BMCR 2007.04.28

Fate and Ambiguity in Oedipus the King. Translated by Norman Russell

, Fate and ambiguity in Oedipus the King. Boston: Somerset Hall Press, 2005. 185 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 0972466193. $19.95.

Stelios Ramfos’ Fate and Ambiguity in Oedipus the King pursues a neo-Romantic search through Sophokles’ play for insights about human identity and agency, poetic discourse, and the nature and purpose of the dramatic construct that is a tragedy. The book is not necessarily directed to an academic audience (citations of contemporary sources or other scholarship are limited to a few passing references in the body of the text), though it must be intended for literati of some sort. The project is arranged as a step-by-step walk through Sophokles’ play; in each chapter R. deals with one stasimon or episode, first providing a summary of the passage, then embarking on an interpretation of or response to the text. Overall, Fate and Ambiguity is an incoherent, rambling, fanciful, and theoretically unconvincing work. It offers little if anything for an understanding of Sophokles’ play, and its philosophical and aesthetic musings, while sometimes suggestive, offer nothing profound to reward the time it takes to decipher them. R. writes in an aphoristic style; his sentences are short, but often lack logical connectors between them. Many an opaque dictum receives no clarification or grounding in specifics. Here I offer a couple of examples. “Confronted with drama, we alone look and judge. Confronted with tragedy, we look at events and they look back” (p. 28). “Identity does not make the ego equivalent to the self; it makes the ego equivalent to our personal non-ego” (p. 54). Such darkling sayings are apparently intended as explanations, and therefore receive no explanations themselves. Furthermore, many paragraphs read as a stream of free associations. Sometimes one can eventually surmise that R. has inserted an unconnected comment that looks proleptically to a discussion a page or two ahead. Yet other paragraphs are reminiscent of poor undergraduate writing in which the author attempts an insight but, recognizing its inadequacy, repeats it again and again with slight variation in the vain hope that clarity will emerge. The following summaries of R.’s main arguments and ideas are therefore pieced together with some difficulty and may admittedly be off the mark from what R. intended to communicate.

The book is in part an exploration of OT through the lens provided by Aristotle’s Poetics. R. maintains that for Aristotle “‘mimesis’…has nothing to do with representation” (p. 3), and Aristotle valued OT so highly precisely because it is mimetic rather than representational. Representation conceptually shapes a drama to communicate certain ideas or a “moral,” but mimesis is the imitation of life, the creation through plot of an alternate reality with its own inherent—rather than imposed—meanings. Oedipus is like us, and the riddle of his life is like the ambiguity of reality for us, but the play is not attempting to communicate anything about these similarities. Rather, the purpose of mimetic drama in general and of OT in particular is to produce in the audience an emotional response and ultimately the catharsis of that emotion, in the sense of “purgation” rather than “clarification” (R. demonstrates no knowledge of this alternative understanding of Aristotle’s “catharsis”). This emotional experience allows us to “better endure the paradox of the darkness that fills us with light” (p. 152), by which R. seems to mean the human experience of acting in the world always with a partial knowledge that, as for Oedipus, may amount to tragic ignorance. Although it is claimed that the play does not exist to communicate any views about the world, R. does implicitly acknowledge that an author’s conceptual framework is embedded in “mimesis.” For example, he claims that ancient rather than Newtonian optical theory best explains the language of sight and blindness that describes Oedipus’ existential condition in the play. Nonetheless, this particular argument is weak in substance, and in the end R. can simply say that “with Newtonian optics, Sophocles’ Oedipus would be different” (p. 47), without ever explaining precisely how that would be so.

Ignorance of his origins produces in Oedipus an “ontological” isolation. He cannot act responsibly because he lacks “identity,” which R. theorizes as something more than the particular knowledge of who one’s parents are. “Identity” is the self in its social and temporal/historical relationships to a family and community. Apart from such relatedness, a person is reduced to a narrow, in-the-moment ego; and, although intelligence continues to operate, it will inevitably fabricates falsehoods such as Oedipus’ conspiracy theory. Ultimately, R. means to critique what he sees as the modern identification of identity with mere ego, which lacks connectedness to others and thus in some sense to “reality” itself. This Enlightenment view of the absolute, free individual has received due and more articulate criticism from others.1 The relevant questions are whether the fifth-century Greek “Enlightenment” also entailed an ideal of the absolute self, and whether OT reflects such a view as well. Some versions of the nomos-physis dichotomy could be understood as having such a tendency, but R. offers no discussion of this point, even among his several facile generalities about the sophists (e.g., “The Sophists’ teaching ignored ambiguity,” p. 24). Oedipus, on the other hand, is clearly not characterized as an unfettered ego; he is grounded in his moral concern for his adoptive parents, his intention to rule responsibly over his Theban subjects, and his love for his family as he knows them. Oedipus’ self-confidence certainly reflects the fifth-century optimism about the potential of rationality to produce technical and socio-political advances that might free humanity from the vicissitudes of fortune or “fate.” His ignorance about his own parents, however, is a peculiar and ironic instance of the necessary limits of human knowledge, rather than a symbolic instance of the ontological disconnectedness of “rational” man.

From the book’s theorization of “identity” follows a conception of fate as the inescapable force of reality that confronts an individual with his social and moral connectedness to others. The conclusion of the play is thus taken to be “redemptive” in that Oedipus accepts his self-knowledge and thereby becomes capable of authentic action; in showing concern for his daughters he “proves to be a responsible person…while before he merely played a role” (p. 176). The interpretation is unconvincing, not only because of its theoretical premises but because it fails to take into account all the details of the final scenes. Oedipus’ self-blinding is anything but an acceptance of his fate; furthermore, he describes the act explicitly as an attempt—yet again—to salvage agency over against Apollo (ll. 1329-32). Similarly, his concern for his daughters makes more sense as an assertion that, despite his ignorance and the trick of fate, his former relationships were authentic on his part; at the close of the play, Kreon must in fact reprimand Oedipus for clinging to his daughters as though he still had any authority (l. 1522).

Each section of the book that deals with a choral stasimon is a Romantic effusion about the superiority of “ancient poetry” to modern discourses. The starting point for these excurses is the observation that the language of ancient Greek lyric typically depicts external things or physical experiences rather than internal, psychological states. R.’s Romantic conceit is that such externalizing poetry is somehow more authentic in its “immediacy of…feeling” (p. 31) than psychologizing poetry. The book’s theoretical dichotomy between representation and mimesis is brought to its height in these sections on the stasima, as R. asserts that the sole aim of these lyrics is to express and move emotion and not at all to convey ideas. This harsh dichotomy is reminiscent of the “dramatic technique” tradition of interpreting Sophokles begun by Tycho von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff,2 which explained away apparent logical inconsistencies in the plays by claiming that they were simply irrelevant to the dramatic purpose of emotional effect. These sections of the book also include Nietzschean moments. R. sometimes imagines the power of tragic lyric to lie solely in an inherent musicality of the ancient (though apparently not the modern) Greek language. He eventually claims that “the emotion is evoked by the words as sound rather than by the ideas they convey” (p. 142). Such a harsh dichotomy between conceptual content and emotional effect is where Wilamowitz-Moellendorff’s “dramatic technique” approach foundered,3 and R. shares the same weakness to an extreme. A few rich passages on the potential for poetic innovation to enliven the perceptions of a reader or audience (pp. 93, 143-44) seem to be simply contradictory to R.’s articulated arguments about the goal of mimetic drama.

In conclusion, Fate and Ambiguity in Oedipus the King has little to offer any reader, inside or outside the field of Classics. Its ideas are less coherent than the present review might suggest, and few of them stand up to critical inquiry.


1. See e.g. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, second edition (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1984), chs. 3 & 5.

2. Tycho von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Die Dramatische Technik des Sophokles (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1917).

3. See the well-deserved critique of this critical approach in Peter Rose, Sons of the Gods, Children of Earth: Ideology and Literary Form in Ancient Greece (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1992), 279 n.22.