I recall on first reading Oedipus Rex how I and my classmates were outraged by the injustice of it all. Oedipus had tried all he could to avoid the awful fate foretold at his birth, and while he could be blamed for having violently reacted when he encountered a stranger at the place where three roads meet—a stranger he could not have known was his father—that hardly seemed adequate grounds for the suffering the gods inflicted upon him. His punishment seemed to us so unfair that it could only be explained by the relative primitivism of the ancient Greeks (who were to us obviously primitive because they were ancient).
Only much later did I understand that Oedipus is not about justice, but about freedom—and mankind’s peculiar simultaneous possession and lack of it. Oedipus, like all of us, is uncomfortable with the notion that as a physical being he is bound to the same world as the rocks and the trees. The spirit within him longs to be free and to determine its own direction. And of course he is free because of that spirit. Yet at the same time he is inescapably mortal, inescapably material. That is the basic confrontation at the heart of the play: in us all is something that longs to be free, that is repulsed by the notion that we cannot escape the ties of genetics and physics and nature—and that something is a noble and beautiful and free thing—but in the end we are still also animals and bound by the laws of the universe.
And life itself is an arc that rises from matter into freedom and then falls back into matter. This is what the Sphynx’s riddle means. Man crawls on four legs in his morning time, when he is still basically animal. He stands on two legs in the afternoon, when he is at his most free—and then as an old man, in the evening, he returns slowly to the earth, walking with a cane, the third leg. The play, in short, is not about free will versus fate, but about man’s dilemma as a being caught between insensate matter and self-aware spirit.
This is the real Oedipus Complex. Freud, of course, saw in the play a psychosexual phenomenon in which a person falls in love with one parent and despises the other. But the real thing is far more complicated and universal. When we vaguely recoil at the notion that we are turning into our parents—when we resent the idea that our genes determine, to some small degree, our mental states—we are reenacting Oedipus’s ultimately futile rebellion against the bonds of his nature.
Our society is experiencing this sort of Oedipal Complex now, and has been, I think, since at least the end of World War II. The institutionalization of racism in the late nineteenth century, which reached its abysmal climax with the Holocaust, made the idea that genetics controls the mind absolutely anathema to good people in the west. The hostility with which evolutionary psychology is treated is one manifestation of this. But it’s not just about genetics. Social hierarchies of any sort are also regarded with horror by those who, like Oedipus, rebel at the idea that nature places limits on the will. When Franklin Roosevelt said that economic laws like supply and demand “are not made by nature. They are made by human beings”—he was recapitulating this same old rebellion. Today’s social justice warriors, with their insistence that sexuality and everything else are “social constructions” and hence changeable if only we have the will—that the only reason I find Barbara Palvin sexy and not Kathy Bates is because of some sort of subtle indoctrination—they, too, are raging futilely against Tiresias’s pronouncement that, no matter how far you go, you cannot escape nature. Nature versus Nurture, and all that.
This all seems hopelessly reactionary to the convinced leftist (and, actually, to the religious conservative as well) to whom any suggestion that nature limits our choices is only a rationalization of the injustices of the status quo. And that interpretation is understandable, because it’s historically true that the oppression of minorities, of women, of gays, of the poor, has often been excused on the grounds that nature has just made things this way and that it is pointless to try to change it. Those excuses turned out empty as it was proven time and again that liberation was not only possible, but rewarding beyond our dreams. Using nature as an excuse for injustice is still just as silly as it was when Voltaire satirized it in Candide. But it is also true that there is a limit to what the will can accomplish. Nature does exist, does limit us, and will in the end have its way. Reality, psychology, wealth and poverty, supply and demand, are not actually social constructs. That haunting feeling that we cannot, no matter how much we try, actually be “free” in the sense Oedipus wants—to somehow become an entirely self-determined being—is inescapable because nature is inescapable.
Oedipus is often taken as an exemplar of hubris—and it is said the point of the play is to demonstrate the need for humility before fate. That may be true, but I think it is also overly simplistic. Oedipus’s longing for freedom is not wrong, not a sin, not a choice for which he deserves blame. This is a tragedy, after all, not a morality play. Rather, Oedipus is trapped in this dilemma by (of course) nature itself, as are we all. We’re all—and in some sense ought to be—in the same position as Oedipus, and it is the glory of man that he resists destiny just as much as that he accepts it. That we cannot cure death, but can find new and better ways of postponing it. Our understanding of our natural limits grows, and we find more elaborate nuances and exceptions—but we will never be the blank slates that the simplistic post-World War II consensus wants us to be.