In this paper, I will ask a simple question—‘is an infected citizen capable of political action?’— and argue that in two plague texts, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Philip Roth’s Nemesis (2010), the answer clearly is ‘no’. Sophocles’ play, which takes place dramatically during a political crisis (an outbreak of plague) presents Oedipus, the city’s leader, attempting to solve this problem for his sick ‘children,’ the citizens (τá½³κνα, 1, παá¿–δες, 58). Nemesis, set in Newark’s polio summer of 1944, presents its own Oedipus-hero, a playground director named Bucky Cantor, trying vainly to keep ‘his’ children from contracting the deadly disease, only to watch them sicken and die. The ironic twist for both stories, of course, is that these political leaders who are exerting so much effort to protect their citizens, are in fact themselves the bringers of the plague.
The question that both texts raise is this: if these leaders’ status as plague-bringers (or infected persons) is the cause of the city’s sickness, how then should their political actions, which drive the plot of these texts, be viewed? I will begin my argument by giving an overview of the Nemesis plot and its relationship to Sophocles’ play, especially regarding this question of the ‘action’ of infected citizens. Nemesis creates a tension between the helplessness of plague (31: ‘Polio is polio—nobody knows how it spreads. Summer comes and there is it, and there’s nothing much you can do’) and the hero’s conviction in his own powers to help the situation (150: ‘[children can] actually be shielded from mishap by an adult’s vigilant attention’ and ‘Here was work within his power to accomplish.’) At the end of the novel, the question of agency is explicitly raised (271: Bucky laments, ‘I wanted to help kids and make them strong and instead I did them irrevocable harm,’ to which his friend immediately replies, ‘Polio did them the harm.’) It is as if the infected person is presented as a mere carrier, a mere vessel for a massively harmful agent, while that vessel’s own agency dwindles to nothing. When one turns to Oedipus, the same situation seems to appear: none of Oedipus’s political actions (which comprise the plot of the play) seem to do anything. He cannot rid the city of Laius’ murderer (138, 309), he cannot ‘rescue’ the citizens (73, 216), he cannot exile Creon (676) who happens to appear again at the end of the play (1422): his political actions wither and fade as if they too were infected by plague. His search for self knowledge only causes him to become what he arguably already is: namely, an ‘infected’ citizen, one who is á¼„πολις and outside the political, one who cannot ‘control’ anything (πá½±ντα μá½´ βοá½»λου κρατεá¿–ν, 1522).
This reading of Sophocles’ play (as well as Roth’s novel) highlights aspects of the texts that have been overlooked in recent treatments which tend to focus on the political choices of the heroes, or their relationships with the citizens (e.g., J.M. Coetzee, NYRB 10.28.10; Mitchell-Boyask, 2008.64, Edmunds 2002, Ugolini 2000.129ff.). But as I argue, it is not political power that these plague texts emphasize. Rather, they remind that certain parts of experience are not political, that is, not within citizens’ powers (of language, of action) to control—and that it is this aspect of plague which is the most troubling of all.