Damanaki 2006: 31, quoting Voltaire in Greek translation. I have used the version in Besterman 1968–1977). The quote is from Voltaire, “Première Lettre Sur Oedipe” (2d ed., 1719), 15n.
Chapter 8. 1974–2007: After History
I call this stone Oedipus. It too is irregular, with deep
grooves for eyes. It too rolls down with swollen feet. And
when motionless it hides a fate, a reptile, my forgotten
I call this stone Oedipus.
For although by itself it has no meaning, it too has the
shape and the weight of choice. I name it and I lick it.
Until the end of my story.
Until I understand what choice means.
Until I understand what the end means.
—Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, “I Have a Stone”
There are many ethnographic moments where Oedipus turns up in an unexpected location: in testimonials by the detainees at the camps, in Lancaster's account of the Distomo massacre in 1944 (where the Germans killed all the men and set the village on fire), in a number of instances during the trial of 17N, and in journalistic accounts the figure of Oedipus raises its head, stands up on its feet, so to speak, not as the infant who envies the father and desires the mother but as the sovereign who is crushed under the weight of his responsibility and who plucks out his eyes as he encounters his accountability, the recognition that he has to account for his actions even if they were inadvertent, not intended. So far as he knew, he killed a man in self-defense, he did not kill his father; and he married the widow of a king, he did not marry his mother.
Maria Damanaki, one of the two voices of the clandestine radio during the Polytechnic uprising, now a deputy with Parliament with PASOK, prefaced a piece that she wrote about the Israeli attack on Lebanon in August 2006 with a reference to Voltaire's Oedipus: “on doit des égards aux vivants; on ne doit aux morts que la vèrité [we owe respect to the living; to the dead we owe nothing but the truth].”
These ethnographic instances ask that Oedipus (the play, the myth, the cinematic account) be read again, against the grain of the expected readings, along the grain of markings on the flesh. Such a gesture allows me to think the mythical (Oedipus as the king of Thebes, the offspring of Laius and Jocasta, the brother of the Sphinx, the father of his siblings, the son of his mother) as commensurable with the political (the face whose feet and eyes come to the mind of political prisoners after torture has rendered them akin to his image). Not that we need to invent new ways of addressing the events around us, because, as Schiller noted in his letter to Goethe, “Everything is already there, so it needs only to be extricated.” But we need to address the mythic again in this new mythical era that we are living. In this context, a reading of the myths that have participated in the construction of Western systems of subjectivities—reading, interpretation, and representation—imposes itself anew, and there is hardly a myth more definitive of the ways we have come to understand subjectivities than the myth of Oedipus. It is also in this context that the reflection upon the mythical as commensurate with the political becomes imperative.
So, let's do what is rarely done: take a look at the myth in full. Oedipus, after leaving the Delphic oracle, killed a man at a crossroads. This is the crucial event of the myth. The myth tells us that Oedipus did not know who the man at the crossroads was. As a matter of fact, when he killed the man at the crossroads he knew as little about anything in his life or outside of it as could be possible. Before arriving at the oracle Oedipus knew that his father was Polybus and his mother was Merope, the royal couple of Corinth. But that (ephemeral) knowledge had been shaken when as a young man Oedipus was taunted by a drunkard, who told him that he was not his father's son. He asked his parents if that was true, and they, outraged, denied it. But Oedipus was not satisfied. So, without telling them anything, he set off for Delphi, to the oracle, to ask the god who, exactly, he was. Apollo sent him away, having said nothing about his lineage but having delivered the famous oracle: “You are fated to couple with your mother; you will bring a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see—you will kill your father, the one who gave you life.” From there he ran away—as far away as he could from Corinth. He wandered around until, on his way to Thebes, he came upon a crossroads, where in self-defense he killed a man in a carriage coming from the opposite direction. A little further on, he encountered the Sphinx.
The Sphinx was sitting on a stele atop Mount Phicium (Sphinx Mountain), and she posed the famous riddle, taught to her by the Muses, to everyone who passed by: “There walks on land a creature of two feet, of four feet, and of three; it has one voice but, sole among animals that grow on land or in the sea, it can change its nature; nay, when it walks propped on most feet, then it is the speed of its limbs less than it has ever been before.” Oedipus guessed correctly. “Ánthropos,” he said, which means human—man and woman—and the Sphinx flung herself from Mount Phicium. Upon his arrival in Thebes, Oedipus was proclaimed the savior of the city and was given Jocasta in marriage. He and Jocasta eventually had four children, two boys and two girls: Polynices, Eteocles, Antigone, and Ismene.
Jocasta had recently been widowed; her husband, Laius, had been killed—reportedly by a band of thieves at a three-road crossroads on the way to Delphi. Jocasta was the daughter of Menoeceus, one of the sons of Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, who was also the ancestor of Laius. Laius was the son of Labdacus, grandson of Cadmus and king of Thebes. When Labdacus died, Laius was still young, and his life was threatened by his uncle, who became the viceroy. According to Pausanias, Laius was given safe passage by “those who had in their best mind not to allow the genos of Cadmus to become unknown to coming generations” (Pausanias 9.5.6). Laius was offered safety in Corinth as the guest of the king of Corinth, Pelops. While in Corinth, Laius fell madly in love with the son of Pelops, Chrysippus, whom he abducted and brought to Thebes, where Chrysippus, ashamed, committed suicide. Pelops placed a curse on Laius, either to die childless or to be killed by his own son.
After the death of his uncle, the viceroy of Thebes, Laius assumed the throne of his dead father and married Jocasta. Because Jocasta failed to become pregnant, Laius consulted the oracle at Delphi and received a warning: “You are better off without children,” the oracle said, “because if you do have a son he will eventually kill you.” Laius kept the oracle secret from Jocasta (who didn't much believe in oracles and seers, anyhow), but after a night of revelry and desire he coupled with her and got her pregnant. (Or Jocasta got him drunk, coupled with him, and became pregnant, unbeknownst to Laius.) When she gave birth to a boy, Laius pierced the ankles of his son with a pin and gave him to Jocasta to dispose of. She gave the boy to a shepherd to expose on Mount Cithaeron. But the shepherd took pity on the child and, instead of exposing him, he gave him away to another transhumant shepherd, from Corinth. He took the baby to his master Polybus and his wife Merope, who were childless.
So Oedipus was taken to Corinth when saved from the mountain, a generation after his father had been taken there to be saved from the usurpations of the sovereign, and it was from Corinth that Oedipus fled when he came full circle, back to Thebes, unknowingly retracing the steps of his father, through the fateful encounter at the crossroads. One day, however, when Oedipus was king of Thebes, a plague broke out in the city, and despite the purification rites that everyone performed, the plague did not go away. So Oedipus fetched the old blind seer, Teiresias , as Jocasta's brother, Creon, consulted the Delphic oracle. The oracle came back with a command to rid Thebes of the miasma, Laius's murderer.
When Oedipus vowed to find the murderer and drive him out of the city, Teiresias identified Oedipus as the murderer, just after a messenger from Corinth came to say that King Polybus was dead and that Oedipus was the rightful heir to the throne. But Oedipus refused to go back to Corinth, out of fear of fulfilling the old oracle about marrying his mother. Oh, he shouldn't worry about that, the messenger said, since Merope was not his real mother. She had been given the baby by this very messenger, who had received it from a shepherd on the mountains of Boeotia.
A moment comes when Jocasta is convinced and also convinces Oedipus, despite the logical objections he raises initially, that he is the son she had abandoned. She runs to their chamber and hangs herself, as Oedipus runs after her. When he sees that she is dead, he takes her body down and with her garment pins strikes his eyes again and again. According to the myth, he remains as king in Thebes, where he dies and is buried with great honors.
Sophocles, however, in the Athenian version of the myth, a version marked by the experience of the Peloponnesian War (Bernard Knox, introd. to Sophocles ), gives us another ending. Thus blinded, Oedipus is allowed to live in Thebes until, many years later, Creon expells him. His own sons make no attempt to keep him there. Outraged at the indifference of his sons, Oedipus curses them to die at each other's hand. He leaves Thebes, blind but a seer now, with Antigone as his guide, and wanders until he arrives in Athens. There he finds refuge in the garden of the Furies and is given asylum after he foretells the future of the city. He dies there and is buried in a secret place known only to Theseus, the king of Athens.
What possibilities does this myth animate, then? The myth of Oedipus, in fact, the character of Oedipus is that of a paradigmatic man who looked for a truth and accepted many, whose courage, perseverance, and intelligence guided his peripatetic life and made him a native and a stranger everywhere he went, a man who loved his wife more than he loved his mother and strove to find humanity in law and structure. What possibilities become apparent when this character is invoked in cases and under circumstance when humanity seems to be all but forgotten, and how could this character be usefully appraised as a paradigm for anthropology?
The camps in Greece stand as a paradigm for interrogating the lexical tensions of life and the praxes that these tensions have engendered. One of the originary metaphors that have informed the perception of zoē as naked life is that of Oedipus, the mythical character who was simultaneously native and stranger, offspring, parent, and sibling, king and subject, exile and dispossessed.
Oedipus has constituted the pivotal moment not only of the modern subject, as read through Hegel and Nietzsche, but also of anthropology as an interdisciplinary project. The myth of Oedipus, received by Freud through Nietzsche (even though Freud never acknowledged that he had read any of the circulating discussions on Oedipus) and transformed into the universal Oedipal complex with the aid of Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenzci, and others, made the debate between Bronislaw Malinowski and Edward Westermarck, on the one hand, and Freud, on the other, imperative. It also authorized fieldwork as the anthropological method that would become the nodal point on which a theory of humanity, a meta-knowledge of human action, could be articulated in the triangulated relationship among knowledge, truth, and method.
I do not argue that this is the beginning of fieldwork. What I argue is that this debate is perhaps the first time when specific ethnographic knowledge was presented as a critique of a theory and method (a theory of human behavior that emerged through the methodology of psychoanalysis), using anthropological and ethnographic material to support itself (as Freud had done in Totem and Taboo and in the theoretical conclusions he arrived at through the theory of the Oedipal complex). James Boon, discussing the process of translation from ethnographic experience to anthropological writing, has mapped out the difficulties in reading, navigating, and negotiating the unmanageable contradictions, self-contradictions, self-cancellations, deep questionings, and trenchant aporias (that ought to be) present in the praxis of fieldwork. Boon moves back and forth, looking from the certainty of fieldwork as “empirical” (and naming this certainty “fallacy”) to the view (“mistaken”) that “cross-cultural interpretations happen empirically” Boon 1982: 8). Focusing on the process of translation, he sees the object of anthropology (one assumes by engaging with fieldwork, but not only and exclusively with it) as being able to “make explicitly exotic populations appear implicitly familiar and explicitly familiar populations appear implicitly exotic” (ibid.: 9). Freud's Oedipalism and the Malinowskian matrilineal “facts” against the universality of the Freudian Oedipal complex (and everyone who got caught up in the battle between the two) engage in just the opposite: they maintain the exoticism of the exotic and the familiarity of the familiar.
Here, however, Oedipus allows me to articulate a discourse on the political that is commensurate with the gestures of Oedipean specificity: questions about the fragments of the body, the emergency of biopolitical power, technologies of self and alterity, the problem of autonomy, all intimately connected with “the islands,” the civil war, the dissident subject.
Oedipus, as a persona, as a character, and as a text is (still and again) appealing to the extent that he authors new renditions, translations, and adaptations of the play and the myth, which continue to appear at the beginning of the twenty-first century. At a time when the knowledge and truth sought in the modernist experience is progressively translated into apocalyptic and messianic terms (not least of all in the current discourses developed in response to 9/11 and in the articulations of a new empire), what are the key issues managed and negotiated in this narrative that make it relevant to us now? What is the type of knowledge sought through Oedipus nowadays, and how can it be culturally situated and epistemologically located to make Oedipus of interest to anthropologists and to anthropologically informed productions of knowledge? The Oedipus myth, as a comprehensive narrative that spans space and time from its pre-Homeric formulations to the present, constitutes a reflective moment on the human condition that coincides with the project of anthropology. The knowledge and the aporias negotiated by Oedipus correspond to the fundamental principles that guide the process of anthropological investigation. In this respect, Oedipus is the first anthropologist, insofar, and only insofar, as this narrative contains the basic questions that have later come to be associated with and posed by the discipline of anthropology.
Enveloped within this fiction of Oedipus as proto-anthropology is the gesture of anthropology that attempts to answer questions always already formulated outside the epistemological confines of the discipline. With my reading of the Oedipus myth as a narrative (hence, as a story-line that exists in a dialectical relationship to its storyteller), I look for sites where discourses on technologies, philosophical investigations, anthropological epistemologies, and their interstices can be located and where formulations such as kinship, divinity, fate, experience, and sovereignty can be revisited. Oedipus has engendered vocabularies that have produced critical discourses about the political and the social, such as the question of the sovereign with reference to cultural praxis (in the encounter between Oedipus and the oracle). Furthermore, the philosophical foundations of the anthropological project become transparent through the questions that the Oedipean project has posed to us (and as we have inherited it from Sophocles through Hegel, Frazer, Malinowski, Irigaray, and Butler), as do the idioms that anthropology has inherited from the epistemologies that surround the character of Oedipus, such as categories of kinship, friendship, the monstrous and the human, and understandings of the divine.
One of the fundamental questions Oedipus poses for us is that of the constitution of the social subject as a product of the dialectical tension between the self and the other. In other words, the fundamental question that “Oedipus” asks us to consider is not whether we know who we are but how we know who we are, how we know who the other is, and how we negotiate these categories as they participate in the processes of identity production. When this question is posed as part of the attempt to define and delineate cultural and political formations, it acquires the urgency of political praxis. “Who is an American?” we have been asked daily since 9/11, and why some Americans are recognized as such whereas others are not is a disturbing question posed by the relatives of the fifteen hundred Americans of Middle Eastern descent who were summarily interned after 9/11, some of them still in custody or unaccounted for.
My inquiry, then, does not concern the Freudian analysis of Oedipus, not only because the inordinate volume of work devoted to it has managed to occlude the myth, but also because the psychoanalytic emphasis on Oedipus has limited the scope of other analytical possibilities to which the text lends itself. The anthropological literature on Oedipus has thus far, with minor exceptions, dealt with responses not only to Freud's claim of the centrality of the Oedipal complex to the process of identity formation but also to Freud's claim of its universality. Although responses to this analytical aspect of Oedipus are still being produced, they are not my present concern . The problem, however, both with Freud's use of the myth and with the responses to it (from Malinowski to Parsons to Lévi-Strauss) is that none considers the myth or the play in their entirety, or as narratives. The only responses to both Freud and Lévi-Strauss that critique this narrow look at Oedipus have been articulated by the French classicists Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who have argued convincingly that, if the Oedipus complex exists, it does not come from Oedipus Vernant and Vidal-Naquet 1990: esp. 85–113). Of particular interest is Lacan's comment, in Seminaire I, that the Oedipus complex cannot be sustained if the myth is considered in its totality, precisely because the complexity of the myth, with its multiple details, overwhelms the question of just what the complex might be. Lacan's position is, of course, not separate from the importance he places on visuality and verbality. But I am primarily interested in the corpus of theoretical responses to Oedipus produced outside the space occupied by psychoanalysis: notably, the philosophical debates produced by reading the text and their importance for anthropologically informed analysis. In other words, I want to look at the anthropological response to questions posited by philosophy.
This myth, however central it has been to the theory of psychoanalysis and to the early methodology of anthropology, has not been addressed exhaustively either in psychoanalysis or in anthropology. Rather than study the myth itself, both disciplines have applied its bare contours as a framework for analysis. It is particularly startling that anthropology, a discipline uniquely positioned to analyze myth as a cultural text, has not done better here. Starting with anthropologists in the late nineteenth century (principally Frazer) and ending with the structuralists (not only Lévi-Strauss but also his critics, from G. S. Kirk and Clifford Geertz to Peter Munz) anthropology has viewed Oedipus rather reductively, merely responding to the challenges posed by Freud's interpretation. It is interesting to note that both Freudian Oedipalism and the Lévi-Straussian structuralism of Oedipus rest on a scant four pages of analysis each. The usual practice has been to look at isolated mythemes, trying to test empirically claims made by psychoanalysis. Attempts in such a direction have centered on three topics: (1) kinship, first by Frazer and his evolutionism alongside mythic analysis, prompting critique by functionalists such as A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski, then incorporated into the structuralist study of myth by Lévi-Strauss, which prompted further critique by Munz and Geertz; (2) fate, first by Meyer Fortes in his analysis of notions of fate in Oedipus, Job, and in West Africa, and by Terence Turner in his analysis of time and structure; and (3) incest, primarily by William Arens and Richard Fox. Fox is the only anthropologist actually to analyze two of the plays of the Theban cycle, namely, Oedipus Rex and Antigone, but still within the parameters of the triangular formulation of kinship, incest, and parricide.
In a narrative as rich as that of Oedipus, however, there might very well be found as many thematic approaches as there are epistemological, methodological, ideological, and analytical positions. Oedipus manages to complicate everything that is taken for granted and demands that it be reconsidered. Undoubtedly, the issues of incest and parricide are emblematic in the analysis of the myth. The Oedipus myth, however, asks that we acknowledge and preserve the responsibility that ought to be constitutive of political power.
Aris Alexandrou, who spent January to April of 1944 in Al Dab`a and July 1948 to November 1951 on Makrónisos and Ai-Stratis, without having participated in the emphýlios, having become a member of the Communist youth for a short period then left, always a “Communist” for the state, never Communist enough for the Communist Party and thus an object of suspicion, in his novel To Kivotio (The Mission Box), written from 1966 to 1972 about the last two days of the emphýlios and the two months afterward, brings up the question of the responsibility of the subject through the aporia of Oedipus. In a circuitous way, he brings up responsibility as a property of suicide in the context of the disciplined subject of the DSE. The entire novel revolves around a secret mission, entrusted to a number of soldiers of the DSE, to transport a sealed box from town N to town K, as if written by one soldier in the form of a report that changes from being a report on the progress of the mission (before the collapse of the Democratic Front) to a report of self-criticism on the failure of the mission. At some point, the lieutenant explains that the mission is nothing more than a suicide mission, in the sense that the wounded soldiers ought to undertake responsibility for their own suicides. When it is the soldier's turn to commit suicide because he has been wounded, he starts questioning the necessity for suicide via a digression into Oedipus. The digression concerns the established wisdom about the self-blinding of Oedipus.
In a gesture that anticipates Milan Kundera's question about the act of self-blinding in Oedipus, Alexandrou takes the dialectically opposite position: Oedipus should not have blinded himself because he was not responsible for anything that had happened. He had tried to avoid fulfilling the prophesy of Apollo, had resisted following the order, only to find that fulfilling the prophesy was a prerequisite for cosmic harmony, that if Oedipus did not kill Laius, then the Creation would be unstable. Therefore, Oedipus was nothing more than an instrument in the hands of Apollo, which meant, for Alexandrou's soldier, that he was not responsible for what had happened. The soldier should not be asked to commit suicide for the same reasons that Oedipus ought not to have gouged out his eyes: neither of them is responsible for what has happened; neither of them has any agency in the course of history.
The wrenching position in which Alexandrou places this (political) subject is only a refraction of the question of the political subject in the moment of stasis. As nothing is stable in the myth of Oedipus, so the subject in the event of stasis is a wavering subject, a subject that seeks to find a position that will allow her to announce the certainty with which she occupies the subjectivity of the dissident, of the fighter in a fratricidal war, of the frightened member of the party.
But such stability is impossible, as Oedipus shows us, whether in Alexandrou or in Sophocles, precisely because Oedipus reflects and complicates every certainty: the issue of the native/autochthonous and the stranger/foreigner; of home and away; of illness/disease and wellness; of dream analysis; of memory and time; of the development of the subject and its struggle with the divine; of ambivalence toward adoption; of the relationship to death and the dead; of class relations; of vision, truth, and authenticity; of the relationship to the state; of inheritance; of violence to the body, as in infanticide, parricide, suicide, rape, self-mutilation, and execution; of the violence done in power relations; of selfhood; of truth and reality; of fate, chance, and destiny; of catharsis/miasma; of purity and danger; of the construction of the biological and cultural category of the father and of the mother; of the role of the body in the formation of subjectivity; of private and public; of personal and political. As Vernant points out (1996: 331), there can be no stability in Oedipus, no stable self/other, because there is no stability in what Oedipus and everyone around him experiences as kin. But, as Vernant further states, Oedipus is a matter of responsibility (447).
Oedipus, then, is, above all a metaphor of responsibility and accountability. The myth betrays society's abstraction of the process that has constituted it as such. In this sense, I read Oedipus not as the symbolic text addressed by structuralism (from Freud to Lacan and the feminist responses to it, from Spivak to Irigaray and Butler) but as a metaphorical text that emerges as it participates in the process of its own metaphorization and that manages to complicate everything that it metaphorizes. What Oedipus shows us is not that “culture” (as the social formulation that engages in myth making) can think but that “culture” actually thinks, on the level of the conscious, producing its own metaphors. I focus on this particular dimension of Oedipus as a text that constitutes a moment of reflection upon the relationship between the mind and the body, upon problematizations of categorical thought concerning life, self, other, enemy, friend, kin, authority, truth, chance, structure, the divine, the bestial, and the human.
In this time of global cultural postmodernity, a time of movement of vast numbers of people, a time that repeatedly challenges the constants of our subjectivities, movements that are translated into different technologies of being by producing different technologies of the body—it is at this particular moment that Oedipean questions concerning the political emerge. Who is constituted as self and who is constituted as other? Should we constantly be asking the question that Oedipus asks us to? It is a question that has had a pressing importance in the history of modern Greek articulations of the political self and that right here, right now, in the shadow of Guantánamo Bay, in the darkness of the Patriot Act and the articulations of the neo-imperialist project, demands to be revisited anew.
The question that thus emerges is that of the fundamental coincidence of the experience of the fragmented body with the multiplicity of idioms that the (Oedipean) subject is: an infant, not ánthropos quite yet, not adored but exposed, sovereign but fugitive, dispossessed in his hubris and autonomous in his suffering, willing but unwitting savior, Hegel's first philosopher, Nietszche's last philosopher, Freud's paradigmatic ego. And, also, Freud's remnants, all the points in the myth and the play that Freud ignored (consciously or unconsciously; knowingly or unknowingly): the plague in the city (as the Left was termed), the Sphinx (as Alexandros Yiotopoulos of 17N was called by the press), Oedipus's intentionality and lack thereof (Who was really responsible for the Battle of Athens, the civil war, the tribunals?), all moments articulated amid of a state of emergency: the pestilence that demands that the foreign body—the miasma—be removed from the city. In this discussion of the horrors of an altered body and a pestilent polis, biopolitical alterity is instantiated when the (predictably failing Aristotelian and Durkheimean) discourses of the cohesiveness of the social body are articulated.
The exiles on “the islands” saw Oedipus naked, so to speak. Beaten, tortured, and pressured to sign declarations that they were not what they claimed to be (Leftists) but something that they were not (Christian nationalists), they found themselves somatically in the place of Oedipus: with feet swollen from bastinado, eyes gouged from strikes to the head, all the while being asked to answer the unanswerable question: Are you (with us) or are you not? All the while being told the same thing: you will become human (ánthropoi) or you will die. So we come back to Yiannopoulos: “In order for them to make us human, they first made us into King Oedipus.” The riddle of the Sphinx is reversed in this context: “Who is human?” asked the liberal state when it engaged in the first acts of the cold war. It constructed itself as the only correct answer: the human is the animal that recognizes the power of the state as the maker of the human. That is the point where the torturers of the Greek Leftists could not hear the response that they were given: we are already humans, we are already ánthropoi. Where did the mythological break down in that most unmythological, nay antimythological existence? Maybe the response to this question can be found in the lament of Nitsa Kanellopoulou, the wife of Panayiotis Kanellopoulos. Waiting in tears at Cava dei' Tirreni (called Pháka, “trap,” Phaka dei Greci, by the Greek delegation) in September and October 1944 for transport to Greece, she said to George Seferis, “You are born ánthropos, just as you are born a musician” (Seferis 1986: 363).
The establishment of the modern Greek state, predicated upon the ideality of an unbroken organic history of Greece spanning ten millennia, has produced a historicity of political forms of life that in the early twentieth century demarcated the possible and the desirable from the impossible and the undesirable. The Left, from the moment of its inception as an agrarian party to its eventual materialization as a Communist Party, and all the hues of the Leftist spectrum in between, fell under the second category, that of the impossible (within the context of the Greek psyche) and the undesirable (within the context of the Greek imagination). The torturers on the islands engaged in a program of returning those (considered as) wayward and lost Leftists to the common imaginary of Greece as a capitalist entity. The bamboo sticks that fell on heads, backs, arms, legs, feet, and testicles carried the voices of the torturers with them from the first moment the Leftists arrived on the islands: you will become human or you will never leave this island alive (Tha ginete ánthropoi i den tha fygete apo 'do zontanoi). The implication was that Communism transferred Communists to a being that João Biehl has called the “ex-human” (2005: 24). The islands would turn these “ex-humans” into humans again through knowledge of the good and the correct that would come by way of torture. If torture did not manage to turn them into humans again, then torture would kill them. Not alive or dead, but human or dead became the dialectic of existence on the islands, where the wounded bodies, (some of them permanently), the wounded minds (all of them permanently), and the wounded psyches of the Leftists made the metaphor of Oedipus, in the hands of Yiannopoulos, a possibility. No, this is not naked life (either in Benjamin's sense or in Agamben's). This is a tug-of-war for what is recognized as human. What makes Oedipus recognizable to Yiannopoulos, then, is what ought to make Oedipus recognizable to the anthropologist: a text on ánthropos, the human, and how this human makes itself intelligible to the world. Rather than Agamben's bare life and sacred man or Voglis's subject, I want to suggest ánthropos as the only possibility of exiting the barbed wire of the camp.
If, then, we encounter Oedipus, the mythological and theatrical figure, as the philosopher anthropologist that Sophocles and Hegel gave us, the one who, through Jean-Joseph Goux, interrogates his body as a site of accumulated cultural and philosophical aporias, as the mythologization of the metaphor of misplaced power, misplaced anger, misplaced politics, then we might be able to find ourselves, finally, in a really Oedipean universe: a universe where catharsis will engage accountability and where responsibility will interpellate the political subject. A universe where anthropology will have performed its task of opening up the human subject to the magical space that mythology has made possible for us.
Boon, James A. 1982. Other Tribes, Other Scribes: Symbolic Anthropology in the Comparative Study of Cultures, Histories, Religions, and Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
On the muddled beginnings of fieldwork, see esp. Boon's “Introduction: The Exaggeration of Cultures” (1982: 3–27).
Vernant, Jean-Pierre, and Vidal-Naquet, Pierre. 1990. Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece. Trans. Janet Lloyd. New York: Zone Books.
Alexandrou 1974. For the most interesting biography of Alexandrou, see Rautopoulos 2004. On Alexandrou's position toward the Party as refracted through The Mission Box, see Kantzia 2003.
Seferis, George. 1986. Meres D' 1 Genare 1941–31 Dekemvre 1944 (Days D January 1, 1941–December 31, 1944). Athens: Ikaros.
In a different version, this segment has appeared in Panourgiá 2008a.
An engraving of a fisherman who has caught the head of Oedipus in his nets. Note the liberties taken in refashioning the myth. The engraver, A. Duvivier, is rendering a marble statue by Leon Eugène Longepied entitled “A Fisherman Catching the Head of Orpheus in His Nets,” presented at the Salon des Beaux Arts in 1882, and changing the name Orpheus to Oedipus. Longepied had produced another statue depicting the same fisherman having caught Ophelia in his nets. Collection of the author.
The Sphinx was a monster, known from Egyptian mythology, who had the body of a bull, the nails of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the head of a woman. In Egypt, the Sphinx was male; in Thebes, female. In Greece, the Sphinx was herself the product of the unconventional and incestuous union of two natural elements who were, structurally, a mother and a son: Echidna, the chthonic worm or snake, and her son Orthus, the dog protecting the monstrous hunting hound Geryon. According to Hesiod she was the daughter of Chimaira and Orthus (Dawn). According to Apollodorus (as presented by Athanasiou 2008) the Sphinx was the daughter of Echidna and Typhon. In both accounts, she was the sister of the Nemean Lion, which was slain by Hercules. According to yet another version of the myth, the Sphinx is the illegitimate daughter of Laius, born before Oedipus. On the imagined meeting of mother and daughter, the Chimaira and the Sphinx, see Flaubert's The Temptation of Saint Anthony, where the two monsters attempt first to obliterate each other verbally and then to leave together, failing in both and parting ways at the end. For a reading of the Chimaira and the Sphinx as a means to rethink theory as it bears upon architectural practice, see Jarzombeck 1992. On the issue of female homosexuality as the danger posed by “Oedipus,” especially as it pertains to the problem of the Sphinx, see Athanasiou 2008.
It would be safe to assume that only men passed by the Sphinx's corner; women never ventured outside the city wall unaccompanied. Lowell Edmunds states that this version of the riddle, by Atheneus, is the most complete one. It brings up issues of voice and animality that have systematically been excluded from analyses of Oedipus yet are constitutive of the questions posed by “Oedipus.” See Edmunds 1985: 12.
The Sphinx's sexual indeterminacy is not the only example of sexual indeterminacy in the narrative. Equally confusing is Teiresias, who, although born male, was transformed into female when as a child he watched two snakes copulating at a crossroads on Mount Cithaeron. He killed the female with his shepherd's staff and was immediately transformed into a woman. Teiresias spent seven years as a woman, during which time she had intercourse with men, until she witnessed two snakes copulating again. She again killed one of them—this time the male—and was transformed back into a man. Teiresias was asked to testify during a quarrel between Zeus and Hera about which of the sexes experienced greater sexual pleasure. The woman, opined Teiresias, and not by a little but ninefold. An enraged Hera, determined to prove to Zeus that women had been shortchanged in their sexuality, blinded Teiresias, but Zeus gave him unique powers of divination and prophecy and seven times the lifespan of mortal men.
Loraux asks why Hera should be outraged by such an answer. She suggests that what enraged Hera was the fact that Teiresias's response (based on personal experience and not mere speculation) went against the position that Hera (as “guardian of the orthodoxy of marriage,” in Loraux's words, 1997b: 10) held: namely, that women ought to be content with the level of sexual pleasure afforded to them within the context of marriage and reproduction. Loraux further argues that the response given by Teiresias indicates that women, by experiencing nine times the sexual pleasure that men do, pay more attention to the qualities of Aphrodite than to the demands of Hera. Loraux's reading of Teiresias is a highly unorthodox one. Rather than following the myth given above regarding the blinding of Teiresias, Loraux focuses on a version developed by the Hellenistic librarian and poet Callimachus. In Callimachus's version, Teiresias was blinded when as a child he accidentally glimpsed the naked body of Athena as she was undressing to bathe in a stream. In either case, Teiresias is blinded as a man for having witnessed the scene of the woman. Through Callimachus's reading, Loraux can place the soma of the woman within the man's field of vision as a dangerous object that will both deprive him of sight and grant the gift of seeing, thus complicating not only analyses of female sexuality in Athenian social life but also (and, perhaps, more importantly) the question of knowledge itself. See Loraux 1997b.
Ahl (1991) has proposed that Oedipus was not the murderer of Laius, but that he accepts this as the truth, being convinced by the argumentation of Creon, Teiresias, and the rest, despite the fact that there is nothing that ties him to the murder. Over and above the many problems associated with Ahl's reading (exposed in Segal 1992), the main problem of Ahl's position is that he takes Oedipus to be a real person, not part of a myth. There is no real Oedipus who might or might not have killed his father.
Freud claimed in 1908, at two meetings of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, that he had not read anything published on Oedipus so that his judgment would not be affected. Not only then but repeatedly Freud denied that he had read any of the commentaries on Oedipus by anyone, including Nietzsche. Referring to Nietzsche in particular, Freud stated that his occasional attempts at reading Nietzsche's work “were smothered by an excess of interest” (quoted in Rudnytsky 1987: 198). The evidence, however, that Freud knew Nietzsche's pieces on Oedipus is overwhelming (see ibid.: 198–223). While studying under Brentano, Freud joined a reading group of Viennese German students that was primarily concerned with the work of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Wagner. Rudnytsky notes the correspondence between Freud and his friend Edouard Silberstein, which mentions that during his first year at the university, in 1873, Freud had read Nietzsche's published work. By 1873 The Birth of Tragedy and the first two Untimely Meditations had been published, and it is in The Birth of Tragedy that Nietzsche's piece on Oedipus appeared.
This proposition is just and justly as problematic as the proposition that attributes the paternity of history to Herodotus—it is just as fictional.
Turner (1969) proposes looking at the myth of Oedipus as a narrative that spans large segments of time, although he stays within the Lévi-Straussian analysis of Oedipus as a symbolic rather than a metaphorical text. Vernant (1996) seems to agree with Turner about the importance of thinking about Oedipus as a narrative and not simply as a play, while recognizing that Lévi-Strauss's structuralist analysis eschews the narrative in favor of mythemes (e.g., lameness, killing of the monster, patricide). This privileging of individual mythemes (e.g., incest, the monster, number and gender of siblings) against the narrative is also prevalent in folkloristic analyses, such as the ones presented in Propp 1975 and Edmunds 1995 and Dundes 1983.
The latest such undertaking was by Suzette Heald (1994). She engages in a critique of the Freudian theorization of the Oedipus complex by presenting alternative material from Gizu ritual male circumcision. Heald's gesture echoes Malinowski (who tried to prove that the complex presupposes a patrilineal descent system and foreclosed its possibility within a matrilineal one) and Anne Parsons (1970), who proposed triangulating Freud's and Malinowski's positions by presenting yet another complication in kinship structure, one that she observed in Naples. Unlike Freud's late-nineteenth-century Vienna, where the patrilineal family rested on the distance between the parents, on the one hand, and the son and the father, on the other, or Malinowski's early-twentieth-century Trobrianders, where the matrilineal family rested on ignorance about the father's contribution to reproduction and closeness to the mother's brother, Parsons shows that in working-class Naples kinship was experienced through the proximity between the mother and the son, and the distance between them and the son's wife. Melford Spiro tries to synthesize all existing anthropological responses to the Freudian universalist model by crediting Malinowski with having managed to teach “every (anthropological) schoolboy” that the Oedipus complex “is not found in the Trobriands and, by extrapolation, in other societies whose family structures do not conform to that of the Western type” (1982: 1). Allen Johnson and Douglass Price-Williams (1996) attempt an anthropological approach (which becomes a folkloristic enterprise) to the Freudian position on Oedipus by supplying folktales from around the world that deal with incest. The main problem with their approach is that, instead of looking at the myth of Oedipus as a culturally specific narrative and analyzing it as a cultural text, the two authors (the former an anthropologist/psychoanalyst and the latter a psychiatrist) take Freud's reading and look for other folktales around the world that refer to incest, thus reducing Oedipus to something more restrictive and narrow than even Freud had produced.
The most comprehensive account of Oedipus in anthropology is Paul 1985. For an astute review of the question of Oedipus in anthropology, see Weiner 1985.
In classics and philosophy (from Hegel's Antigone and Oedipus to Goux 1993) the entirety of the myth, including Antigone, the legend of the Seven against Thebes, and Ismene, are considered. See Edmunds 1985 on the encounter of different disciplines with Oedipus. For a rare exception treating the myth in its entirety within psychoanalysis, see Ross 1994: esp. 94–128.
Pucci (1992) has ingeniously retermed the crime of Oedipus parincest, thus combining the horror of regicide with that of incest. As ingenious as this formulation is, however, it further underscores the lack of willingness to engage with Oedipus outside the context that Freud has produced, namely, the shorthand version of the myth as “the person who killed his father and married his mother.” Pucci does bring up a question that is quintessentially anthropological, namely, how are the mother and the father conceptualized as categories of existence that become categories of kinship?
In a reading of The Mission Box, Dimitris Vardoulakis discusses the specter of utopia that appears in Alexandrou's political landscape, as it has been formed by his experiences as a political prisoner and a castaway of the Party. As Vardoulakis notes, for Alexandrou “power never lies with those actors called upon to decide” (2008: 3), further underlining not only the utopia of Communism but also the Oedipean utopia of responsibility.