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.
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.