Colonus at Great Books

To the reader: This is the draft of a chapter of a novel I wrote based on my experiences at the Great Books Institute, which takes place every year on the campus of Colby College. All characters are fictional, but the Institute is real and well worth looking into. During the week at the Institute, groups discuss six works in six days. Discussion groups remain the same for the week, while leaders rotate. This is a section of the middle of the novel, so I apologize for the lack of character descriptions. And it remains a draft, perhaps to be revisited at a future time.  If you are interested, you might also see “Lear at Great Books.”

Chapter Three – Monday Morning

“…but I cannot bear to tell you the whole story of mother and father…” Oedipus at Colonus (286-287)

Fat bald Sam, after surveying the group over the top of his reading glasses for any comments or confusion, wasted no time in starting the group off with their first question. 

“Oedipus tells the chorus that he is innocent, ‘pure in the eyes of the law’ when they push him to tell them what happened in Thebes.  Why does he say this, and does he really believe it?”

“Good question” chirped Ginger, interrupting everyone’s train of thought, which was already being challenged by Mary’s rummaging in her purse as if the answer might be in there somewhere.  Clair fumed to herself that it was inappropriate for Ginger to pass judgment on the leader’s questions.  She also realized that last night’s session had made it possible for them to jump into the major works this morning without preliminaries.

Cecil was the only one with a pad in front of him and he picked it up as he spoke, which meant none of them could see his mouth or beard and the words were muted.  “Oedipus blames the gods – he doesn’t think he had any choice about anything once his fate was decided.  Right before the place where he says that he is innocent, he talks about the ‘Horrors, countless horrors, sweeping over me, over and over!’  He has concluded that you cannot escape your fate.”

“So if the gods make him do bad things, he’s not responsible?” asked Ann.

“There’s a price to pay and Oedipus has paid it – but he has realized that he maybe had no choice.  It’s not unlike us – we are born with certain parents and certain genes – can we be blamed for that?”  Cecil looked smug like he had wrapped the whole problem up neatly for the rest of the group and that there was really no need for further discussion.

“But Oedipus did have choices, at least in this play.  He could have gone back to Thebes with Creon.  He could have helped Polynices instead of cursing him.  He could have just given up and died instead of wandering around until he got to Colonus.  He could have gone to Athens with Theseus and died in bed or wherever pampered sick people died in those days.  He did have choices.”  Claire was not going to let Cecil eradicate  free will that easily.

“He seemed to have choices, but his character would not let him behave any differently than he did – just like when Antigone insists on burying her brother “

Ginger’s head went up and she spat a reprimand out at Cecil.  “Antigone’s play was not in the reading!  Remember the rules!”  Claire was sure that no one would forget the rules with Ginger around.

“In any case, it is not clear that he did have any choice.  Look at line 264: ‘Look through all humanity; you’ll never find/ a man on earth, if a god leads him on, /who can escape his fate.’“  Even as Cecil said this, he looked less sure.

“It does seem that way,” said Gloria softly, holding her book open with hands so obviously arthritic that they were painful to look at.  “It does seem that way.  I used to spend a lot of time thinking about what I could have done differently in the past, but now when I look back over all of it, I’m not sure that there is anything I could have done differently – at least with what I knew at the time.  Sometimes that makes me feel helpless, but sometimes it is just comforting – we don’t have to worry so much about making mistakes.”

“It would be quite a world to live in if we all felt that way.”  Ann was outraged. “Think of a world where people felt even less responsibility than they do now.  Oedipus did make decisions; for instance he makes the decision not to give up and to try to be happy.  Take line 910, ‘…our life is not as pitiful as you’d think,/ so long as we find joy in every hour.’  He’s decided to find joy, to help the people of Athens, not to help Creon.  It might be the nature of his character to do these things, but he does have to consciously do them.”

“It’s a paradox, isn’t it,” mused Jim.  “If we try to swim against the tide, we are sure to be frustrated, but if we don’t, are we even more than beasts, just following the seasons to greener pastures and leaving our fate to the gods?  I agree with Ann that Oedipus talks about fate to make himself feel better but acts as an independent agent.”

There was a brief silence.  When it seemed that no one was going to speak, Sam expanded his question.  “Is there a difference on this issue between how the young and the old see it?  Between Oedipus and his son for example?”

Ruth saw a chance here to whine about someone else’s children.  “Some son Polynices is.  Throws his father out when he is destitute and then comes back when he needs him.  And look at the way he talks about him.  I thought the Greeks had respect for old age.  ‘The filth of years clings to this old withered body.’  Whose fault is it that he is ‘wrapped in rags’?  It reminds me of kids that show up at the nursing home looking for keys to the safe deposit box.”

Sandy spoke for the first time.  “Polynices is preoccupied with how his father looks – of course, he might not have seen him for a while.  But there is this emphasis all through the play with bodies – with the physical state of Oedipus and what is going to happen to his bones.  He disappears in the end, and maybe his soul goes somewhere but the emphasis is on the body. “

“Well, he doesn’t have any other material goods.  It seems it is the only thing of value that he has to give.  But it is interesting that Polynices wants his body, but also finds it disgusting.”  Gerry looked down at this own body as he spoke.  “All young people find old peoples’ bodies hard to take, I suppose.  It reminds them of how they are going to end up.  Like the Struldbruggs yesterday.”

“That’s a good point and it goes back to the earlier question.  Polynices still seems to think that there can be a happy ending to life.  ‘There are cures for all the past wrongs done’  he says in line 1435.  Now who over the age of thirty believes that?” This came from Jim.  Claire marveled at how the statements from women all sounded like questions, while the men’s questions seemed rhetorical, thrown out as statements in disguise with no need of answer.  No question was going to go unanswered in this group, however.

“Do you mean that life isn’t fair?” threw in Sandy with a smile, and Clair was glad to see that the newcomer had a sense of humor.  “Besides, who said that Polynices was over thirty?”

Gloria pushed her thin white hair back over her temples where it had fallen while she had pondered over her book.  “But Polynices is talking about mercy there, about forgiveness, not fairness, not justice.  You have to take it in context.  Here is what he says:

I am the worst man alive, I swear it,

in all the touches you, the care you need. 

Hear it from me, no one else.  But think…

even Zeus himself, in all his works,

Keeps Mercy beside him, poised beside his throne –

so let her stand beside you now, my father!

There are cures for all the past wrongs done,

no way to make them worse, not now.  (1429-1436)

I think that Polynices only wants what Oedipus has given himself – forgiveness.  Oedipus forgives himself because he convinces himself that he had no choice.  Polynices is only looking for his father to give him the same kind of atonement, for the same innocence that Oedipus gives himself.”  The group sat in silence for a moment taking this in.  Thinking about their own parents, Clair thought, like I am thinking about mine.  And my husband’s.

            “But Oedipus does think that Polynices had a choice.  Partly, I think, because he has the direct comparison between the daughters and the sons.  The daughters took care of him while the sons drove him out.  He expects Polynices to have honored him the way that Oedipus honored the gods.  Of course, it is interesting that Oedipus’s own father put him out to die – in effect cursed him – because of the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother.  What goes around…”  Clair’s voice trailed off; she had completed the thought, but her mind had snagged on the direct comparison between sons and daughters, and she wondered if Oliver had ever made such a comparison.  She also thought about her own son and daughter; Jessica had always claimed that she was her father’s favorite and Glenn was her mother’s and Claire had always denied it.

            “He is young.”  Gloria sounded very sad.  “He can’t get his father to forgive him, and he can’t forgive himself.  He tells his sister that he is going to march to his death because he cannot bear to tell his men that he failed in his mission and that, instead of the blessings of his father’s bones, they have his father’s curse.  He finds it “unthinkable” to show his weakness, and he cannot bear to have been mocked by this brother.  Antigone is young too; she tells her brother that if she doesn’t have him she might as well be dead.  We all think that when we are young and have someone to love – but when they are gone, we eventually find that we want to go on, that we do go on.  They are very young.  Oedipus on the other hand is very old, and he is a true old person.  You can tell that Sophocles was very old when he wrote this.”

            Claire waited for Ginger to invoke the rules about Sophocles’ age, but nothing happened.   Gloria herself was very old, and Jim turned to her.

            “How can you tell that this was written by a very old person?  From the text, I mean, not from outside sources.”   He looked sideways at Ginger who seemed to be otherwise occupied looking for a passage in her book.

            “Because he has learned about acceptance, he doesn’t care how he looks, and he doesn’t care what other people think about him.  Right in the beginning he says ‘Acceptance- that is the great lesson suffering teaches/suffering and the long years, my close companions.’  Even that phrase, ‘the long years, my close companions’ – when you are old the years gone by and all they contain are your close companions.  And, you have to make peace with them.  You can see clearly from a distance what you could not see close up – and maybe Polynices is still too close to for his father for Oedipus to be as wise as he should be regarding him – not unusual with parents and sons.  Look at the description that the Chorus gives of old age, as a ‘great headland facing the north/hit by the winter breakers beating down/from every quarter.’  I don’t mean to depress you young folks, but old age is relentless, and you might as well reconcile yourselves to the gods on that one.   But there is the acceptance and the peace.  It is over.  You know how the game is going to turn out.  Not so bad.  It’s like reading a good novel for the second time; you know how it’s going to end so there is no hurry to get there, you can enjoy words.”

            Mertha had been looking for a time like she was waiting for someone to invite her to speak.  This was not likely; participants were perfectly permitted to sit in silence if they so chose, and many did. Some newcomers spent their whole first summer at Colby utterly silent in group, only to come back the next year full of things to say.  Clair could see that Mertha’s book was as dog-eared and marked up as everyone else’s.  It certainly looked like she had studied the material.  As Clair was contemplating her, Mertha plunged in, and her voice seemed to be centuries younger than that of Gloria.

            “But are you saying old age is a good thing, all in all?  Or are you saying we have no choice, so we will be happier if we accept it?  But what if science eventually does away with old age?  Won’t we all be glad?  Gulliver certainly would have been happy!  We can still look back on our lives – we won’t lose that, but we can avoid losing our teeth and hair perhaps!”  She laughed along with a few of the others, but with those around the table who had already lost their teeth and hair there was little mirth.

            Gerry looked long and hard at Mertha, who was squirming with second thoughts about her first contribution to the group.  He was kind.  “That’s a good thought.  You’re right – by the time you get old, old may be 120!  You might not have to worry about some of the things we worry about – they may have cured what is going to kill us.  But Gloria is right too.  Years don’t make a difference – looking back in the way Oedipus does is possible because you know that there is no more to do, that you cannot try any longer, and you are almost done.  Really done.  If at 70, you know you have another 50 good years ahead of you, you will not think like this.  You will be thinking about how to make your money last, how to beat your neighbor at bridge, whether the woman next door might go to bed with you.  It only comes when you can see the sun going down. Maybe for Mertha’s generation, this won’t happen until the hit ninety or a hundred, but at some point, they’ll be approaching the end.  Even old people who keep thinking that the next operation is going to rejuvenate them or make them look young again cannot get there.  They are still in the race.  You have to get out of the race.  Some people never do.”

At that point, Clair could not help but look at Ruth and the evidence all over her of the war to stop age.  But was Ruth really different from everyone else in the room, or just more obvious about it?