Among the still existing Greek tragedies, Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” (ca. 429 BCE) is generally singled out as the quintessential example of ancient dramatic art. While celebrating the poetic power and originality of “Oedipus Rex,” it is often forgotten that Sophocles wrote well over hundred plays ― of which only seven exist today. It is reasonable to assume that Oedipus Rex was one of Sophocles’ more accomplished plays, since the Greek philosopher Aristotle characterizes it as an exemplary literary work.
When Aristotle wrote his famous treatise on dramatic art ― the “Poetics” (ca. 335 BCE) ― he thought of “Oedipus Rex” as a play that contained all the necessary components of a well-designed work; mimesis (imitation or representation of life), catharsis (release of emotions), peripeteia (reversal of fortunes), anagnorisis (recognition or identification), and hamartia (the hero’s tragic flaw or error). Aristotle’s Poetics, however, makes references to a number of plays, many of which no longer exist. What singles out these plays ― including “Oedipus Rex” ― is according to Aristotle less originality and novelty; rather, it is the plays’ extreme loyalty to a very specific set of rules.
We might surmise that out of Sophocles’ many works, “Oedipus Rex” ― along with a handful of other plays ― survived because it was among the most brilliant the Greek dramatist wrote. On the other hand, of course, it is possible that survival was simply a matter of chance, and that “Oedipus Rex” is no more representative of Sophocles’ dramatic genius than any of the lost plays.
For if aesthetic value ― what makes works praiseworthy, exemplary, and worth preserving ― relies on a notion of strict adherence to a particular model, the idea of a singular, original masterpiece makes little sense. In this perspective, one could argue, somewhat paradoxically perhaps, that it is Sophocles’ good fortune that only a few of his plays have been preserved, rather than the entire oeuvre. Today, we call these few works masterpieces, whereas it is doubtful whether they would have been singled out for praise had they appeared alongside hundreds of plays equally loyal to the same poetic template.
In the book “The Limits of Interpretation” (1990), Umberto Eco imagines “a society in the year A.D. 3000, in which 90 percent of all our present cultural production had been destroyed and of all our television serials only one episode of ‘Columbo’ had survived.” It is entirely feasible, Eco argues, that we would read this single episode as an art work “of sublime capacity of telling through essential allusions” ― much in the same way, one could add, as we read Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” today.
Modern aesthetics ― emphasizing originality, novelty, innovation, and singularity ― has always had a uniquely troubled relationship with the series; mass-produced art adhering to a strict set of rules. In the essay “Art as Technique” (1917), the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky argues that modern art’s task is to “defamiliarize” things; to show the world in novel, wondrous ways. For in everyday life our perceptions are often dulled by habits and routines.
“Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war,” Shklovsky writes; “art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.”
However, the Aristotelian perspective ― which, as Umberto Eco observes, is essentially an aesthetic of the serial work ― has been equally dominant in modern times; perhaps nowadays even marginalized the position represented by Viktor Shklovsky. Whereas Shklovsky longed for a radical art form that would render an increasingly anonymous modern world in renewed edenic splendor, the contemporaneous rise and popularity of the serial work ― one that has hardly abated in our age of mass media, quite the contrary ― reflects the desire for a more flexible art form encapsulating both novelty and familiarity at one and the same time.
This is essentially what the series does ― from the 19th-century serial detective stories of Arthur Conan Doyle to our daytime TV soap operas: in every serial episode, the same kind of action involving roughly the same characters in the same amount of time is played out in an endless number of variations. Every episode is distinguished from other episodes by the introduction of new and unique elements ― e.g. characters, problems, challenges, crises ― whose individual significance threatens to derail the seriality of the episode, and which thus must be nullified, invalidated, or assimilated, neutralized.
Thus, at the end of each episode, nothing significantly has changed; the detective ― having exposed the criminal (i.e. the novel element) ― returns to where we found him at the beginning, typically the arm chair, waiting for the next episodic adventure to begin; friends ― e.g. in the popular TV series “Friends” ― unsurprisingly remain friends at the end of each episode.
The series mimics the experience of life as, essentially, episodic: we go to school, attend university, move around, fall in love, get married, find a job, create a family, buy a car, a dog, become depressed, and start playing golf ― and so on. In each of these “episodes” of life, we encounter new people, problems, challenges, crises ― and as we “deal” with all that in a world of ever-changing scenarios, we hope that some part of us, perhaps some of the people around us, will remain, and remain the same. In the series, this hope is confirmed, over and over again.
Each individual episode confirms nothing; in the year A.D. 3000, a single episode from our lives taken as representative of who we were may be just as misleading as the one surviving episode of “Columbo” ― or Sophocles’ surviving play “Oedipus Rex,” for that matter. Only the series ― the total sum of all episodes ― can convey the experience of permanence and continuity in an episodic age.
By Eli Park Sorensen
Eli Park Sorensen is an assistant professor in the College of Liberal Studies at Seoul National University. He specializes in comparative literature, postcolonial thought and cultural studies. ― Ed.