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Caldwell, R.S. (1974). The Blindness of Oedipus. Int. R. Psycho-Anal., 1:207-218.

(1974). International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 1:207-218

The Blindness of Oedipus

Richard S. Caldwell

One of the most familiar and most 'over-interpreted' symbolic acts in literature is the self-blinding of the eponymous hero of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, the punishment which Oedipus inflicts upon himself after discovering his true identity and his unintentional culpability for the sins of incest and parricide. Because classicists and psychoanalysts alike have seen this act of self-mutilation as a highly significant element both in the myth of Oedipus and in the play of Sophocles, there have been a number of different interpretations, widely variant in viewpoint, purpose and conclusion, but not necessarily, as I hope to show, mutually exclusive. Literary critics have, in general, regarded the blindness of Oedipus as a cognitive issue and have accordingly discussed it in terms of dramatic motivation, philosophical and ethical questions, ironic symmetry, and so on. Psychoanalytic critics, on the other hand, have followed the lead of Freud (1900) in viewing the self-blinding as a symbolic function of psychic mechanisms (e.g. 'displacement from below upwards') and, by virtue of its symbolic meaning, as a representation of the talion punishment for the sin of incest.

There has been, for the most part, little communication between these two schools of thought. Most classicists regard the attempts of psychoanalysts to deal with their subject with a mixture of scorn and scepticism that is often justified; or, as we may discern in Knox's (1957) criticism of Freud's analysis of the Oedipus Rex, they fear that a psychoanalytic interpretation will somehow deprive the works they cherish most of some essential artistic or moral value.

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