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Fate’s Engine

(Some Notes Made While Reading Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, translated and adapted by Anthony Burgess, 1972, The University of Minnesota Press)

“To the Reader,” Anthony Burgess’ apology for his Oedipus the King, anticipates “the screams of outraged purists” over his version, more concerned, he wrote, with “theatrical effectiveness.” Specifically, he blinds Oedipus on stage (as he reminds us Seneca did) and he adds a chorus of children and a child who asks “Why?”

Or, rather, how and why. How did a riddle so easily defeat so many, and why was Oedipus able to answer it? The answer to the Sphinx’s riddle, you recall, is “man”—a man crawls on all fours when a baby, walks on two legs as an adult, and with the aid of a cane as a geriatric. I guess it’s a simple riddle, but when asked by a slavering, bare-breasted, lion-eagle-lady, even the most agile-minded might find the answer elusive. So Oedipus kept his cool and answered correctly, indicative of a kingly disposition, the people of Thebes decide, though actually quite out of character for Oedipus the patricidal motherfucker.

Burgess’ addition of a children’s chorus and a child leader emphasizes the Sphinx’s riddle. Burgess was interested in highlighting a relationship between riddles and incest, an idea that came to him via “the high priest of structuralism,” the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. “My imagination,” Burgess wrote, “was… so stimulated by reading Lévi-Strauss that I was led to write a novel called MF.” MF, or M/F, or M.F., is Male/Female, a reference to Tiresias, who in Ovid was metamorphosed from a man into a woman and then back again, but MF is also motherfucker (the punch-line to a joke made by actor William Conrad to Burgess, who suggested it as the title of an all-black cast Oedipus Tyrannus).

Interesting, okay, but his Sphinx-emphasis illuminates another idea I read in Sophocles’ play: the Sphinx and her riddle are mechanisms of fate, and fate precludes free will.

Laius and Jocasta are warned by a priest of Apollo that their son will kill Laius and marry Jocasta. When they do give birth to a son, they hobble the baby and Jocasta instructs a servant to abandon the child in the foothills of Citheron, where the child is meant to die. Apollo’s prophesy, however, doesn’t describe a possible future—it is the future, it’s fate, so Apollo’s prophecy is only cruel, not a warning but a fact.

If that’s true, it explains why Oedipus, who knew his role in the prophecy, would risk killing anyone, no matter that “This herald, / in a surly way, a way unfitted to my rank / Or indeed anyone’s, ordered me off the road.” It explains the Sphinx—her presence, a draw to a hotheaded young adventurer, and it explains her riddle. An elder explains to Burgess’ child character:

The point about the riddle was
That is was unanswerable.
Difficult or easy—that was never the point.
The riddle was unanswered because
It was unanswerable,

Except by Oedipus.

Burgess mentioned, in a letter to Guthrie Theater Company director Michael Langham (for whom Burgess was translating Oedipus Tyrannus), Jean Cocteau’s Oedipus; Cocteau reimagined the Sphinx as a petulant teenage girl who crushes on Oedipus so gives him the answer to her riddle. Whatever the Sphinx is (Sphinx = mystery), she must “give” Oedipus the answer, either directly or by asking a question Oedipus knows the answer to, or by instilling a calm in Oedipus that opens his mind to the answer.

Fate overrules all. When Hector runs from Achilles, Athena reminds her father, “O Father, /You may be the Lord of Lightning and the Dark Cloud, / But what a thing to say, to save a mortal man, / With his fate already fixed…” (The Iliad, Book XXII, translated by Robert Fagles). Fate makes the universe a clock, moving in the only direction it can until it stops. A horror worse than murder or incest.

Stanley Silverman, the composer for the Guthrie Theater production of Oedipus the King, worked with Burgess on the script, and wrote in a letter to Michael Langham that “The Oedipus myth to Anthony means that riddles should not be answered, because if you do, you must commit incest.” At the end of Burgess’ translation, the chorus leader says, in answer to another “why?” posed by Burgess’ child character, “It is dangerous to answer riddles, / But some men are born to answer them.” An inane read of Sophocles, even though a connection between a riddle and incest does exist in the play. Sophocles’ play doesn’t warn against knowledge, but the absolute opposite: if Oedipus Tyrannus isn’t about humankind’s lack of free will, it’s about the violence of ignorance.

Stephen Berg and Disken Clay’s Oedipus the King uses Creon to say so: “We need to know before we act,” a line that serves as a criticism of Oedipus’ rash temperament and poor judgment (Creon is Oedipus’ opposite—calm and logical). Knowing is more than possessing information, it’s understanding the information you have and what it means in the world. Oedipus knows he is prophesied to kill his father and sleep with his mother; the blind seer Tiresias knows Oedipus already has.

Oedipus and Jocasta both fail to know themselves. Oedipus, obviously, but Jocasta, especially, who has denied the truth of what she knows since she participated in the abandonment of her baby son Oedipus. She says about her crime, “It was a terrible thing to do, I had nothing to do with it”—an absurd claim, akin to Pontius Pilate washing his hands and claiming to be, “Innocent of the blood of this just person.” From the moment Oedipus begins to ask questions about his life, she acts as if clueless, and by doing so, betrays herself as the insensitive queen she is. She says, about Tiresias, “Divination, soothsaying— / I would not cross the street to / Hear any of that nonsense.” Then,

Let us go in, out of this
Burning day. Out of the stench of decay,
The distant murmur of laments. Wait, my love,
My lord, and rest while you wait.
You have need of rest.

The people of Thebes are dying because of her mistakes, and she turns her back on them, under the guise of concern for Oedipus.

That Oedipus “pieces his eyes” onstage is hardly a show worse than doing so off-stage, the action obscured by Oedipus’ hands and the result obscured by blood. This isn’t Luigi Fulci-style eye-horror. Nor is Burgess’ new sequence—speeches then eye-piercing, because “Men whose eyes have just been put out do not, unless they are still under local anesthetic, talk reasonable or even unreasonably: they do not talk at all”—anything but a mundane consideration. However, a change Burgess didn’t note is in Oedipus’ most sympathetic moment—when he worries about his children. He isn’t worried about his sons—“They will do / service in good time,” but his daughters can only expect humiliation.

And Burgess’ Oedipus asks Creon to “Let them be with their father,” that is, let Antigone and Ismene go with Oedipus into banishment. Sophocles’ Oedipus asks only to hold his daughters. For Oedipus to blind himself is a selfish act. Once he’s done, Sophocles’ Oedipus remembers his obligations, and pleads with Creon to take care of his daughters. Burgess’ Oedipus is concerned for his daughters, then selfishly asks to keep them, then selfishly blinds himself. Though Sophocles’ Oedipus does beg Creon not to take his daughters away in the final moments of the play, this is different from asking to take his daughters into exile—it’s a desperate moment of sorrow, a final recognition of what not knowing takes from Oedipus.

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Adam Golaski is the author of Color Plates and Worse Than Myself. He is currently at work editing a selection of Paul Hannigan’s writings, due from Flim Forum Press early next year. His poetry has appeared in a number of journals including 1913: A Journal of Forms (#6), MoonlitLittle Red Leavesword for/word, and LVNG. Adam blogs at Little Stories.