THOLOS OF ATHENA

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

POISONED ALTARS

OEDIPUS:
"O Tiresias,
master of all the mysteries of our life,
all you teach and all you dare not tell,
signs in the heavens, signs that walk the earth!
Blind as you are, you can feel all the more
what sickness haunts our city..."

"So I beg you, grudge us nothing now, no voice;
no message plucked from the birds, the embers
or the other mantic ways within your grasp.
Rescue yourself, your city, rescue me--
rescue everything infected by the dead.

TIRESIAS:
How terrible--to see the truth
when the truth is only pain to him who sees."

--Sophocles, OEDIPUS THE KING, (Robert Fagles, trans), p 176
Neglect has poisoned the public altar and polluted national life. Even the ritual of death that was so particular to New Orleans' culture has simply vanished. The defilement of the city is complete; since its dead used to be escorted through decorated streets, with the cortege bringing along Dixieland musicians, its long procession dancing. The whole nation has seen the unclaimed dead floating in that dreadful, toxic water. The living city has dispersed, with all its refugees spread over several states. So many are still trying to contact and recover their lost children. Wind, water, and gravity can do only so much to dispirit people; and yet the real catastrophe lies in government neglect, prevarication, and unpreparedness--all on prominent display in President Bush's administration.

Writing for Time Magazine, Matthew Cooper contrasted Bush's "bullhorn moment" in September 2001, atop the wreckage of the Twin Towers. "He can't threaten to get Katrina "dead or alive". The [hurricane] victims didn't need a photo-op gesture of reassurance so much as water, food and escape."

George W. Bush will not be accused of patricide or maternal incest; he is not guilty of such crimes, of course. This man, whose banality surpasses all presidential frontiers, can clearly be nothing more than the half-assed imitation of a tragic figure. Deficiencies of judgment, corruption and deception, and a shallow barbarism are the hallmarks of his White House. Tragic Oedipus at least had real issues; the President on the other hand, seems like a flimsy patchwork of gimmicks, evasion, and disinformation. The marvel and shame is that such a psychologically damaged man could have risen to the presidency twice.

In Oedipus the King, the theatre audience finds a great soul, whose fundamental concern is for his people. The King will spare nothing, not even himself, to get to the bottom of the plague, and find out why his city of Thebes has been singled out for punishment. Such great crimes as he committed were utterly unwitting ones; he never sought his fate. He was accosted at a crossroads, while he was traveling; he could not have known that the old man and retainers, who tried to force him off the road, were from a royal court. He had no way of knowing that Laius was his father, when he killed his attackers. The whole mechanism of his fate was in place when he was born. A soothsayer had told Laius that his newborn son would be his death, that the grownup child would kill him. Laius ordered this infant bound, and laid exposed on a mountainside to die. A shepherd found the child, and brought him to a distant city, where another king and queen adopted the boy.

Because Oedipus did not understand his actual role or his real standing when he came to Thebes, he only sank deeper into his fate. Thebes was tryannized by a cruel riddler, a monster called the Sphinx. Oedipus solved the riddle put by the Sphinx, and thus banished it from the city. Grateful beyond words to this rescuer, the citizens made him their king and married him to Jocasta, their queen. And he could not know the reality; that this older woman was, in fact, his mother. The audiences weep for Oedipus because he is undone by the greatness inside him. This king is most deeply devoted to accountability. And what matters above all else to him, is his responsibility to his people. When he gets word from the divine oracle that the killer of the former king is living inside the walls of Thebes, he will move heaven and earth to investigate, and uncover the killer, who must be killed or banished. And that killer is himself; and he finally twists the truth out of Tiresius, a blind man, an old soothsayer.
THE PRESIDENT:

"To the extent the federal government didn't do its job right, I take responsibility."
During appalling days when those stranded in the city kept waiting and waiting, a man trapped by flood could see across the street, where he witnessed river rats eating the flesh off the feet of a man he knew, who was still alive, but immobile. After two days of watching it happen, he could only exclaim "Thank Jesus", when death at last brought an end to that torment. Another man was found, who had died in his flooded attic, after clinging to life for a long while, as he tried to breathe through a vent pipe.

It's necessary to come back to the question of defilement, in order to take the measure of this calamity. It is incontestable that there is something wrong with Karl Rove, something wrong with George W. Bush, something wrong with Cheney. It's obvious that defilement is the issue when the toxic sludge is being scraped off New Orleans to make way for a boondoggler's ball. Ordinary prevailing wages are being suppressed by executive order, and the path is being cleared for Halliburton and the whole conglomerate of corporate vampires, who have been sucking blood out of Iraq and bleeding our young soldiers.

There is a symbolic cord that connects New Orleans with tragedies like those of Oedipus and Antigone. We see that sacrilege and defilement are heaped on the city, oozing like a curse through the streets. There is a symbolic association, when the dead are left unburied and become carrion for wild animals, and those familiars of our households, the dogs. The parallel with New Orleans is the excavation of its culture and people; and it is haunting and terrible. The bones stare back at us. A dog is seen gnawing a thighbone on the doorstep; fattened birds disgorge their gruesome message on windowsills; river rats waddle and deposit this horror. Altars, vestibules, and other sacrosanct places are polluted.

And it is said that aides were nervous about irritating the president, whenever they suggested that he might shorten his vacation to consider the fate of a city.
TIRESIAS:
"I charge you, then, submit to that decree
you just laid down: from this day onward
speak to no one, not these citizens, not myself.
You are the curse, the coruption of the land!

OEDIPUS:
You, shameless--
aren't you appalled to start up such a story?
You think you can get away with this?

TIRESIAS:
I have already.
The truth with all its power lives inside me.

OEDIPUS:
What? Say it again--I'll understand it better.

TIRESIAS:
I say you are the murderer you hunt." (Ibid pp 179-80)

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