Sun-Tzu said in his Art of War: ‘”‘If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.'”‘ Every decision and action made is the result of unseen battles between the unconscious and consciousness; man battles against himself as his unconscious tries to make itself the conscious. How much self-knowledge is required to ensure victory when the enemy is one”‘”s own unconscious? Or is it wiser to seek knowledge of neither the enemy nor self, but succumb to the battle? The duty of unraveling the struggle between the two psychical forces is fulfilled by Sigmund Freud in his seminal work, The Interpretation of Dreams.
By examining the dreams of his patients, Freud identified a comprehensive system that describes the entering of the unconscious into the conscious through the stages of censorship, distortion, displacement, and the preconscious. Sophocles applies Freud”‘”s theory to life by adopting the myth of ‘”‘Oedipus the King'”‘, an exaggerated model that illustrates the workings of the unconscious on everyday life. When information in a man”‘”s unconscious threatens his conscious well-being, he will battle then submit to his unconscious due to the inaccessibility of knowledge of his enemy and self.
It is crucial to first identify the symbolic representations of Freudian elements and ideas in ‘”‘Oedipus the King'”‘. One of the reasons why Freud analyzes dreams instead of other psychical activities is that dreams are unaffected by the ‘”‘much-abused privilege of conscious activity, wherever it plays a part, [that conceals] every other activity from our eyes'”‘ (652). For Sophocles, the dream case-study in ‘”‘Oedipus the King'”‘ is the plague. Just as Freud follows the thought processes within each dream, the people of Thebes try to interpret the dream-thoughts through the dream-content.
The plague represents the dream-content, and the gods correspond to the unconscious, to which the Thebans reach out: ‘”‘Great welcome voice of Zeus, what do you bring? … Thebes like a great army dying…send rescue radiant as the kindness in your eyes!'”‘ (ll.169, 194, 216-17) Because the gods are omniscient and determine the fate of the characters, in the Theban world they function as the unconscious-a ‘”‘specific psychical act, distinct from and independent of the process of the formation of a presentation or idea'”‘ (178). The parts are assigned, therefore, and Sophocles has created a model that demonstrates the struggle and manifestation of the unconscious.
The first defense set up by consciousness against the unconscious is censorship, determined by a factor of unpleasantness-consciousness only admits messages that it finds favorable. In the Theban world, prophets and oracles stand like screens between the people and the gods because humans cannot understand divine language. For example, Oedipus responds to his people”‘”s lamentation by promising ‘”‘after a painful search I found one cure: I sent Creon … to Delphi-Apollo the Prophet”‘”s oracle-to learn what I might do or say to save our city'”‘ (ll.80-84). The only way to interpret the will of the gods is seeking foresight. Oracles are the medium through which the divine and mortal communicate, much like how the unconscious meets consciousness. However, there exists a screen which ‘”‘nothing…can reach consciousness from [the unconscious] without passing'”‘ (177).
This screen is an independent system whose sole purpose is to greet and censor the information from the unconscious and to prevent it from disturbing the equilibrium in consciousness. The seer Tiresias finds the message from the gods-that Oedipus killed his father and coupled with his mother-distressing, therefore functions as the censorship and blocks this idea from entering consciousness: ‘”‘I will never reveal my dreadful secrets…I”‘”d rather not cause pain for you or me'”‘ (ll.374, 378). Knowing that the revelation of Oedipus”‘” curse would cause turmoil, Tiresias the seer acts as the screen and attempts to stop Oedipus”‘” quest into the past. Assuming that knowledge of his self would be an advantage in battling the unknown, Oedipus ignores Tiresias”‘” warnings and continues his pursue.
Jocosta enacts a similar defense mechanism as Tiresias does when the shepherd and messenger”‘”s stories confirm her premonition: ‘”‘Not a man on earth can see a day ahead…better to live at random…many a man before you, in his dreams, has shared his mother”‘”s bed…Live, Oedipus, as if there”‘”s no tomorrow!'”‘ (ll.1070, 71, 74, 75, 77, 78) Her desire to censor the truth overpowers her reason, and even leads her to accept and justify the incestuous possibility that she has indeed slept with her son. However, no matter how severely the censorship curtails the unconscious, traces of it escape into the consciousness: Tiresias is coerced into revealing the curse, and Jocosta unknowingly speaks the truth. Despite Tiresias and Jocosta”‘”s efforts at fending off the unconscious, they cannot stop Oedipus from seeking self-knowledge. The unraveling of the secrets, instead of giving Oedipus a clearer vision, marks his downfall by providing a gateway through which the unconscious slips. Because he fails to recognize the enemy as his own unconscious, Oedipus”‘” acquisition of knowledge only quickens his self-destruction.