Authoritarian Truths of the Fathers and Gods As Patriarchal Weapon to Keep the New Generations Under Control

Is this longest scene in “Oedipus Rex” an action scene? – No, it’s a rare, in the history of cinema, representation of psychological archetype. What archetype Pasolini opens for us in this scene? – That of our life long oedipal rivalry with the archaic father of our unconscious (the fundament of our anger, aggression, compulsions and hateful feelings in later years). This archetype is especially dynamic and “swollen” in totalitarian systems living by rivalry, competition, hunt for power and wealth, by wars and destruction of the environment.

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A democratic approach to Oedipus’ psychological situation would be a psychotherapeutic one. It could proceed in the following direction: Oedipus, you had a father who, when you were still an infant, hated you (because of his psychological problems), and you learned to hate him back. Now, this hate is inside you, and it is so intense that it can come to express itself in sudden aggressive feelings that can push you to violent acts. We want to help you to get rid of this violence…

To be condemned by Gods/destiny (to be Oedipus) means to grow up in a politico-economic system (based on rivalry, competition and fight for power) when this fact of living under impersonalized rule is expressed through mythological language. But when a person follows belligerence and injustice as systemic norms and has internalized the systemic evil (adorned by sentimental moralistic fables) he is forced to take full personal responsibility and pay the price by being punished. In other words, system is seducing people into sins and crimes (by suggesting them to compete, fight and be power instead of being love and then punishes those who didn’t succeed in becoming powerful, for sinning and committing crimes.

The psychology of Oedipus, according to Pasolini, is that of a hero. Oedipus needs to redeem himself – to neutralize his condemnation by heroic deed(s) and only then he is considered deserving love in a form of social recognition. The hero needs to be ready to murder for the sake of the system and be ready to lose his life in order to deserve love. Official Christian ritual of the baptism reflects this universe of primary condemnation of children considered not-worthy by the fact of being born.


Pier Paolo Pasolini


Pasolini’s visual metaphor of Oedipus’ unconscious memory of his father and mother together interprets this memory as witnessing the primal scene.


While nurturing baby Oedipus his mother suddenly feels worry that something terrible will happen to her son.


The meaning of this shot of the human baby tied to a stick and carried through the desert is that this happens in essence with children in various historical periods – child abuse and neglect including installment in children’s minds and hearts ideologically poisonous worldviews (aggrandizing “our” leaders and nation and scapegoating other people) which will later victimize us as adults. In this sense today’s American kids are psychologically “tied to a stick (of brainwashing) and carried into the desert (of mass culture and militarism)”.


Oedipus (made concerned by nasty rumors about his past) came to the oracle at Delphi. In this shot we see Pasolini’s version of totalitarian “tree of knowledge” – when knowledge exists without explanation, in a form of dogma and prescription.


The oracles of pre-democratic knowledge predict the future according to an authoritarian code: it will happen because I said so. Even when what the oracle predicts is true, the absence of explanation as to why it is true prevents the possibility of changing reality through understanding the reasons why reality is like that.


Knowledge without understanding is inseparable from the world without determination. It is oriented against people, treats them as victims of the reality. It functions like god’s commandments, leader’s commands and authorities’ orders. It enacts our destiny that crushes us under its hooves and wheels.


Oedipus is trying to resist his destiny but without scientific/scholarly knowledge (based on understanding), all his attempts to be on the side of good is doomed to fail. Oedipus becomes a soldier of evil while his intention is exactly to be on the side of the good (to resist the foretold crimes that in advance are attributed to him).


Oedipus thinks that the disgusting arrogant old man he meets on the road must be justly punished for his disrespectful and despotic behavior but he doesn’t know that this man is his father. Oedipus becomes like our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan – being on the unreal side of reality and acting in the name of motivations unknown and alien to him.


To underline the impulsiveness of Oedipus’ aggression in a scene on the road, Pasolini makes the camera move quicker than the character’s limbs do. His aggressive desire (impersonated by the camera) is quicker than his arms.


Children who were abused (physically, emotionally, verbally and intellectually) by parental authority have a strong precondition to become hostile and connected with world on an emotional, not rational level.


It well can be that up to 90% of those who have grown up in an authoritarian families or even in democratic ones with emotional alienation between its members, tend either join the army, be for military solution of international problems or/and vote for ultra-conservative or support ultra-left politicians and be ideologically militant and intolerant of dissimilarity.


Oedipus is doomed to need one day a military uniform (he didn’t grow up in one of authoritarian families which provide the most soldiers and people who think that fight and war are the best means to solve problems, but his unconscious remembers the abusive father whom he himself has “forgot”). Now it is time for him to step on the military path.


After years of being married to an abusive (suspicious, capricious, cruel and sexually compulsive man) Oedipus’ mother Jocasta has lost the gentleness and tenderness of her soul.


After his early childhood that was spoilt by emotional problems with the father, Oedipus so desperately needs to become a power figure. He looks at the viewers of the film – he takes us as witnesses of his honestly deserved triumph over destiny, without knowing that this triumph is the ultimate trap.


Oedipus is sincerely in love, but with his emotionally hurting early childhood and the spineless love of the couple which adopted him he is doomed to make one wrong choice after another. The problem, according to Pasolini, is not the violation of incest taboo, but coming too close to learning the traumatizing, horrifying truth about his childhood.


By becoming king, Oedipus, without understanding it, opens himself to the overwhelming truth about his past. It is like for the young people involved today in “Occupy movement” to discover that they don’t live in a democratic country anymore. In the scenes depicting investigation of the death of the previous king Laius, Pasolini emphasizes the inertia and the legalistic artificiality of human speech when human Law is applied to individuals whose transgressions are result of Gods’ condemnation/ systemic logic, not their own “criminal nature”. Courtroom kind of verbal exchanges, according to Pasolini, are like artificial beard and a tall hat we see on Oedipus in this shot.


This shot registers one of the most important and meaningful symbolic images Pasolini creates in the film – Oedipus’ obsessive gesture of biting the back of his palm (his destiny) when he feels trapped in it in spite of all his attempts to avoid it.


Tiresias-the prophet is a typical intellectual functioning in essentially totalitarian system – he knows the truth as dogma or fact but he cannot explain it because regular people are not allowed to understand it. Tiresias is doomed to individualize transgression of taboo and Law (he doesn’t consider the role of the system in forming individual behavior). He sees only personal motivations for transgressions, not “systemic condemnation” of Oedipus that functions instead of psychological motivation for transgression.


In a totalitarian atmosphere intellectual’s truth is always sad and “blind” because he knows that this truth is concentrated on individual transgressors without taking into consideration the wider (systemic) causes of the individual transgression, and that this is the fundamental injustice to make an individual pay price for the values of a system.


Under a totalitarian rule intellectual is always accused and even scapegoated by those who transgress or are ready to do – the conservative masses or the radical left individuals. And he is the first victim during the directly fascist periods of totalitarian rule that can be either with conservative ideology (Nazism, Fascism) or radical left ideology (Soviet Union). Oedipus’ reaction on Tiresias’ truth is typical for desperate conservative poor who are prone to try to gain social status by semi-criminal or even criminal means. Today in US this poor segment of conservative population can easily become voluntary militia groups under the banners glorifying the one-percent of the wealthiest Americans.


Jocasta is not bothered by the accusations of incest. And she is right – much more serious crime is hidden behind it (her real crime is of the same kind as child- and youth-abuse and neglect including the absence of humanistic education for the young, and their ideological molestation) that, like the crimes of today’s wealthy decision makers will, probably, never be put before the light of justice.


Pier Paolo Pasolini plays himself episodic role of popular leader who appeals to Oedipus suggesting to him to act in the interests of people, not to try to save his reputation. This person’s political position is similar with that of some today’s democratic politicians who are interested only in immediate benefit for the people and not with justice to the individual who is marked for destruction by conservative hate – in this case, the king, and who are ready to betray/sacrifice Obama, as they did with Clinton, Gore and Kerry, for the sake of not “distracting attention” from “people’s” agenda. Pasolini shows in this character the limitations of mindless or crude type of “humanism” (that is without intellectual sophistication and philosophical perspective).


The angelic figure of the savior of baby Oedipus, finally is found, but second intervention of goodness into Oedipus’ destiny is not, according to Pasolini, much help, in comparison with the power of fundamental betrayal that comes to light.


Jocasta’s shame (that has nothing to do with incest) forces her final decision.


Pasolini’s Oedipus blinded himself not because of the sin of incest (as it was suggested for eons) but because of learning about betrayal of his mother who cowardly followed her husband‘s psychotic fears about their son as a danger to him, instead of trying to reason him.


We see here Oedipus after blinding himself – after he found out the whole truth about his father’s hate and betrayal of his mother. To understand better what Pasolini is suggesting here, let’s think about our soldiers killed or maimed in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and about those of them who became torturers or murderers of civilians, or those who after leaving the army became happy forgetful consumers of pop-music, video-gamers and sport events. The majority of American vets have lost the desire or the ability to see the truth of what’s happened to and with them. They are real Oedipus’s of today’s history.


Reappearing in Italy in an epoch of European economic prosperity Oedipus sees that what he understood about human world is not for regular people who are not able to relate to the truth and prefer appealing lies, ideological propaganda and commercial advertisement. In consumerist society almost nobody is attentive and sensitive to truth – people are busy consuming things, services, slogans, images and consoling prejudices. Oedipus ends up becoming like Tiresias whom he himself refused to listen to. But Oedipus’ truth is much more encompassing than Tiresias’ – it is not about individual transgression of Law, but about a systemic transgression of basic existential expectations equal to the very possibility of life. This shot is a resume of relations between historical process and historical truth up to the present moment. We still live in the ruins of formal/consumerist democracy. Will a post-consumerist society be willing to hear Oedipus’ truth? Will we be able to return to critical truth-searching among mass pauperization?

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Everybody needs encouraging and a protecting truth. But life needs our collaboration, our initiative; we need to become tougher without losing confidence and positivity. One of the factors of psychological maturation is getting the ability to take the truth as it is (in order to later to be able to elaborate an alternative truth, more refined and more humane), but to develop this ability we have to be prepared by humanistic education, by teachers who care about us and about life. “Edipo Re” is about existential education – about pedagogy of truth and how it has been twisted into anti-pedagogy that puts factual truth about life as it is – against people, makes it misanthropic, a vampire. The film follows Oedipus’ journey – his attempts to discover the truth about himself, his life and his destiny. It is about young people trying to understand life and how culture by its very organization hides the truth: reformulates it in a monstrous way and uses it to hurt and destroy those who are trying to understand – by not letting them to analyze and study the reality. Then authoritarian rulers and rules sacrifice us to their dogmatic repressive truths like Pasolini’s Oedipus was destroyed by the masked truth about his father’s cruelty and his mother’s betrayal that is formulated in terms of his, not their, crimes. It is the way to shift the responsibility from institutions of power and organization of social world to the individual. It is like telling a person who was subjected to corporeal punishment in childhood that he will become murderer because he hates people and has an evil character. When people like Oedipus finally will break through the distortion and understand they will be so demoralized/existentially shattered by what they have learned that it will be very difficult to start life anew. It happened in Nazi Germany when people got it that the Nazi ideology of racial superiority is destructive for the German people. This happened in Russia when people finally got it that the solemn doctrine of Communism is a fake. It will happen here in US in 21st century if people will believe the flattering, appealing and fooling conservative propaganda and again elect representatives of the one percent of the population to be the Congressional and Senatorial leaders of the country.

“Edipo Re” is about the tragic perversion in cultural educational function (in educational relationships of elder and younger generation) when knowledge is directed against the interests of young people and future generations. As we are learning from Pasolini’s film, the first strategy of making truth turn away from its seekers is hiding and individualizing it – making truth secret, enigmatic, a personal matter, a matter of self-assertion and an attack on someone’s public image. This strategy is pointed at in the film when Oedipus encounters the rumors about his past. In US this anti-cognition “pedagogy” expresses itself in pseudo-democratic cliché that every opinion is equal to opposing opinion, that opinions are always subjective, that there is no difference between scientific truth and private interest or prejudice, and that even to insist on an objective difference between a competent and educated opinion and incompetent and uneducated one is a sign of pre-democratic elitism. The second strategy of alienating truth from people is to distort it, to transform it into truth of authorities – of gods, fathers, clergy, social and political elite (including Wall Street money-pulators or Supreme Court wigs and twigs). This strategy is represented in the film by oracle’s prophesy and later by Tiresias’s predictions. The third strategy is to make truth so extreme and indifferent, so cruel and unbearable, that it makes a person to wish to hide from it, to escape it because it’s not mediated by democratic pedagogy (like psychotherapeutic attention or encounter with serious art of the kind Pasolini’s cinema belongs to). This strategy is characterized in the film when Oedipus, already king and husband of Jocasta, is desperately trying to fight the truth about his crime of killing previous king. In US this strategy of making truth antagonistic to human beings often takes form of using Laws for gaining political advantage by destroying political opponents (as conservatives did with Clinton by using Monika Lewinski affair, or in the case of Kerry by smashing his military hero reputation, etc.).

Democratic approach to Oedipus’ psychological situation, on the other hand, would be a psychotherapeutic one. And it could proceed in following direction: Oedipus, you had a father who, because of his deep psychological problems, hated you as a child, although you had done nothing wrong to deserve this hate. He expressed his fury toward you because he was jealous that part of your mother’s attention belonged to you. He wanted to possess her soul completely. You felt his hate and started to hate him back. This hate is inside you, and it is so intense that it can express itself in your sudden impulsive aggression that may push you to violent behavior. We want to help you to overcome this complex that if it will be left intact can endanger your. In comparison with humanistic approach to a person with Oedipus’ childhood, to make the prophetic prediction that he is doomed to become an “exotic” criminal is, according to Pasolini, not just a fascist reaction but with obscene twist in it, with the element of mockery at the victim of criminal abuse.

The fourth strategy to make truth about life incompatible with human beings’ cognition is to make truth antagonistic to living, extremely unbearable and destructive, is realized in totalitarian systems when after destroying human lives in collective disasters they are finally close to collapse. This level is only hinted at in “Edipo Re” when the film shows the Oedipus’s childhood under fascism. This final phase of incompatibility of truth of factual life with human needs, with the possibility of social life in general – Pasolini addresses in his last film “Salo” (1976).

To represent a totalitarian antagonism of truth and life not statically but historically and express this historicity in stylistic (poetic) form Pasolini borrows from science-fiction expressive arsenal – he makes the main character wander from one historical period to another (by doing it he returns science fiction genre where it belongs – to the very form of art). Pasolini starts with the fascist Italy when Oedipus is still a child, when boys, like today, play in war (then on the street, today in video-games with super-destructive weapons) and where Oedipus’s father is becoming jealous about his wife’s attention to their little child. Fascist worldview and sensibility are considered by Pasolini a common denominator of human history. Fascism is a culmination of conscious and unconscious hate towards young people on part of elite of the ruling males who love to use young bodies as a means of providing themselves with more power. These “silverbacks of fascist domination” hate the idea that in “freedom” young people will waste themselves on humanistic education, criticism of the social hierarchs and sexual pleasures (this position is impersonated by Oedipus’ father Laius’ pathological jealousy of the baby and his demand to banish his son to the death). The world of Sophocles’ play provides Pasolini with a semantic skeleton of basic totalitarian situation when people’s very intelligence has been put against their interests, health and life. As a seeker of truth Oedipus is put against himself by the sinister systemic powers. When today authoritarian/conservative father thinks/says that his son is better go to serve in the army or he will become criminal he comes very close how Pasolini understands Sophocles’ idea of Oedipus’ condemnation.

In the final part of the film Pasolini concentrates on a special systemic posture towards truth, a particular manner of its destruction which is characteristic of the period of Italian economic boom during post-WW2 period. It is a radical suspension of truth, not just its distortion – it is a distraction of people’s attention from truth by making life commercialized to such a degree that it becomes really harmful for human emotional, intellectual and physical health. Pseudo-democracy of consumerism and entertainment is the period when Oedipus appeared amidst European “mass prosperity” only to find that understanding he has obtained with such a high price is irrelevant when people move around as ghosts and robots. The conditions of life in most materially prosperous period of European history make Oedipus not just suffer because of hate of the fathers (social authorities and wealthy elites) for the younger generations and because of the betrayal of mothers unable to protect the young from this hate, but to grasp that there is no place for him to live – that nobody is interested in truth.

Can we characterize this strategy of suspension of the truth (instead of just distorting it) by distracting people’s attention from it by swarming materialistic pursuits the fifth strategy of creating antagonism between truth and human beings – when this extreme incompatibility between human cognition and reality is achieved not by making truth unbearable but not existent (un-really pleasant/entertaining)?

Today in 21st century the injustice of the system towards its children/its citizen has gone so much farther than what it was in a period when people had become shadows (of life) blinded by their pseudo-prosperity. Today people are again in danger of extreme pauperization. Truth about life again becomes unbearable – the strategy of manipulation by the financial and political elite has radically changed in comparison with the times when Pasolini was alive (when his Oedipus “returned” from his Ancient Greece experiences). Now the fifth strategy becomes mixed with the fourth one. One-percenters of 21st century got the idea that today it is the right moment when they have a real chance to grab as much money from the public as they want, and get away with it. Will this extreme socio-economic attack on people provide new chances that people to start to listen, to hear and to see Pasolini’s Oedipus has to tell them about the basic betrayal of human beings by the systems of power?

It is not negative knowledge (knowledge about his destiny without understanding it – without the whys, the hows and becauses) that kills Oedipus’s desire to want to live – it only took away his eyes which don’t want to see anymore. It is him being suspended between fascist negative (destructive) knowledge (messages of guilt, shame, crime, self-sacrifice and death) and the actual vacuum of a genuinely positive (humanistically oriented) knowledge. It is very close to the situation of the young Americans today torn between militaristic propaganda and corrupting promises of being super-human among the third-world on the one hand and their admiration of the new Dukes of super-wealth on the other.

Pasolini’s Oedipus is a personification of today’s citizens of democracy who are abandoned by the tough but positive truth because today’s equivalents of Oedipus’ adopting parents (Polibus and Merope, kind and loving people but without a larger vision of life) – the democratic politicians are unable to explain the essence of the basic disagreement between the one-percenters and their agents – conservative leaders, and the necessity to guard and to farther develop democracy. By being unable to “talk democracy” they leave the place open for conservative propagandists (today’s oracles and prophets) to hide, to distort and to suspend the truth in the manner that Pasolini’s film so effectively explained.

In “Edipo Re” Pasolini works with images we can call – images of psychological wholeness – when characters communicate to viewers not their particular reactions and not their ready-made personalities (the level of Hollywood commercial movies), but their personalities with particular destinies which are alive, continuing in time, not ready-made, and future-oriented. In the Oedipus’ story where destiny of the main character is completely predicted, Pasolini contests this closure by adding new historical periods, by inserting historical process itself into personal destiny. Of course, these two added by Pasolini to the Sophocles’ tragedy, historical periods (the Italian Fascism and Italian post-WW2 material prosperity) are objectively not establishing, on the level of meaning, the alternative to how human destiny was understood in the ancient world. But on the level of narrative form Pasolini represents the world as alive, not ready-made as it is the case for most directors who create films as cinematic artifacts. Stylistically Pasolini represents history as alive, as living organism even when semantically it is dead, not renovating/upgrading itself. His very style keeps hope alive.

Pasolini is also a master of symbolic images which elaborate the characters’ destinies as transcending concrete situations. For example, we see Oedipus committing murder when the sun blocks his sight – when he is psychologically blinded by the sun’s beams/arrows – that reminds him/associated by him with the hateful gaze of his father (we see in the beginning of the film) that paralyses him and provokes him to hate back. By inserting this association inside the hero’s action, Pasolini connects past and present motivations into one psychological stimulus to act in a certain way. By blinding himself after discovery of his mother’s betrayal, Oedipus unconsciously connects his father’s hate and his mother’s betrayal in one overwhelming determination – it’s Laius’ hate acting through Jocasta’s betrayal – makes him to destroy his sight as a completion of his destiny (as identification with his only roots: hate and betrayal). He is doing to himself in a finalized fashion what Laius’s gaze did to him in his childhood psychologically. Oedipus’ self-inflicted blindness is destruction of his ability to develop further his understanding of the reality; it’s the very destruction of human intelligence the system of authoritarian power tries to achieve through whole human history. Another example of the symbolic image beyond concrete situation is Oedipus’ obsessive gesture of biting the back of his hand, the other side of his palm when he feels trapped inside his destiny. The film is full of symbolic images of this sort which connect the circumstances with Oedipus’ personal psychology living through the time.

In his interpretation of the meaning of Sophocles’ narrative, Pasolini authoritatively deconstructs incest taboo transgression topic into the idea of the monstrosity of mother’s betrayal that becomes the main focus of Pasolini’s artistic research in the “Oedipus Rex”. In 21st century, when today’s American Jocastas are “proud” that their sons are/were participating in fraudulent/invented wars, that they act as strong ones, not weaklings (they take pride for their sons’ self-sacrifices according to the same logic by which Jocasta sacrificed the child-Oedipus to her husband’s despotism), the question of mothers’ betrayal (their acting in the name of the system, not in the interests of children) takes the place of the crime of incest.


Pasolini not long before his murder

Posted on Aug, 6 2014 –   “Oedipus Rex” (1967) By Pier Paolo Pasolini by Acting-Out Politics