Friday, November 02, 2007

Mind over Mater

My "Search for Values" class began our section on tragedy at the end of this week with Oedipus Rex. (We'll read Antigone next week.) Sophocles' "trilogy" is one of those works of literature that I always need to read again to remember how great it is. Part of that, I think, is due to the almost-ubiquitous use of Oedipus as a reference in academia, which makes the character and his story seem banal to me most of the time. Another part of that is my latent distaste for psychoanalysis, an ideological prejudice that I have been working to overcome for years now. Nevertheless, every time I read Sophocles' plays I am, in the parlance of Aristotle, struck with pity and fear... and then, ultimately, edified by the subsequent cartharsis.

My students, like most first-time-readers of Oedipus Rex, initially viewed the major conflict of the play as one between fate and free will. Of course, there was no real concept of "free will" when Sophocles wrote the play, but we all know that not having a philosophical concept for something certainly does not preclude human beings from experiencing it. Still, our discussion in class quickly boiled down to a question about the nature and extent of Oedipus' "freedom," such that it was. What, exactly, was Oedipus 'free' to do?

I like the way Robert Fagles (whose translation of Sophocles I use) answers this question in his introduction to Oedipus Rex. In the spirit of Aristotle, Fagles argues that Oedipus was "free" to know (or not to know) the truth. Sophocles was writing his plays just as philosophy was being born, and the not-so-subtle tension between the truth of the philosopher and the truth of the oracle is written all over Oedipus' story. I agree with Fagles that this is what draws us to the play; this is what "we" see in Oedipus' story that we also recognize in ourselves.

As much as I want to resist my own tendency to over-intellectualize the play or to settle in an interpretation that seems, well, disembodied, I just have a hard time reading Oedipus Rex along with Freud and his followers, who want to see in this story an archetype of human sexual desire, human aggression, and the specific targets at which those drives are directed. But I'm still open to hearing arguments in favor of a psychoanalytic reading of this (or any other) text.

Why isn't this story one of mind over mater?


Steven Thomas said...

I haven't read Freud's discussion of Oedipus in a long, long time, and so even though I know the standard paraphrase of it, as we all do, I don't at all remember what he actually wrote, which may differ from how it has been characterised.

So instead of defending Freud's reading of the play or psychoanalysis in general, I will respond by suggesting that both you, Robert Fagles, and Freud have invoked two different ways of reading without acknowledgeing that there are two.

Psychananlytic philosophers such as Freud, Lacan, and Zizek use literature to illustrate points they are making about the psyche. Their goal IS NOT (or should not be) to say "this is what the play is BASICALLY about" and assert some deep achetypal structure that governs all literary production. Unfortunately, these guys are never clear about what it is that they are doing. Since I am a literature prof., I would argue that any reading of literature that says "THIS is the philosophical point of the story" is actually NOT getting it -- and in my view, Derrida was the first and perhaps only philosopher who appreciated literature's literariness. Almost all other philosophers basically read literature for the sole purpose of finding evidence for their philosophical or psychological argument.

So, consider the debate between Lacan and Derrida about Poe's famous short story "The Purloined Letter." Lacan was saying something like, "this story illustrates the point I've been making all along about the structural position of the signifier in interpersonal, psyco-social relations." He's not saying, "this is the best or only way to read Poe's story."

Derrida's response was that Lacan seems to not realize that the story is a story. In my view, Derrida's response is somewhat besides the point, because Lacan didn't care about story-ness of the story. He was just using the story pedagogically as an illustration. Never-the-less, I appreciate Derrida's ultimate argument that context matters, and that the structure of the signifier is not so determinate as Lacan made out. In other words, in that passage from his book The Post Card and elsewhere, Derrida has always been wonderfully insistent that philosophers ought to pay attention to the storyness of the story.

But in my view, what's really going on here is two different ways of reading stories -- one that looks to the story to illustrate a philosophical point and one that looks at the whole story to see the various things going and how all these things are rhetorically woven together.

Chet said...

This is a fascinating comment, but I would really like to know what the "storyness" of a story is.

Steven Thomas said...

OK, I can't tell if the comment was meant to be sarcastic or not, but I'll answer it as though it were sincere.

Storyness... nothing complex here -- just the stuff you learned in junior high school such as plot devices, metaphor, metonymy, irony, etc., and other ways of producing emotional effects and narrative unity.

Philosophy is self-defined as a search for truth (literally, in Greek, love of wisdom), but stories are by definition fiction, designed to produce rhetorical effects. Although, I admit that many stories are written in order to startle us out of our assumptions and therefore work through paradoxes and towards truth -- which is why I like my job -- nevertheless, they are still fiction and employ various rhetorical devices to yoke together concepts, feelings, and images.

So it should intrigue us when philosophers use stories (i.e., fiction) to illustrate their ideas about truth, right?

Derrida was one of the few philosophers who demonstrated that not only do stories have literary qualities but also philosophy does, often relying on metaphors and other rhetorical and narratological devices to smooth over and/or marginalize problematic information.