Why the Blinding?
Why does Oedipus blind himself? So that the eyes should no longer look upon the people, the things, that they should not. Sophocles says so. He repeats it: how could Oedipus share sensibilities with his fellow citizens, with whom he can now share nothing? If he could have shut off the sources of hearing, he would have, thus making himself the outcast who was to be banned from the community, because the murderer was to be that outcast, and Oedipus is the murderer. Sophocles adds that it would be sweet for Oedipus to cut himself loose from all evils, from all his life he knows now as evil; and then Sophocles seems to contradict himself when Oedipus cries for his daughters and calls them into his arms. But, by then, the mood of frenzy has ebbed along with the strength of fury, and Oedipus is himself again, reasoning, and justifying.
The Three Stages of the Life of Oedipus:
Oedipus as Everyman
Oedipus as Everyman
Oedipus’s self-blinding can be seen from various angles. It seems to be a punishment of what is evil, for Oedipus does not deign to call himself unlucky, ill-starred, but just evil or vile. But the blinding serves one more purpose. The riddle of the Sphinx spoke of man feeble as a baby, man strong as a grown-up man (walking on two feet), and man feeble in old age. And we have had Oedipus as a baby. Oedipus as a grown-up man, a strong traveller walking on his two feet. We need Oedipus old and unfeebled, and he is still a man in his prime and very strong. Only such a disastrous self-punishment can break him so that, within moments, he has turned into an old man who needs strength now, and needs someone to lead him. So Oedipus has lived the three stages. The riddle of the Sphinx was the mystery of man. But it was the specially private mystery of Oedipus. In this sense, and perhaps in this sense only, Oedipus is Everyman.
Oedipus, a Unique Individual
Oedipus is bent by the shape of the story but he generates a momentum which makes his necessary act his own. He is the tragedy tyrant driven by his plot, but he is more, a unique individual, and somehow a great man, who drives himself.
Blinding, a Kind of Castration
Freud said that this blinding stands for the only logical self-punishment, castration. The eyes are as precious to man as are the genitals. One may expand this interpretation by stating that Oedipus retaliates upon the eyes, not only the epistemological mistake in genitalia (both being organs of knowledge), but he avenges also on the outside eye the blindness of the inner eye. What was the sense of those carnal eyes when they saw and did not perceive? This is what Oedipus says in blinding himself: “You were too long blind for those I was looking for.” The same implication is present in the words of Christ stating that adultery can be committed not only by the genitals but also by the eyes; consequently to pluck out the eyes is tantamount to castration.
Self-blinding, a Culminating Act of Freedom
Oedipus’s own motives in blinding himself are far from clear. He says that he did it to spare himself the sight of the ugliness he had caused, that he could not bring himself to face the people on whom he had brought such suffering. In Oedipus at Colonus he tells his son that he did it in a moment of frenzy and not from a sense of guilt. When the Chorus, in the present play, asks him directly why he did it, he says that Apollo had a hand in it. Again, he says that he did it so that he might not meet eye-to-eye his father or his mother “beyond the grave”. No one reason suffices, nor all of them put together. The act seems compounded of opposite elements: egotism and altruism, self-loathing and self-glorification. As an act of destruction, it shows man at his worst. To the extent that it was predetermined, it shows the gods at their worst. But as an act of freedom it turns out to be curiously creative in unexpected ways, and shows man at his best. What Oedipus insists upon in his reply to the Chorus is that the act was his own: “Apollo, friends, Apollo has laid this agony upon me; not by his hand; I did it.” Whatever he may have thought he was doing, the act stands in the play as his culminating act of freedom, the assertion of his ability to act independently of any god, oracle, or prophecy.
The Reason for Self-Mutilation
Why does Oedipus blind himself if he is morally innocent? He tells us the reason: he has done it in order to cut himself off from all contact with humanity. If he could choke the channels of his other senses he would do so. Suicide would not serve his purpose because in the next world he would have to meet his dead parents. Oedipus mutilates himself because he can face neither the living nor the dead. If Oedipus had been tried in an Athenian court, he would have been acquitted of murdering his father. But no human court could acquit him of pollution, because pollution was inherent in the act itself, irrespective of its unintentional character. Least of all could Oedipus acquit himself of this burden.
Self-mutilation Not Surprising in this Case
Oedipus is no ordinary murderer. He has committed the two crimes which, more than any others, fill us with horror. And in the strongly patriarchal society of ancient Greece the horror would be more intense than it is in our own. We have only to read Plato’s prescription of the merciless treatment to be given to a parricide. And if that is how Greek Justice treated parricides, it is not surprising that Oedipus treats himself as he does. The great King, the first of men, the man whose intuitive genius saved Thebes, would surely act like this when he is suddenly revealed to himself as a thing so unclean that “neither the earth can receive it, nor the holy rain nor the sunshine endure its presence.”