Friday, July 24, 2009

The Wrong Answer

Statues Being Repaired, outside the Pergamon Museuem ~ Berlin

Long afterward, Oedipus, old and blinded walked the roads.
He smelled a familiar smell. It was the Sphinx.

Oedipus said, "I want to ask one question,
Why didn't I recognize my mother?"

"You gave the wrong answer," said the Sphinx.

"But that was what made everything possible," said Oedipus.

"No," she said. "When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning,
two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered Man.
You didn't say anything about Woman."

"When you say Man," said Oedipus,
"you include women too. Everyone knows that."

She said, "That's what you think."

by Muriel Rukeyser, 1913 - 1980
American poet and political activist

Oedipus did give the wrong answer. His general answer, "Man," should have been, more specifically, "Oedipus." Sure, everyone walks on four legs at first (crawling instead of walking), but even more so Oedipus because his feet were bound at birth. We all grow up to walk on two legs, but Oedipus even more so because in his prime, he strode the earth as King. And the elderly may require a cane in their twilight years, but Oedipus, having blinded himself, even more so. Tragically, Oedipus, figuratively, as well as literally, is blinded, incapable of recognizing his own fate.

Rukeyser, cleverly, finds his answer, "Man," wrong for an entirely different reason. According to the original myth, the Sphinx kills herself after Oedipus answers the riddle. But Rukeyser devises a latter day reunion, in which a defeated Oedipus confronts the Sphinx and she chides him for his gender exclusive language and blanket use of masculine nouns and pronouns, informing him that this failure to recognize women is the root of all his subsequent trials.

Would a revision of this blatantly subtle linguistic oversight have altered the fate of Oedipus? Perhaps not, but it could certainly alter ours, which is, of course, Rukeyser's point. That "familiar smell" -- is it the remains of the dead (remember, the Sphinx killed anyone who answered incorrectly), or is it the odor of sexism and exclusion (similar to the "odor of mendacity" that Buck and Big Daddy can smell in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)?

Such is the situation Rukeyser describes in her poem "Myth." I don't know that anyone has ever summed up the whole foul situation better than she does in this poem. If you don't have a word for something, how do you acknowledge its existence? How can you recognize your mother / daughter / wife if you don't have a word for her? Everyone needs a name! Everyone needs to be called by her name! If you can't do that, you diminish her existence.

Come to think of it, though, poor old Oedipus didn't recognize his father either. . . .

Not Oedipus, Not the Sphinx
Gerry in Berlin, 2003

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