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Lansky, M.R. (2015). Knowing and Not Knowing: Lost Innocence in Oedipus Tyrannos. Psychoanal. Inq., 35(1):60-74.

(2015). Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 35(1):60-74

Knowing and Not Knowing: Lost Innocence in Oedipus Tyrannos

Melvin R. Lansky, M.D.

Oedipus Tyrannos (Sophocles, 430 BCE) is examined psychoanalytically considering the elements of the story as unfolding in such a way as to leave what Freud (1905) called, “gaps unfilled and riddles unanswered” in the history, that is to say, devoid of a truly complex portrayal of human motivation and feeling. The quality of innocence that is dependent on simultaneously knowing and not knowing, both external reality and the internal realities that accompany it, is lost during Oedipus’ zealous investigation. Elements of the history, as Sophocles presents it, reveal gaps and riddles that become resolved as the play moves inexorably to its tragic conclusion, with the identification of Oedipus as the parricidal polluter. The solicitations of supernatural consultation from the Delphian oracle betoken a disowned knowing of a frightening or a shameful aspect of human nature without actually acknowledging that knowledge. As the investigation proceeds, the play devolves virtually into a play within a play with Oedipus, Jocasta, and Creon set apart from the chorus in such a way that highlights the exposure of Oedipus and Jocasta in their states of fulminant and unbearable public shame. It is in response to this exposure and shame that Jocasta kills herself and Oedipus blinds himself and requests banishment. The hitherto circumstantial history of unknowing parricide and incest powerfully affects the audience because those polluting crimes contain something essential, albeit disowned, in human nature. The quality of innocence, simultaneous knowing and not knowing, lost in Oedipus and Jocasta as the action moves relentlessly toward their tragic downfall and public exposure, allows the theater audience to persist in innocence, in states of knowing and not knowing by their vicarious, unseen, and unexposed participation in the performance. In Oedipus at Colonus (Sophocles, 406 BCE), Oedipus is revered as well as reviled. This revulsion stems from the fact that he knows something about the inner recesses of the personality within the nuclear family that very much affects his effectiveness and greatness in the larger political order. He is somehow great and effective because of this linkage of the intrafamilial past with the political present. This is a crucial linkage often ignored in classical criticism. He is great because people know and do not know that he has lost innocence about the inner world of his family. Similarities to the psychoanalytic encounter are discussed.

[This is a summary excerpt from the full text of the journal article. The full text of the document is available to journal subscribers on the publisher's website here.]

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