There is not one of you whose sickness equals mine

We’ll want to encounter Oidipous/Oedipus on the text’s own terms, and so pay attention to what this translation tells you about its title character, or what he tells you about himself. Think too about how you would summarize this story. Where would you start? With the King addressing his people? With the Priest describing the plague? With the Oracle’s news? With the cursed child or his parents? And what might taking any of these as a starting point tell us about how the play works or why it has endured so powerfully?

Would you summarize it this way?

Or this way?

One way for us to approach this play will be to think about the plague’s place in it. In a convener’s post I wrote for Contagion 2012, way back during the course’s first run, I mentioned a strain of recent scholarship on Sophocles’ play that takes the plague setting seriously. This makes some sense. 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’ll 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?

My assumption, in that post, was that we’d be approaching the plague in Sophocles’s novel as either representing medical situations Sophocles’s original audience would have recognized, or that the plague was being used metaphorically, for something sick about the community — or its leader. As I noted in that original post, we read this play at the start of this course not just to recognize how long the plague-as-metaphor idea has been around, but also to question whether the literal and figurative registers are as separate or opposed as we commonly take them.

In more recent iterations of the class, however, we encounter Oedipus just after our brush with network and contagion theory, including Tony Sampson’s strong endorsement of Tarde’s and Deleuze’s critique of Freud’s definition of the unconscious. (At stake in his reading of these thinkers is how to understand crowd behavior — and, by extension, how imitative behavior from fashion to fascism operates.) Here we’ve already encountered Oedipus, whose centrality to Freud’s thinking makes him an easy symbol for everything Deleuze in particular wants to resist. He and Guattari, recall, even named their original collaboration Anti-Oedipus (1972). If we want to understand why, we’ll have to think about both what Oedipus meant to Freud and why that would come to stand for the things the rest of our folks seem to be resisting.

Freud, famously, in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), writes:

There must be something which makes a voice within us ready to recognize the compelling force of destiny in the Oedipus[.] … His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours — because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so. (301)

For Freud the subject is an individual, and its formation is a family romance. For Deleuze and Guattari, however, the unconscious is not an individual, but part of a crowd, like wolves in a pack. “Who is ignorant of the fact that wolves travel in pack?” they ask in A Thousand Plateaus (1980). “Only Freud. Every child knows it. Not Freud” (28). In their Anti-Oedipus, desire is framed as fundamentally social, not familial:

[T]he family is never a microcosm in the sense of an autonomous figure [but is] by nature eccentric, decentered. We are told of fusional, divisive, tubular, and foreclosing families. … There is always an uncle from America; a brother who went bad; an aunt who took off with a military man; a cousin out of work, bankrupt, or a victim of the Crash; an anarchist grandfather; a grandmother in the hospital, crazy or senile. The family does not engender its own ruptures. Families are filled with gaps and transected by breaks that are not familial: the Commune, the Dreyfus Affair, religion and atheism, the Spanish Civil War, the rise of fascism, Stalinism, the Vietnam War, May ’68 — all these things form complexes of the unconscious, more effective than everlasting Oedipus. (97)

This heady stew, I take it, is what they mean in their later book when they refer to the unconscious as multiple, as “the buzz and shove of the crowd,” not to be mistaken for “daddy’s voice” (30). The big picture here is how we understand the very definition or nature of the individual. For Freud, the individual is always going to be Oedipal. For Deleuze and Guattari (and by extension Sampson) the alternative is, as their contemporary Michel Foucault put it in the preface to their work, to “‘de-individualize’ by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations” (xlv). Referring to Anti-Oedipus as an “Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life,” Foucault summarizes one of its key imperatives this way: “Do not demand of politics that it restore the ‘rights’ of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. … The group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchized individuals, but a constant generator of de-individualization. Do not become enamored of power” (xlv).

For all their resistance to Frued’s reading of the story, could it be possible that Sophocles’ Oedipus the King had been making a similar point all along? And why would this matter in a time of plague?

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