Riddles: Oedipus’s and Bilbo’s

Man is the only animal that laughs and the only animal that riddles.  In the joke and the riddle we take pleasure in looking at something one way and then having a revelation, which means we can never look at it the first way again.  For example “Thirty white horses on a red hill, now they are champing, now they are stamping, now they are still– what are they?”  Answer: teeth.  When we hear the answer “teeth” for the first time we can never see those white horses as anything else, ever again.

Oedipus began his adventure solving a riddle.   A fabulous monster — part woman part eagle part beast – asked him “What is it that walks on four legs in the morning, two in the day, and three at night.”  Oedipus answered “Man” and the monster killed itself. Oedipus was confronted with a riddle to which the answer was himself at the beginning of his adventure.  In the height of his adventure it happened again.  He was confronted with a riddle in action — we call this a mystery —  that went “Who did the horrible thing that caused a plague?”  The answer to the riddle was the same.  “I did.”

In both the riddle of the sphinx and the riddle of the plague the riddle answerer learned that the answer to the riddle was himself.  So by answering the riddle he learned to understand himself differently.  He changed himself.

Bilbo Baggins asked a riddle to Gollum who was originally Smeagol, a creature much like Bilbo himself, but who became corrupted. Bilbo’s riddle (after he had run through the horses/teeth one) was “What have I got in my pocket?”

Not a fair riddle! Gollum said.

Bilbo’s riddle was unfair because Gollum had no way of guessing it.  And yet it was a cousin of Oedipus’s riddle.  What Bilbo had in his pocket was the One Ring, which corrupted Smeagol into Gollum.  It was a technology of self-transformation.

Oedipus was asked a riddle to whom the answer was himself. Gollum was asked a riddle and the answer was “the thing that gave you power and changed you into something very different.”   Changed who into something different?  Smeagol?  Or Gollum?

That’s why it was a good riddle!

Tolkien’s story was about being perched on the knife’s edge between the world of paganism — what he called magic — and the world of disenchantment.  You could say that Christianity for him was something like being perched on that knife’s edge.

Oedipus’s quest was to find out who had caused the plague.  Bilbo’s quest was to find out what to do about the ring.  The answer to Bilbo’s quest was to give it up, first giving it up to Frodo, and then ultimately having it destroyed in Mt. Doom — destroyed as if it never were.  At the moment the ring was destroyed in Mt. Doom, Gollum died, and along with him the whole world of Faerie — ents, and elves, dwarves and hobbits.  They went to the Gray Havens.

Two strange riddles, Oedipus’s and Bilbo’s, two strange quests.  One riddle (Oedipus) had a simple answer — you.  You’re the answer.  The other, Bilbo’s, had a different answer — the thing that makes you no longer you.  The riddle of Oedipus spurred a quest that led to self-blinding on Oedipus’s part, the riddle of Bilbo spurred a quest that led to the transformation of his world into one devoid of mystery, and devoid of him.

The world’s tangle passes through us; the knot in our heart and the knot in the sky are the same.


Oedipus II

In Oedipus I Oedipus, King of Thebes, is searching for the source of the plague.  He learns that he is the source of the plague because he killed his father and slept with his mother and blinds himself.

In Sophocles’s sequel Oedipus ponders on his fate and dies, but is accepted by Zeus.  The messengers report his death and don’t even know what happened to him:

We couldn’t see the man- he was gone- nowhere! And the king, alone, shielding his eyes, both hands spread out against his face as if- some terrible wonder flashed before his eyes and he, he could not bear to look.

The action in Sophocles’s Oedipus II is a little slow for my taste.

I pitch the following:

Oedipus goes to a weird island — Islandia.  There he learns that all the baby’s are born by artificial insemination and the sperms are all mixed up together.  Every man is potentially the father of every child in Islandia and the lover of every woman — including his mother.  Needless to say there is occasional need to impose the death penalty in Islandia, and this is done by lot as well.  So since nobody knows who his father is every executioner in a sense executes his own father.  Oedipus realizes that Islandia is actually Thebes.

My father said: You and Sophocles are still too obsessed with knowledge.  Oedipus in Sophocles is like “Yes, it was wrong to sleep with my mother, but I didn’t know!”  Your Oedipus learns that everybody has some degree of ignorance.  But that’s entirely the wrong question.

I ask: “Why Dad?”

Dad: I pitch the following story.  It is better than yours and better than Sophocles’s.  In my story the self-blinded Oedipus goes to Islandia and learns their biology is a bit different than ours.  Hundreds of men mate with a single woman and a bit of the DNA from each of their sperms connects with her egg, so every child has hundreds of fathers.  Every murder is an actual fratricide.  Every mating is an actual act of incest, because plasmids cause bits of DNA to hop from male to female, crossing the lines of generation. In fact, what is a generation on this island?  Oedipus realizing this becomes Zeus and has the power to forgive himself.

I ask: But what about the plague?

Dad: The plague is just this same world viewed with resentment.  The DNA popping from organism to organism someitmes seems like evolution but sometimes seems like a plague.

We asked Mom which version of Oedipus she preferred: Dad’s or mine.  She said

“I’m busy.  Ask Grandma.”

We asked Grandma.  She said “Look all these stories are children’s fairy tales and they never appreciate them because children have it exactly backwards.  They want to grow up.”






Wheels in Motion: A Man Needs to Know Wh He Is

When it first starts to feel a little cold in the air my thoughts go back to memories of the harvest festival in the old town in South Dakota where I grew up.  Or sometimes, eager to feel the mixture of sweet and pain such memories bring, I summon them.  The taste of hot cider, the songs of the hay buskers (you stand on an elevator on the back of a flatbed holding two hooks and manhandle the baled hay into position, sometimes seven bales high) and the wagon wheels of the vampire wagons taking the vampires to town.  There were still a few vampires in those days but they were getting scarce and the WPA would take them from town to town at harvest time trying to get them to bite a few people.  The virgins — well, unmarried girls to be precise — would parade around at evening and try to coax the creatures out of their coffins.

But it was no go.  One coffin opened a few inches and we saw the red eyes within and the long claws and Maggie tried to look even more buxom and to bring the blood temptingly to the surface by a couple self-administered slaps, but BAM! that coffin lid just slammed down after about a minute.  And the feeling for the WPA program was mixed — cultural heritage and all that and some said and there were some studies that when the vampires were gone there was less incentive for the brightest young people to study ritual, and the incunabula were ignored in favor of technical manuals, and there was a weakening of the community’s asarbiya or ties of cohesion without the issue of the nosferatu to bring us together.  Be that as it may three coffins did not open at all, one opened for a bit while the coffin-dweller checked out Maggie and shut, and the rest of us went on with the harvest festival.

Me and Mom and Dad and Flippy and Candace in the house at night after the festival and there was something scrambling at the window hissing “Let me in!  Let me in!”.”

“What do we do, Mom?  Do we let it bite us?”

“I don’t want to” said Flippy.

“I don’t want to” said Candace.

“Take care of it, Eric.” said Dad.

And I went out and impaled it and filled its mouth with sacred dirt and sewed it up (some people don’t know about that part anymore, but it’s part of it.)  (BTB sacred dirt has been blessed by a priest or has lain undisturbed for at least one new moon adjacent to dirt that has been so blessed.)

Why didn’t you let it bite you? one of my graduate students asked me years later.  Now there are none left.  Are you against the idea of the vampires continuing into the modern world with their attendant train of mystery, authority, and revelation.

Not against it a ‘tall, I said and I will keep on saying.  By all means them’s that want that stuff can have it and let the vampires bite them from here till Tuesday, and all manner of ghools and ghasts and dholes and catoblepas!  But as for me, it’s not who I am!



If The Laws of Nature Control You, Does That Make You a Puppet?

I hope not!  A puppet is a mindless being controlled by a person with a mind and that would be humiliating.

But human beings are aware while the puppet is a mindless instrument.  So the relationship of a human being to fate or God is not that of a puppet to a human being.

Maybe the relationship of a human being to fate or God is like the relationship of a robot to its maker.  The robot-maker has a purpose and creates the robot to achieve its purpose, but the way the robot achieves the purpose is by being aware of features of the environment and responding to them intelligently.

This might still be humiliating, if human beings are designed for some purpose that we don’t care about and don’t know about and have no say over?  Then we are something like heat-seeking missiles.  We have limited awareness, but we have no say in our purpose.

It shouldn’t feel humiliating to have limited awareness, because that would imply that to feel good about ourselves we need to have unlimited awareness, which is an absurdly high requirement.  It could be that we are like robots that are designed to have some say about defining or perceiving our purpose, but that whatever creates us — fate or God — has a deeper understanding of ourselves than we do.  That’s fine.



Don’t Feel Bad, Wittgenstein, You Did the Best You Could!

“What are you thinking about, Wittgenstein, philosophy or your sins?” asked the seductive and handsome Lord Russell.  “Both.” said the Austrian.  He was excited by the young Englishman’s mind and his body, and he felt somehow wrong — he had inherited so much money and didn’t know what to do with it, and sure he was clever, but what was cleverness at the end of your life, it was so confusing.  Later in his life he was working on a book — he was an English citizen now, and he had finally made love with a man, his Scottish lover, and he had gotten to know himself better, but now he was ill, and he was falling asleep.  And he saw his grandfather Mayer, and he saw his second cousin, who had not changed his name, but had like his father gone to the United States, but unlike his father had remained there and gone into the nascent movie business and achieved success: Louis B. Mayer, and whose studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was symbolized by a roaring lion.  I once thought that if a lion could speak I could not understand him but of course I can.  What was I thinking said Ludwig Wittgenstein, but really Lou Mayer to the other Lou Mayer.  And the children came in to both Louie’s and took them by the hand, dandeliions behind their ears, grass stains on their skirts.  “Don’t feel bad, Louie! ” they said “You did the best you could.  You did the best you could!”

“You know Louie” said the Austrian Louie to the American “I believe we did.”




Public Recantation: An Object Can Be A Model of Itself

I used to think that the only thing that could not be a model of the Eiffel tower is the Eiffel tower itself.   Now I realize an old friend of mine has devoted her career to studying the mapping of objects onto themselves, and I regret my glib and foolish statement.

Supposing that the Eiffel tower weights 1000 tons and it is 100 meters tall.  One can use the height of the Eiffel tower as a symbol of the weight of the Eiffel tower.  Every meter of height represents ten tons of weight.

But, you say, this is an example of one aspect of something being a model of another aspect of something.  We still do not have an example of something being a model of itself.  For that to be the case the height of the Eiffel tower would have to be a map of the height of the Eiffel tower.  And maybe that is true — because how could the height of the Eiffel tower be the model of its height?  It just is its height.

Am I right or am I wrong?  I am coming to be sure I am wrong, just based upon my track record of glib, poorly-thought out statements.  Unless that itself is an example of my glibness, in which case I throw myself upon the mercy of my con-specifics.


Does Anyone Have the Key to the Language You are Written in?

Some people say human beings are animals.  Some say they are computers.  But actually every human being is a language.  Who came up with the language?  Nobody came up with it. But does it mean something?  You betcha!

Some people assume that the language that they are is immediately understandable by everybody else, but this is not the case, and like so many things that are not the case, if you assume they are the case you will set yourself up from frustration.  Need, want, television, desire, love, death, lunch — these things mean something in the language that is you, but to other people these words — fine, these “things” — mean something entirely different.

They think they understand you but they have nothing but a slapdash understanding such as you might acquire for visiting a foreign country.

Your entire love affair is actually a very long pun!  They think they know you but they don’t — you just remind them of someone who sounds the same but means something completely different?

Parts of you are a dead language that haven’t been spoken for thousands of years!

Parts of you are a language that has yet to be created!

Parts of you are prosaic.

Parts of you are poetic.

Maybe a few parts of you are actually onamatopeia — your word for “food” actually does sound like the sound you make when you eat, for example.

Maybe some of you is a rough pidgin — more dollar please!  More dollar!  More dollar!  You pay too cheap!  You pay more!

But not so much.  Not as much as you think if you make the error of judging who you are but what is commonly understood of you.  That’s the classic iceberg error.

Are you frustrated?  Yes.

But rather than be frustrated you should do what any language does when it wants to be understood.

Teach people to understand you!  Starting with vocabulary, moving on to grammar, then finally the literature that is written in you.

Needless to say if you are going to teach a course in You-ese there is something you will have to first, or at least, concurrently.

Learn it yourself.