January 17, 2020
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
“[G]ive me a life/ wherever there is opportunity/ to live, and better life than was my father’s.” – Oedipus the King by Sophocles (translated by David Grene)
Last week, I discussed a play from around 430 BC as well as a novel published in 2019. It would seem that works separated by over 2,000 years would hold no commonalities. And while it is true that Oedipus the King by Sophocles and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong are extremely different, they do both raise vital questions about home, family, and identity. I think the fact that more than 2,000 years separates these authors points to the immense complexity of the issues.
Harrison Middleton University’s Winter Film Series began with two discussions of Oedipus the King. (By the way, to join the remaining two discussions in the Film Series, email rf*****@hm*.edu. Everyone is welcome!). Though the play was also compared to some of its adaptations in opera and film, I want will not go into the myriad differences between those adaptations (which is very interesting also!). Rather, this post raises questions of identity and ownership of that identity.
At an early age, Oedipus felt the need to visit an oracle to determine his fate. In our discussion, we began with the question as to what motivates him to seek the truth, especially to such dark ends. At this early stage, Oedipus believed that the people who raised him were his parents. He never questioned his status as a child of Corinth, so when the oracle tells him that he will kill his father and marry his mother, he banishes himself from Corinth. Once established as King of Thebes, Oedipus breathes a sigh of relief. Throughout the play, however, we discover that Oedipus was actually born in Thebes and has come to wed his actual mother, who set him out in the wilderness to die so many years ago. The oracle foretold all of this, and in trying to avoid this destiny he unwittingly walks into it. What drives him to desire the truth, even after he gets inklings and intuitions of the truth’s actual horror? What drives any of us to know ourselves?
Identity is such a thickly layered presence, containing both self-identity and social identity. Though Merriam-Webster defines identity as “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual”; it also claims it as synonymous with “individuality.” Yet, it does not describe who or what creates this identity. In reality, it is far more complex than it seems. People want to be known for their depth of ideas, their humor, their interests and more. However, often, we are identified by the things easiest to identify: our looks, jobs, hobbies and other superficial values. It feels increasingly difficult to define ourselves for ourselves. However, Sophocles offers proof that it has always been difficult to know ourselves.
One comment during our Film discussion interests me above all else: that Oedipus’s problem of identity changes over time. As a young man, Oedipus seeks the oracle’s advice about what he will do with his life, but the oracle refuses to answer this question, but provides a very disturbing prophecy instead. As Oedipus ages, he realizes that certain things he held to be true do not seem so any longer. In other words, as he ages and changes location and jobs, the question of identity also changes. As the ruler of Thebes, his problem becomes a much larger issue than the questions from his boyhood. Therefore, as the problem evolves, so must Oedipus, which is perhaps one reason why he pursues the truth despite his own ruin.
In On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong confronts labels placed upon him by community. Though his mother warns him to stand out as little as possible and not to draw attention to himself because “you are already Vietnamese,” he wants to be seen. He writes, “Because the sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.” (238). I take this to mean that if we want to be loved for ourselves, we must define that being as unique and individual, even if it is something other than the norm. Unfortunately, societyis often unkind to those who are different.
Vuong intermingles the idea of beauty with identity because, of course, it is vital to feel some aspect of beauty within the self. And this is where I think the problem evolves from simply how to define yourself (which is not that simple), to, why do we define ourselves the way we do? By beauty, I do not mean only the visual or superficial, but also the beauty of the interior self such as generous, daring, open or determined, etc. In society, we tend to avoid making messes. We do not show others our real anger or the skeletons in the closet. In other words, we have a very aestheticized public presence, which is most likely not a very accurate symbol of identity. Vuong writes, “I read that beauty has historically demanded replication. We make more of anything we find aesthetically pleasing, whether it’s a vase, a painting, a chalice, a poem. We reproduce it in order to keep it, extend it through space and time. To gaze at what pleases – a fresco, a peach-red mountain range, a boy, the mole on his jaw – is, in itself, replication – the image prolonged in the eye, making more of it, making it last.” (138). In other words, he does not want to discuss the darker sides of being a product of the Vietnam War, or having to make a living in the United States as an immigrant, or being homosexual, or any of the labels that others impose upon him. He simply wants to be considered beautiful.
This search for identity is so very nearly the same as the search for being. What is it that makes us who we are and do we have the ability to define it ourselves? Is our opinion always informed by the world that we live in? After Vuong’s trip to Vietnam to bury his grandmother, Lan, he writes,
“Yes, there was a war. Yes, we came from its epicenter. In that war, a woman gifted herself a new name – Lan – in that naming claimed herself beautiful, then made that beauty into something worth keeping. From that, a daughter was born, and from that daughter, a son.
“All this time I told myself we were born from war – but I was wrong, Ma. We were born from beauty.
“Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence – but that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.” (231)
That sentiment, of a phoenix rising from ashes, or the celebration of self, is what Oedipus entirely misses. The family that Sophocles describes is defined by fate, by gods, by something other than themselves, and in that spiral, nothing is left unspoiled. Vuong, on the other hand, powerfully resurrects his identity and controls the output. He creates being from being itself and this enables him to find beauty.
Discussing both of these remarkable stories has helped me to better understand identity. And along the way, I learned lessons about beauty and being, place and home. Though so very different, these larger questions of self have existed for thousands of years.
For more information about the next HMU Film Series discussion, visit our events page at:
Also, to attend a seminar dedicated to the idea of “What is the nature of a human being?” check out Toronto Pursuits 2020. Gary Schoepfel, HMU Tutor, will lead a discussion of this very topic. https://www.classicalpursuits.com/programs/the-proper-study-of-mankind-is-man/
To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.