is brilliant and added hugely to my understanding of the text.
6. Noel Annan, The Dons: Mentors, Eccentrics, Geniuses
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Another book about the history of university education – and one perhaps worth reading for its clipped, rhythmical prose alone. There are plenty of entertaining anecdotes revealing the eccentric behaviour of dons over the past two centuries. My favourite anecdotes concerned the Victorian scientist William Buckland and his son (who, as a child, collected exotic animals in his college rooms). On one occasion, the dean of the college is reported to have admonished him: ‘Mr Buckland, I hear you keep a bear in college; well, either you or the bear must go’.

Gadamer and the Greeks

Moving house means moving possessions and, amidst the upheaval this has involved, I’ve found a few spare moments to reacquaint myself with some possessions I haven’t paid much attention to in a while. Tucked away in a bag of books, I discovered the other day a hardback I once received as a gift, way back around 20 years ago, which I’ve barely looked at since.

The book is a series of interviews with the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, a thinker whose ideas struck a chord with me when I first read about them as a teenager. I found in Gadamer’s ideas an attractive alternative to the deconstructionist philosophy of the philosopher Jacques Derrida, whose writings – which I didn’t warm to – were very much in vogue at the time (and still are, to some extent). I particularly liked Gadamer’s concept of the ‘fusion of horizons’ (described briefly here), which represented a more optimistic alternative to Derrida’s radical hermeneutical pessimism.

But this book – Gadamer in Conversation – I remembered as something of a disappointment: for the teenage me, Gadamer was really too impenetrable a thinker, and his reflections on his career frankly didn’t hold all that much meaning for me. So the book was filed away and left pretty much unopened – until now.

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I think it’s fair to say I’m in a better position to enjoy Gadamer’s conversations today than I used to be. And, on opening the book, I immediately noticed a chapter – ‘The Greeks, our Teachers’ – which caught my attention. The chapter takes the form of an interview between Gadamer and the classicist Glenn Most – and in it, Gadamer makes a number of interesting arguments and comments about the nature and influence of ancient Greek philosophical thought, some of which caught my eye. What follows now is my attempt to do them justice.

Although Gadamer is known chiefly for his book, Truth and Method, he mentions that his training was in ancient Greek philosophy (and in Greek and Latin): he wrote his PhD thesis on Plato and his early publications were all on subjects in ancient Greek philosophy. For Gadamer, ancient Greek philosophical practice can be favourably compared, in some respects, with the practice of modern philosophers.

The cardinal emphasis placed by many Greek philosophers on writing protreptikoi (works designed to encourage people to follow a particular school of philosophy), and of intervening in the life of the state, are things he approves. The contrast between these Greek practices and certain dominant tendencies in the present, where philosophy – particularly analytic philosophy – has become very professionalised and encapsulated, and relates only to itself, is described by Gadamer as a ‘real danger’. The danger here, presumably, is of a move toward an increasingly solipsistic philosophy which stands further and further aloof from what might be labelled ‘public reason’.

A striking phrase Gadamer uses when he appraises the way the Greeks did philosophy is this: ‘discovering contradictions is a good weapon for a lazy reason [Vernunft]’. This is a point that appeals to me for several reasons.

As a teenager, I used to love to test out the strengths and weaknesses of arguments and to (try to) rip into what I considered silly claims. Of course it is important to be able to dismiss silly claims with good reasons – but, at the same time, I remember feeling that I’d made a real step forward when I encountered a (university) teacher who wanted to force me to make (only) constructive arguments in my writing, and to minimise my inclination to spend time on paper exploding others’ not particularly silly claims (this could almost always be done, I came to see, either implicitly, or gently in footnotes). So Gadamer’s words chime on that front.

They also chime because, just as Gadamer doesn’t have ‘a very high opinion of the denials of the unity of reason that have become stylish in this age of narrowed rational perspectives’, neither do I. What Gadamer describes as a style of thinking that sees ‘everything as embroiled in contradictions’ is a style of thinking that is a pretty normal feature of the postmodern modes of thought that are observable in some quarters in contemporary western societies: for Gadamer, this is a style of thinking ‘that does not see far enough beyond its own contradictions’.

And when some fellow philosophers show signs of a commitment to this sort of view, Gadamer avers, they depart from the example of the ancient Greek philosophers, for whom the unity of reason was never in doubt. Of course they may do this self-consciously: they may even locate ‘what is ‘modern’ precisely in being doubtful about the unity of reason’ (in Most’s words). This sort of position really takes off with Nietzsche – and it flies in the face, Gadamer thinks, of ‘the rich cultural heritage’ (not only that which stems from the Greek philosophers!) we have – and could do a better job of enjoying.

In spite of the fragmentation of academic research into different subdivisions and specialisms which is characteristic of contemporary intellectual life, Gadamer nonetheless maintains that ‘our whole image of the world, and also the turn to mathematics [in modernity], rests on the [ancient] Greek view of a numerically harmonious world’. And in spite of modern science’s instrumental use of mathematics, Gadamer argues, ‘research today still remains oriented to the Greek visions of a simplicity, unity and beauty’ in the world, ‘a world ordered and regulated in itself’.

Gadamer’s claim here is that, in spite of the fragmented nature of contemporary academic study and, for that matter, in spite of the presence of the Nietzscheans, the Greek tradition that links together natural science, ethics and aesthetics, and insists that a unity of reason is possible among them, in a sense persists. Moreover, although academic disciplines may indeed be increasingly subdivided and fragmented, Gadamer notes that we nevertheless face a situation in which ‘the modern world is gradually coming together into a functional unity through science and technology’. The move toward functional unity, I myself suspect, may yet prove fatal for even the stubbornest exponents of what might be labelled postmodern Nietzscheanism.

So what role will the study of Greek philosophy have in shaping world culture in the future? In all likelihood, a very significant role, Gadamer thinks, because he knows of ‘no substitute for the immediate conceptual power of Greek as a spoken language’. There is a polemical edge to this comment – ‘all modern languages of international exchange are becoming bland’, he adds. But, really, what Gadamer wants to argue is that, through coming to know the ancient Greek language and ancient Greek convictions about the unity of reason, points of solidarity may be created and discovered among future people.

This is a nice idea, but Gadamer is certainly not naively expecting a sort of Greek renaissance. He expects that there may also be things in the traditions of ancient India or China that will rival the Greek tradition, and that discovering these things will be good for (our understanding of) the ancient Greek sources – and perhaps good for ‘us’ too.

On Leaving

I began my journey in teaching soon after leaving school, working initially in my old primary school providing some classroom assistance, before going off to teach at a farm school on a gap year in South Africa. These initial experiences were enormously uplifting ones. So much of what I found out about teaching then continues to be central to my enjoyment of the job today… the chance to combine learning and fun in the classroom; the satisfaction of managing to convey things to pupils that they might find tricky; the feeling of somehow being able to bring a subject alive, of helping others come to see things in new ways; and the chance to watch children grow in confidence and develop toward adulthood before your very eyes. All these things are not just enjoyable: they are privileges of a job I love.

For the past 10 terms I’ve been enjoying doing these things at Bedford school. It is a special environment in which to work, and a place in which life beyond the classroom really matters: out on the sports field, in musical or artistic activities, extra-curricular clubs and societies, in the theatre, and in the chapel. The food and scenery are great too.

I had a clear sense when I was a teenager that I didn’t want a job that involved seeing the same 4 walls of an office every day. I briefly considered joining the marines, and would have loved to have tried professional football (but wasn’t good enough). I also liked the idea of life as an academic or in the church, but ended up feeling neither was for me for various reasons. Teaching was also in my mind.

In teaching, and certainly in teaching at Bedford, life is never dull: there are opportunities to get involved in multiple pursuits at school every day and there is always something new to try, something interesting to experience. That is something I’ve valued immensely and it informs my sense that it’s really important to show pupils that living something like a rounded existence – with interests in different areas of endeavour – is important (and possible!).

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A happy moment: winning the staff general knowledge quiz!

I will miss the school, my colleagues and pupils. I have some great memories from my time there – of coaching teams, of assemblies and lessons, of breakthroughs in the classroom, and of lots of laughter.

I will also look back on my time at the school with some sadness, because it was while I was working there that I lost my mother: I know that she was happy to see me happy at the school, and indeed the senior staff at the school were wonderful in making it possible for me to spend time with her during her final illness. I will always be grateful for that.

So it’s a fond farewell to Bedford school and to Bedford the town, which has been our home for the past 3 and a half years. It’s been nice knowing you.

Boys and Books

I’m asked fairly often by the boys who visit my classroom about the books they see on its shelves: about whether I myself have read them all (I reply that I certainly haven’t); about what a particular book that catches their eye is about (sometimes this can lead into an interesting conversation); and, perhaps most commonly of all, about whether I myself have a favourite book… and if so, could I recommend it?

As someone who loves books, this last question is not one I find it particularly easy to answer. There are just so many great books to choose from, and I prefer to try to tailor any recommendations I make to individuals, having worked out what they’ve read and enjoyed in the past and/or what they’d like to explore in some new reading.

This all being said, I’ve also been thinking a bit recently about the books that I myself found exciting as a teenager, and in this post I’m going to consider whether these might be good texts to recommend to a teenage reader still today.

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Before I start, a necessary admission: my memory of my teenage reading is far from perfect, and I certainly don’t want to misrepresent its true scope and nature. I had been a voracious reader up until about 13/14 years of age, mainly of fiction and history. Standout favourite reads in my pre-teenage years had included Richmal Crompton’s series of Just William books (I seem to remember that the sight of me reading these books would irritate the headmaster of my prep school, who regarded them with scorn for some reason), various animal themed books by Colin Dann, and (when I was about 12) the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. I also remember enjoying both The Great Gatsby and Buchan’s 39 steps when we studied them in English.

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However, for 3 or so years after that (until I started my A levels) I found that the tasks of keeping on top of academic work, learning two musical instruments and playing a lot of sport didn’t really leave much time for anything apart from ‘fun’ reading (particularly footballers’ biographies and autobiographies).

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Nevertheless, one text I did read during this time stands out in my memory for the impression it created: Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder. This book managed to combine a simple storyline about an inquisitive young girl with an introduction to some of the key western philosophers. I greatly enjoyed the book, which I remember as having a thoughtful tone, and I liked especially its exploration of the life and philosophical approach of Socrates.

When I reached the sixth form, I had time and space to do a little more reading, and I was lucky that my parents’ bookshelves had plenty of titles to investigate if/when I was feeling intellectually curious.

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Undoubtedly the single most important book I discovered on these shelves was Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. From page one, I was gripped – not just by Russell’s prose style, which I still find to be both grand and acute, but by the scope of the book. I realise this is a common experience for those who read Russell for the first time (and I know that reading Russell is not an altogether unheard of formative experience for intellectually minded teenagers).

My honest recollection is that I felt that Russell’s book really did pull the rug out from under much of the learning/studying I had been doing at school. Why weren’t school classes considering what seemed to be the fundamental questions that Russell and these other thinkers had devoted their lives to? And why did so many people around me seem to live without paying much attention to these incredibly important questions? Another abiding memory of reading Russell is that I was completely entranced by his exposition of the thought of the early Greek philosophers. I think the book remains worth reading for those chapters alone.

I was compelled to go out and find more Bertrand Russell to read and managed to get hold of two further books, both of which I liked a lot: two essay collections, Unpopular Essays and Why I am not a Christian. For a while, as a 17 year old, my goal in life was to become a modern day Bertrand Russell.

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Studying both Virgil and Horace at school as part of Latin A level had given me a sense that there was a lot of fascinating material waiting to be explored in classical literature – and I was lucky to be presented with an Oxford Classical Dictionary as a Christmas present during the sixth form. I spent quite a lot of time with my nose in this, though I remember struggling to sustain an interest in a number of the minor biographical entries. (For my sins, I also used to enjoy browsing an English Dictionary and learning new words before I went to bed at night).

Perhaps my number one fiction read from this time was Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which I found to be absorbing and well-written. It was good also that Conan Doyle’s stories were short, as I didn’t have much patience for long drawn-out fictional tales at this point in my life.

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So that’s about it: a brief survey of some of the standout reads of my own adolescence. I think I’m still happy to recommend these books to anyone who asks for a recommendation today (well, perhaps not the OCD if a page-turner is what’s required). Strangely, though, I’ve never put any of these books in the hands of pupils who’ve asked me for recommendations to-date (though I have mentioned them). I’m not completely sure why this is: perhaps because I don’t retain my copies of Russell or Conan Doyle any longer on my shelves. There are certainly, though, many other good books to try instead.

Kadmos’ Wager

I don’t know the whereabouts of my copy of Pascal’s Pensées. I imagine it’s lying somewhere in one of my parents’ spare bedrooms, its tricky French languishing there unread, awaiting the time when I discover the urge to locate and read it once again. I won’t pretend. I’ve never spent much time on Pascal. But he’s still a figure who interests me (I have a large soft spot for any good pre-enlightenment philosophe), and I remember reading a particularly interesting and lucid exposition of his famous ‘wager’ in a book by the philosopher John Cottingham.

Pascal’s wager was a topic that came straight to mind early this morning, in one of my A level Classical Civilisation classes. We are currently reading Euripides’ Bacchae, the famous play in which the king of Thebes, Pentheus, refuses to recognise or honour the god Dionysus, despite warnings that he must do so from all and sundry around him. The result of Pentheus’ failure to recognise the god is dreadful: he is brutally dismembered by the worshippers of Dionysus (a troupe of women known as maenads). Before this terrible fate unfolds, Pentheus unwittingly rejects an opportunity to avoid this terrible conclusion, by dismissing the arguments of some of the wise old men of his city – Kadmos and Tiresias.

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The dismembering of Pentheus

The arguments of both old men are interesting, but that of Kadmos particularly caught my eye today. Doubtless I haven’t been paying enough attention to the text of the Bacchae when I’ve read it in the past, but I didn’t before realise that right there, in Euripides’ text, is a clear intellectual antecedent of Pascal’s wager itself, placed on the lips of wise old Kadmos.

‘My boy’, says Kadmos, addressing Pentheus, who has already shown himself to be an individual who is going to be difficult to help. ‘Live as we [i.e. Kadmos and Tiresias] do, and not beyond the order of the laws’. ‘Even if this is not the god’, he continues, ‘consider him a god and call him such!’. Kadmos proceeds to warn Pentheus that failing to worship the god could result in a terrible fate, similar to that of Actaion, the hero of Greek myth, who is torn to shreds by dogs. Pentheus is not persuaded.

There is a clear parallel here with Pascal, whose most famous argument (very loosely) is that individuals have very little to lose by believing in and worshipping God (and much, potentially, to gain) – whereas there is much, potentially, to lose by not believing in him (i.e. for Pascal, eternal damnation), and very little to gain…therefore you should believe in him! (A proper and thorough explanation of this wager is offered here for anyone dissatisfied with my cursory description).

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Blaise Pascal

Anyway, I found myself feeling surprised by Euripides’ prescience – though maybe I shouldn’t have been. At least one internet encyclopedia of philosophy comments that Pascal’s wager is anticipated in Euripides’ Bacchae – so I certainly can’t claim any great insight in noticing the connection. Nonetheless, I find it a bit strange that some of the most eminent commentators on the text – Dodds, Segal – don’t comment at all on what seems to me a quite remarkable argument (‘worship someone to avoid something terrible – and don’t worry too much if they’re not in fact a god after all!’).

Reading around this topic a little this evening, I am now particularly struck by Eric Csapo’s observation that the whole of the Bacchae, as a play, has occasionally been seen as evidence of a kind of deathbed conversion on the part of Euripides. Euripides is a poet who has often been seen as decidedly anti-theistic. By contrast the Bacchae itself, says Csapo, has been seen as a ‘last cynical Pascal’s wager’ on the part of the poet, particularly on account of its vivid portrayal of the terrible fate that may await an individual like Pentheus who refuses to honour or recognise the gods.

I suppose the lesson of my encounter with the Bacchae today might be summed up like this: there are always new things to discover in ancient texts; or, rather, there are new old things to discover in ancient texts, and unexpected connections to notice too.

I am left to wonder whether Pascal may in fact have read Euripides. This is a question whose answer I haven’t yet been able to find.

 

Oedipus in Art

Like so many figures in Greek mythology, Oedipus has been the subject of numerous works of art down the centuries. In this post I’ve collected together a few examples of depictions of Oedipus that I find interesting as part of my ongoing project to keep the experience of reading Sophocles’ play fresh for me after five straight years of doing so.

An immediate thought about bringing these pieces together is that this isn’t the sort of collection one would expect to see in a typical display in a gallery or museum. Museums and galleries (at least in my experience) tend to group artwork by period or by artist. Thematic organisation – the tracing of depictions of a famous mythological figure, such as Oedipus, over time – is not something I’ve really seen very often. Perhaps I haven’t been paying enough attention: in any case, for me as a student of history interested in the longue durée, this is a nice way to approach art history.

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A depiction of Oedipus and the sphinx, taken from an Attic kylix produced by an artist known to modern scholars as ‘Painter of Oedipus’.

My first piece is taken from ancient Greece. It is an Attic kylix (Attica being the land around Athens; Kylix being a type of wine-drinking cup) which was produced around 470 BC. It can be seen today on display in the Gregorian Etruscan museum in Vatican City. In this scene, Oedipus is addressing the Sphinx, the mythical being – half-human and half-lion, who blocks the road to Thebes, refusing to allow anyone to pass unless they can solve its riddle. Oedipus – uniquely – manages to solve the riddle: as a consequence, the sphinx (dramatically) kills itself. One thing I like about the scene depicted here is Oedipus’ contemplative pose: his hand is on his chin, his legs crossed. The sphinx, meanwhile, is in a sense unreadable: he has no eyes! He also stands high over Oedipus, on top of a column, but of course his supremacy will not last. Contemplative Oedipus – who certainly doesn’t look like any kind of aggressor or dethroner in this scene – will emerge triumphant over the sphinx in due course.

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Ingres, Oedipus and the Sphinx (completed in 1827)

There have been many artistic depictions of Oedipus’ meeting with the sphinx. Perhaps the most famous is a painting by the French symbolist Gustave Moreau. I happen to prefer this, by another Frenchman, Ingres. It’s a rich scene: the use of light and dark colour is obviously striking, and the narrowness of the pass into Thebes (which can be seen in the background) is clearly evident. Oedipus himself attracts the eye: he is quite young here, but strong, and his pose exudes confidence and boldness. He also looks like he has no trouble being matter-of-fact. He’s dealing here with a riddle you almost sense he can solve – and I think the rather perturbed expression on the face of the sphinx reflects this. What, meanwhile, is the reaction of Oedipus’ colleague in the background supposed to signify? Fright, in all likelihood: at the bottom of the picture, a skull and crossbones clearly show the unfortunate fate of those who fail to solve the sphinx’s riddle. This draws Oedipus’ phlegmatic daring all the more clearly into focus.

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Oedipus and the Sphinx, by Francois-Xavier Fabre (c. 1806)

A quite different depiction of Oedipus’ meeting with the sphinx is presented by Fabre here. Here again Oedipus is strong and muscular, but this time he seems assertive rather than contemplative. He is also set more against the background of the wider (pleasantly rustic) landscape, high up in the mountains, with the city nowhere in sight. The body position of the sphinx makes it look almost ready to pounce on Oedipus, yet this sphinx seems somehow less imposing and menacing: its bodily dimensions aren’t as intimidating as they might be, and (for me) it doesn’t command the space of the painting in a way the sphinx of Ingres – from its dark corner – does.

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Antoni Brodowski, Oedipus and Antigone (1823)

Brodowski’s Oedipus and Antigone (above) depicts a scene from Sophocles’ Oedipus sequel, Oedipus at Colonus. Here Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter, guides her father as he wanders around in exile outside his city. The dark clouds and dark rock in the background betoken the gloom that has descended upon Oedipus, but also the darkness that affects him personally: he is now blind. The pair look courageous and strong, despite Oedipus’ predicament. Other paintings of this scene depict Antigone looking lovingly at her father: here she is unabashedly leading the way, looking ahead (or to the side), perhaps, to see where they might go next. She, the daughter, is now the lead figure in their relationship.

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Oedipus and Antigone by Christian Wilhelm Eckersberg

In this quite different painting of Oedipus and Antigone from 1812, Eckersberg presents a more doting and concerned Antigone and a more elderly Oedipus who is visibly more frail. This Oedipus nonetheless shoulders the burden of carrying some heavy clothing on his back, while Antigone walks more freely, albeit while expending energy tending to her father. I love the bright colours in this scene, but also the way Eckersberg manages to capture the melancholy of both characters and the tenderness between them. On they go, in sadness, across the bridge.

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Charles Francois Jalabert, Oedipus and Antigone (1843)

My final Oedipus and Antigone conjures an altogether different impression. Here, in Jalabert’s painting, they walk together through the crowded and chaotic city streets. Antigone leans in toward Oedipus, as if for protection, while towering Oedipus stands strong and tall over the other figures they pass by. His dominant physique suggests his regal credentials and yet, of course, he is now blind and dependent on his daughter. Others – presumably aware that he is a cursed figure – pull away from him in seeming disgust, or, in the case of the woman depicted in the bottom right of the painting, stare at him forbiddingly while pointing toward him. This is a sobering reminder of how Oedipus, once the hero of his city, is now an outcast.

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Blind Oedipus commending his children to the gods, by Benigne Gagneraux (1784)

Gagneraux here presents another scene from Oedipus at Colonus. Oedipus, mourned by his distraught children, seems on the brink of death here. A number of others – a soldier, a beggar woman, a mother and child – loiter around the edges of the family, perhaps in sympathy, perhaps in confusion. We see the city once more in the background, and the artist conveys with clarity how deeply loved Oedipus is by his family members.

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Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust, Oedipus at Colonus (1788)

Another French neoclassical painting with some very clear stylistic similarities to Gagneraux, Giroust’s Oedipus at Colonus depicts a similar scene of mourning. This time only Oedipus’ son Polynices and his daughters Ismene and Antigone attend to him in his distress, while he sits outside what looks like a temple. Polynices wants Oedipus to return to Thebes: he needs help to defeat his vengeful brother Eteocles, who has seized control of the city since his father’s departure. (Tragedy, alas, will mar the fortunes of both brothers, and indeed both sisters: it is not just Oedipus who will suffer).

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Max Ernst, Oedipus Rex (1922)

From French neoclassicism, I turn now to this quite different piece by the surrealist Max Ernst, which was composed at a time when the work of Sigmund Freud (featuring the Oedipus complex) had caused the Oedipus story to be viewed in new and different light. An extended reading of what might be going on in the painting is offered here. Simpleton that I am, I find it baffling.

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Salvador Dali, Oedipus Complex (1930)

Continuing the Freudian (and surrealist) theme, here is Dali’s Oedipus Complex. This painting seems to be not so much about Sophocles’ Oedipus as it is about Freud. As with so many of Dali’s paintings, it’s difficult to figure out what is going on and I would be lying if I said I found it one of his most captivating pieces. I am tempted to speculate, though, that the large yellow object depicted at the top of the painting could be a depiction of the human brain, with holes signifying areas of unconsciousness. But I shouldn’t speculate, as I’m probably wrong.

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Linda Mota, Oedipus Rex

Linda Mota’s terrifying contemporary piece marks a renewed focus on Sophocles’ Oedipus himself, here depicted in frightening agony. Blood streams down his face and his facial features are distorted, in a way that reminds me of the facial disfigurement experienced by the central protagonist of the film Vanilla Sky. This Oedipus seems almost trapped within the painting itself, stuck there in agony.

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Alicia Besada, Oedipus

Finally, Alicia Besada’s recent Oedipus evokes the pity of Sophocles’ character. He cowers, shielding himself from the light, apparently naked. I particularly like the funky elements in his skin tone here, but also the way Besada offers a vision which is somewhat redolent of older depictions of Sophocles’ hero, which capture his sadness, desolation and misfortune.

So that’s it: my (very) brief and incomplete survey of Oedipus in art. Perhaps I should just add that I’m certainly no art historian – but I guess that will be obvious to anyone who has read this far.

Oedipus the Athenian

One of Bernard Knox’s major suggestions in the opening chapter of Oedipus at Thebes (his major study which I have already begun to discuss in a previous post here) is that Sophocles’ Oedipus, despite being a king, seems to have a ‘democratic temper’. Knox explores this feature of Oedipus’ character, and indeed other ‘democratic’ features of Sophocles’ play, at length in his book’s second chapter.

He makes a rich and bold argument – which he establishes through close reading – to the effect that the tragic story of Oedipus the man resembles the tragic situation of Sophocles’ own contemporary Athens. The play itself, he suggests, is a tragic vision of Athenian splendour and vigour but also of the city’s inevitable military and political demise. Oedipus himself, moreover, is constructed as a character to embody the qualities – but also the limitations – of Athens itself.

In this post I am going to sketch the main outlines of Knox’s argument, before offering some suggestions of my own. Although I find it fascinating, I am not completely convinced by Knox’s argument that Oedipus as a character can somehow be said to embody in microcosm the Athenian cultural and political mindset.

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Knox begins his discussion by focussing on the word ‘tyrannos’, which is used to describe Oedipus throughout the play. Why is Oedipus described as a tyrannos (tyrant) rather than a king (basileus)? One part of the answer here is that Oedipus emerges, over the course of the play, as a tyrannos.

Tyrannies were no longer a live political reality in fifth century Greece (when Sophocles wrote). Nevertheless, they were remembered by citizens of the Athenian democracy as a very bad thing. Indeed, to guard against the possible re-emergence of tyranny in the city, anyone seeking to restore tyranny to Athens itself was cursed in recitals of prayers in the city assembly (ecclesia).

The moment in the play where Oedipus’ credentials as tyrannos come most clearly to light, perhaps, is in the aftermath of his discovery of the terrible truth about himself, when the chorus comes to know him as tyrannos – someone they describe as a man of violence and pride’ (line 880). The chorus, previously supportive and even in awe of Oedipus, reaches this judgment on the basis that much that is new (to their ears) has just been revealed about him. That he had come to Thebes with blood on his hands; that he had killed at least one man of some importance; that his response is to say – with apparent pride: ‘I killed the whole lot of them’. Oedipus has revealed himself as having some of the characteristic hallmarks of a tyrannos: the citizens of mythical Thebes react negatively to these, just as the citizens of democratic Athens will doubtless have done too.

Knox notes, however, that there are plenty of good reasons for the chorus (and the audience) not to cast Oedipus as tyrannos: Oedipus doesn’t outrage his city’s women; he doesn’t break any ancestral laws; he doesn’t plunder from his people; he doesn’t distrust what is good and delight in what is bad; and he doesn’t live in fear of others around him. And, as already noted, he has a ‘democratic temper’! How, then, is this apparent contradiction to be resolved?

For some fifth century Athenians, it was possible to speak of the city of Athens itself as a tyranny. Pericles, as reported by Thucydides, gives voice to this very idea in his funeral speech: ‘we are called a democracy, but you call tyrannis to mind’. Other fifth century authors use this same language.

For Knox, this is the key to understanding the tensions within Oedipus’ own character in the play: he is just like Athens, a citizen body and political state in which elements of both democracy and tyranny – and the perception of each – co-exist.

Knox sees Sophocles, then, as writing ‘not historical but contemporary drama’. He points to the overlaps between (mythical) Thebes and (Sophocles’ contemporary) Athens in the play: common to both cities are their use of ships and their use of nautical language, common to both is the experience of plague, and there are important resemblances too between Oedipus and the figure of Pericles, the great Athenian leader.

But further than this, Knox suggests, the character of Oedipus and the character of Athens (in terms of its self-identity as a city) can be viewed as in essential harmony: ‘the character of Oedipus’, he writes, ‘is the character of the Athenian people’. A long list of parallels is enumerated: both Oedipus and Athens are busy and courageous (and pride themselves on both qualities); both take pride also in their powers of speedy decision making and their intelligence, their impatience and their confidence in discussion as a preparation for action. Both also have a keen nose for plots and conspiracies, for acting with confidence as good amateurs who can snuff out the pretensions and mistakes of ‘professionals’. Both are also capable of serious anger.

Knox fleshes out these parallels with reference to the writing of a range of fifth century Athenian authors. More specifically, he suggests that our literary portrayals of a range of leading Athenian citizens – Pericles, Cleon, Themistocles – also invite comparison with Sophocles’ Oedipus.

The final part of Knox’s argument that the play as a whole is an exemplification of Athenian values concerns the legal/legalistic investigation that Oedipus conducts as he interviews those around him in search of the cause of his city’s pollution. Athens, Knox observes, loved its legal institutions, traditions and arguments. In the perspective of some outsiders, Athens was a ‘city of lawcourts’. He goes on to enumerate a range of parallels between Athenian legal processes and those we see in Oedipus (the behaviour of boards of judges, Tiresias’ assertion of his right to a defence speech, Oedipus’ forensic tone, various procedural similarities, the treatment of witnesses etc.). There are indeed many parallels.

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A bust of Sophocles

For me, Knox’s analysis in all of the above respects is both interesting, well done and convincing. However, for me, there is one major question mark that threatens his overall position. Just how thoroughgoing is Sophocles’ use of themes, character traits and political and legal parallels likely to have been? Was he really trying to create an Oedipus who stood to represent Athens? Or can this quite bold hypothesis be resisted simply by saying that Oedipus can indeed seem very Athenian in certain sections of the play, while pointing out that this – arguably – is pretty much inevitable. If Sophocles is going to depict Oedipus as a figure who will seem heroic in the eyes of his fifth century audience, how can he do this unless he presents an Oedipus whose heroism matches – in some degree – Athenians’ own ideas about heroism?

There is all the difference in the world, I think, between an Oedipus who is designed to appeal in various ways to Sophocles’ audience, and who indeed exemplifies some of the qualities that Athens itself took pride in – and an Oedipus who is the very personification of Athens itself. I am sceptical, then, with respect to the bolder part of Knox’s reading, even as I am impressed by the force of his analysis.

*The featured image is ‘Oedipus and Antigone’ by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg