Saturday, December 7, 2013

Oedipus at Colonus, by Sophocles -- Comments and Advice

Comments from: Bernard Norcott-Mahany
Some thoughts on Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus" for January's meeting (January 31), and some recommended translations:

Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus – stuff to keep in mind as you read the play.

I think an argument can be made for Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus as Sophocles’ greatest play. But it does not follow the pattern that Aristotle sets out in his Poetics as the ideal for tragedy (great man has a fall [peripeteia – “reversal”] because of some hamartia [usu. translated as “tragic flaw,” but may simply mean “mistake” – the literal meaning is “missing the mark”]). Oedipus has a great fall in the Oedipus Rex, but not here, where the story told is that of the heroicization of Oedipus (Oedipus recognized as a “hero” complete with shrine and sacred precinct). If the Oedipus Rex told the story of the fall of Oedipus from savior king of Thebes to blind beggar, this story takes that blind beggar and brings him into the society of the gods. And if that play is all about riddles (Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, “What goes on 4 legs at dawn, 2 legs at noon, and 3 at dusk?” – Answer is “man,” but spends the whole play trying to figure out two bigger riddles: “Who am I?” and “What is the nature of man’s existence?”, the answers not being pleasant or comforting), this play is all about mystery, for the blind Oedipus leaves this plane for the great beyond, blessed where he had been formerly cursed. 

Plot summary: The blind Oedipus, being led by his daughters, Antigone and Ismene, arrives at Colonus, an area of Athens, where he at first confronted by the Athenian citizens who make up the chorus. The Athenians are afraid of Oedipus and feel that he brings pollution to their land. But the great king, Theseus, is not one to turn away strangers, but welcomes Oedipus to Athens. Oedipus receives two embassies in Colonus, one from his son, Polynices, who is leading an expedition of Argives (Greeks from Argos in Southern Greece) against his city of Thebes, in hopes to get the crown he feels is rightly his. The other embassy is led by Creon, Oedipus’ brother in law and uncle on behalf of Thebes. Both ambassadors hope that Oedipus will join their cause, for oracles have suggested that Oedipus’ presence now brings blessings on whatever land or group hosts Oedipus. Creon even goes so far as to take Antigone and Ismene hostage in hopes of forcing Oedipus’ hand. Theseus rescues them and puts Creon and his forces to flight. And then the blind Oedipus leads Theseus to a cave which he enters. There is a bright light and Oedipus has disappeared, and the area of his “disappearance” becomes a shrine to the hero, Oedipus, and is seen as a blessing for Athens, who had welcomed Oedipus when he needed a friend. 

Other fun facts to know about the play: this was the last great Greek tragedy performed (of those which survive), performed in 401 BC when the city of Athens was in something of shambles, having lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta (in 404 BC). No longer a regional power, Athens was at a low point when this play was produced by Sophocles’ grandson (also named Sophocles). The older Sophocles, aged 90 when he wrote the play, died in 406 BC and never saw the play produced. There is a story that Sophocles’ sons brought him to court to have him declared non compos mentis in that last year of his life. Sophocles was quite wealthy and his sons were hoping to get control of that wealth. At the trial, Sophocles read a selection from the still incomplete Oedipus at Colonus as his only defense. 

The jury found overwhelmingly in his favor, so that the sons not only lost their bid to get his estate, but they had to pay a large fine to the city for bringing a frivolous lawsuit to court. I believe that the curse Oedipus levels at both his sons, Polynices and Eteocles, which is quite blistering and intense, was likely composed by Sophocles after the trial, and that Sophocles had his own sons in mind as the target of that venom. 

Of all the tragedians, Sophocles has the most “heroic” heroes, bigger than life figures, and uncompromising in their integrity (some would call them pig-headed). Sophocles himself was a man who had served Athens throughout his life in the political realm, and lived through Athens’ meteoric rise (after the War with the Persians, which ended in 479 BC) to its great fall (losing the Peloponnesian War to Sparta in 404 BC, and the oligarchy that took over Athens following that loss). Not only did Sophocles love his city, but he also loved his area, Colonus, where he lived his entire life. And so, at the end of that long life, after 80+ years of passing by that shrine to Oedipus, and hearing stories of Oedipus’ heroicization, he chose to return to that figure who towered in his own work (the Oedipus Rex was a very influential play – Aristotle singles it out as the epitome of Greek tragedy) one last time, to tell the story of a blessing, when the gods elevated a fallen man, and the city of Athens showed itself a gracious host, and the whole thing took place in Sophocles’ own neighborhood. 

I see this play as a story of redemption, of raising someone up out of the darkness. A lot of Greek literature focuses on downfall, how no one, no matter how lucky, is exempt from a terrible fall from grace and power. The chorus at the end of the Oedipus Rex spells this out – Look at Oedipus, a man thought the most fortunate of all who lived, now fallen. Here, at a moment that might have been Athens’ darkest, Sophocles chose instead to look into the light. 

If you get a chance, I’d recommend that you get a look at The Gospel at Colonus, an adaptation of the Oedipus at Colonus. The authors of that Broadway show from the mid-80s examine the Oedipus story through the lens of the African-American gospel experience. The chorus is now a gospel choir, and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama play Oedipus (that’s right – there are five [more than five actually] Oedipodes). Reflecting a tradition that looks to God’s mercy and light in times of worry and darkness, this production, I think, captures the beauty of Sophocles’ play. You should be able to find a DVD of the production at the library (KCPL and Johnson County, for sure, and JCCC). 

As to translations of the play: I would recommend the following 5 (there are other good translations available), that by Robert FitzGerald, that by Robert Fagles, that by D.A. Slavitt, that by Paul Roche, and that by E.F. Watling. If you can find the one by W.B. Yeats – that would be worth a read, as the greatest Irish poet tackling a story of human woe full of mystery – well, that’s an unbeatable combination. There is also a translation of the play by Richard Jebb online at

Friday, December 6, 2013

2014 Schedule of Books -- Great Books KC

January 31, 2014 -- Oedipus at Colonus, by Sophocles
February 28, 2014 -- Song of Solomon from the Bible
March 28, 2014 -- Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
April 25, 2014 -- The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather
May 30, 2014 -- A Winter's Tale, by Shakespeare
June 27, 2014 -- Ulysses, by James Joyce
July 25, 2014 -- Ulysses, by James Joyce
August 29, 2014 -- Ulysses, by James Joyce
September 26, 2014 -- The Future of an Illusion, by Sigmund Freud
October 31, 2014 -- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
December 5, 2014 -- Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Suggested Books for 2014 Schedule

The following is a list of suggestions received as 7:00 p.m., December 1:

Longer work
U.S.A. Trilogy, - The 42nd Parallel (1930); 1919, (1932) and The Big Money (1936) by John Dos Passos, 1938
The Snopes Trilogy ("The Hamlet," "The Town," and "The Mansion"), by Faulkner 
Ulysses, by James Joyce
Foundation trilogy ("Foundation," "Foundation and Empire," and "Second Foundation"), by Isaac Asimov

Shorter Work
The Trial by Kafka, 1924
Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

By a female author
Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn, 1688
The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather
The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, 1952
Lolita or Pnin, by Nabokov
East of Eden, by Steinbeck
100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1967
Herzog, by Saul Bellow

Oku no Hosomichi--The Narrow Road to the Deep North (also translated as The Narrow Road to the Interior) by Basho, Late 17th century
Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata


Ancient Greek or Roman
Oedipus at Colonusby Sophocles
Electra, by Sophocles
Roman comedy by Plautus (part of Winter Reading)

King Lear (previously read by group)
A Winter's Tale (Heart of America Shakespeare Festival next summer)

A Shropshire Lad, by A.E. Houseman
The Essential Rumi (or whichever collection is best)
The Wasteland and Other Poems, by T.S. Eliot

Bleak House, by Dickens
Don Quixote, by Cervantes 
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Other suggestions
A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe, 1722
The Saga of the Volsungs, Late 13th century
Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius, around 524 (ancient Greek/Roman?)
We, Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1921
The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane
Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Categories of Books to be Filled

Great Books KC strives for a balanced approach, while adhering to our general criteria for great works of literature (see What Makes a Book Great.)

There are several categories we like to cover in the course of a year:

Re-reading books we have read before
One of the hallmarks of the Great Books is that they are worth RE-reading. Each year, we include one excellent selection that we have read more than a year previously.

A selection from the Bible.
One of the two major sources of the Western tradition, Biblical literature holds a central place in our reading program.

A selection from the Greeks
The other major source of the Western tradition.

A selection from Shakespeare
Central to the Western tradition, Shakespeare is only second to the Bible and the Greeks because he came later than they did. Had he come earlier, he would probably equal or exceed Homer in primacy.

A work of poetry

A non-Western selection
There are a wealth of Great Books from non-Western sources. We give ourselves the opportunity to learn from them.

A selection by a female author

A recent (1900-1950) selection

A shorter work

A longer work
We set aside the three summer months, each year, to tackle one longer, more ambitious work.

These categories are open to adjustment. If there are categories you believe should be added, or if you think some of these should be omitted, please share your perspective.

What Makes a Great Book

What makes a Great Book...well, great?

This is a topic of some controversy, especially when it comes to listing the Great Books in any sort of a “canon.” Everyone has their own list, which will not be exactly the same as anyone else’s list. Differences notwithstanding, there are certain works which will appear on most lists—few would dispute that Homer, the Bible, Plato, Aristotle, and Shakespeare make the cut.

One of the most well-known (and—again—controversial) endeavors in list-building is Mortimer J. Adler’s ""Great Books of the Western World," published in 1952 and revised in 1990. Adler’s list is controversial because it focuses exclusively on Western literature, which for a variety of historical and sociological reasons is dominated by male authors of European ancestry. To be fair, Adler did call his catalog "Great Books of the Western World" (as opposed to "Great Books of the World," which might have made a big difference.) A more recent effort in this vein is Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon.

The increasingly egalitarian and global society that has developed since the end of World War II has focused attention on the works of excellent authors who may have been overlooked or neglected due to cultural bias. This has provided an even richer and deeper field from which to choose when selecting candidates for the Great Books.

More useful than attempts at compiling exhaustive lists are efforts to define the criteria by which great works can be identified. Perhaps the single most useful criterion is still the one everyone learns in high school when discussing what makes a classic:

Great Books have stood the test of time.

What this means, exactly, is open to debate—is the “test of time” 50 years? Is it 100 years? Answers will vary—but the underlying concern is separating works of transient interest from those of lasting value. Often this can only be accomplished with confidence when enough time has passed to make it obvious which works have, in fact, lasted.

Anne Perez, in the Winter 1999 edition of the online quarterly "Teaching Great Books," discusses the specific criteria used by Adler when compiling the list for "Great Books of the Western World:"

Great Books are pertinent to contemporary life.
Great Books are worth rereading.
Great Books contain “great ideas.”
Great Books make some sort of impression and/or change in civilization.

Finally, Perez adds a criterion of her own:

Great Books must never forget the complexity of the human spirit.

The meanings of these criteria are open to debate, and the criteria are not exhaustive. Determining appropriate criteria may prove as contentious as attempting to list the Great Books themselves. Thinking deeply and seriously about what makes a work “great,” however, is another treasure of a rich literary tradition.

List of Books Read in Previous Years

Here is a running list of the books we have read in previous years:


Silence, by Shusaku Endo
Native Son, by Richard Wright
A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor
Selected song lyrics by Bob Dylan
Cymbeline, by Shakespeare
Palace Walk (Cairo Triology), by Naguib Mahfouz
Palace of Desire (Cairo Triology), by Naguib Mahfouz
Sugar Street (Cairo Triology), by Naguib Mahfouz
The Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Holy Children, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon
Fear and Trembling, by Soren Kierkegaard
Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius


If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, a translation by Anne Carson
Dream of the Red Chamber(also titled
Hónglóu Mèng (紅樓夢)), by Cao Xueqin
The Vicar of Wakefield, by Goldsmith
The Cross, by Sigrid Undset
The Wife, by Sigrid Undset
The Wreath, by Sigrid Undset
The Book of Ruth, from the Bible
Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
Selected Poems, by Gwendolyn Brooks
Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 by Shakespeare


Njáls Saga (part of Sagas of Icelanders)
Bhagavad Gita
The Nature of Things, by Lucretius
The Mansion, Vol. 3 of Snopes Triology, by William Faulkner
The Town, Vol. 2 of Snopes Trilogy, by William Faulkner
The Hamlet, Vol. 1 of Snopes Trilogy, by William Faulkner
King Lear, by Shakespeare
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
Book of Esther, from the Bible
Sonnets from the Portuguese, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Letter from a Birmingham Jail, by Martin Luther King


Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Future of an Illusion, by Sigmund Freud
Ulysses, by James Joyce
Ulysses, by James Joyce
Ulysses, by James Joyce
A Winter's Tale, by Shakespeare
The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather
Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe
Song of Solomon, from the Bible
Oedipus at Colonus, by Sophocles


The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Medea by Euripides
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
One Thousand and One Nights (covered in three meetings)
As You Like It by William Shakespeare
Genesis from the Bible
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf


Gospel of Mark from the Bible
Epic of Gilgamesh
Anthony & Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas (covered in three meetings)
Idylls of the King, Alfred Lord Tennyson
Tao te Ching, Lao-tsu
Symposium, Plato
Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry
Catch 22, Joseph Heller


The Federalist Papers, by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay
Notes from the Underground, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Ecclesiastes, from the Bible
Plutarch's Lives, by Plutarch (covered in three meetings)
Candide, by Voltaire
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, tr. Edward FitzGerald
Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare
and the movie, “10 Things I Hate About You”
The Odyssey, by Homer
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton


Beowulf, by anonymous 
Selected Poems, by various English authors 
The Art of War, by Sun Tzu 
War and Peace, by Tolstoy (covered in three meetings)
The Tempest, by Shakespeare 
Revelation, (from the bible) 
Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell 
Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich 
The Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides 


A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
King Lear, William Shakespeare
In A Grove, Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Job (from Hebrew Scriptures)
The Iliad, Homer (2nd time for the group)
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte


Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriett Beecher Stowe
Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser
Emma, by Jane Austen
Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev
The Koran
The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus


The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare
The Sayings of Confucius, by Confucius
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce
The Divine Comedy, by Dante (covered in three meetings)
Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather 
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
The Sonnets, by William Shakespeare
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding 


Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
Democracy In America, by Alexis de Tocqueville
On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville 


Paradise Lost, by John Milton
The Republic, by Plato
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Pentateuch
The Alhambra, by Washington Irving 


The Aeneid by Virgil
Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes
Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe
The Odyssey, by Homer
Queen Margot by Alexandre Dumas
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
The Iliad, by Homer

Links to Definition of Classics of Literature

Below are some interesting links to check out about the definition of classics of literature.  They are by a blogger who calls herself "MidnightFaerie."  Her definition of a classic is not followed by our group, but it's interesting to compare her definition with our posting of "What Makes a Book Great?"

Definitions of a Classic

Lists of Classics

Information about the blogger named "MidnightFaerie."

Link to our group's discussion of "What Makes a Book Great."