Quora answer: Who are some of the most memorable tragic figures, either in fiction, movies or in real life? Why?

Apr 07 2013

Alex Ayotte pointed out Oedipus as the Classic Tragic figure. For explanation see Oedipus: The Philosopher by J.-J. Gaux.

Alex was voted down for not giving more details. But then of course he made the mistake of thinking that he was talking to an educated audience.

So this gives me an opportunity to try my luck at not being collapsed randomly by overzealous reviewers.

So lets start by looking at why Oedipus is interesting as the ultimate tragic character.

Of course, the Oracle of Delphi told his father that he would grow up to kill his father, and so the father wounded in the foot and then exposed the infant. But he was picked up by someone and ended up growing up in another household. He heard about the oracle and decided to leave home so he would not kill his father, because he did not know he was adopted. Of course, at a three way split in the road he ran into a man who insulted him and he killed that man. Then he encountered the Sphinx and answered a famous riddle which allowed him to become the King of the city and marry the Queen whose husband disappeared. As a new king Oedipus was confronted by a Plague, and he swears he will get to the bottom of the cause of that plague affecting the city. So he sets out to look for the one who was causing the plague by their defiled actions. Eventually he discovers that it was him, and that the man he killed at the crossroads was his father and he had married his mother, who had borne him children who were also his step brothers and sisters. This caused Oedipus to put out his own eyes and exile himself, wandering about in the world blinded by the horror of his own actions fulfilling the destiny that the Oracle had spoken of but was not understood. By the very action of avoiding the fulfillment of the Oracle he manages to fall under its spell.

So the tragedy is that Oedipus cannot avoid his fate, and that fate is horrible, because he breaks the incest taboo and the patricide taboo without knowing it. He only discovers it piece by piece as he pursues the truth of the origin of the plague on the city, as he is bound to do as King. So by doing things right everything turns out wrong, in the worse possible way from a Greek point of view.

Now what is very interesting about this story is that it demonstrates how Truth that s one of the aspects of Being along with Reality, Presence, and Identity transform in an emergent way as we traverse the meta-levels of Being. It shows that in Ancient times knowledge of the different kinds of Being was demonstrated which was later lost in our tradition. In other answers I have analyzed this unfolding of the truth that Oedipus drives forward to find the root cause of the problem of the city, which means he gets closer and closer to finding out that he is that cause.

Ultra Being – Truth^5 Singularity beyond truth and untruth
Wild Being – Truth^4 Truth of Untruth
Hyper Being – Truth^3 of the difference between truth and fiction/falsehood
Process Being – Truth^2 as showing and hiding
Pure Being – Truth^1 as verification

Ultra Being – Truth^5 The truth of what the blinded Oedipus sees
Wild Being – Truth^4 The truth of the riddle Oedipus answers of the Sphinx
Hyper Being – Truth^3 The truth of Oedipus in avoiding his fate brings is on
Process Being – Truth^2 The gradual unfolding of truth in the search of Oedipus
Pure Being – Truth^1 The verification of the Oracle’s truth about Oedipus

Note that this is a Greimas square.

Truth and anti-Truth cancel, but Truth/anti-Truth is over-against everything else.

There is both non-anti-Truth, and anti-non-Truth that forms a chiasm (X).

The singularity is at the crossing point of the X.

Oedipus is the failed hero that becomes a philosopher.

But as philosopher he comprehends and embodies the structure of the Western worldview completely. The philosopher is the pharmacon.

But we can say this about any of the Aspects of Being, i.e. Reality, Identity and Presence. In the case of Oedipus the issue is his own truth that he himself does not know, until it is too late.

The complete tale is quite complex as it deals with the children of Oedipus which are two sons and two daughters. Oedipus curses the sons to die by each other’s hands. Antigone buries her brother who is left to rot and is put to death for upholding family rites over the law of the sovereign. In the war there are nine who come against Thebes and die at seven gates. One extant play is by Aeschylus and the extant trilogy by Euripides.

The children of Oedipus are two boys and two girls. This reminds us of the contrast between Dionysus and Athena on the one hand and Apollo and Artimis on the other. Athena and Artemis are opposites and Apollo and Dionysus are opposites as Nietzsche has avowed. Apollo is the wolf god of male initiation and Artemis is the goddess of the feminine initiation into the bears. Dionysus is the god of Extremes and madness and wine. Athena is the female goddess that leads the men of the city in war. So Athena is the goddess of the city and Artimis the goddess of the wilds away from the city. Apollo with Athena create the first law court for Orestes, which upheld that there was no participation of the female in giving shape to the fetus, but that she was merely a receptacle. Apollo and Dionysus represent reason and unreason within society. These are all nihilistic opposites. If we know this then we can see that the middle play in the cycle of Euripides is about initiation of the children of Theseus. The final play is about the confrontation between family ties and the laws of the city promulgated by the sovereign. The law court of the city are produced by Athena and Apollo acting together. This stands in for the judgment of the sovereign who dictates the fate of Antigone. The play of Aeschylus is about civil war, between brothers who agreed to rule alternately after they drove their father from the city.

It is interesting that Hegel takes the Antigone myth as the core of his Phenomenology of Mind/Ghost/Spirit. It is the confrontation between arbitrary law and traditional family oriented values. For burying her brother Antigone is walled up in her own tomb. Hegel sees in this the archetype for absolute spirit. One may well wonder what the rest of the myth really means if the first part is about the meta-levels of Truth. There are words of the oracle which come true no matter what we do, and even our attempts to avoid it play into the fulfillment of the oracle. These are fateful words and we dree our wyrd as we confront the their meaning for our lives. The heart of Tragedy is the fatedness of what befalls us. This goes back to a point made by Kant according to Bernstein, that Causality and Freedom go together. Trauma is caused by the external causality that does us violence or contributes to our shock. We distinguish our freedom from this causality. In the case of the oracle there is warning, and there are the actions of the father to avoid fate, and the actions of the son that cancel those of the father and realize the fate without knowing it, in the very act of trying to avoid the fate. In this case it is the fate of committing incest. And incest is a non-nihilistic distinction in which we place a bound on our sexuality, so that it does not cross with our kinship ties. This is particularly important in a paternal kinship economy. In the maternal kinship economy incest is a natural result because the females do not leave home, and they are seen as a mass rather than a set, and thus the Alpha male will certainly have intercourse with his daughters. But marriage with the mother is impossible, because marriage in human society which is maternal is to an external male, and the brother plays the role of the father in bringing up the kids of his sister. The mother is indigenous and so would not be married to her son, but of course illicit relations are not prevented. Also the Father is not around, and so it is harder for the son to kill him, but if he did kill him he would probably go off to seek him unless the son lays in wait when the father visits. But all the anxiety related to the father is probably transferred to the brother of the mother. Fathers are not around enough to accumulate so much hatred. I think we might conclude from this that Incest is the rule because it is more likely in patriarchy.

In matriarchy the females are not distinguished and so for the alpha male incest is more likely with his daughter. But for the son it is very unlikely to have incestuous relations with his mother due to the fact that expected bonds are external to the group within which one is brought up by ones uncle.

Oedipus in effect leaves home, kills his father and marries his mother, as if there was a maternal relation with another group other than his childhood home. He left that childhood home exactly so he would not kill/marry his adopted parents (unknown to him). By leaving home he goes precisely to his parents of origin and fulfills the oracle’s curse on him. Notice that there is differing and deferring in this movement, in which his real parents differ from those he thinks are his parents, and the fulfillment of the curse is only deferred because his natural father did not kill him when he was exposed at birth. So the myth establishes differance in which the meaning of parents differs with itself in a way that exposes a contradiction in the life of Oedipus, who is king following his father after killing the father, and who is the one who causes the plague that the king must find and eradicate due to their defilement of the city. This self-differing of Oedipus from himself is at the heart of the problem he faces. This is because his true identity has been lost in oblivion, and has to be retrieved by the painstaking search for the root cause of the plague.

So we can see that identity of Oedipus is at stake in the myth and the representation of the myth in the play.

Ultra Identity^5 The one who breaks the fundamental taboo, embodying it
Wild Identity^4 Cause of the Plague
Hyper Identity^3 Man HIs being the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx
Process Identity^2 Uncovered Identity of different parenthood, lost home found
Pure Identity^1 Identification with the Name Oedipus

His error becomes a miasma that affects his children dooming them as well.

His error causes civil war. We only need to refer to Dante to know how nihilistic civil war is. It is the worst possible kind of war where neighbors kill each other and citizens are not safe from their fellow citizens. Civil war is the inversion and the equivalent at the level of the polis of Incest – intracene warfare. The polis is supposed to share each other’s fate, but in civil war the fate of one part of the body politic is determined by another part.

After Oedipus is exiled his sons are supposed to alternate in their rule to avoid conflict between them, but then one son refuses to give up his role as king and thus invites attack from his brother and the other nine who come against Thebes by seven gates. The sons die by each other’s hands at the gates. So inappropriate kinship relations of son and mother leads to conflict and death of the nephew/sons. The care for the father devolves on the sisters in more than one sense).

Lacan differentiates between Imaginary, Symbolic and Real which appear as a Borromean knot. Symbolic is the act of marriage, and the compact of citizens to support one another and not to fall into civil war. The Imaginary is the idea of our freedom, what is real is our fatedness according to this myth. Thus we only imagine that we are free to avoid incest and to avoid civil war, but in actuality we are forced into it by powers beyond our understanding which are mostly unconscious. The Unconscious is what is is too close to be present.

The myth explores the meta-levels of Presence:
Ultra Presence — Blindness with Inner sight
Wild Presence — Nomadic wandering between cities in the hinterlands
Hyper Presence — The Presence of the Sphinx between the two crimes.
Process Presence — Process by which the Stranger becomes King becomes Pharmacon
Pure Presence — King and Queen on the Dias

What is fascinating is that Identity, Presence and Truth are the fundamental aspects underlying formal systems, and the relations between these give us its properties: clarity (well-formedness), completeness and consistency.

When we add reality we get three further properties which are validation, verification and coherence. But we also get meaning. Therefore, with reality comes meaning or intelligibility.

The myth also explores the meta-levels of Reality:

Ultra Reality — Noumena
Wild Reality — The real is illusion and the illusion is real
Hyper Reality — the impossibly of telling the difference between reality and illusion
Process Reality — The process of becoming real from out of illusion.
Pure Reality — Objective/Subjective comprehension of what Is

The emergent event begins with the utterance of the oracle. At Delphi there are priestesses who sit on a tripod over a crack in the ground from which an ecstasy overwhelms them which are interpreted and put into words by the Priests. Normally these pronouncements are in response to questions, but other times they are made without any question. Delphi is the place where Apollo killed the Python. It is the place that holds the navel of the earth, i.e. the stone which is on no boundary from which all the boundary stones are measured. However, everything that occurs is seeded by the actions of the father of Oedipus.

As is the case in most climactic drama, much of what constitutes the myth of Oedipus takes place before the opening scene of the play. In his youth, Laius was a guest of King Pelops of Elis, and became the tutor of Chrysippus, youngest of the king’s sons, in chariot racing. He then violated the sacred laws of hospitality by abducting and raping Chrysippus, who according to some versions killed himself in shame. This cast a doom over Laius and his descendants. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oedipus_the_King

Thus the father violated the bounds between Man and boy, and was a pederast. This ramified into the violation of the incest taboo and the taboo against parricide. This further ramified into civil war, which ultimately became a confrontation between sovereignty and family or traditional values which demands that the dead kin are buried which results in Antigone being buried alive. Antigone, i.e. being alive and dead at the same time walled within her tomb.

In the first utterance the Oracle responded that Laius would be killed by his own son, he violated a youth and thus a youth of his own making will violate him. In the second utterance the Oracle tells Oedipus that he will marry his mother and kill his father. And so he flees Corinth in order to avoid that fate. So the miasma goes though emergent phases:

nihilism paradox
ULTRA aspects
pederasty — cannot make non-nihilistic distinctions
WILD aspects —
incest parricide
HYPER aspects
finding sacred ground as a place to die
PROCESS aspects
civil war
PURE aspects
breaking the laws of the sovereign that goes against the principles of kinship
ULTRA aspects
alive/dead supra-rational

Because the core of the Western worldview is nihilistic the emergent event starts from that background on which emergence itself is seen. In this case the emergent event is the arising of a miasma. First the guest relation is broken by the pederasty of Laius by the violation of the son of the host. Then Lais gets the word from the oracle and sets his own son out to die to avoid the truth of the oracle, but then later the oracle speaks to Oedipus and adds more information about the curse, which then Son tries to avoid. What father and son have in common is their attempt to avoid the truth of the oracle. Oedipus meets the Sphinx between his two crimes, and he answers the question of the Sphinx acting as oracle himself, responding to questions. The death of the Sphinx allows him to become King because he saved the city from the monster, and there just happened to be a queen without a husband in the city, whom he marries. His mother kills herself and he blinds himself upon realizing the full truth of this realization of his fate by conforming to what the Oracle had told him would happen. He wanders with his daughters after his exile, and eventually makes the non-nihilistic distinction as to where he should die, i.e. violating sacred land. What follows is civil war where one brother kills the other, and then the daughter who is like Athena, the favorite of the Father, the willful one, asserts the right of death rites over the rule of the sovereign who demands that no death rites are performed. This leads to the daughter being buried alive and thus having a fate in which she is both dead and alive at the same time until finally death overtakes her.

Antigone reaffirms the family ties and thus brings the miasma to an end by her ability to discern non-nihilistic distinctions between the rule of the sovereign and self-rule upholding the families honor so that the fates will not be unleashed should we fail to bury our dead kin.

In this emergence Hegel’s sees pure spirit arising. Pure Spirit is the face of the Absolute that mediates between in-time and out-of-time. Pure spirit mediates between the FATHER and the SON in an absolute sense between creator and avatar. In this interpretation Absolute Spirit is non-dual, i.e. supra-rational.

Antigone can make non-nihilistic distinctions which her grandfather and father and brothers cannot make. And so the outcome of the emergent event is to produce the non-nihilistic distinction on the background of nihilism that is carried forward as a miasma through the generations until the nihilism turns into its opposite which is a organic distinction upholding the responsibilities toward the family against the law and rule of the sovereign. A violation of the trust of the sovereign, leads eventually to the direct opposition to the will of the sovereign.

I hope this indicates the depth of the archetypal tragedy of Oedipus and his family. What is the non-nihilistic distinctions between comedy and tragedy? Between laughing and crying? Answer this and you realize the nondual center between freedom and causality.

Apollo counseled us: everything in moderation and know thyself.


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