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The eyes of shame and Oedipus the King

Freud betrays his unresolved maternal issues in the name he chose for the Oedipus Complex, a tragedy depicting the blind enactment of one’s inner, latent, incestuous wishes. The theme of blindness and attacks on sight is as central to the Oedipus story as it is to the core of masculine shame. Oedipus’ downfall is brought about by “blind deeds” and a blind search for a ubiquitous truth; Lauis consults the oracle in secret, and ends up banishing Jocasta. This leads to the birth of Oedipus out of deception and seduction - out of the womb of the succubus; Tiresias, the seer made blind for seeing the unacceptable, is consulted and must pronounce an unacceptable truth which he would rather not see and forget. Finally, shamed into telling Oedipus he is his father’s murderer, Tiresias says:

You mock my blindness? Let me tell you this.

You with your precious eyes,

You’re blind to the corruption of your life, to the house you live in, those you live with - who are your parents? Do you know? All unknowing you are the scourge of your own flesh and blood, the dead below the earth and the living here above, and the double lash of your mother and father’s curse will whip you from this land one day, their footfall treading you down in terror, darkness shrouding your eyes that now can see the light! . . .

No man will ever be rooted from the earth as brutally as you.

(Sophocles/Fagles, 1982: 162)

Oedipus the King is also a tale that depicts the dynamics resulting from the kind of failed maternal mirroring that creates shame’s earliest form: Oedipus was cast out and abandoned as an infant, deeply craving recognition and identity which motivated his quest (which got derailed into power and authority); Oedipus was born a phallic son with a name meaning “swollen-foot,” translated by Freud as meaning “erection” (Kerr, 1993: 258); in masculine shame one attacks seeing while simultaneously being compelled by the drive to see, and Oedipus, in his search for the truth and blinding himself upon its discovery, is plagued by both dimensions; and last, his omnipotence hides a ruthless self-blame. Oedipus’ selfblinding is his own castration.

Oedipus epitomizes the relationship between the succubus and a man’s shame. The Sphinx, with her ability to lure men to her abode, is an image of the succubus and the element that seals Oedipus’ destiny. Interestingly, Lilith, Queen of the Succubi, is depicted as a winged sphinx (or winged lion) (Hurwitz, 1999: 75). The impotent men who could not solve the femme fatale’s riddle were devoured on the spot, but Oedipus was as hopelessly drawn to challenge and conquer the Sphinx as Perseus, or Freud, was compelled to cut off Medusa’s head. Oedipus, man of supreme power and insight, does not appeal to the gods for help, but uses reflective intelligence alone to answer correctly: It is an answer that will lead to the concretization of his shame and turn him into “the pollution of Thebes:”

Oedipus, approaching Thebes fresh from the murder of Laius, guessed the answer . . . The mortified Sphinx leaped from Mount Phicium and dashed herself to pieces in the valley below. At this the grateful Thebans acclaimed Oedipus King, and he married Jocasta, unaware that she was his mother.

(Graves, 1955: 10)

In answering the riddle, Oedipus made rational man the measure of all things by pronouncing the word “man” - as if the Greek metaphor of man as mind is an answer to all the riddles of life. Oedipus strayed too far from his roots, forgets the power of the gods, and so his life is to end up in a welter of perversity. He may have won the contest, but he didn’t kill the Sphinx: she leapt to her own death, creating, in fact, a failed matricide and the intensification of her power in the underworld of the unconscious (Goux, 1993). Oedipus comes to see his shame and is so horrified by the recognition that he killed his father and married his mother that he blinds himself with brooches torn from his dead mother’s gown (Jocasta had by this time hung herself). Oedipus, blood splattering his face, cries out:

I did what I had to. You know I did . . . Could these eyes have looked upon my father in the house of Hades? Could these eyes have faced my mother in her agony? I have sinned against them both - a sin no suicide could purge . . . Incestuous sin! Bride! Wife! Mother! All of one union! All the most heinous sins that man can know! The most horrible shame - I can no longer speak of it.

(Graves, 1955: 89)

All around the privileged structure of the omnipotent hero there is an emptiness to which Oedipus is unable to bear witness, “the most horrible shame” - so he tears out his eyes. Oedipus gives up all sight and knowledge, and the drama ends with Oedipus bowing to authority. Oedipus is asked to remove his presence which is a “pollution to man’s dignity” and he in turn begs to be sent out to a place where “no human voice can greet him.”

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