Monday, August 9, 2010
My Name is Oedipus, and My Life Sucks
The Father: . . . one is born to life in many forms, in many shapes, as tree, or as stone, as water, as butterfly, or as woman. So one may also be born a character in a play. (Pirandello 217)
My name is Oedipus, and my life sucks.
I’m sure you’ve heard the most famous part of my story. Oh, Freud made sure that every amateur psychologist and lit major knew about it. Yep. According to him, I’m a “complex.” I’ve got a one up on Riff from West Side Story: I don’t just have a social disease, I am a social disease.
I’m the guy who killed my father then married my mother. Oh and that’s not all -- we had kids together. Then I gouged my eyes out with her dress pins after I found she had hung herself. Your lady Oprah whom you people today love so much would love to have me on her show. My life is a timeless tale of twistedness, and Sophocles made sure everyone remembered that when he wrote Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus. I should have never sought him out.
Now I’m sure you’re wondering something: this guy is from ancient Greece, how does he know about 20th Century things like West Side Story and Oprah? Well, that’s the great thing about being a character: I’m immortal.
“That sounds great!” I bet you’re thinking. Well it’s not. I could call over Albus Dumbledore and he will back me up. (Yeah, I know him. Us characters tend to know each other because a lot of our existence is in people’s minds. Why do you think people dream about going bowling with as C-3PO, Gandalf, and Snow White?) Any person who has not been living under a rock for the last decade and a half will know that the man is a genius, so I’m sure you’ll listen to him. It was he after all who said, “the [Philosopher’s] Stone was really not such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all -- the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.” (Rowling 297) I suppose, though, that the Philosopher’s Stone metaphor doesn’t work very well. Being a character only provides the Elixir of Life, not infinite gold. I get no royalties from productions of Oedpius Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, or any of the pop songs or snide comments in sitcoms made at my expense. Sophocles doesn’t even get anything because he’s dead -- and he died before the invention of copyright laws. I am a public domain character. But that’s beside the point.
Now why am I even bothering to express all this? Well it just so happens that I fell into the mind of a student who recently read Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search of An Author. It made her think of me. God only knows why it did. But she thought of me, nonetheless. Having got that signal, I approached her so that she could give me the opportunity to rant, and she agreed to it. It’s pretty obvious that I need it.
The Father: We want to live.
The Manager: [ironically] For Eternity?
The Father: No, sir, only for a moment . . . in you.
I realize that her documentation of my thoughts will not change much of my existence, as her writing will not reach a huge number of people. Unlike the six characters, my authorship is settled and I have books that solidify my story. I am already eternal, and I have moments of life on stage and in mind. In other words: I’m still going to live through my lovely cycle of murder, incest, and self-mutilation. But now I have a moment to live differently: to not speak in verse, to take a break from discovering what I had done and freaking out about it, to just lie back and reflect like a psych patient. (Freud would love that last part -- that bastard.) You have no idea what a relief it is to have a small outlet for these frustrations.
You may wonder why I bothered approaching Sophocles in the first place if I’m so unhappy with my situation. Frankly it’s hard to recall. Being stuck in that limbo of creation before being written into a play or book is a very confusing time. The Father in Six Characters rambles on a lot for a reason: when you’re in that limbo, your story is much more ambiguous and unsettled. It’s all there inside you, but you have no way to actually know it is real.
The Manager: And where is the “book”?
The Father: It is in us! . . . The drama is in us, and we are the drama. We are impatient to play it. Our inner passion drives us on to this.
Your reality seems illusory. You know you are there, and you know you have a story. The story burns inside you. But you have no words on the page to confirm it. You see no people reenacting it. There are no articles analyzing or criticizing you. There aren’t even any bastard “psychologists” naming social diseases after you. You don’t see any of yourself reflected anywhere. You may feel your swollen feet and the blood squirting out of your eyes, but nobody notices. If you look in a mirror, you don’t see anything.
It’s nice to have left that part of my existence behind. I say “nice” though because life is not “good.” I don’t take it for granted, but I know life could be better. My reality has gone from illusory to elusive. I get some hints of it, but I don’t know where I belong. I exist on page. I exist in people’s minds. But my shadow only appears on stage. I am a part of your world, yet apart from it at the same time. I appear in it every so often, but I don’t get to interact or communicate outside my story. There is plenty to extrapolate from my story, mind you. Thousands of years of literary criticism and analysis have shown that. But everything that is said about me, in the end, goes back to my story. I am incomplete.
To the source of the problem: my immortality. The Father in Six Characters sums it up nicely:
The Father: . . . he who has had the luck to be born a character can laugh even at death. He cannot die. The man, the writer, the instrument of creation will die, but his creation does not die. And to live for ever, it does not need to have extraordinary gifts or to be able to work wonders. Who was Sancho Paza? Who was Don Abbondio? Yet they live eternally because -- live germs as they were -- they had such fortune to find a fecundating matrix, a fantasy which could raise and nourish them: make them live forever.
Please keep in mind that being a person who is immortal and a character who is immortal are two very different things. A person’s life is a continuing story: it begins with birth and ends with death. Or if you are an immortal person, at least your life constantly moves forward. You don’t have to repeat anything over again. You get to learn from your mistakes. When you wake up, you are in a new day. The moment you live is is fleeting. You are confronted with new things every day. Characters are much more finite. The events we live are made up of what we do in the stories that we appear in. In other words: I get to discover I killed my father and slept with my mother, have a nervous breakdown, and then go gouge out my eyes over and over again into infinity. It gets old.
Now here’s a place where I disagree with The Father. He claims that because we characters have a set, unchanging reality, we are more real. Let me tell you something: that’s crap. I’ll tell you why in a moment, but here is his justification:
The Father: . . . Our reality doesn’t change: it can’t change! It can’t be other than what it is, because it is already fixed forever. It’s terrible. Ours is an immutable reality which should make you shudder when you approach us if you are really conscious of the fact that your reality is a mere transitory and fleeting illusion, taking this form today and that tomorrow, according to the conditions, according to your will, your sentiments, which in turn are controlled by an intellect that shows them to you today in one manner and tomorrow... who knows how?
This is where he reveals himself to not have his story written down yet -- he clearly has a bad case of “the grass is greener on the other side.” If you have been set as long as I have, and have witnessed the world change around your unchanging self for as long as I have, then you know that reality is not fixed. The Father only thinks that it should be because he’s waiting to have his reality set for him. Once the story is written and lives outside of him as well as inside of him, then he can settle in. But once he is settled for a certain period of time, he will see that reality itself, rather than a character’s reality, is constantly changing. That does not make it an illusion. That makes it dynamic. That makes it infinite. That makes it sublime. We characters have no ability to be dynamic unless we change somehow in our story. Even then, we return to what we were before when the story starts over again. No infinity or sublimity for us.
The Father is in denial. I can’t really blame the guy, though. He’s clearly pretty new to all this. The fact is: we are the illusion. We are only fragments of people. Any person can tell you that a person is made up of more than one stand-out event in his or her life. The Father admits this himself when he asks not to be judged for lusting after The Step-Daughter:
The Father: Then we perceive that all of us was not in that act, and that it would be an atrocious injustice to judge us by that action alone, as if all our existence were summed up in that one deed.
Once again, this is how I can tell that he has not has his story written down. There is so much more that goes in to what makes a person who they are. Frankly, I say that people can know that they are real because they change along with the world. In that sense, they are very constant. The fact that their lives are fleeting are what make them real. For characters, this is not so. After the story is written, a character’s existence is summed up in their deeds from that story. How else do you think I became a social disease? I have nothing else besides my story to identify myself. I am the guy who killed his father, married his mother, and gouged his eyes out. That is how the vast majority of the world knows me.
Why, then, would I seek out an author again? If being a character is so lousy, why would I seek to add more narrative crap on my plate? Well, that shows that there is some relief for us: sequels. Now, I will never propose that this vomit of thoughts would qualify as a sequel to Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus. However, if we are able to add more to our story in some way, we can add to ourselves. As such, we can piece together new fragments of self and get a little closer to becoming a whole person. We will never get there, of course, but it is a relief for some people to think of me as more than just a social disease. Why else do you think Elphaba approached Gregory Maguire to write Wicked: The Life and Times of The Wicked Witch of the West? She wanted to be more than the evil green woman with a lust for shiny shoes who screeched, “Fly, my pretties! Fly!” and threatened little girls from Kansas and their puppies. Why do you think Harry Potter managed to get J. K. Rowling to write seven books about him? The more that our stories depict, the less lost we are.
So that was your glimpse into a life of a character. I’m not asking for pity like I do at the end Oedipus Rex. I’ve outgrown that. But please keep all this in mind when you encounter us in books, plays, movies, or pictures. Just know that we want to be more. And know that you can make us more.
My name is Oedipus, and now my life sucks a little less.