BMCR 1994.04.06

1994.04.06, Goux, Oedipus, Philosopher

, Oedipus, philosopher. Meridian : crossing aesthetics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993. 227 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9780804721691. $37.50.

G., who has written widely on modern social and psychological topics including Freud, Marx, and the symbolism of money, devotes the bulk of Oedipus, Philosopher to Sophocles’ play Oedipus Tyrannus and ancient Greece. The book’s two sections are neatly indicated by the title. Chapters 1-6 interpret the Oedipus myth by comparing it with mythic and ritual patterns of initiation, especially using Dumézil’s theory of three Indo-European functions: priestly, military, and agricultural-sexual. Chapters 8-10 discuss the relation between the Oedipus myth and the rise of modern materialist philosophy, with reference to Plato, Descartes, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and, in chapter 2, Lacan; of these, Hegel and Freud explicitly used Oedipus to symbolize a basic part of their thought. The transitional chapter 7, “From Aspective to Perspective,” equates Oedipus with the change from “mythos” to “logos” during and before the fifth century B.C. G. uses the development of perspective (or foreshortening) in painting to symbolize a whole system of innovations, including coinage, drama, democracy, a new conception of the individual (the “subject”), and Sophistic and pre-Socratic thought, with its challenge to religion and to traditional ways. He calls traditional, pre-Sophistic Greek society “aspective” (125), a word which had been used to designate the absence of “perspective” in “primitive” painting.

In “Standard and Nonstandard Myths” (chapter 1), G. compares Oedipus with other young mythic heroes undergoing heroic ordeals, and isolates three essential parts of the Oedipus story as deviations from the “monomyth” of the hero: incest, patricide, and answering the riddle of the Sphinx. The “monomyth,” exemplified by Perseus, Jason, and Bellerophon, represents a traditional and successful rite-of-passage. The young male hero undergoes ordeals at the command of a king (= “master of initiation”), violently slays female monsters with divine help (= separation from the maternal household and from feminine elements in his own psyche, 42), receives help from a god or seer-sage (= the receiving of traditional, mystic wisdom), and is reintegrated into society in a new role (as king or “complete man”) through exogamous marriage with the princess. Thus, Oedipus’ most important “crime” turns out to be his slaying of the Sphinx with no outside help, and with his intellect—and the human-centered answer “a person”—rather than through violent combat. This corresponds to being one’s own teacher (“autodidact”), to the avoidance of traditional initiation, and to atheism. Oedipus’ failure to conduct a symbolic violent matricide against the female monster leads to incest, the failure to break away from the mother.

Freudian and Lacanian approaches to Oedipus are discussed in chapters 2 and 10, (“Psychoanalysis and Murder”; “Oedipus’s Legacy”). G. prefers Lacan’s account of child development to Freud’s, equating the two, respectively, with the “monomyth” of matricide/marriage (Lacan) and the Oedipus myth of patricide/incest (Freud). He considers Lacan’s criticism of Freud’s “Oedipus complex” to be a central thread of Lacan’s thought, though he laments that Lacan never fully articulated this criticism. According to G., Lacan argues that it is not so much a paternal prohibition as the nature of human life that prevents perfect fulfillment of desire. In fact, the paternal prohibition makes the child think that this prohibition is the real blocking force, thus shielding him or her from a radical confrontation with “lack.” G. equates the hero’s confrontation against a monster with a confrontation and overcoming of Lacanian “lack” (30), which Oedipus avoids in his overreliance on rationality to overcome the Sphinx (and the dangerous, uncontrollable passions of the soul). G. actually asserts that the structure of human consciousness, and in particular the emergence of the unconscious, depends on the “post-Oedipal” avoidance of traditional initiation. Finally, he interprets the old Oedipus of Oedipus at Colonus as a synthesis of “perspective,” the glorification of the rational subject, with “aspective,” the pious acceptance of traditional wisdom, into an integral whole which he calls “transpective.” Oedipus ends his liminal life of wandering by accepting mysterious oracular wisdom and becoming the founder of a cult of royal investiture at Colonus. Likewise, if modern secular humanity recognizes the limits of rationality, it can overcome the angst of existing in a continuous liminal situation, which is caused by the failure to cross the threshold decisively by means of a traditional initiatory ordeal.

G. postulates an ascending three-step process in the traditional rite-of-passage or royal investiture, corresponding to Dumézil’s three functions: first, an ordeal involving agricultural fertility or sexuality; second, an ordeal involving the warrior’s virtues; and third, an ordeal involving “knowledge of the sacred” (72). G. exemplifies these “three functions” in the three parts of Jason’s ordeal (sowing the dragon’s teeth, dealing with the sprouted warriors, getting the fleece from the dragon) and in the three parts of the Chimaera and of the Sphinx. Oedipus’ three actions are the “worst” crimes on these three levels. Incest is a violation of sexuality, patricide is the worst perversion of warrior violence, and Oedipus’ self-taught answer to the riddle, “man,” is an impious denial of the gods, “something resembling atheism” (77). G. equates the same three functions (sacred-royal, military, and agricultural-sexual-fertile) with the Sphinx’s parts (eagle-wings, lion, woman) and threats (as riddler, attacker, seducer), and with Plato’s tripartite soul and city in the Republic (reason λογιστικόν, spirit θυμοειδές, desire ἐπιθυμητικόν; philosopher-king, guardians, masses; person, lion, many-headed beast—Pl. Rep. 588C). Through Plato’s tripartition, G. brings the “cardinal virtues” into correspondence with the “three functions”: temperance (σωφροσύνἠ sexual; bravery (ἀνδρείἀ warrior; wisdom (σοφίἀ sacerdotal; and justice (δικαιοσύνη) belongs to the perfect initiated philosopher-king, who integrates within himself all three functions (or virtues).

Socrates, with his non-hierarchical “teaching” method, represents the auto-didactic resistance to traditional initiation (142). He refuses to play the hierophant even to Meno’s slave (who, however, is surely not a “child”; ὦ παῖ “slave,” Pl. Meno 82B). Plato, on the other hand, “offers protection” against Socrates’ anti-initiatory radicalism, offering a “difficult pedagogical path” for the philosopher-king, and a tri-functional model of the soul which recognizes the unavoidability and even the desirability of acknowledging the non-rational parts (144-5). (G. offers this outlandish subtitle for The Republic: Concerning a Non-Oedipean Figure of the Philosopher.) With modern thinkers, however, starting with Descartes, the radical opposition to tradition returns. Descartes’s Discourse on Method begins with radical skepticism (rejection of all masters = “patricide”); next comes the “cogito,” basing all reality on the subjective thinker (= response to the Sphinx); and finally, the conquest of the mysterious laws of nature (possession of mother nature = incest??). Hegel fits G.’s master-metaphor of Oedipus better, because he himself used Oedipus to symbolize the emergence of consciousness and philosophy in ancient Greece: “Greece” superseding “Egypt” = Oedipus superseding Sphinx ( Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, 1975.1.360-61). Indeed, this passage seems to have been the inspiration for G.’s book (166). G. also fits the ideas of Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche into this model of Oedipus’ “three crimes.” Feuerbach urged “the dissolution of theology into anthropology” (patricide/response to Sphinx) to restore “perceptible reality” to a founding role (possession of mother). For Marx, the triad is: rejection of God and idealism; class struggle as the revealed key; material base as the founding truth. For Nietzsche, it is Death of God; Advent of the Superman; Total domination of the Earth. Yet, in the resurgence of Dionysus in Nietzsche’s thought, G. sees a recognition of the limits of rationality, a recognition which becomes explicit in Freud’s “discovery of the unconscious.”

Though flawed, this is a highly creative and thought-provoking book. G.’s treatment of initiation, especially in chapter 3 and parts of 1 and 4, brings together many useful heuristic tools, including his discussions of symbolic filiation, self-teaching and the “master of initiation,” mystical wisdom, symbolic death, terrifying “heroic” ordeals, monsters, fear, violence, and sexual maturity. His treatments of the “monomyth” and of “trifunctionality,” though overly rigid, also suggest more subtle ways of using these tools. Furthermore, his discussion (in chapters 2, 9, and 10) of initiation, religion, and rationality in the development of the mind casts an interesting light on the psychological meaning of initiation motifs and practices.

Still, there are flaws. The “monomyth” is far too rigid a concept to embrace the multitude of initiatory motifs in myth. Many of G.’s basic metaphors are faulty or over-extended, as, for example, the equation “monster-killing = mother-killing,” which is part of his inexorably male-oriented presentation of human psychology. His use of Oedipus and his “three” (??) crimes to represent the rationalist-atheist trends of modern philosophy is implausible and unprofitable. Sophocles never calls our attention to what the Sphinx asked and what Oedipus answered, and Jocasta actually presents the stronger attack against religion. G.’s text tends to repeat its main points, often with advertisements of their originality, rather than bringing them into contact with the primary texts. The few close readings are unreliable; application of the “trifunctionality” straitjacket leads to misinterpretations of Sophocles’ “hubris” ode at Oedipus Tyrannus 883-91 (κέρδος “profit” = sexual ravisher?? 93) and of Xenophon’s Agesilaus (which is early evidence against, not for, the canonical list of four virtues 146). G. omits citations with insouciance, often citing by name only (“Plutarch’s anecdote” 129; “as Hegel noted” 121). The apparently Greekless translator renders the French accurately and readably, but adds numerous spelling errors in Greek and chose not only Fagles’ inaccurate Penguin translation of Sophocles, but even Fagles’ (not Sophocles’) line numbers. Finally, an index would greatly improve a book that some readers may not wish to read from cover to cover.

But it is easier to find fault than to present creative ideas, and even G.’s errors can be thought-provoking. We should be grateful to the author, translator, and publisher for presenting this stimulating book to an English-speaking audience.