Archive for October 17th, 2023

Oedipus is guilty of…what exactly?

Tuesday, October 17th, 2023
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An expert on Oedipus

Oedipus was one of René Girard‘s ongoing interests, and his interpretation of the Greek myth was controversial and groundbreaking. Hence, one of the liveliest presentations during last summer’s Paris conference for the French theorist’s centenary was anthropologist Mark Anspach‘s short talk on the subject. Anspach is the editor of 2020’s The Oedipus Casebook: Reading Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. (You can read previous posts by and about him here and here and here and here, among other places.) He began this way:

Last year, French television broadcasted a noteworthy debate between two eminent figures. On one side, a 1960s student activist who later served in the European parliament. On the other, a philosophy professor and former minister of education known for his critiques of French theorists of the ‘60s. I will quote highlights from their debate in the original French to avoid losing any nuances, and then I will attempt an English translation.

And then there will be a quiz.

First in French:

––Tu dis que des conneries.
––Ta gueule!
––La tienne, pauvre crétin.

Now in English:

––You’re spouting pure BS.
––Shut your face!
––You shut yours, you pathetic dumbhead.

When I saw media accounts of this dialogue, I immediately thought of… Sophocles! That is because my view of the Greek playwright was shaped by the late, great Stanford thinker René Girard. As we will see, the quoted lines illustrate the same dynamic of conflict that Girard uncovers in the dialogues of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King.

Antoni Brodowski ‘s “Oedipus and Antigone,” 1828

So now the quiz. The first question is: what was the debate between the former student activist and the philosophy professor about?

Well, based only on the above excerpts, there is no way to know. I quoted from the most heated moment of the dispute, when passions ran highest. But in that moment, the original theme of the debate was forgotten. As Girard tells us, when a conflict escalates, the rivalry itself comes to the fore and the original object of the dispute is lost from view.

That doesn’t mean that the dispute is not originally motivated by real differences in political ideology or conceptual outlook. This brings us to my second question: which of the lines quoted were spoken by the activist and which expressed the Weltanschaung of the philosopher?

Once again, there is no way to know. Even if you studied for this quiz by reading every book either of them ever wrote, it would still be impossible to guess who said “Shut your face” and who replied “You shut yours.” No matter how far apart the antagonists were at the outset, their differences dissolve at the height of their rivalry. As Girard holds, the more a rivalry intensifies, the more the antagonists resemble each other.

Yet the more they resemble each other, the more each is convinced he is right and the other is wrong. As it happens, it was the philosophy professor who said “You shut yours.” At the moment he spoke, he had good reason to believe he was right. Was not his rival wrong to insult him by saying “Shut your face”? He should have kept his big mouth shut!

What the philosopher may not see in the heat of the moment is that, by opening his own mouth and saying “You shut yours,” he is behaving exactly like his antagonist. In fact, he is imitating him. Rivalry fueled by imitation is what Girard dubs mimetic rivalry. As Girard shows, conflicts intensify through mutual imitation, moving toward ever greater reciprocity and symmetry.

The more symmetrical a conflict is, the harder it is to say who’s right and who’s wrong. Indeed, if you look at the reasons invoked by each side, you will often find that both parties are right. The philosopher was right in that his antagonist should not have said “Shut your face.” But his rival was equally right in that the philosopher should not have said he was spouting BS.

Each party sees half the truth: the half that applies to the other. To speak the truth about the other’s role in a dispute without recognizing that the same truth applies to ourselves amounts to scapegoating the other. It amounts to scapegoating even if the other is guilty as charged.

This is a key point. A scapegoat does not have to be innocent. To single out one of the rivals as uniquely responsible for the rivalry is itself a form of scapegoating. If each of two antagonists is guilty, if each speaks only half the truth – the half that applies to the other – then the scapegoating is mutual or reciprocal. This kind of reciprocal scapegoating is typical of mimetic rivalry. It is part of the symmetry that characterizes the rivalry.

Tit-for-tat escalation

But symmetry is not the whole story. There is also a tendency to escalation. Each party tries to get the better of the other by launching a bigger insult, a bolder accusation, a stronger blow. This can be understood as an attempt to break free of the symmetry by establishing what Girard in Oedipus Unbound calls a “dissymmetry” capable of re-differentiating the antagonists.

The philosopher does not merely respond in kind to the phrase “Shut your face” by replying “Shut yours.” Responding in kind would leave both parties on the same footing. He also adds a new observation designed to transcend the tit-for-tat exchange. It is as if he were saying: “You tell me to shut my face. I tell you to shut your face. It may look like we are the same. But there is a difference between us. And that difference is that you are a pathetic dumbhead.”

The precise term used was “cretin.” Strictly speaking, cretinism is a form of mental disability caused by thyroid insufficiency. Now, our philosopher is a lucid and intelligent man. Do we take him at his word when he asserts that his adversary is suffering from cretinism? Of course not. We assume that he is speaking out of anger. We react as the chorus in Oedipus the King reacts amidst the debate between Oedipus and Tiresias. “It is anger, I think, that inspires Tiresias’s words,” says the chorus, “and yours too, Oedipus.”

The sage of Stanford: René Girard

The debate between Oedipus and Tiresias is at the heart of Girard’s analysis. Oedipus hopes Tiresias will shed light on the murder of the previous ruler, Laius. According to Creon, the oracle blames the plague in Thebes on the fact that this crime was left unpunished, and Oedipus has vowed to hunt down whoever is responsible. But when Oedipus questions Tiresias, the renowned prophet stubbornly refuses to answer.

Oedipus grows increasingly exasperated. Finally, he declares that Tiresias must be guilty himself. Tiresias retorts that it is Oedipus who is guilty. In Violence and the Sacred, Girard interprets Tiresias’s words as “an act of reprisal arising from the hostile exchange.” By accusing Tiresias of being behind the murder of Laius, Oedipus prods him into “hurling the accusation back at him.”

Oedipus dares Tiresias to repeat the accusation. Not only does Tiresias repeat it, he tops it with a new, more terrible charge, insinuating that Oedipus is the son of the man he killed and of the widow he married. It is as if Tiresias were saying: “You accuse me of killing Laius. I accuse you of killing Laius. It may look like we are the same. But there is a difference between us. The difference is that you, Oedipus, are a patricidal motherlover!”

Is Tiresias right? Is Oedipus guilty?

From hunter to hunted

Violence and the Sacred suggests that Oedipus is not guilty. In that book, Girard uses Sophocles’ tragedy to introduce the concept of the surrogate victim or scapegoat. Oedipus, an outsider with a lame foot, is a scapegoat made to bear sole blame for the plague in Thebes. The accusations of patricide and incest leveled against him are typical mythic accusations. As crimes that abolish the most fundamental kinship distinctions, patricide and incest are signifiers of raging undifferentiation.

The plague itself, an illness that strikes everyone without distinction, has the same meaning. The real plague, the gravest crisis afflicting Thebes, is the breakdown of distinctions, the plague of undifferentiation to which the protagonists contribute by hurling back and forth the same accusations. Each accuses the other of being responsible for the crisis.

The question is who will succeed in making the accusation stick. When Oedipus ultimately accepts the charge of patricide and incest, he becomes the monstrous embodiment of undifferentiation. The loss of difference is laid at the door “not of society at large, but of a single individual.” The social crisis is resolved at the expense of a lone victim. The mythic nature of the accusations of patricide and incest suggests that Oedipus is innocent. In his later works, Girard emphasizes the scapegoat’s innocence.

But in Violence and the Sacred, Girard also highlights the role played by Oedipus himself in the scapegoating process. In Sophocles’ play, Girard writes, the “entire investigation is a feverish hunt for a scapegoat, which finally turns against the very man who first loosed the hounds.” Oedipus is the man who loosed the hounds. He tried to pin the blame for the crisis on Tiresias and Creon. He took part in the game of reciprocal accusations that was one with the crisis afflicting Thebes.

Oedipus and the Sphinx

If Girard is right, Oedipus may well be an innocent man wrongly accused of patricide and incest. As shown in The Oedipus Casebook, the evidence against him is not as solid as one might think. But Oedipus is not wholly innocent. He accuses others of responsibility for a crisis in which he himself shares the blame.

What is important for Girard in his early writings is not the substance of the accusations of incest or patricide or murdering Laius. It is the fact that Oedipus accuses others of guilt only to discover that he himself is guilty. That is the feature of Sophocles’ tragedy that first drew Girard’s attention and ultimately led him to his famous scapegoat theory.

In an early essay in Oedipus Unbound, Girard compares Sophocles’ hero to the Proustian snob: “The snob has no other model than the snob. He therefore has no other rival.” That is why the snob trumpets “his hatred of snobbery.” Seen in this light, “Oedipus’s excessive indignation, his zeal to track down the culprit, are revealing.” They call to mind the passion with which the Proustian snob denounces snobs. So it is that Oedipus “accuses Creon and Tiresias of the crime he himself committed.”

To use the language of Girard’s later writings, Oedipus scapegoats his rivals. To single out one’s rival as uniquely responsible for the rivalry is itself a form of scapegoating. This type of scapegoating is taking place all around us today. The degeneration of public debate into exchanges of insults is a clear sign of crisis. In this sense, the situation we are living through now is not unlike the one portrayed in Oedipus the King. If we see Oedipus purely as an innocent man accused of patricide and incest, then his experience will seem distant from our own. But if we see him as a person who accuses others before realizing that they are not free of blame themselves, then perhaps Sophocles’ play can help us navigate the present crisis.