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Let us play a little game, shall we? We have all played this at one point in our lives; it's the word-association game. Think red- you may think apple. Now think green- you may once again think apple. Wait a minute, how can that be? How can two words that are unrelated have the same picture in the mind of an individual? This is the basic idea of perception. Now let us apply this basic concept to the text of Oedipus Tyrannus. The main character, Oedipus, has lived his entire life with basic preconceived notion of his own existence. Sophocles manipulates the audience's perception of Oedipus through oral dramatic presentation.
"Lacan insists that dialogue is the place where a certain subject comes into being, or perhaps more properly, where the subject comes into being in a certain kind of way" (Lee 38)
Jacques Lacan deals with the perception of individuals as well. However Lacan's perceptions are those dealt with in the mind of his subjects. Let us introduce Oedipus, as the subject, to Lacan the psychoanalyst. Now that the two have met in our minds' we can continue with the forum of one man's perception, Lacan's, of another man's life, Oedipus's.
Lacan has two complex theories. The first is the mirror theory. This theory deals with the internal world of the subject, and the phases of the conscious as well as the unconscious mind. The second is the inability to communicate one's desires adequately through the usage of oral communication- language. In both of these simplified concepts we will delve into the mind, and the actions of Oedipus the character.
Let us first discuss the mirror stage, with application to Oedipus the man. Within the mirror stage there are five phases. The first of which is the "fragmented body stage." While existing in this stage man is unaware of himself. In this dark, 'lost' state man is unaware of his surroundings as well as himself as a being. Oedipus prior to the opening of the play lives his entire life in this "fragmented" state; he is completely unaware of himself and his actions on his society. In this state Oedipus is caught up in the pomp of his title. The role of King carries an elevated perception of an idealized life (Lee 19).
The next movement in the five phases is the "spatial identity.
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The third phase is the movement of "jubilation to alienation." This is when a child moves out of the joy of self-awareness to the fear of not being accepted for his sexuality. Oedipus moves through this phase when he discovers the truth about his marriage and the disgrace of his actions. In Oedipus we find that his perception of mother and wife becomes blurred. In vocal discussion of these two Oedipus sees that "speech [the spoken word] is the origin of alienation" (Flower 59). For it is in speech that he discovers his fault of morality.
The next two phases blend together. The "dialectic identification" and "social determination." In both of these phases a child becomes aware of his influence on society, and how society perceives that child. Oedipus, aware of the social implications of his actions, moves through both of these stages simultaneously. He weighs the consequences of his actions as well as the affect on his people. Oedipus has become a fully functioning, disfunctioning adult "Oedipus, when he finally 'sees' who Jocasta really is -his mother-he blinds himself in-order to atone for the fact that his eyes had failed to see what had so long been staring him in the face" (Stoltzfus 44). Here we see that the communication between people maintains a delicate balance of understanding. Thus in this understanding Oedipus gouges out his eyes to demonstrate, without the instability of oral communication, after all "actions speak louder than words."
Now that we have fully discussed the mirror stage let us move on to briefly talk about perception in language. Lee phrases the concept of speech when he says there are two kinds of speech, "empty speech and full speech" (38). This idea taken at its basic level is exhibited when Oedipus speaks the word "mother." Oedipus' perception of this word is a visual link to Dorian, the woman who raised him from infancy. This is full speech for Oedipus; it has a solid representation in his mind. Yet in the audience's perception it is empty. We know Oedipus' perception is incorrect. We have physical evidence to prove that Oedipus is in the wrong with his perception. Her name is Jocasta. Thus Oedipus's word 'mother' is empty and
without meaning, for he himself knows not the true definition of this word. It has become blurred in his mind- does it mean mother or lover? Flower best sums up this idea through the pretext of the oracle by saying " like the oracle, the word is the basic social contract because its form allows one to wriggle out of it: the word Lacan writes, is devoted to ambiguity. As a signififier, the word refuses to restrict itself to meaning" (47).
In the beginning I asked you to play a game with me, a word-association game. Let us now continue that game. We left off with red and green. We decided that apple is a common factor to these two words. With all the background information on Lacan, let us apply the game to Oedipus. When you think of Oedipus I want you to visualize a tire. Yes, seriously, a tire. Think of how a tire is built. Think of the layers, and what each layer symbolizes in accordance with Oedipus. The rubber encasing the wheel is the mirror effect. The process of turning perceptions back out into the word is represented in the reflective (rubber-bounce) ability of the tire. The inners layers of the tire represent the five phases of the mirror stage in their entirety. Each stage interwoven to support the preceding layer, or stage. Now think of the place where the air is pressurized. Think of how it moves inside the tire, how it changes with outside influences. This is the internal structure of Oedipus's language. He perceives that mother means a caretaker, but as time passes in his life he sees that the external pressure of language changes his perception to force him to realize that mother and lover, although the same woman, has very different connotations.
This basic overview of Language and its complexities has in some way altered the perception of the word Oedipus. Whether that perception is long term or short term is up to others to decide, but the outside 'pressure' of words has taken shape. On some level the word Oedipus will carry the 'visual' picture of a tire. For Oedipus is a well 'rounded' character that cannot 'spare' himself from his own folly.
Flower, Juliet, Mac Connell. Figuring Lacan: Criticism and the Cultural Unconscious. Nebraska: The U of Nebraska P, 1986.
Lee, Jonathan Scott. Jacques Lacan. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
Stoltzfus, Ben. Lacan and Literature: Purloined Pretexts. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.