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From Oedipus to Morrison

They came to him. The Theban citizens, in pain and in prayer. They came to king Oedipus and cried for his help.

“…But, you, too, Oedipus, with your own eyes, you too can see how the whole of Thebes is in the grips of a battering sea storm of troubles and you too can see how she cannot raise her head from its murderous waves! You too, can see that our trees let drop their best flowers to the ground just before they become fruit and you can see too that our herds drop dead as they graze and that our women have all become barren.
A despicable pestilence, my lord, has taken our Thebes tightly within its murderous grip, my lord!”
Oedipus Rex 30ff.

When Freud read Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” he thought that his “eureka moment” had arrived. Such pestilence he thought is natural and it comes from an innate instinctive desire, a “complex,” that has sons wanting to sleep with their mothers. I won’t go on about the conflict he had with Jung about the latter’s Elektra Complex here only to say that both were wrong to think that this was what Sophocles was on about.

Sophocles was not talking about filial sex, though this was the platform, the myth, he based his warning upon but about something far more sinister, far more dangerous and far more common than that: power.

If there is an innate disease, an instinctive desire, a “complex” of some sort or other, that keeps us in fear and despair it is that of our wish to gain power and -and here’s the “complex” bit- to hold on to it. We need to show that we are strong, strong enough not to be hurt by others, to be stronger than others, to be able to destroy our enemies. And then to be able to keep and maintain that power for our own use. Power and the fear of losing it. Power and the energy needed to keep it. From whom? From our enemies, of course.

And who are our enemies?

They are those closest to us. Our sons, our daughters, our brothers and our sisters.

The first ever god, Uranos was castrated by his son, Cronos and Cronos, in turn, was thrown into the Tartarus -the eternal jail for gods and other immortal entities, like Sisyphus and Tantalus and Atlas who had committed heinous crimes- by his own son, Zeus, who is still the ruler of the Universe to this day. Look up towards the peaks of Olympus and you will see him there, thunderbolts in hand and at the ready!

Sophocles was giving his fellow Athenians a lesson that is very similar to the one that the biblical Timothy was giving us about money: “The love of money is the root of all evil.” (1.6:10).

Substitute the word “money” with the word “power” and you’ve got the similarities.

The next two plays in the story emphasise that lesson: His “Antigone” and Aeschylus’ “Seven against Thebes” describe just how evil, how destructive the love for power is.

But back to King Oedipus of Thebes.

“Oedipus Rex” watercolour by Pamela Stadus

When the people of Thebes gathered around his palace and asked him to try and find out what the cause of this destruction was, he swore to do so and launched an investigation so thorough that Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple working together couldn’t match. This was a most meticulous, forensic search that lifted every carpet and opened every secret compartment of every chest of drawers, had every cobweb perturbed, every skeleton brought out of the cupboard, every wound put under the microscope, every foot and its heel, every foot print and finger print scrutinised assiduously and every piece of DNA  parsed thoroughly.

King Oedipus began this investigation by asking the local vicar of the gods, the prophet Teiresias and from there he went on to question servants and shepherds and other citizens, his brother-in-law, Creon, until he discovered that he was the culprit. He had killed his father. He had sat upon his father’s throne and he had taken over his father’s power.

Then he married his mother and with her had four children. But that bit wasn’t the main offence. The offence was that he robbed his father of his power.

All this, of course happened in total ignorance of the relationships involved and by those involved in the crime.

The Palace, under King Oedipus had opened its gates and a thorough examination of all pertinent facts was conducted. Eventually the problem was solved and resolved. The crime was revealed and understood, its perpetrator arrested and punished severely – by the investigator himself, King Oedipus.

In the process, a most powerful lesson was learnt, a lesson about power itself: “Those who feast in power and are gluttonous of it, will indubitably taste the famine that is delivered by the powerless.”

The same entreaties were directed to our king, Scott Morrison.

Oh, we call them “Prime Ministers” these days but they are, in effect, as powerful and as fearful of losing their power as were the kings of Thebes and elsewhere back then.

They came to him, to Scott Morrison, as suppliants in pain and concern and prayed that he let the children and the adults who are in desperate need of medical care as declared to be so by two medical practitioners, children and adults who are imprisoned in the Guantanamo-like tents of our making, in Nauru and Manus to come to Australia.

Deaths had taken place there because of our bloody-minded nastiness. Deaths, injuries, both inflicted by others as well as by their own hand but most commonly and savagely because of the conditions of the prisons and their inability, the inability of those poor inmates to see an end to it. Their inability to understand what it is that they have done which has caused this country to treat them with such abhorrent hatred as if they were not seeking help and safety but as if they were some satanic abomination. This is what they just can’t understand and this what they want investigated, and this is what any fair-minded human being also wants investigated with the same thoroughness and methodical effort engaged by Sophocles’ Oedipus. Oedipus the King!

Morrison, like Freud and Jung did not learn from Sophocles’ exhortations and warnings about power, which is that you throw wide open your palace gates, you let in the people in and you ask them questions. You investigate all crimes committed with all the punctiliousness you can master. And you go on investigating until you find a solution and work on a resolution.

You do not punish until you find a crime and a culprit.

Oedipus the King showed his love for his people by relinquishing his throne and all the power that came with it and by working at finding out what ailed them, what ailed his city, his Thebes.

Morrison, the Prime Minister, instead, shut down his beloved palace, his seat of power, the thing he loves more than his people.

No, he wouldn’t allow any questions, he would brook no investigation, seek no solution and definitely proffer no resolution. He would tolerate no human emotion, accept no human rights inquiries, seek out no answers.

The inmates, those poor children and their parents, those people who stretched out their hand to us, asking us to stretch ours to meet it, are still there. In Manus and Nauru, still suffering, still wandering what on earth might this country be like? What savage hearts live here?

I cringe and at times I scream, when I hear the mantras, “Australia is a compassionate country,” or “Australia is a tolerant country,” or even “Australia is a generous country!”

To whom, exactly is Australia all these things? And how much of it?

We should now be re-addressing JFK’s exhortation, “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Or as Aristophanes had put into Euripides’ mouth in his satire, “The Frogs,”

“I hate a citizen who is slow to help his city, quick to cause her harm, who’s got his eyes wide open to anything that helps himself but completely shut when it comes to helping the city.”  Frogs, 1430

Ask that question and show that anger of those occupying the throne room, or the oval office, or the office of a Prime Minister.

Ask that of anyone who holds even a smidgen of power.

17 comments

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  1. David Bruce

    There will be a lifetime of reckoning for the perpetrators of these injustices.We have been told many lies about these unfortunate victims. While there are still many who do not wish to wake up, to see and to understand what has been done on their behalf, cracks are appearing in the facade of Australian politics. The odious behaviour of too many politicians to name here has become a public disgrace.

    Murdoch and his lackeys have a vested financial interest in promoting fear, uncertainty and doubt among the Australian population. When the details of the media roles in MH370 cover-up, MH17 debacle with AIDS conference delegates, Ukraine, Syria, Iran and the numerous “terrorist” activities in Australia and elsewhere become known, there will be blow back.

    Morrison has his finger in the dyke for now!

  2. Phil Gorman

    Another insightful piece George. The lust for wealth is merely the analogue of the lust for power. The lust for power unleashes our species worst excesses. Those corrupted by power can never be satisfied; they never have enough.

    This sociopathic urge can be seen in any human group; there is always someone who needs to dominate the playground or the boardroom. Good teachers recognise this baneful sociopathic energy and seek to channel it to more cooperative and creative ends.

    If left unguided and unchecked the full blown psychopath can emerge to wreak havoc and unleash the dogs of war. Citizens Murdoch, Putin and Trump spring to mind. “Divide and Rule” is their filthy motto. The likes of al-Assad, Xi, Berlesconi, Orban, Erdogan, Abbot and Dutton are yet more very naughty boys hell bent on trampling all beneath their feet on the path to personal glory. I’m not sure ScMo is quite in that league – yet.

  3. Joseph Carli

    Very Shakespearean…..nice post, George….

  4. helvityni

    Australian short history has always been about punishment, it still is….

    The new comers to country punished the Aboriginal people simply because they happened to be here, and they were not white..

    We punished single mums by taking their babies away…

    We punished our school children for making mistakes by caning them..

    Inhumane punishment was meted to young Aboriginal boys at Don Dale detention centre.

    We keep asylum seekers in indefinite detention, using them as scare-crows to frighten more boats from arriving….

  5. Sir Scotchmistery

    I agree Helvitnyi. Australia has always been about punishment. The place started off as a jail and still is.

    One day we will be shown just how stupid, how far beneath contempt, we exist.

    We will see that the planners who brought a tsunami and earth quake over the entire length of the East coast, hadn’t realised how self centred we are, and will kill half a million in one shot. Just as a teaching thing of course.

    Bring it on. We deserve it.

  6. DrakeN

    Punishment for moral decency and instruction is deeply embedded in the psyche of the Abrahamic religions.
    “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

    It is, of course, simply bullying by those who have the power to do so.

  7. wam

    The road to disempowerment is to pose the questions that the morning show autocue boys and girls want to ask on ruddick delay, on half a billion for the reef on why indue charge $12000 per card, on the outsource centrelink to the septics on climate change and especially on debt they will ask if it is exclusive, Set the agenda for them to ask the son of a small carthe debt lies of the rabbott is a vital point, please billy at the start of every interview don’t waste time

  8. George Theodoridis

    Thank you guys for reading my article and for your wise comments.

    Malala Yousafzai put it totally and indubitably well when she said about our treatment of the refugees, “You welcome them with hatred.”

    The sentence sounds very like an oxymoron, since “welcome” and “hatred” are contradictory but it is correct. We shout at the top of our voices, “we are a welcoming a country” while with the fiercest hand possible we lock them up in oblivion, in a modern day Tartarus!
    Malala is exactly right.

    (https://www.smh.com.au/national/you-welcome-them-with-hatred-malala-yousafzai-s-disappointment-at-australia-20181213-p50m13.html?fbclid=IwAR03i8eZRyuLtBsg6mO6EgcbS-zQUyPpHv21cur5nkqps1Vz0lRRHusm4V8)

    I cannot believe that we, in this hugely rich country so thoroughly lack the simple sense of compassion to help those who seek our help; that we are so abjectly improvident and prefer, instead to hurt them so cruelly, so criminally for even daring to ask us for help.

    I cannot believe that we are so bereft of imagination that we cannot find a sensible solution to this situation, nor can I believe that we have replaced foresight with such extreme and selective myopia that we cannot see the obvious even as it is staring us in the face: These folks will be great for this country, if only this country will do what good citizens do and treat them as fellow earth dwellers, as neighbours.

    I cannot believe that we lack the intelligence to see that this treatment we’ve imposed on them costs us, schools, hospitals, roads and a whole lot of other things this country desperately needs. That this is the most expensive way of treating these poor souls!

    I cannot believe that, after the huge piles of money we’re spending on “border protection,” we are still using “drownings” as an excuse.

    How can we not know that a society with many ideas (aka “cultures”) is a rich country compared to those countries with few ideas. A good cross-fertilisation of minds and hearts strengthens the social immune system. Without it your society, simply atrophies and dies.

    “Odious behaviour” and “too many politicians” with it, David Bruce, is exactly the problem that we (the once-refugees) and the (current) refugees, have.

    Many thanks, Phil Gorman for your kind words and for your observation that wealth and power are analogues of each other and that their corruption is absolute.
    Thank you also, Joseph Carli.

    Helvityni, Sir Scotchmistery and Drake your views about punishment are correct. Australia was born and raised by punishment, a punishment that is of biblical proportions and, I believe one that has emerged out of the books that form the Old Testament and all its “thou shalt nots.”
    I have felt its pain within days I entered my first classroom in Australia and it continued well into my exit of its last one in High School.

    Cheers all and best wishes for the days ahead and the days beyond them.

  9. Joe Carli

    Hello , George….couldn’t say more..I was hacked and a virus dropped into my PC….bastard!!!….but now…I’M BAAAAAAAAKK!……..HERE’S JOHNNY!!!

  10. Joseph Carli

    Hello George…yes…but I am on “probation”….I got a good lawyer!….his name is ; Marcus Tullius……but Christ he can talk!!

  11. Jesus

    Youv’e always got me Joseph my son.

  12. Joseph Carli

    Jesus…I reckon you’ve “nailed” it!

  13. Jesus

    Good to see your always working. God and I enjoy clever jokes at our expense.

  14. Joseph Carli

    ” God and I enjoy clever jokes at our expense.”…….yes..but that’s because YOU have the ‘Platinum expense credit card”….and YOU can afford it……..even if you can’t take it!

  15. Jesus

    I hope you have a lovely day Joseph ?

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