My AP Lit students and I have been reading Oedipus Rex, asking ourselves the questions of how well any of us truly know ourselves and, if we don’t fully know ourselves, whether we should be held accountable for our actions. We discussed the Johari Window, the self-awareness tool often used in business, to help individuals better understand themselves and their relationship with others:
Centering on the enormity of Oedipus’s blind spot, the play is a tragedy because his unrelenting quest to shed light on that upper right hand quadrant causes him and his family unspeakable suffering. He knows the truth will be painful, yet he persists. My students and I asked ourselves whether it would be better to be blissfully ignorant, to hide from the truth, as Oedipus’ wife Jocasta begs. Most agreed that would be cowardly and would mark the play as even more dark than it presently is. They appreciated Arthur Miller’s explanation of the distinction between tragedy and comedy:
In truth tragedy implies more optimism in its author than does comedy, and … its final result ought to be the reinforcement of the onlooker’s brightest opinions of the human animal. For, if it is true to say that in essence the tragic hero is intent upon claiming his whole due as a personality, and if this struggle must be total and without reservation, then it automatically demonstrates the indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity.
In short, to be fully human is to seek enlightenment and understanding, whatever the costs.
The problem initially for Oedipus, a mistake that we all make, is that he relies too heavily on his “open” quadrant – that which he knows about himself and what others know about him. He believes that who he is now will be who he is for all time. The problem with this approach for man and for institutions is that circumstances change, new information arrives, and applying what worked in the past may actually lead to tragedy.
The play begins with Oedipus attempting to tackle a new crisis. He has been a great man. Learning of the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, he abandoned his home while young, intent on outwitting fate. Attacked on the Theban highway, he single-handedly killed a band of men. Solving the riddle of the Sphinx, he rescued Thebes from a terrible plague and assumed its throne. As he and everyone else know, he is a courageous, independent leader.
However, when pestilence strikes Thebes, brought on by some unknown inner corruption, Oedipus believes he alone can solve the problem. Acting as the same courageous, independent leader he has been in the past, he insults prophets as witless, accuses family of treachery, and labels his wife as shallow. By applying all the strengths that made him king, he brings about his own tragedy.
It’s a frightening turn of events. How many of us wouldn’t simply continue doing what has always worked? How many of us would actually risk trying something new, would actually seek to understand our blind spots, would attempt to share what we’re hiding, would venture into the unknown to discover our potential?
Furthermore, how might this tragedy offer us insight into how we educate our students? Are we simply applying what has always worked in the past, assuming that circumstances have not changed? Are we relying on our strengths as knowledgeable teachers intent on molding students who think and act as we do, and might this confidence be creating blind spots that others, with new information, might be able to help us see? And, lastly, do we wonder what the future will hold for our students, the vast unknown, that we could and should imagine with them?
Who knew that a play written 2500 years ago would have us asking these questions today?