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Harold Alderman OEDIPUS THE KING: A HERMENEUTIC TRAGEDY IN Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche asks with respect to the value of truth, who of us is Oedipus and who the Sphinx? Nietzsche means to suggest that our inquiries into truth have been misplaced and that what is interesting is not the truth itself but the human enigma which seeks the truth. It is not truth which is the basic riddle, but man. In his encounter with the Sphinx, Oedipus solves the Sphinx's riddle by answering, "man." Man the riddle solver is also the solution to the riddle posed. "What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?" Oedipus, the clever son of two kings, who—as Cocteau's portrait emphasizes—has the best education available in Corinth, answers truly, "man." Man crawls, walks, and then uses a cane in old age. The riddle yields an answer, man, which itself reveals an enigma—also man. What thus looks like a resolution turns out rather to be the posing of a question. Who is this riddler/riddle, man? Oedipus, as Nietzsche's trope indicates, confuses question and answer; thinking himself clever, he is undone by his cleverness. The task of thinking, as Oedipus does not know—after all, even kings cannot know everything—begins with the interrogation of answers which are obviously right. And Oedipus' solution to the Sphinx's riddle is obviously right, for, as prophesied, the Sphinx dies when Oedipus solves the riddle. Oedipus becomes a king because he knows the truth. A "right" answer thus seals Oedipus' fate and provides the surest key to understanding his most complex enactment of a fate that belongs to all of us. Oedipus, as Nietzsche suggests, is the personification of hermeneutic naivete; he thinks he knows his fate. But what is Oedipus' fate? Oedipus himself is not without a warrant for thinking he knows the answer to this question, for it is a fate apparently foretold to two kings: to Laius, his father, and to Oedipus 176 Harold Alderman177 himself. The Oracle, as tradition has it, tells Laius that he will be killed by his son and that that same son will marry his mother and have children by her. Laius, a king, understands immediately what must be done: he must kill his son. Laius, perceiving the nuances of action, if not of meaning, has the innocent child's feet bound and pierced and then has a shepherd abandon him on Mt. Cithaeron. King Laius wishes to be neither victim nor criminal. He wishes merely to be King, to give both himself and his son a chance. Laius, then, thinks he knows his fate, and who are we for thinking otherwise than that a king surely understands what a god says to him? The message seems quite clear: fate requires patricide and incest. Laius will be a victim. But Laius is a king and knows that kings are makers of fate rather than its victims. So he does what any king would do: he acts to outwit the gods; his fate will be outrun. Astyages, King of the Medes and the grandfather of Cyrus, provides a mythological precedent for Laius. Astyages had acted similarly after dreaming that his yet unborn grandson, Cyrus, would be King. So there is precedent; Laius does act like a king. It is his fate. Laius bequeathes his fate—as do all fathers—to his child. So it is natural, when living unaware in exile in Corinth and believing himself the natural son of Polybus and Merope, that Oedipus thinks he knows what the Oracle means when it pronounces his fate. The fate Oedipus hears is so dreadful that he quite naturally takes decisive action to elude it. But on the basis of what does he act? He acts thinking he understands the Oracle and thinking he knows who his parents are. He surely seems faultless on the second assumption. But is he? What but the taunt of a drunk led him to put his fateful question to the Oracle? Oedipus can be challenged by a drunk; he can be driven on a pilgrimage by the smutty remarks...


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pp. 176-185
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