Can a tragedy lead us to a condition in which the human personality is able to flower and realize itself? I believe that the nature of tragedy brings us closer to seeing the brightest aspects of the human condition; and instead of one particular “tragic flaw,” the true tragedy occurs when a character attempts to either secure his/her personal dignity, or find lost personal dignity. In searching for dignity, the character inevitably reacts passionately and defensively from the wound of indignity. This process begins the spiraling downfall that eventually leads the character to just self-evaluation and the capability to grow and learn.
When I started my blog, I had a very fuzzy notion of who I really was. I was still finding my way through the blurry masses of interests and activities, trying to find out what I really love and what I wanted to do with my life. I built my blog on the idea of exploration: expressing myself without limits and without a clear idea of what exactly I was expressing. Reading the tragedy of Oedipus recently, I discovered a few parallels in our respective journeys.
One of the major reasons for Oedipus’s fall was his lack of self-awareness. Oedipus, after being told by a drunk man that he wasn’t really his father and mother’s child, didn’t even know who his true family was. He built his identity as the king of Thebes upon a lie; not knowing his mother was his wife, his father a man who insulted him passing the road, and his false parents his true parents. Oedipus had no idea who he was. When he started gaining popularity and respect from conquering the Sphynx, his dignity rose. When he was crowned king of Thebes, his dignity rose. But the dignity was based on false notions of self, and so it was easily threatened when the truth came into question and Oedipus found out who he really was.
With my own stabbingly obvious lack of self-awareness, I write obsessively on my blog and tweet volumes on Twitter. I’ve built my online identity on something that’s transitive and changing. I don’t really think I’ll ever stop changing who I am, and that makes for a wobbly and unfounded online identity. It’s founded on something that will never stop moving, something that’s nonlinear and confusing to all but me. And from this foundation, my dignity rises and I start getting protective of this dignity. I’m more afraid to make mistakes, or conversely, I’m careless and I obfuscate myself to evade responsibility.
When Oedipus’s inflated dignity popped (which it did as soon as he found out he’d slept with his mom and killed his dad), he was left with nothing and yet everything. All of the falsities that he had based his so-called life upon were gone: he was able to look himself in the eye, so to speak, and know himself. He was finally able to hold his children and love them. He could honestly feel sadness and joy. He was able to see the world and himself clearly. Oedipus was enlightened by his tragedy.
The last week of my trip to San Francisco, I was alone in the house I was staying at. It was a gorgeous five-bedroom, four-bathroom house in the Marina, and I was by myself. The last three days of my trip in San Francisco, coming home from another perfect day, I’d sit on the bus and stare out the window and listen to music, knowing that tonight I’d sit alone in my basement, watching C-SPAN and packing my luggage. I felt pathetic. But I also felt strangely liberated; I was finally able to look at myself clearly, see how I’d changed, understand how I was feeling, and be okay with that. At the end of the summer, I could look back and know that put to the test of living and surviving pretty much on my own, I thrived.
Aristotle believes that “the man who has a rational, comprehensive, intellectual perspective on life can attain happiness… is ‘ideal for life’” and that “the man who sees but one side of a matter, and straightway, driven on by his uncontrolled emotions, acts in accordance with that imperfect vision, meets a fate most pitiful and terrible.” Honestly when I first read this, it spurred on some of my own uncontrolled emotions; maybe because I recognized the familiar behavior in myself, did I object to seeing my potential fate spelled out for me.
The familiarity that I felt spurred me to think of why exactly I felt such an affinity with Oedipus. The obvious similarities aren’t there: I’m not a king, and I know who my parents are. Even the reality in which we both inhabit seems to be wildly different: I don’t believe in Greek gods the way he did, and there aren’t any ominous prophecies in my future. Miller explained it best for me; Oedipus, or any tragic hero, is on a latent journey to finding out who they really are. And who better to relate this with than us students who know hardly anything about ourselves, who are learning and discovering?
In high school, we’re just beginning a lengthy process of individuation, and it’s scary and frightening and wonderful all at the same time. Oedipus was a nonentity in that he had no past, no sense of self, and no true personality or foundation. He was a blank slate that the town filled in for him, which gave him a sense of dignity. Teenagers are blank as well, filled in with silly methods of self-assurances that give us seeming dignity. It’s not until we take the first step forward to evaluating ourselves justly do we see life with a rational, comprehensive, intellectual perspective.
Arthur Miller said that tragedy isn’t pessimistic, and I believe he was right. Looking at the tragedies, we see that it’s possible to live through the agonizing pain of finding out who we really are. True dignity won’t exist until we find out who we really are, and embrace that completely (like Oedipus). The confidence in the rock-hard foundation of our self dignity gives us the eyes to see the world clearly and be truly fit for life and learning.