The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Derek McCann
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
While I find it quite bracing to be occasionally told off by Hesiod for being so foolish as to ever imagine that anything other than sturm und drang could possibly be anybody’s lot in life, and that I must buck up my ideas and get to work, I don’t think that could quite be described as comforting. The text I come back to most often in times of trouble is Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus.
When did you first come across this text?
Sophocles I first came across as an undergraduate in the guise of his Oedipus Tyrannus and Electra. It was not until a few years later when I decided to write my PhD on Sophocles that I came across the O.C., and I was initially most unimpressed by it!
Can you tell me a bit about this play and its context?
The Oedipus at Colonus is the final tragedy of the great Athenian playwright, Sophocles. It was composed before his death in 406 B.C. and produced by his grandson at the Dionysia of 401 B.C., earning Sophocles his final victory at the festival.
The legend has it that the sons of Sophocles, who was like most tragedians exceedingly long-lived, sought to have him found incompetent so that they could gain control of his property, which he allegedly mismanaged due to his devotion to his literary endeavours. Sophocles, it is said, to prove he retained all his faculties recited to the jury the work in which he was then engaged, none other than his Oedipus at Colonus. The jury were appropriately impressed and found him competent to manage his own affairs.
The play deals with the events of Oedipus’ last day on earth as he seeks to find a new community and final resting place in Athens. An oracle, it is revealed, has announced that Oedipus’ body will give victory to the land which holds it in some future conflict, and so the Thebans who sent him into comfortless exile now seek to bring him home against his will. Over the course of the play Oedipus must gain acceptance to Athens, ward off a Theban kidnap attempt and confront the son who has betrayed him before he makes his uncanny exit from the mortal realm.
What is it about this tragedy that appeals to you most?
I think Sophocles’ final work contains some of his most beautiful and affecting poetry, most potent of all perhaps being his evocative ode to his own deme of Colonus, where the action of the play takes place. To be guided by Sophocles about his childhood home, a land of fine horses bejewelled by the golden crocus, serenaded by the nightingale, and sheltered by the child-nourishing olive is to enter, however briefly, a world free from care and anxiety. The power of the poetry is only intensified when one reflects that it represents the final tribute of a dying man to his childhood home.
The part of the text I find most moving, however, is a single line: 842. No sooner has Oedipus been accepted into Athens than Creon violently captures his daughters, leaving the blind old man powerless to retaliate. A demesman of Colonus cries out for aid, lamenting that his city is being ‘destroyed by violence’. To me the intensity of feeling that is depicted, and the notion that an entire community is destroyed if even the least and newest of its members is allowed to suffer is immensely affecting, and takes on even greater significance in our current situation. Experiencing moments of such powerful emotive force, even if they don’t hold great comfort in the traditional sense, tends to jolt one out of the creeping malaise that comes with prolonged isolation and anxiety, which is very welcome.
The greatest encouragement to be derived from this text, though, is the final shape it puts on the life of Oedipus, whose suffering has been grievous beyond all reason but whose end turns out to be dignified and blessed beyond all expectation. It’s almost as if Sophocles is adding a codicil to the admonition of his chorus at the end of the Oedipus Tyrannus, telling us that if we must call no man happy until he pass the threshold of life without pain, we should likewise call none miserable until he has passed away without consolation. I find that idea very comforting.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Perhaps perversely, since none of us are out and about anywhere near as much as we used to be, I have begun to find polishing my shoes very soothing! There is just something quite therapeutic about narrowing one’s focus down to a very simple and repetitive task which has a clearly apparent result after a relatively short period of time. The world is a much simpler place when it is reduced to a few square inches of leather you want to make shiny, and a much more satisfying place once you’ve done it!
The greatest consolation, though, has always been that found in sharing with other people. I’ve been incredibly fortunate over the last year to have been able to maintain old friendships and, through language teaching outside my own university and my arrival on Twitter, to develop entirely new ones. I feel rather like Oedipus, in fact, in finding myself a whole new community in a time of stress and hardship. I only hope I’m able to enjoy it a little longer than he was!
Derek McCann is a PhD student and tutor at Maynooth University, writing his thesis on Fathers and Sons in the Tragedies of Sophocles.
He also teaches Advanced Greek at the Belfast Greek and Latin Summer School, which is staging a refresher day in January and offering intensive ten-week courses beginning in the New Year. For further information please go to helenmcveigh.co.uk
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.