Special feature – Ketaki Datta

Why Tiresias ??

We are in the teeth of trying times now. Each day, when we flip open the newspaper pages, we are horrified to find new cases of Corona deaths, surging. We take a deep breath, close our eyes, try to connect with the Emersonian Oversoul and seek solace. Sometimes the tears, about to course down our cheeks, are checked somehow. Looking forward, we want someone like Tiresias, who might have known the Time Past and the Time Present though they all are contained in the Time Future!
WHY TIRESIAS, of all persons? And that too a BLIND PROPHET? Huh, there’s a reason behind everything, my friend! Wait with bated breath! Coming up with a veritable reason to convince you. You may, otherwise, call me names, browbeat me, if not, beat me black and blue. I think, you all are well conversant with Tiresias of Sophoclean plays, I mean, Oedipus Trilogy. This blind man was a prophet who knew the past like the back of his palm and had the rare ability to predict the future even.
Wrinkled countenance, gnarled fingers, careworn forelimbs, staggering feet, wise, far-seeing eyes, age-worn, wearisome looks and a stubborn, unbending personality—such an image flashes past our mind whenever we think of Tiresias,the mythical figure as portrayed by the Greek playwrights. But can Tiresias, the wise man, outlive the ravages of Time, cocking a snook at Eternity, setting at naught the inevitability of ‘Time’s Winged Chariot hurrying near’? Not just Sophocles but even T.S. Eliot, in the twentieth century drags in this old, wizened prophet in his The Waste Land. But why? Why such drawings upon? What is there so interesting about Tiresias?
Instead of getting lost in the abyss of oblivion, Tiresias keeps on stirring our curiosity till date. Days might have been lost in the portals of Eternity, but Tiresias hasn’t lost his appeal to us. We keep thinking, does a prophet warn a future sufferer? A prophet can forewarn, but cannot rule out the transpiration of a peril. But why can’t a prophet who can foresee future allay the intensity of the forthcoming evil? The answer has not been given by any savant of any era. The answer may blow in the wind, though I doubt that even.
Sophocles[496 B.C. – 405 B.C.] referred to Tiresias, the blind prophet, in both his plays, Oedipus Rex and Antigone. The prophet was really formidable in his predictions in both the plays. In Antigone, the scene in which Tiresias entered to impart counsel to Creon, regarding the obsequies of Polyneces, the blind soothsayer called himself, “ A revealer of divination”. To quote him,
“At my seat of divination, where I sit
These many years to read the signs of Heaven!”…
He foreboded ill and this made Creon cringe in fear! Tiresias could, perhaps, espy the future, he said,
“And soon .. your house will be filled with the lamentations of men and women and every neighbouring city will be goaded to fury against you”…
The prophet tried to ward off the misfortunes that might ruin the person intended, but mostly with a thankless, regardless ear , his counsels were taken in.
In Oedipus Rex, Tiresias carved a significant niche as a prophet. He was compelled to come up with the blatant truth. He had a far-reaching insight, he could scent peril in the ambience of Thebes. But, foreseeing an imminent topsy-turvy in the royal situation, he restrained himself from declaring the truth! He wished to reserve his words to himself,
“I tell no more,
Rage with what wrath you will.”
At last, when he had to tell the truth to mitigate the evil that took Thebes in its grip, the words enervated Oedipus , the King! The murderer of Laius , the King, Oedipus was looking for was himself. Jocasta, who he made love to, was none but his own mother! Tiresias was hapless, as he was forced to tell the truth. Truth is always bare, unornamented, harsh and ruthless. Rather, Tiresias was turned out of the court of Oedipus, the King, quite rudely! Without any reverence, without a word of thanks!
Soothsaying is an art, no doubt, but dreaded when it ruffles the calm of the person, being addressed. Such are the ways of God as justified to men. Such is the true image of a blind prophet !
As in Oedipus Rex, Tiresias could foresee the cause of pestilence floating in the air of Thebes. Even in Homer’s Odyssey, Tiresias had urged Odysseus to return to Ithaca and meet Penelope. Tiresias, the hoary-headed, blind prophet could divine the misfortune that waylaid Odysseus in Ithaca. After a short rendezvous with Penelope, Odysseus had to meet his disastrous end.
In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Tiresias was said to have a sexual transformation, following an imprecation of Juno. Pivoting round a futile issue, whether men derive more pleasure from sexual intercourse or women do, Juno and Jove got embroiled in a bitter altercation, while Tiresias arbitrated and supported Jove’s viewpoint. Being infuriated, Juno heaped curses on Tiresias and he went blind. Jove blessed him with long life and the prophetic power just to alleviate the curses of Juno. And again, while Tiresias drubbed a pair of copulating snakes with his club, he was mysteriously transformed into a woman. And after eight years a similar action brought his masculinity back.
Whatever the case may be, we are somewhat amazed to find T.S. Eliot, mentioning Tiresias in his much-debated twentieth-century poem, The Waste Land [1922], he rather exhumes the blind prophet from the dungeon of oblivion. Though in the modern world , the reference to Tiresias may appear to be a bit incongruous, it is not so.  The reference is not at all outmoded, on the contrary, it is quite relevant. In “The Fire Sermon” section of The Waste Land, Tiresias plays a key role as an astute observer, talks about the clerk and the typist and suggests a wider and humane understanding of the world we live in.
Eliot pens,
“His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
[And I Tiresias have fore-suffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.]
In these times of pandemic, may we ask Tiresias, sotto voce,- when will it all end? He should rather come to the fore, warn us of a future, still covered with the mist of enigma and uncertainty. He must “perceive the scene” and “foretell the rest”!  Let us stay positive and hope for the best.
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