He is the plague, the heart of our corruption

During our opening discussion of Oedipus the King — which centered primarily on the question of whether and how the plague in the play really matters to the remainder of the drama — I mentioned that one feature of writing about epidemic disorders from many times and places is a comparison between disease and breakdowns in language or communication. Epidemics are often accompanied by rumors — about their origins, effects, and remedies. This is certainly something to keep an eye out for as we move forward, paying close attention to variations on the theme as much as to its ubiquity.

I’d like us to pick up a similar topic when we resume on Tuesday: the question of plague as metaphor or allegory. Some readers of plague narratives assume that literary treatments of disorder or sickness are “merely” metaphorical — that a playwright or novelist is less interested in an actual medical crisis than he or she would be in using a plague setting to represent something like moral or political corruption. This assumption makes a certain amount of sense. Plays and novels, after all, are something other than a medical treatise, and accounting for the literariness of literary texts is very much something we’ll be interested in this semester. In the case of Oedipus, moreover, the characters seem to model for us a set of connections between plague and moral disorder: the solution to Thebes’ crisis, Oedipus echoes Apollo’s oracle, is to find Laius’s murderer and

Drive him out, each of you, from every home.
He is the plague, the heart of our corruption[.] (ll. 275-76)

By the end of the play, Oedipus seems to have internalized the city’s sickness, taken it on himself. The messenger declares that he’ll need assistance in his exile because the “sickness” is “more than he can bear” (l. 1429).

But a recent strain of criticism on the play recuperates some older efforts to take the plague context more seriously. After all, the assumption on scholars’ parts has long been that Sophocles introduced an epidemic as the setting for his version of the Oedipus myth because Athens had so recently suffered from plague (as recounted in the brief excerpt you’ve read from Thucydides). With mass deaths so fresh on their minds, these critics ask, wouldn’t Sophocles and his audience have understood the plague to be an actual fact of life rather than a literary symbol? If this set of questions interests you, I’d point you in the direction of this recent book by Robin Mitchell-Boyask, a classicist at Temple University in Philadelphia. You might also want to check out an even more recent article, written by a team at the University of Athens Medical School. It appeared this year in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the Center for Disease Control in the United States, and “adopt[s] a critical approach to Oedipus Rex in analyzing the literary description of the disease, unraveling its clinical features” to conclude that “this epidemic was an actual event, possibly caused by Brucella abortus.”

I’d like us to consider the question of plague-as-metaphor when we pick up our discussion tomorrow. Do you see compelling reasons to side one way or another on the issue? Are both views valid? And how might this set of questions force us to think even more carefully about the relationship between sickness or medicine and language in general?

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