6 – Sophocles

While Nietzsche’s account of Aeschylus’ Prometheus is a fascinating approach to the meaning of the play, in his account of Sophocles we find a greater articulation of the reconciliation between the Apollinian and Dionysian impulses through the structure of the drama and the unfolding of a plot. For the Apollinian, we remind ourselves, everything is clear, comprehensible, justified. And so it is for Oedipus’ conventional pride as Sophocles’ play opens. In the course of the drama, naturally, the prosecutor finds he committed the crime. Oedipus’ own (Apollinian) process of reasoning begins to unravel a crime he committed but cannot fathom. He cannot penetrate the mystery behind his apparent logic. Laius’ murder on the road to Thebes, the Sphinx’s transparent riddle, Oedipus’ ascension to power, to wife and fatherhood, Tieresius’ damning prescience, the unsolved crime corrupting Thebes with plague — all lie buried in Oedipus’ unconscious. Slowly, momentum gains as the black background once obscured by a luminous spot of justification surfaces as the protagonist uncovers his own plot: Oedipus murdered his father and married his mother Jocasta and the brutal truth of his incest springs forward in a moment of crushing (Dionysiac) recognition. Oedipus plucks out his eyes which once revealed to him the beautiful illusion of his rule and his mastery of transparent facts. He is banished from Thebes, blinded by monstrous insight.
The invasion of an incomprehensible knowledge through the layers of dialogue poses itself first as a riddle, a question mark, another Sphinx before Oedipus’ reasoning, individuated consciousness. Sophoclean dialogue is perfectly luminous Apollinian poetry, informed by Olympian illusion, while the chorus labors with the unconscious reality of an amoral will, with yet concealed truth. In the shattering of the illusion there is both agony and relief, the joy which admits the pain of universal creation as a sacrilegious awareness of truth cries out the “crime” of existence. Tragedy as a form of poetry embodies and temporally unites the radical ambiguity at the core of existence. Tragedy reconciles and seduces us by its stark beauty into affirming the ambiguity between appearance and reality. Though it may seem incomprehensible now, given the status of poetry in contemporary America and Europe, Greek or Attic civilization based itself on the power of this “mere verse” which creates the conditions for a radical transformation, a fundamental reconciliation, a remarkable account of the full draft of being.
Nietzsche notes that it is Sophoclean poetry which attracts us both to the process of untangling the clues and to the nobility of a hero who has committed these crimes:

Sophocles understood the most sorrowful figure of the Greek stage, the unfortunate Oedipus, as the noble human being who, in spite of his wisdom, is destined to error and misery but who eventually, through his tremendous suffering spreads a magical power of blessing that remains effective even beyond his decease. The noble human being does not sin, the profound poet wants to tell us: though every law, every natural order, even the moral world may perish through his actions, his actions also produce a higher magical circle of effects which found a new world on the ruins of the old one that has been overthrown. That is what the poet wants to say to us insofar as he is at the same time a religious thinker. As a poet he first shows us a marvelously tied knot of a trial, slowly unraveled by the judge, bit by bit, for his own undoing. The genuinely Hellenic delight at this dialectical solution is so great that it introduces a trait of superior cheerfulness into the whole work, everywhere softening the sharp points of the gruesome presuppositions of this process. 46

The sophistry of Apollinian reason and the horrible wisdom of Dionysiac ecstasy metamorphose passing through the softening melodic tones of Sophoclean poetry. This peculiar Greek cheerfulness which we too often mistake for naiveté or classical tranquillity surfaces only with a mature poetic talent, a poetic-evidential demonstration of an enigma having assumed human and artistic shape. While a tight knot is pleasurably disentangled, the riddle of essential human nature, the will, symbolized by the Sphinx, half-lion half-human being, stands before us, the audience, as it does before the chorus, before Creon, Jocasta, the Theban citizenry of Thebes, and Oedipus himself, as a secret too abominable to whisper. Incest symbolizes resistance to individuation: having slain his father then having slept with his mother, conceiving offspring who are as much his brothers and sisters as sons and daughters, the hapless Oedipus bemoans his fate but knows he is not a mere victim nor even a cosmic collaborator. Yet his crime, its resolution and its (eventual) expiation stand in the acoustic space of melodized light, a linguistic music passing through Sophocles’ lyre, as poetry.
Oedipus’ guilt derives from having violated nature in order to open its secret, so his guilt is fundamental. Only from an Apollinian analysis is he innocent — and accident or chance are cheap. He acted from a will to power — to overthrow his father’s power so as to claim the household and its mistress as his own. His individuality before his realization is a dream. It is a husk afterwards, except that this illusory persona’s destruction forces him to accept his peculiar responsibility, his guilt, after aquainting himself with his true self which is not a “self” at all but an elemental will. In Oedipus at Colonus, the solver of the Sphinx’s riddle is gradually absolved through a transformation. Oedipus sacrifices his conventional kingship, his familial obligations, destroys any semblance of conventional happiness when he commits sacrilege in order to peer into the Dionysiac mystery of the will. And yet, the magnitude, the toxic amplitude of his crime, his abomination, his all consuming guilt, are doubly transformed by Sophocles — by the eventual elevation of Oedipus into a man-god at his death in garden of the Eumenides, and (again) by the illumined beauty of a poetry which enabled Sophocles to evoke both the Apollinian unraveling of clues, the luminous individual and his Dionysiac will — the tragic insight — collaborate in one fabric of expression.
Nietzsche writes:

How else could one compel nature to surrender her secrets if not by triumphantly resisting her, that is by means of something unnatural? It is this insight that I find expressed in that horrible triad of Oedipus’ destinies: the same man who solves the riddle of nature — that Sphinx of two species — also must break the most sacred natural orders by murdering his father and marrying his mother. Indeed the myth seems to whisper to us that wisdom, and particularly Dionysian wisdom, is unnatural abomination: that he who by means of his knowledge plunges nature into the abyss of destruction must also suffer the dissolution of nature in his own person. “The edge of wisdom turns against the wise: wisdom is a crime against nature.” Such horrible sentences are proclaimed to us by the myth; but the Hellenic poet touches the sublime and terrible Memnon’s Column of myth like a sunbeam, so that it suddenly begins to sound — in Sophoclean melodies. 47

The question of the guilt or innocence of the unhappy Oedipus is finally “solved” for us moderns by Nietzsche’s theory. Although Oedipus is capable of arrogantly counterattacking and killing an old man on the road, of rashly marrying a woman old enough to be his mother and of rudely insulting the blind prophet Tieresias when he later blurts out under pressure the “secret” of Oedipus’ crimes to his face, nevertheless from an Apollinian perspective, blinded by “luminous spots to cure eyes damaged by gruesome night,” 48 Oedipus remains a victim. On a more fundamental level, of course, the details of this defense collapse. Why did Oedipus, after hearing the prophecy that he is destined to commit sacrilege allow himself to kill any older man or marry any older woman, both of whom must have resembled him? He does so directly after being warned by the Oracle at Delphi that he would kill his father. His flight was set in motion by a drunk in a Corinthian bar who claimed he was literally, a bastard, Sophocles’ addition to the myth? Why did Jocasta marry a young man just after her husband’s death precisely the same age as her son? Did she not indirectly expose a child of the same age shackling his ankles? Does not Oedipus mean “swollen ankles”? Did they never, in all those years of sharing bed and counsel discuss the twin prophecies which changed their lives, both photographic negatives of each other? Why did they act the way they did if they did not intend to overlook i. e. to spread luminous spots of “reason” over the evidence of their violation of nature, their conspiracy against the father, and their incest?
Nietzsche writes that, ” … the ethical basis for pessimistic tragedy has been found: the justification of human evil, meaning both human guilt and the human suffering it entails”. footnote? This chilling assertion connects Oedipus’ tragic incest and murder to the “lucid” sacrilege of Aeschylus’ Prometheus, as they both reveal that willfulness and guilt is fundamental to Dionysiac intentionality.
This explains in part the weight Nietzsche gives to Oedipus at Colonus. Oedipus’ guilt is very real and it takes him far beyond the sacrifice of his kingship, family and his happiness in order to peer into the Dionysiac mystery of the will. But the solver of the Sphinx’s riddle and the polluted abominator of natural law is eventually absolved by his transformation into a blind prophet (an uncanny mirror-image of Tieresius) and perhaps more. Nietzsche writes:

In Oedipus at Colonus we encounter the same cheerfulness, but elevated into an infinite transfiguration. The old man, struck by an excess of misery, abandoned solely to suffer whatever befalls him, is confronted by the supraterrestial cheerfulness that descends from the divine sphere and suggests to us that the hero attains his highest activity, extending far beyond his life, through his purely passive posture, while his conscious deeds and desires, earlier in his life, merely led him into passivity. Thus the intricate legal knot of the Oedipus fable that no mortal eye could unravel is gradually disentangled — and the most profound human joy overcomes us at this divine counterpart of the dialectic. 49

This transformation of the suffering Oedipus reveals that tragedy is essentially an affirmation of human experience despite the extremes of fate and nature. Nietzsche emphasizes, perhaps for rhetorical reasons, that the divine reaches down to earth, yet it seems that Oedipus eventually ascends through earthly redemption without help from the gods. His becomes a protective grave, a hêros, for future Athenian life. Oedipus’ refusal to crumble under the terrible weight of his crimes allows his death to encourage, to hallow unborn heroes who will find a human precedent for their superhuman acts of courage. In the uncanny last moments of transformation Oedipus leads Theseus into the recesses of the Eumenides’ grove, committing one last apparent sacrilege. Yet he now proceeds without divine interference and leaves earth mysteriously, entering an ambiguous death-in-life or life-in-death dissolution into myth, just as Sophocles’ grave was similarly honored, after writing this, his last tragedy.