Another Steeltown Saturday night, another Fakiegrind classic...
A few months ago, my neighbour brought me the skateboard deck pictured above, having found it in the dump. It looks like a DSC (Dominion Skate Co.) board of 80's vintage, and it came complete with crappy trucks, green plastic wheels, rails, nose guard and bubble-shaped skid guard. I removed all the extra metal and plastic, but kept the deck because I love the graphic. Unlike other el-cheapo decks from the period, someone at the DSC art department decided to get gnarley, to get classical, and to get old. It may be hard to see in the little photo, but the figure is supposed to be "King Oedipus", who appears as a lion with bloody fangs and claws, bursting out of the mouth of some kind of fishy sea creature. The two monsters seem more Biblical than Greek to my imagination; they have a chthonic grizzled look that just doesn't fit with the lyrical Apollonian aesthetic of ancient Greek art. But the figure claims to be a portrait of my favourite hero of Greek tragedy, the sublime Oedipus.
You know the story; Oedipus is the King of Thebes, having gained the position by solving a riddle posed by the Sphinx. He is a clever, astute fellow, and a good king. When a plague descends on his city, dark rumours begin to circulate. Insinuations of murder--patricide even--and hideous inscest are in the air, and Oedipus pledges to track down and expunge the perpetrator, thus hopefully lifting the curse that has afflicted the town. Of course, the strange Twilight Zone twist is that Oedipus himself is the one guilty of the crimes, only he doesn't know it. It seems that when he was a younger man, angry at the gods for an outlandish prophecy concerning his fate, he killed a man who refused to let him pass at a crossroads. He thought little of the episode, but went on to answer the Sphinx's riddle and thus win the hand of the recently widowed Queen of Thebes.
What nobody could know was that the Queen was really his mother, and the man he killed was the old King of Thebes, his father. You see, in response to a prophecy made at the birth of their son the Queen and King of Thebes had their child "exposed"; that is, chained to the side of a mountain to die. Unbeknownst to the King and Queen however, the loyal shepherd who was given the task of overseeing the disposal of the child took pity on him and set him free, sending him to a distant village to be raised by a surrogate family. The prophecy that drove the royal parents to have their son killed was the same one delivered to Oedipus upon his coming of age: that he would kill his father and marry his own mother. All in a huff, Oedipus left the village in which he was raised in order to thwart the prophecy, but in the process ended up fulfilling it. The message, it would seem, is that you can't outrun fate.
In the hands of the master poet, Sophocles, however, deeper levels of meaning come to bear. When Oedipus finally realizes that he himself is the cursed one who has brought the plague upon the city--that he is guilty of patricide and incest, two of the worst crimes possible in ancient Greek (and probably any) society--he puts out his own eyes, using the needle of a broach taken from off the body of Joscasta, his mother/wife who has just killed herself in shame. Oedipus then banishes himself from his own city, thus becoming an exile twice over (he consciously becomes what he actually was before, only without knowing it) . He wanders the land, the legend of his infamy never far behind, and attended in his blindness by his daughter/sister Antigone.
The story is a poignant, wicked tragedy that impinges on the realm of dark comedy by the strange way Oedipus' lifepath twists upon itself like a Moebius strip. More than a simple morality tale about the omnipotence of the gods, it can be seen as a bald statement of the difficulties involved in self knowledge, and a warning about the price to be paid for ignorance in this realm. But I think that beyond any moralistic interpretation of the myth, there is a deeper, humanistic message intended by the poet. Oedipus is not an example of what not to be; rather, he is humanity itself, a reflection of Everyman. We are all, like Oedipus, ignorant of our own true natures, and we all, like Oedipus, suffer greatly when through the divine workings of fate or providence we are brought face to face with the inner truths of our being. Oedipus goes from being a proud king--the master of his realm--to being a blind, wandering beggar, but the poet seems to be saying that he is better off in this fallen state, because at least he Knows.
But what, exactly, is it that he knows? Well, that the gods are capricious bastards for one thing. But Oedipus is too far past the angry days of his youth for this little item to be of much concern. What he knows is that the world of appearances, for all its charms and allures, is not at all what it seems. Oedipus' self-blinding can be read as a metaphor for the rejection of the world of mere appearances in favour of a deeper knowledge of the hidden connections between things. Oedipus' beautiful wife was not really his beautiful wife, but his mother. His beautiful house was not really his beautiful house, but the home of his early lost childhood. The traveling rogue who kindled Oedipus' wrath at the crossroads was not really a traveling rogue, but his own father. His daughter was not really his daughter but his sister, etc. etc.
There is a Buddhist meditation in which you approach every living person, animal, insect and plant that you come across as if it were your own mother. One practices treating entities with the love and respect that one (hopefully) would show towards one's mom, because the Buddhists believe that over countless reincarnations, through endless time, we have each and every one of us been the mother of everybody (and thing) else at some point in the cosmic round. You don't have to be a Buddhist, or a believer in reincarnation, to see that this poetic belief is a metaphorical way of stating the same wisdom that is at the heart of the Oedipus story. To roughly quote a short green hand puppet, everything that we experience in the world is a manifestation of a hidden, unified Force. We are all One with everyone and everything, and so every act of copulation has incestuous undertones; every murder is a patricide/matricide; every "other" is also, categorically, other than another.
The message of Oedipus is that there is no escaping this kind of wisdom. Hide as we might in schisms, divisions and fractious frissons, in egotistical dreams of power, self-righteousness, martyrdom or the inflated sense of self born of fear and anger, Knowledge will still hunt us down. We can be told about this mystery in an ancient Greek play, Biblical Passion story, Hollywood blockbuster, or maverick skateblog, but we won't truly know it until, like Oedipus, we suffer knowing ourselves, because it is ultimately here, and not in any creed, kingdom, or catastrophe that the priceless treasure is to be found.