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The Rare Luxury of Being Disturbed: Reading Sophocles’s Oedipus Cycle
Jeon, In-han Professor, Dept. of English & Literat  |  swiftpope@naver.com
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[0호] 승인 2004.09.09  
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How can reading the classics be luxury? Is reading supposed to be a necessary or even pre-requisite part of college life? But mind you, facing Greek tragedies will not yield what you would expect from reading in this hectic modern life.

That is why I regard reading classical literature as a sort of luxury which you can rarely enjoy in modern profit-pursuing life but make you really blessed if you have the opportunity of reading one.

Let’s be frank with our motive in reading the so-called great works. We normally expect from them the presentation of problems in our conditions of existence, which we might be or might not be aware of, and then the resolutions for them. We do not want our reading experience result in being disturbed without satisfiable solution for our temporary disturbance.

This, that is, being comforted after being disturbed, surely is what we cannot expect from Greek tragedies. They will disturb you to the extreme, and they will make you question and doubt your raison d’tre (reason to be, reason to exist).

Forcing you to witness the dire and seemingly in-explicable fate of the pro-tagonists, the Greek tragedies will make you even wish you have never come into being or at least have never encountered the disquieting works of this kind. Yet, once entrapped, you cannot easily ignore and walk away from the shock. You are ensnared, and it is only yourself who can help you overcome the shock.

Oedipus Cycle, which consists of three closed related works, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone, is about the harsh fate that leads three generations of the Oedipus family into death. The fate is unrelenting, inescap-able and even in-explicable.

Even the people who do not have the honour of reading Oedipus Cycle do know the destiny of Oedipus who killed his father, married his mother without knowing their identities and then tore his eyes out after the recognition of all facts. Has Oedipus done some act of evil that deserves this destiny? No. Then why should he suffer that terrible destiny? Has Antigone done something wrong in following the dictate of the heavenly law? No.

Then why was she forced to commit suicide after being sentenced to be buried alive? The readers are disturbed, not only because they come to pity the sufferings of the protagonists of these works, but also because their tragic fates seem to be inexplicable and inescapable.

However, only “seem to be” inescapable and inexplicable. What makes Greek tragedies great and classical is the recognition that, upon painstaking investigation and interpretation, what seems to be inexplicable and inescapable turns out to be explainable and thus, to speak a little bit optimistically, escapable.

This is why the reading of Greek tragedies (one of them, Oedipus Cycle) can be rare luxury. Unlike other great works, they never offer you the infallible way out of being disturbed.

They seem to disturb you, make you doubt your reason of existence without obvious solution. Yet, there does exist a shred of hint for that elusive solution. You, not the author, should find it and the solution can vary according to the individual readers. In this hectic modern world, to find the answer of your own seems to be time-consuming, luxurious rather than necessary.

However, it is the luxury not redundant, but quite necessary, because after the experience of this luxury the reader can develop into a person who can find his own answer out of a passive person who are offered a solution of the author.

I have disturbed my students quite a lot with Oedipus Cycle last semester, prodding them into the mire of despondence. Yet I don’t believe that any of my students became a pessimistic person through that experience. They might have been badly shaken, but, as I firmly believe, they are all right now.

Nowadays it is not easy to coax students to read the classical works of this magnitude, as the all too practical students seem to believe classical and practical as incompatible. In this respect, I have to express my deepest gratitude for the students who are beguiled into reading these masterpieces (not completely without grunt, though).
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