I was watching the President at Notre Dame a few weeks ago I was hoping that one good Catholic student would rise in defense of the church and the unborn and do what the Jesuits teach best, question authority. I wanted just one strong Catholic woman to respectfully express her disappointment with the school’s decision to invite a man so at odds with many of the teachings of the church. It didn’t happen, or if it did I didn’t see it reported.
As I watched the address and many of the events since I realized that what we are all watching is the unfolding of a classical Greek drama. It is interesting to note that the early Greek tragedies were started with a song of praise to the god Dionysus who was known to inspire ecstasy and madness. Perhaps our unfolding modern drama was begun by the mainstream media’s song of praise for Mr. Obama. Aristotle thought a good tragedy should arouse both fear and pity, anybody with me yet?
The first element in a classical tragedy is the noble hero or protagonist. The hero must appear at first to be perfect though he has a fatal flaw. The hero is driven to accomplish some great task but his flaw will make this go horribly awry. The protagonist in our tragedy is Mr. Obama. He is the modern Oedipus tortured by his abandonment as a child by his mother, he craves the love she showed for causes and others but not him. Rejection by his mother caused him to doubt his worthiness to be loved and develop low self esteem. I know that might sound a little nutty, how can someone who has risen so far have low self esteem. Many overachievers are driven by that same flaw. This character fault also led him to experiment with drugs and alcohol in his early years.
At the same time he seeks the approval and love of that dead parent, Mr. Obama tries to prove that she was wrong to reject him. His desire to achieve has brought him to see his destiny as being a leader and a man that commands respect. He first tried to find this in community organizing and then in politics. His rise will prove his mother’s rejection of him to have been a mistake. His drive to achieve and win love and affection from a distant and cold mother is also what keeps him from denouncing his old friends like Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. If he rejects those who have accepted him he will be exactly like his mother and his whole life is a struggle to prove he is not.
The next element of tragedy is hubris. The hero feels entitled, that his abilities will allow him to overcome fate and to violate moral law without consequence. Mr. Obama, also like Oedipus, is afflicted by the sin of hubris. In Ancient Greece that over whelming sense of pride and entitlement was considered not only a character flaw but was a crime. The Greeks felt that pride often led to poor judgment and unnecessary acts of violence against ones enemies. Acts of hubris were often hypocritical and would, in Greek drama, eventually lead to the protagonist’s downfall. We see this in Mr. Obama recent “date night” in New York City. During the months prior he had been critical of corporate executives excesses, especially for their flying around in private jets. He mentioned it several times during the lead up to the bailouts and when auto industry executives came to Washington. Yet he sees no problem or hypocrisy in his taking three jets on personal business to New York. It might be interesting to note that the Greek word for actor was “hypocrites”, which is the etymological root for the English word “hypocrite.”
That is where our drama stands after almost five months. The stage is set and we are at intermission. So what comes next? While President Obama dabbles in auto manufacturing, health care and giving speeches in Egypt he doesn’t see or hear that the chorus is singing a song of warning. He is distracted by his false nemesis; be it talk radio hosts, corporate executives or whatever boogieman is convenient at the moment. In classical tragedy the next element is catastrophe, the event that leads to a complete reversal of fortune. What will that event be? For Obama, it is hard to say but no doubt in his mind it will not have been his fault. In “Oedipus at Colonus” the theme is personal responsibility. Oedipus, like Obama tries to put the blame for the actions he has taken elsewhere. Oedipus blames ignorance, fate and the gods, Obama has George Bush and even, in a recent essay by Obama apologist Paul Krugman, the Reagan Administration.
Aristotle tells us a good drama is resolved with catharsis. Our feelings of fear and pity are relieved when the hero sees his mistakes and experiences rebirth. In Greek it is a called a “knowing again”, a change from ignorance to knowledge. In the end the hero meets one of three fates, he dies, he is exiled or he must gain some awareness of what has happened. Let us hope it is the last!