My grandfather was angry
. He had thrown out his own abusive father, paid his way to college without a high school degree by streetboxing
, survived Korea
, dove out of planes, started several businesses, and earned a doctorate in law. He never slept, he hardly ate, his marriage was a mess
, and there was no way in hell a twenty-four year-old twerp was going to tell him that "the plane is no longer boarding" when he could clearly see the gangway was still on. Harlin gritted his teeth, checked his balance, and delivered a punch at a quarter of his strength, still fierce for late middle age. The boarding agent staggered back, bewildered. My great uncle yelled an obscenity
and immediately made apologies. Too stunned to say anything, the boarding agent checked their tickets and waved them onward. The two men charged down the gangway
, looking forward to a few hours of beleaguered peace before homecoming.
My grandfather's plane collided with another passenger liner midflight
. There were no survivors. His body was one of only a few recovered, still buckled in his seat. Out of several hundred skydives with the Marines' paratrooping unit, he had never encountered a single major injury
and now he was dead, sitting in an aisle seat of the plane he had only boarded by a few moments and a fiery temper
Humans are creatures possessed by an insatiable hunger for pattern. Our communal blessing and curse
is a raw lust for predictable, identifiable patterns; our brainbendingly intricate and dynamic maps of a world infinite orders of magnitude more complex than we will ever comprehend. By patterns, we function. We understand how to dress ourselves, travel from home to work or class, engage in conversation, sit, stand
, breathe; establish a comfort zone of predictability. We can read the signs
of the newspaper headline, the downcast eyes, the blare of an ambulance, the gathering stormfront
. We gorge ourselves on the new and digest it into the familiar, changing the world or changing ourselves to reassert control and comprehension. We make patterns, we take patterns, and we are patterns.
But what happens when our patterns break? Or worse, they refuse to break? How do you assign meaning to the catastrophic or the unpredictable
? The body of human mythology is a testament to the question's urgency. Is it an ill omen
? The other shoe dropping? A punishment? A reward? Perhaps God has an intention in mind, one which we cannot see or comprehend, but will result in ultimate good
. Perhaps a goddess has been angered by ill-attended devotions
. Perhaps this is a punishment for foul deeds in a past existence
. Perhaps you weren't praying enough. Perhaps you were praying too much. Perhaps this is a crucible. Perhaps this isn't really happening.
Perhaps. Perhaps you have an explanation
. But what will an explanation do to clothe your shivering body, or restore justice, or return you your child
? The weight of grief is not lifted by assigning it a label. And you have no control. You cannot choose how much grief will befall you between your first breath and your last, nor how much will befall others except through your own actions.
The French philosopher and author Albert Camus
drew a metaphor for this ancient enigma from an ancient story. In his essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus
," Camus related the plight of Sisyphus
, a man cursed by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill. Whenever the boulder would reach the peak, nine point eight per second per second would ensure it never remain. For eternity Sisyphus was charged with straining himself against the boulder only to watch it fall to the base again. Camus assigned a single word to describe the experience: absurd
. A task so pointless and neverending is the very distillation of absurd. It is a pattern without meaning, a pattern of despair
In a deft stroke of generalization, Camus extended the myth of Sisyphus to the myth of existence. However you may struggle, there is nothing you can do to prevent a blindside
. The boulder will crash to the hill's base again. And sometimes, it is not your fault, it is not others' fault, it is not the fault of those above
, it is not the fault of those below
. It is a totally innocent and blameless catastrophe. The inevitability of such patterns, such a loss of control, casts existence as an absurd proposition framed by an incessant and agonizing question: why?
The most brilliant of human pursuits; art, science, religion, philosophy, have all stoked their flames with the fuel of this dilemma. One may cite the staggering beauty, nobility, and power of the result
as an answer to the question, but this is maddeningly self-referential
and little use to managing the absurd from day-to-day. Yet the question's importance ensures that the best answers may survive across time and culture. The great playwright Sophocles
adapted a religious parable of his time, the story of king Oedipus
, to express his artistic interpretation of the answer. In the process of drama, Sophocles proposed that the fundamental insecurity of existence and our blindness in fully comprehending it can be the source of our triumph. We may defeat the absurd by throwing ourselves passionately into the absurd
, living with virtue, dignity, and inner strength to mold our circumstances and reality as far as we may, then accepting and embracing that which we cannot
. There are no guarantees and no certainties, save that each person is always, irrevocably blessed with the ability to salvage beauty, honor, or goodness from situations completely, horribly bereft of them.
When Sophocles set his play, Oedipus Rex
, to performance before the crowds of Athens
, he took significant advantage of context. Greek drama
was first and foremost a mode of religious devotion for honoring the gods and the oracles. Attendance was a sacred duty, not a pleasure. He assumed familiarity with the articles of Greek worship as much as a pastor assumes familiarity with the basics of Christianity during his sermon
. Those in attendance already knew the myth of Oedipus.
A man cursed from birth
by Apollo to kill his father and lie with his mother, Oedipus's life was punctuated with equal portions of joy and immense, catastrophic suffering. Afraid of his son, the king Laius had Oedipus sent away with his feet pierced
to die upon a mountain side. The slave charged with this duty took pity on the boy, giving him to a herdsman of another king, who in turn gave Oedipus to the king Polybus. Oedipus lived happily as a prince
, but after learning from the Oracle at Delphi his destiny, Oedipus fled whom he thought were his true parents. During his travels, he ran into a band of travelers who challenged and disrespected him. In anger, Oedipus killed the men
, among whom was Laius. The king and the prince did not recognize each other. Oedipus proceeded to the city of Thebes
, cursed by a Sphinx
to rot in pestilence until her riddle was answered. Oedipus successfully answered, freeing the city, who nominated him as king in gratitude. Oedipus married the widowed queen, whose husband had mysteriously disappeared during the time of the Sphinx
From this point, Sophocles's play begins. A new pestilence strikes the city some years after Oedipus's arrival. He pleads to the Oracle for a solution, and the gods return the injunction that Thebes is cursed with a pollution that Oedipus must drive from the city. The king throws himself at the task. The entire production is a textbook example for the use of dramatic irony
. The ancient audience, and the properly-briefed modern audience
, knows the fundamental secret of Oedipus's existence: he is the pollution. He has killed his father and bore children from his mother. These are fundamentally aversive crimes, the kind that make our skin crawl. Freud used his conception of the 'Oedipus Complex
' to good effect in shocking (to their delight
) his Victorian peers
. Oedipus's actions are the rotting, festering carcass of a white elephant
dropped right into the middle of the play. All direction thrusts towards his realization of this horror.
Placed as omniscient
, the audience may take on a gods' eye view of the action. The futility of Oedipus's endeavors and the transience of his joys are painfully clear. Whatever he may do, however events stack themselves, Oedipus has committed something horrible and irrevocable. Through the audience's perspective, he has made an error of perception. From the moment he fled, Oedipus denied the power of the Oracles and declared his ability to bring the uncontrollable under his control. This rejection of prophecy
, of course, fulfills prophecy
. Both within and without the text, Oedipus's crime is an axiom, so that Oedipus's disregard for prophecy, in the context of Greek religion, is clearly a failure on his part. Yet it is not really the cause
of Oedipus's patricide and incest. One cannot blame the crimes on a weakness of Oedipus's character, because the prophecy was unconditional. Oedipus would
kill his father and would
lie with his mother. There was no saving clause
, absolutely nothing Oedipus could do or refrain from doing to avert this catastrophe.
So is it that Apollo forced Oedipus to commit his crimes
, leaving Oedipus blameless? This is not supportable within the text of the play, nor by Greek religion. The gods could perceive the future, however they did not order it. Knowing every input to the system of existence and every rule that governed it, they could perceive the course of events like a beautiful mathematical equation
leading to an inevitable solution. Oedipus himself, however, acted under no coercion. No one forced him to leave his adopted father, or murder his true father. He made these choices out of his own free will
, as we understand it. No mortal could predict what Oedipus's next move would be. The audience members cannot predict the dialogue of the play, even as they know its inevitable course. That Oedipus had full control even when he charged helplessly into the fulfillment of his prophecy makes his realization all the more painful and tragic. While completely innocent, he is indisputably guilty
Oedipus is then framed with a true tragedy. He has lost his father
and his kingship, the happiness of his marriage is destroyed, his children are unclean and unacceptable to his society, and his pride is shattered. To crown this legacy of despair, every one of these ills were wrought by his own hand, entirely without his own knowledge
How is Oedipus to salvage anything from this situation? He is weighted with the burden of both helplessness and responsibility. In this moment of utter despair, Sophocles offers to us the solution. First, Oedipus's character has grown. Like the blind prophet Teiresias, who predicted Oedipus's downfall to the king's rage and denial, Oedipus stabs out his own eyes
to sever himself from the world. He exchanges eyesight for mindsight, symbolically embracing wisdom
by realizing a new aspect of the world he had not previously understood. Oedipus surrenders control of some of his life to the gods, in an example of Greek religious piety. He has become a better person
, despite his spectacular fall from grace.
This is unsatisfactory, though. A growth in corrupted character is still corrupted character. We must look further for Oedipus's true strength and brilliance
. When it first grew apparent that Oedipus himself may be the pollution, it was possible for Oedipus to turn his back to the possibility, abandoning his pursuit of truth. He was never ordained to know
of his crimes, only to commit them. But his human intelligence will not rest
. He has another riddle to solve, and he passionately pursues it even as its disastrous consequences for himself become clear. When the pieces fall together, Oedipus does not shirk responsibility
by citing his good intentions. He fully accepts responsibility for all his acts, even those he performed in innocence, and follows through upon his own oaths to rid the kingdom of pollution by banishing himself.
Even in the depths of tragedy, Oedipus holds to his personal integrity, honor, and sense of justice. He refuses to allow illusions to remain propped up before his eyes, but tears them down until the truth is apparent. He accepts his acts, accepts fate, but pursues what free actions are available to him to their furthest extent. He is rocked by depths of bitterness and grief, but he does not curse Apollo
and he does not excuse himself. The strength of character such a paradox of seizing control and letting it go requires is staggering, and by this strength Oedipus redeems himself. There is no justice, nor forgiveness, but Oedipus can continue life in a state of enlightenment.
Sophocles's artistic solution
does not relieve grief. It does not try to. What exactly is one supposed to say to Oedipus to make him 'feel better'
? It's stupid and patronizing to even try. But in his conduct, Oedipus shows audiences that while existence is absurd, humanity is not. A human being can make choices in concordance with his sense of justice, a human being can grow and change, a human being can take responsibility. A human being can survive
. For every moment of anguish, for every devastating earthquake, senseless murder, catastrophically poor timing, or holocaust, there is a person who drags him or herself up again and struggles on in passionate defiance of the absurd.
Throughout her life, my grandmother was a dreamer. As a child, she swore that she could float by running fast enough
, a talent she only lost through age and experience
. In trancelike serenity, my grandmother would tell my mother a secret, precious and delicate. When my grandfather died, my grandmother strayed into a dream from which she never woke. But she did not stop telling my mother her whispered message
from life, even in the agony of grief
. An old woman, she would still murmur with a small, wisened smile
Things can be beautiful, because such things are.