King Oedipus and the End of the World
“I Am Not an Animal!”
February 24 – 25, 2017
Fourth in a series of short video backgrounders for the upcoming “I Am Not an Animal” symposium.
This week’s video on the upcoming “I Am NOT an Animal!” symposium starts with John Gielgud chewing up the scenery as the blind prophet Tiresias in the Ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus the King.
But what does a piece of Ancient Greek tragedy have to do with what we’ve been talking about in this series of videos: our screwed-up relationship to our fellow animals? Quite a lot, in fact.
The precocious and brilliant King Oedipus has learned from an oracle that to remove the plague that is ravaging the city of Thebes, he must discover the murderer of the previous king and banish him. Oedipus calls upon Tiresias for help. But in the excerpt we see in this video, Tiresias tells him that he himself is the “corruption” that must be rooted out and expelled.
Oedipus is outraged by the suggestion, but before the day is ended, it will turn out to be true.
Oedipus has spent much of his life trying to outwit a terrifying prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. He’s devoted much of his life to ensuring that the prophecy can never come true, by leaving home and moving to a city far away. But as the drama unfolds, he learns that everything he has done to avoid the prophecy has in fact played right into it. And that for all his gifts and talents, he couldn’t outfox his fate. Quite the opposite: he’s brought it about.
To the Greeks, killing your father and marrying your mother were crimes against nature. But you can also see the play as being about how human civilization itself has become a crime against nature, and how we humans have become a plague, a corruption, upon the planet.
And however brilliant we might be in solving the riddles of daily life – with our factory farming and medicine, and mining and drilling, and smartphones and all our other technology – we still cannot solve the fundamental riddle of the human condition: that even as we reach for the stars, the simple reality is that we must all end up as dust to dust and ashes to ashes, animals who live and die, who eat and are eventually eaten, just like all the other animals. The more we’ve tried to free ourselves from being animals, the more we’ve just imprisoned ourselves.
Like Oedipus, we rebel against our fate, telling ourselves that we’re different from the other animals – exceptional, superior. But the terrible irony is that, like him, everything we have done to outwit our mortal fate has played right into it. Our attempts to take dominion over our fellow animals and to be “stewards” of the Earth have ended up leading to a mass extinction that will likely take us down along with so much else.
In Sophocles’ great play, Oedipus finally confronts the terrible truth that he himself is the corruption that has brought about the plague. And seeing his true blindness, he stabs his eyes out, and, in the heartbreaking final scene, is led away by his two young daughters, tap tapping his way into exile, exactly as Tiresias has prophesied.
Like Oedipus at the dawn of Western civilization, the reign of humankind overall is also coming to an end. The evidence is all around us: great die-offs of millions of fish at a time in the poisoned oceans; melting poles, ever-more-powerful hurricanes and tornadoes, weather patterns lurching from one extreme to the other, species going extinct by the hundreds and thousands. And now a creeping, growing anxiety in our body politic that something is terribly wrong.
There are no easy or hi-tech solutions to our situation. The problem lies at the core of our psychology: in the fundamental terror we feel about our own mortal animal nature, and our need to take dominion over the other animals and treat them as things and commodities as a way of proving our ability to rise above nature itself with its cycles of life and death.
But instead of transcending nature, we’re beginning to realize that all we’ve done is brought calamity upon ourselves.
So, where do we go from here?
Will we go out in our current state of complete denial, blind to the very end, insisting that we’re just a few inventions away from saving the planet, curing all disease, making America great again, and whatever else?
Or, like Oedipus, will we finally have the strength of character to take a deep breath and acknowledge that we ourselves are the problem?
We can’t save the world from what we’ve done, but it’s never too late to make our peace with the rest of creation – the animals we have so horribly abused in the name of human progress.
If we could do that, it would be in the spirit of restitution, of reconciliation, of atonement. A final act of decency and compassion, making right whatever way we can, however we can, whatever the cost to ourselves.
Albert Einstein wrote that although we humans are part of the “whole,” we experience ourselves, and all our thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest. He wrote:
“Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
And Chief Seattle of the Suquamish tribe famously wrote:
“What is man without the animals? If all the animals were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of the spirit.
For whatever happens to the animals, soon happens to man.”
And that’s what is happening. The more we’ve tried to free ourselves from being animals, the more we’ve just imprisoned ourselves. Only by embracing them can we begin, however late in the day, to find relief from the terror and anxiety that’s trapped us ever since.
And if we could indeed – even just a few of us – find the strength and decency to do what is right by them, then we would, like Oedipus, have finally solved the riddle of our own nature. Only by embracing our fellow creatures and all of nature, can we become free of ourselves and truly part of the proverbial web of life that is the universe.