Saturday, 30 June 2018

Angry Post on Oedipus

The plot of Oedipus Rex is frequently described as the working out of a curse laid upon the children of Laius, Oedipus’ father and victim. The story is familiar enough: despite Laius’ attempted infanticide, Oedipus returns to Thebes and, in ignorance of his biological parentage, kills his dad and fucks his mum. This terrible fate was ordained by the Gods, is frequently called a curse, and its inexorable revelation exposes the feckless maliciousness of the Greek deities.

Oedipus is some play: Aristotle would use it as the template for the ideal tragedy in the Poetics, its careful elaboration of Oedipus’ crimes is a masterful display of Sophocles’ skill of building dramatic tension and the final understanding of Oedipus of his own nature makes it a prototype for a horror story, in which the hero suddenly discovers that they are actually the villain. The skilful development of Oedipus ensures that the audience is drawn in and feels sympathy for the protagonist (his mother and wife, Jocasta, however, is inevitably a stock character whose death is a mere prelude to Oedipus’ blinding. So much for the female experience).

Because of Sophocles’ delicate yet inevitable description of fate finally catching up with the unfortunate monarch, the play is frequently understood as fatalistic and the curse itself a simple representation of ‘original sin’ (although the Christian term is anachronous). The fate is arbitrary, a bitter fact of a universe that doesn’t so much not give a fuck about humans but actively fuck with them. Oedipus’ peripeteia is to realise his actual nature, and he’s a mother-fucker.

Yes, that works, only it is only part of the story, isn’t it? Laius wasn’t just the victim of a curse. He was cursed because he fucked kids. He was supposed to be the tutor to Chrysippus, only he raped him and provoked the boy to suicide. The punishment, to be killed by his biological son – and to have his wife seduced by the same child – is a punishment for child-abuse. It has a bit of a gangster edge, but is clearly a moral response to criminal behaviour. Oedipus demonstrates the social and personal consequences of child-abuse: it stays around to fuck up the next generation.

And let’s just remind ourselves of the culture in fifth century Athens. Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality has a close look at the various sexual relationships enjoyed in the cradle of civilisation. Basically, he concludes that men would engage in relationships with young teenagers – at their most attractive just before puberty – because the legalistic nature of marriage (and the oppression of women, who were banished to the back of the house) meant that romantic love needed an outlet.

Contrary to some optimists, who like to believe that before Christianity, there was no homophobia, gay adult men (as far as they could be said to exist in any terms that overlap with contemporary notions of sexual identity or behaviour) were mocked and castigated. Wanting sex with a man of the same age was effeminate, and there’s plenty of jokes at the expense of such men in Aristophanes. An adult relationship between men wasn’t happening. What was okay in Athens of the fifth century was an adult male having with a child, in exchange for a few bits of educational advice.

So – to be clear: Sophocles wrote a play demonstrating the consequences of a relationship that was common in the city in which his plays were performed. It’s not just a meditation on a hostile universe (although this quality adds an apparent universality to the script). 

It is about how damaging paedophilia is. Of course, admitting that the same men who invented democracy and equality before the law (isonomia, the principle that led to democracy) were involved in something like a paedophile ring is upsetting, so that gets ignored. And pointing to the treatment given to adult men attracted to other men, it’s a homophobic one, too.

The amount of evidence that Dover marshals for the prevalence of pederasty suggests that they were doing a fair job of making it seem acceptable. And even a classicist like Dover, who must have known that the word ‘homosexual’ was not even invented until Karl-Maria Benkert coined it in 1869 (Havelock Ellis was like, it’s a ‘barbarous… monstrous mingling of Greek and Latin’ (Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Vol. II, 1921)), uses it to describe behaviour that is better described as kiddy-fiddling. Congratulations on forging a link between the healthy desire of adult men for each other and systemic abuses of power.

I have two points here. One is that there is a further reading of Oedipus that is probably discussed in some classical scholarship but not generally known that makes the play fiercely moral and more connected to its specific historical genesis than the typical ‘it’s a universal play’ or ‘it’s about a subconscious desire all men have to sleep with their mum’. It doesn’t replace those readings, but it adds a layer.

My other point is that the conflation of homosexuality and paedophilia, which is bullshit and still hangs about in conservative homophobia, has one hell of a pedigree and is enforced by respectable sources that misapply the terms. I first discovered Laius’s antics in an encyclopedia of queer mythology, which coyly tries to reclaim Laius within some kind of hidden history. 

Apart from suggesting I didn’t pay much attention when I studied Classics at St Andrews, this is supposed to be a queer positive handbook revealing the occluded queerness of mythology and that. I know I shouldn’t have faith in a book that discusses William Burroughs without mentioning heroin use, or has a longer section on astrology than Islam or Christianity (it’s bullshit mysticism), but the need to discover lost heroes doesn’t necessarily involving adding to the long list of attempts to misunderstand the simple fact that paedophilia is not homosexuality.

Add that next to Peter Ackroyd’s description of pederasty as a queer sexuality in Queer City, or the mistranslations of St Paul that assume his prohibitions on fucking kids are a general message against same-sex desire (he can’t have had a thing against homosexuality because, remember, the word wasn’t invented until the nineteenth century), and there’s a nice historical context for that big load of Daily Mail paranoia.

I think I need to make this clear. Homosexuality is a manifestation of same-sex desire, an orientation. Paedophilia is rape that is predicated on the replacement of compassion with a drive to dominate. A paedophile ring is a group of criminals enabling each other, a bit like the Involuntary Celibate communities online. I am tired of the homophobia that conflates them, especially in books that are supposed to be all about liberating queerness from oppression.

I am aware that intergenerational relationships do have a pedigree within recent gay society, but if the law is able to recognise equality for the age of consent, so can chicken-hawks. There's a long tradition of an older lover introducing a younger person to the intricacies of sexual desire and intimacy, which goes into heterosexuality as well, but informed consent needs to be part of that. Children have trouble with giving informed consent.

Oh yeah, and Ackroyd: there is no reason to think that female gladiators are lesbians. No reason not to, sure, but skeletal remains with no inscription don’t tend to have a sexual identity. And you might want to interrogate what the word sodomy means in medieval society before assuming it is all about anal sex. It’s not that Christianity hasn’t got a problem with homophobia, but a bit of context might provide some clues as how to disentangle a decidedly Unchristian attitude from the prejudices of fundamentalists.

Just saying.

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