The One-Headlight Club

I am, for whatever reason, constitutionally incapable of being well-organized. I misplace things, forget things, and am always just two steps ahead of catastrophe. I do try, and I believe it's important to be organized, but I've come to accept that I will never will be very good at it. I first came to this conclusion many years ago. I had an old car, a 1981 Toyota Supra, and one day the right headlight went out. I knew I had to get it fixed--driving around with one headlight will get you a ticket in this state--but somehow I could never get around to it. I kept saying to myself, "I really have got to get that fixed."

For over six months I drove around town with one headlight and worried that I'd get pulled over by a cop (never did, thankfully). Anyway, I quickly realized something I had never noticed before. There are actually a lot of people driving around with just one headlight. One night I found that three of the four cars at a four-way stop had only one headlight. I almost began to think of us one-headlight people as de facto members of a club. We were the people who couldn't get our acts together, who couldn't even be organized enough to carry out proper car maintenance.

I sometimes wondered during these months if the rest of our lives were equally disorganized. We probably had bills even now laying behind the couch and important papers in misplaced shoe boxes. Well, one day I decided enough. This was ridiculous. I just had to make a change. So I took a day off work, drove my car in, and got it fixed. The pride I felt as I drove away from that garage was immense. I had finally done it. I had set my sites on a goal, made an effort, and gotten myself back into the two-headlight world, a place I could remain if I really wanted.

Three days later the left headlight went out.

I sometimes tell this story in class to illustrate the concept of irony, an idea that is best thought of as a continuum. Irony can be funny on a small scale: "I thought I was getting my act together only to have life kick me in the shins." Change the story to a woman who has a cancerous tumor successfully removed from her right breast only to discover three weeks later an even bigger and fatal one in her left, and now it is not so funny. It's tragic.

So this morning in my Humanities section we start discussing Oedipus, a play laced with tragic irony. I have noticed something over the years, too. My students don’t get tragedy. The very words—tragic hero—seem a contradiction to them. How can a character like Oedipus, a man who has committed terrible mistakes, be seen as heroic? They just wrinkle their freckled little noses when I make the case that he is. Yet the Greeks certainly believed there was something heroic in a figure like Oedipus.

Of course, anyone who starts a sentence with the phrase “the Greeks believed…” is already half wrong. The Greeks thought and believed many things and were seldom in agreement. At one time or another they made powerful arguments both for and against democracy. Some Greek thinkers eloquently held justice to be the highest good; others argued it was merely what the wealthy and powerful desired. Some argued that knowledge of divine truths was possible; others that there were no divine truths to know.

Did they value the ideal warrior-hero and Olympic champion? Certainly, but they sometimes ridiculed these types. Similarly, Socrates argued that the best life was not obtained through riches, fame or glory. The attainment of these, he argued, came from mere chance or the ignorant opinions of others. For Socrates the best life for a human being was one of rational self-examination in pursuit of truth. But to what degree is this kind of life possible or even advisable? Maybe it's not. Maybe we are all in the one-headlight club.

The Greek playwright Sophocles seems to be wrestling with just these ideas in Oedipus the King. Throughout the play, Oedipus grimly follows the Delphic advice to know oneself. Like Socrates, he dedicates himself to discovering the truth, and--also like Socrates--he is told more than once to quit asking troublesome questions, to drop it and leave well enough alone. He stubbornly refuses.

And why wouldn't he? Oedipus’s cleverness and daring rescued the city from the Sphinx many years earlier, and there is every indication that he has been a good king and a devoted husband to Jocasta. True, he is a bit rash and overly confident in his abilities, but life up to this point has given him few reasons to doubt his abilities. Even so, before the play’s end, he will undo all that he has accomplished.

Overhanging everything is a heavy sense of inevitability. Oedipus can do little to forestall his fate (or kairos). It would be a mistake, however, to confuse Greek notions of fate with the Christian idea of predestination, a doctrine that believed one's salvation or damnation was predetermined by God. Kairos is different. Life, the Greeks thought, presented us with a few fateful moments. These kairotic moments require us to choose our actions carefully. Indeed, a reluctance to act in such moments is as fateful a choice as any other, for the kairotic moments do not come again; and the choice once made determines all that follows.

Oedipus' killing of his father at a lonely crossroads was such a moment, as was his decision to leave Corinth to defy the prophesy that he would murder his father and wed his mother. Could he have avoided his fate? Possibly. What if he had vowed never to murder any man or wed any woman? The tragedy of Oedipus is ultimately one of blindness, a metaphor that Sophocles sprinkles liberally throughout the play. If it is true that life presents us with kairotic moments--alignments of events and possibilities that must be seized-- there is no accompanying guarantee that we will recognize these moments when they appear. In Oedipus, Sophocles lays out the prospect that we might even be life-time members of the No Headlight Club.

The philosopher Aristotle, one of literature's first dramatic critics, defined the effect of plays like Oedipus the King as one that arouses in the audience emotions of pity and fear to affect a catharsis. The meaning of the term catharsis is much debated. In its most general sense it seems to mean a beneficial purging of emotions. By arousing pity and fear, tragedy may put an audience in touch with some deeper and more emotionally complex understanding of the human experience. Consequently, a tragic hero like Oedipus is not a stand-in for the person we aspire to be; rather, he is the person we fear it all too easy to become.

So we pity Oedipus because we know that we are just as prone to error and blindness. Indeed, his story questions the degree to which we can rationally aim ourselves at the best kind of life. After all, we might do everything right, act on the best information available and with the best of intentions, yet still commit unspeakable horrors. In the end, Oedipus oddly earns our admiration not for his worldly achievements or inner sense of conviction, but because he has the honesty and endurance to face one of the most discomfiting truths of life: our wisdom is limited.


Popular posts from this blog

Two Jars

The Betrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Adverbs

Four Arguments for the Elimination of the Liberal Arts